Changing perceptions of ADHD – Victoria’s story

Posted: 27/10/21

Victoria Wilson, Peer Support Facilitator at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, has shared her experience of being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at the age of 40:

A year ago, I received a diagnosis of ADHD, at the age of 40. I have always felt different, out of place, like my brain was wired differently. As I grew older, l found myself finding life a bit more difficult. My physical health was deteriorating. Battling with chronic stress, I became exhausted and had been using unhealthy coping strategies. My energy was being depleted by covering up my quirks, behaviours, and feelings. Essentially, I was masking who I was so I could fit into a world which is neurotypical. The effect on my self-esteem and confidence was damaging to my wellbeing, as I internalised the challenges in all aspects of my life.

As a young person I was given many labels: forgetful, chaotic, energetic, messy, loud, disorganised, lazy, hypersensitive, impulsive, messy, a chatterbox, and a daydreamer. Some of these labels still affect me now. Yet these words have enabled me to understand who I am. Growing up in the 1980s ADHD was not routinely explored in schools, and even less so in girls. Did anyone ever think about it or talk about it?

As a young person I was given many labels: forgetful, chaotic, energetic, messy, loud, disorganised, lazy, hypersensitive, impulsive, messy, a chatterbox, and a daydreamer.

Following some person-centred counselling after a very difficult period in my life, I found the courage to talk to my GP and requested a referral for an assessment. I had probably known for many years that I had ADHD, but I was conditioned by stigma and society’s misunderstanding to the extent where I completely shut it out. “I’m an adult, a woman, a mental health nurse; I can’t have ADHD,” I told myself.

I opted for online appointments due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and I was seen relatively quickly by the ADHD service. Following the assessment process I was diagnosed with combined ADHD. Receiving a diagnosis helped me make sense of my constant overwhelm and what followed were stages of grief, anger and sadness thinking about my younger self.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder in which the brain grows differently, lacking action from specific chemicals involved in pleasure and reward. We have natural variations and differences in our brains that affect how we think, process, learn and behave. This means that ADHD brains often search for ways to stimulate these chemicals, which is why people can experience inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity that can make things like concentration, organisation, and impulse control difficult to manage. However, with some small adjustments and letting go of neurotypical standards, things that were once flaws can turn into strengths.

With some small adjustments and letting go of neurotypical standards, things that were once flaws can turn into strengths.

Even today there is an assumption that ADHD is a young boy’s behavioural disorder. As a child I was described as hyperactive, but as I grew older I conformed to social norms, internalising my hyperactivity. This led to anxiety, fatigue, rumination over whether I did something right or wrong, along with strong feeling of not being good enough.

While there’s a growing recognition of ADHD in adults, many people still live with it undiagnosed for several reasons – sometimes even because they’re unaware that what they experience is different from other people. Understanding the condition in adults and raising awareness can support those who are living with untreated ADHD and, hopefully, encourage them to seek support. Receiving a diagnosis opens the door to treatment and this can improve self-esteem, productivity, and quality of life.

The reactions to my diagnosis have been varied, ranging from “yes, that makes a lot of sense,” to the less helpful “ADHD is quite fashionable at the minute,” and “everyone is a bit ADHD these days”! Some people challenged it: “you can’t have ADHD, you have a good job, you’ve been to university.” Others laughed and said “ADHD, really? But you’re not hyperactive.” On some occasions when I spoke openly in conversation about my new revelation, it was disregarded then never mentioned again. My hope for the future is that we can speak more openly about our mental health. There is still a lot of work to be done in improving our understanding, in order to better support each other and really see ourselves for who we are.

My ADHD ‘quirks’, which were once my flaws, are actually parts of me I’m learning to build on, and I’ve written a list to help remind me of that:

Compassion: We can experience intense emotions – good along with the bad – which makes us incredibly caring, affectionate, and empathetic. We ooze compassion towards others who are struggling.

Divergent thinkers:  We are adaptable, which enables us with the ability to wipe the slate clean and start again. We push past setbacks, adapt to new ideas, and move forward, always seeing the light at the end of tunnel.

Multitasking:  We can do three or four things at once. The stimulation makes us thrive and we are far more productive when doing multiple things at once. If we enjoy the task, we will give it our full attention or ‘hyper focus’.

Super intuitive:  We can identify what others are feeling, often before they feel it themselves, picking up on sight, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch that other people may miss. We are natural problem solvers.

Honest and have a strong sense of fairness:  We can tune into people’s needs, we know what it is like to struggle and we want to help whoever we can. You’re always guaranteed a good honest opinion!

Super in a crisis:  We can struggle with anxiety in the slow times, but we thrive in chaos, so when things go ‘crash bang wallop’, within a catastrophe, a crisis, or something exciting, our brain clicks into gear and we dive in head-first.

Enthusiastic energy:  We are impulsive, which brings adventure, spontaneity, and an endless amount of energy. Some may describe us like energizer bunnies; we keep going and going and going…

Flexible thinkers: We often think outside the box and are persistent. We do what needs to be done to get an important task accomplished, and work well under pressure with an ability to think on our feet.

Zest for life: We can radiate vitality, enthusiasm, and optimism. We have faced difficulties  and overcome them and we tend to look on the bright side of life even when it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.

Perseverance:   We may have had to work twice as hard as our neurotypical peers, but our struggles have built a deep determination to try, and try again until we succeed.

A year on from diagnosis I’m receiving treatment, and life is getting better. Although there are still many challenges every day that I must overcome, I am now able to manage my ADHD through self-awareness and self-care. When I take my medication, it’s like putting glasses on for my bad eyesight in my mind; it lifts the fuzzy fog and for 10 hours a day I can perform better, think clearly, and complete the tasks I once found impossible.

My new approach to life has led to me to join the Patient and Carer Involvement Team at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, as a Development Wellbeing Facilitator for our Peer Supporters. My new role empowers me to use my newfound strengths confidently, enabling me to be totally and uniquely me.

If you think you might have ADHD, your GP or another health professional can refer you for an assessment by the Adult ADHD Service.