My ADHD Diagnosis | Issue 17
Understanding how my brain operates and how best to work with it has been game changing.
As a young adult, I struggled to breathe, but every time I went to see a doctor and they listened to my chest, I was told it was just anxiety because I didn’t wheeze. Each year my breathing got worse until I found a doctor who also had asthma and didn’t wheeze. He tested my oxygen levels which were low and immediately put me on steroids, gave me inhalers, and scheduled me for lung testing. Sure enough I was asthmatic. It was terrifying, but also a relief because I could finally access treatment that I was previously denied. There is nothing more frustrating than to know something is wrong with you and to be told it’s all in your head.
I experienced this same kind of relief when I was finally diagnosed with ADHD earlier this year.
Lately there has been much discussion about the uptick in ADHD diagnosis. Some people are utterly dismissive, claiming that adults are being over diagnosed because of TikTok and social media but others see their diagnosis as a lifesaver. I fall into the latter category.
Finally having an answer to my ongoing struggles has been unbelievably life altering. I’m not a candidate for ADHD medication, so my method of dealing with it has been implementing systems and strategies to work with my neurodivergent brain with the support of therapy and coaching and sometimes a little sativa.
I have long suspected I had ADHD for numerous reasons not the least of which was a genetic predisposition, but I never sought a diagnosis because I thought even though I found most things I had to do exceedingly difficult, I was able to function (or I at least I thought I was functioning), so why bother?
The first time I had heard about adult ADHD was over ten years ago when I had a student who was in the process of getting an adult ADHD diagnosis and was seeking accommodation. I began researching adult ADHD, so I could help meet her needs because I knew nothing about it. When I read the symptoms, I got a sinking feeling that I was reading my own symptoms, but I quickly brushed it off as me being a hypochondriac. Then when a close family member got diagnosed, I said to myself that everyone has those symptoms sometimes, which is a common refrain by people who are unwilling to understand the condition or who like me fear they might have it.
It wasn’t until the pandemic when I crashed and burned that I finally sought help, a common story among adults with undiagnosed ADHD:
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder and therefore something people are born with, Dr. Almagor says. The pandemic hasn’t caused any adult to develop ADHD. It’s instead brought their ADHD more starkly into focus. “The pandemic may have tipped the balance in their functioning,” he says. (The Globe and Mail, June 4, 2022)
For me, understanding how my brain operates and how best to work with it has been game changing. It has fundamentally altered the way I teach and work with students, the way I approach my own creative work, and the way I engage with friends and family.
So many questions I had about how and why I behave the way I do have been answered with this diagnosis — from not being able to look people in the eye to working on 20 projects at once to my memory issues to my serious mental health struggles. I can scan back over my life and see the way that ADHD has impacted me both positively and negatively.
My old report cards tell the story of how distracted I was, how I didn’t listen, how poor my grades were, but also that I was “pleasant” “well behaved,” and “cooperative,” which is most likely the reason it was not detected earlier. In grade eight, my grades were so low that I was advised not to enroll in the high school academic stream, the only pathway at that time to university, which shook me to my core and made me believe for decades that I was stupid. Thankfully my mother intervened, but because of that guidance counsellor, it is still a shock to me that I ended up becoming a writer and a university professor.
Now that I reflect on it, my ADHD brain which put me in the bad grade cycle also got me out. Once in high school, I predictability failed courses and couldn’t see a point of being in school until I had to get part-time jobs. Working at various jobs I hated, I quickly I realized I wouldn’t be able to get into university without higher grades. Also my best friend wanted me to come to Montreal and live with her. With a purpose and goal, I hyperfocusedon raising my grades and getting into university. Suddenly I went from failing or scraping by to getting Bs and As.
Once in university I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I flailed around in various subjects doing terribly until I discovered creative writing and my hyperfocus clicked in again. People often perceive those with ADHD as lazy or workaholics. Trying to explain the dips and valleys of inaction and hyperfocus in an ADHD brain can be difficult. The inaction feels like being puppet without a puppeteer and the hyperfocus like you are a robot and neither are in your control, which could be why many people with undiagnosed ADHD self-medicate and are prone to addictions.
I don’t know that I would have made a life as a writer without ADHD. I took impulsive risks and made imprudent financial decisions after university because I was fixated on writing. I wish I could say writing for me was a passion, but it wasn’t. It was and is a fixation. This meant I had to do whatever it took to make it work including coming up with creative ways to make a living and having a high tolerance for low and precarious employment, financial insecurity, and credit card debt.
At the age of 35, I left a part-time job I hated to attend the Canadian Film Centre. For that I thank my ADHD brain. Without it, I may have been able to bear the tedium of teaching grammar to students who absolutely did not want to learn grammar. Perhaps I would have thought, this is the closest I will get to full-time employment and I should play it safe and not get myself into further debt. Instead I took a risk that was financially unwise but enabled me to immerse myself in the film community and have films made.
My impulsivity also allowed me to create online literary journals and engage with the literary community. Watch Your Head,a journal about the climate crisis, began out my intense existential dread and climate grief and unfolded almost overnight, eventually leading to the creation of a print anthology co-edited by 14 editors and published by Coach House Books. This anthology is now being used as a textbook at Queens University, the University of Guelph, and others. Likewise this very newsletter was created as the result of an impulsive whim in 2021 at the height of the pandemic when I encountered severe writer’s block.
Being diagnosed has changed the way I approach my writing. Instead of forcing myself to work in a certain way, failing, and then feeling worthless, I create systems that compliment the way my brain works. I ask myself what does my brain need in a given moment and I pay attention to these needs so I can complete a particular task.
For example, I find it impossible to sit still and write during the day. Phone, social media, email, the sounds outside, and other distractions prevent me from being in a creative mindset. However, I can edit during the day and write creatively at night. So that’s what I do. Other strategies include getting involved in accountability groups, swapping writing with friends, and setting deadlines. And sometimes it means abandoning my plan, following the path my brain leads me, and not feeling bad about it. When I’m organizing a schedule for myself, I now expect that my brain will go in different directions and I build that time into my plan, so I’m no longer setting unrealistic goals and failing.
I also realize that I use procrastination to get things done. To avoid working on one project, I’ll work on another or even start a new one. It’s not a straightforward way of working, but it is how I actually finish things. This is one of the reasons conventional writing advice never worked for me and why I always felt like I didn’t measure up. Paying attention to how I can use project jumping and procrastination to my benefit instead of seeing it as a problem has changed the way I feel about myself and my writing.
The strategy I find most valuable for dealing with my more severe symptoms (distractability and overwhelm) is communicating what’s going on with me to those around me. In the past, I would get extremely frustrated which would quickly turn into a panic attack, but I now realize, I was experiencing overwhelm. If I can get to the source of the overwhelm before it turns into panic then I can subvert the anxiety, lessening my stress overall.
Having ADHD can feel a little like being in the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, and it turns out one of the creators, Daniel Kwan, has ADHD. He discusses his diagnoses and how it relates to the film in this Salon interview with Hanh Nguyen:
“So I started doing some research. And then I stayed up until like, four in the morning, just reading everything I could find about it, just crying, just realizing that, "Oh, my God, I think I have ADHD." So this movie is the reason why I got diagnosed. I got diagnosed, I went to therapy for a year and then went to a psychiatrist. And I'm now on meds, and it's such a beautiful, cathartic experience to realize why your life has been so hard.
This movie, obviously, when you look at it now, was made by someone with ADHD. And it's just funny how many people have come up to me after screenings and said, "This feels like you're in my brain." And some of them are people like yourself who suspect that they have ADHD and then other people who recently got diagnosed because I think during the pandemic, a lot of people have been struggling in this new version of life, where there is less structure because ADHD people need structure, otherwise we fall apart. And so, I love the fact that this movie can become a cathartic expression of me realizing this but then also can be a way for people to talk about it in their own lives.
And it makes sense if you do have ADHD and weren't diagnosed because Asian immigrants don't care about that stuff. And then also, women historically have been way underdiagnosed because they weren't expressing their ADHD in the same way that men were or boys were. I have a lot of female friends who have within the past three or four years got diagnosed. And it's life-changing.”
While I’m grateful to finally have been diagnosed and have received wonderful support from my mental health team, diagnosis and treatment is a privilege afforded to few children and adults with ADHD. While some family doctors (that is if the patient even has a family doctor) will diagnose and treat ADHD, many won’t, and patients are often put on long psychiatric waiting lists unless they can afford pay for costly assessments which are not covered by provincial health plans. Once diagnosed, medications and therapy are hard to access and are expensive without extended health benefits.
Failing to diagnose people who need treatment can have serious and often deadly consequences. A recent Canadian studyfound “adults with ADHD were much more likely to have attempted suicide than those without” and that “one in four women with ADHD have attempted suicide," which is particularly alarming because this is the group most like to be underdiagnosed due to their ability to mask and be socially compliant. Russell Barkley’s study found ADHD can reduce life expectancy up to 13 years — another compelling argument for better access to ADHD testing and treatment.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about ADHD, but if the people dismissing it had any understanding of what it is actually like to live with it, they might not be so quick to judge those who are trying to seek treatment. Instead of wondering why so many people are being diagnosed at this moment, perhaps we should focus on why so many (predominately women) have been underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, which is another example of the ways in which medicine has failed women and racialized people over time.
I do, of course, have a great deal remorse in getting such late diagnosis. I made a lot of life choices because of my ADHD without even realizing it, some good and some not so good. I often wonder what could have been had I been diagnosed as a child or as a younger adult? However, I know that dwelling on this isn’t helpful. I can only take the knowledge I have and go forward from here, and in just a few short months, this diagnosis has made my life better.
Share your ADHD story here:
Kathryn Mockler is a writer, publisher, and Assistant Professor in Screenwriting at the University of Victoria. Her debut story collection is forthcoming from Book*hug in 2022.
“Why an influx of Canadian adults are seeking ADHD diagnosis and treatment, according to experts,” Dave McGinn, The Globe and Mail, June 4, 2022, <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-canada-adults-adhd-diagnosis-treatment>
“Hyperfocus: The ADHD Phenomenon of Intense Fixation,” by Royce Flippin, ADDitude Magazine, April 14, 2022, <https://www.additudemag.com/understanding-adhd-hyperfocus/>
Watch Your Head, an online journal of creative works devoted to the climate crisis and climate justice, <https://www.watchyourhead.ca>
Watch Your Head: Writers and Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis, Co-editor. Kathryn Mockler et al, Coach House Books, 2021
“The Daniels on the ADHD theory of "Everything Everywhere All at Once," paper cuts and butts,” Hanh Nguyen, Salon, April 17, 2022, <https://www.salon.com/2022/04/17/everything-everywhere-all-at-once-daniels-adhd>
"Why an ADHD diagnosis is often out of reach for Canadian university students,” Dhriti Gupta, MacLean’s, October 7, 2021, <https://www.macleans.ca/society/health/why-an-adhd-diagnosis-is-often-out-of-reach-for-canadian-university-students>
“This woman was diagnosed with ADHD in her 50s. She says it shouldn't have taken so long,” Akshay Kulkarni, CBC, October 18, 2021, <https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/adhd-awareness-month-bc-1.6214539>
“The Dark Side of ADHD: Factors Associated With Suicide Attempts Among Those With ADHD in a National Representative Canadian Sample,” Esme Fuller-Thomson, Raphaël Nahar Rivière, Lauren Carrique & Senyo Agbeyaka, rchives of Suicide Research, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2020.1856258,<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13811118.2020.1856258?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=usui20>
“ADHD Looks Different in Women. Here’s How — and Why,” Eunice Sigler, ADDitude Magazine, Updated June 1, 2022, <https://www.additudemag.com/add-in-women>
"ADHD May Reduce Life Expectancy by As Much As 13 Years,” Janice Rodden, ADDitude Magazine, November 20, 2018, Updated March 31, 2022, <https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-life-expectancy-russell-barkley>
“It’s infuriating and shocking’: how medicine has failed women over time,” Lisa Wong Macabasco, The Guardian, June 8, 2021, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/jun/08/unwell-women-elinor-cleghorn-book>
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I have had a condition all my life that is now referred to as Non Verbal Learning Disability. Many people with that condition are gifted linguistically. I am one of those. Because my grades were good at school, no one looked into the raft of problems that dogged me my whole life. spatial and numeric problems, and impaired procedural memory made it impossible (or almost) to do what were supposed to be "normal" activities. Drive, ride a bike, play ball, swim, dance, skip rope, play pretty much any game, etc. I could learn to do a thing but could not "hold" it in my body. I was shocked every time. At 75, I stumbled across this information. This condition cast a blight over my life but now I know it was probably also responsible for the gifts I have. I am hoping to look into it more closely. I believe it is also connected to my very complicated vision problems. Thanks for your article! Susan Zimmerman
Thank you so much for sharing, Kathryn. It's thanks to people like you sharing their experiences with adult diagnosis that I sought out assessment. What a HUGE wash of relief! Now I too can stop forcing myself to try to do things in ways that will never work for me and stop berating myself for not being able to.