I didn’t realize I had ADHD until I was almost 29 years old. As someone with a degree in psychology, I’d thought I had a good understanding of what it meant to be attention deficit. My idea of an adult ADHDer was someone distracted, unable to sit still, with a tendency for lateness. I’d gotten good grades in school (except that one semester at Syracuse…), and I was always early to everything (except when I forgot to set a reminder in my phone…)!
I began my journey to self-diagnosis like a lot of others my age in the last few years: on the internet. I saw an infographic outlining “high-functioning” ADHD (a label I now understand as problematic and do not use). It included things like: the ability to spot problems that others miss, procrastinating to the point of urgency, being highly organized, and having trouble starting or finishing uninteresting tasks. I blew it off at first, because I thought that everyone experienced those things. While that’s true to an extent, I would soon learn that the difference between me and non-ADHDers, is that I did those things every day, all the time.
When I came across a video of an ADHDer going through their day, I saw myself in almost everything she did, from her stack of all-consuming yet short-lived hobbies, to her inability to stay asleep for longer than a few hours at a time. I continued to shake off the idea. After all, everyone is a little scatterbrained sometimes. Those were all things everyone did. That person must have been exaggerating. But the more videos I saw, the more I related, and my desire to look into it grew. I turned to Google, and books upon books, about ADHD and its more uncommon signs. Since then, I have learned more about ADHD and neurodivergence than I did when I was earning my psychology degree in undergrad.
I’d like to clarify here that this article is not meant to be diagnostic. I am not a mental health professional, but I am an adult with ADHD sharing my real-life experiences. Here is a non-exhaustive list of 10 things that I now recognize as signs of my ADHD.
1. A Hyperactive Helper
My research showed me that ADHD women, and nonbinary AFAB people like myself, tend to present differently than our more commonly diagnosed male peers. As a child, I channeled my hyperactivity with a persistent and eager desire to help my teachers and peers at every opportunity that I could. From handing out the graded homework, to volunteering to be leader of a group, I took every socially-acceptable opportunity I could to leave my seat and do something.
2. Chronic Procrastination
My good grades came in spite of a tendency to procrastinate any assignment longer than one page until the very last possible minute. This procrastination got worse as I got older. One of my proudest achievements from high school was when I had an essay due for english class in senior year, and I decided to wake up at 5am the day it was due to write it. My teacher later raved about it, and even read it aloud to the class as an example of a model essay. Needless to say, this ego boost did nothing to hinder my bad habits later in life.
3. Needing Stimulation to Focus
I always needed the TV on in order to be able to focus at home. At school, the background noise of other students, the fluorescent lights, and the hard reminder of the desk seat underneath me was enough to keep me listening during class. As an adult, I still prefer to work with background noise, although nowadays I usually prefer music or podcasts.
4. Coffee Had No Effect
This one makes me chuckle when I think about it today, because it’s one of those that seems so obvious now that I realize what was going on. I began drinking full cups of coffee at age 14 or 15, and I remember being frustrated that I “wasn’t old enough” for coffee to work. I know, that logic doesn’t exactly track. In my defense, I was a teenager. I also had a habit of drinking full cans of Monster. These tended to work better than coffee, but I only learned a few months ago that apparently, if you drink an entire energy drink and find that it simply quiets your thoughts and helps you focus better… you might have ADHD. Who knew?
5. Sleeping Problems
For as long as I can remember, I have always woken up at least once or twice at some point in the night. My nighttime wake-ups got more frequent when I was in high school. In my 20s, this evolved into difficulties falling asleep as well. I’d lay there for 30 minutes to an hour every night, and then wake up at least twice if not three (or four if I was particularly stressed out) times every night. On the other hand, when I do sleep, I sleep hard. I’ve slept through massive thunderstorms, being shaken awake, and even other people yelling my name at me in my sleep. Even as a child, I rarely remember being woken up by noises or anything else in the night, except my own brain.
6. So-Called Social Anxiety
The first counselor I had to suggest any sort of diagnosis for me stated that the constant, nagging feeling that all of my friends despised me and were only putting up with me because I inserted myself into their lives was social anxiety. This made sense at first, because it seemed (at the time) that most of my anxiety revolved around social situations. However, shortly after learning about ADHD, I stumbled upon a definition for something called “rejection sensitive dysphoria.” Very common in ADHDers, RSD is when a person experiences an extreme, and often disproportionate, reaction to being rejected or criticized. Starting in middle school, if I heard that friends of mine had hung out without inviting me, my stomach would drop immediately, and I would jump right to “They must all hate me.” I’ve come to understand that the difference between this and social anxiety, is that I wouldn’t necessarily be anxious before social situations. Afterwards, however, I would go over all of the impulsive things that I had said and be faced with guilt and shame.
7. Where The Hell Is My Phone?
I was always misplacing my things. ADHD can cause short-term memory issues, which would result in me setting down my phone, pen, drink, or even purse, and then immediately forgetting where I set it as soon as it leaves my eyesight. When I finally got an Apple Watch years ago, the feature I was most excited to learn about was the button that would ping my phone, even when on silent mode. A true godsend.
8. A Hodgepodge of Hobbies
I started a lifelong pattern of starting and stopping hobbies at age 10. That year, I learned to crochet and made several wash cloths. I also attempted a small slime-making business (before it was cool) which was quickly stifled by the school district when they learned I was selling slime to the other kids in my class. I called it entrepreneurship, they called it “not allowed in school.” Tomato, tomahto. Other supplies and skills in my ever-growing stack of found and not completely forgotten ventures include knitting, cross-stitch, sewing, water colors, acrylic paints, baking and cake decorating, real estate training, tarot reading, digital art making, and bullet journaling. Speaking of which…
9. Planners Were My Lifeline
In addition to my first dabble in small business ownership, I also saw my first official planner in 5th grade. All of my assignments, written down in one place, where I can find everything I possibly have to get done? Sign me up! I was much more meticulous with my school agenda than most other students, which I realize now was because I no longer had to pay attention to multiple sheets of paper to remember my homework assignments. What a relief! A few years ago, I discovered the wonderful world of bullet journaling. I could write articles (yes, plural) about bullet journaling, but for now, I recommend those who are curious to head to www.bulletjournal.com to find out more about it. Fun fact: Ryder Carroll, inventor of the bullet journal system, is an ADHDer himself and developed it with his own strengths and needs in mind.
10. Say It Again, But Slower
Last but not least, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told I’m talking too fast. Especially when I’m excited, I apparently let my thoughts leave my mouth at light-speed, and don’t realize I sound like I’m being fast-forwarded until someone else points it out. My earliest memory of being asked to slow down is in middle school, when a friend of mine asked if I’d had too much coffee to drink that day. The joke was on her, though, because coffee actually slows me down a tad!
It wasn’t until I heard about the personal experiences of others with less obvious ADHD that I was able to recognize my own. Since then, my life has improved in more ways than I can count. I no longer beat myself up about forgetting appointments, or losing things. Instead, I’m able to laugh it off and blame it on the squirrel brain. I’m hoping that in writing this, I’m able to help others accept themselves in the ways that I have. To all the undiagnosed or late-discovered ADHDers out there, you are not alone.