The Power to Choose

This probably won’t be interesting to most people, but on the off-chance that you are feeling like this, I hope this blog makes you realise that you aren’t the only one.

A few months ago I was diagnosed with ADHD – combined type, mostly hyperactive. To understand why this diagnosis is important, let me describe one afternoon in my Christmas holiday.

I was sitting on the floor in our living room. My children (aged 5 and almost 2) were playing around me and, though my eldest was talking to me, I couldn’t hear him. He was looking directly into my eyes and speaking and I couldn’t focus on him. I was thinking about something else. Something on my phone. The phone was upstairs (deliberately, because I knew I needed to focus on my boys), but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was like I was on a track going one way while my brain knew I should have got off at the last station. I couldn’t stop thinking about it – how the phone felt in my hand; how I needed something in my notes app; how I needed to check the title of an article…

My son was chatting away, eliciting the odd “ok” or “mm” from me but, in truth, getting nothing. I felt like I was underwater. Watching the whole scene from a fish tank.

Sometimes I fixate on things. I can’t control it. It’s always been like that but it’s only since I had my children that it has become a problem for me. For years I’ve been really lucky – my fixations are usually on work. Doing lots and lots (and lots) of work is the kind of thing which employers like, and it’s something which I have benefited from career-wise. It’s the reason I get a lot done and why my Twitter timeline always looks busy.

In reality, though, it has gradually become a compulsion which I can’t control by myself. There is a fine line between working late because you’re ‘in the zone’, and not realising it’s 3am and you are still making resources. It’s not healthy.

I got to a point this year when I couldn’t relax. The only way I could quiet the noise and restlessness in my mind was to have the TV on, and my phone out, and my MacBook open, and an audiobook playing. At the same time.

My husband can relax with a game of chess or a book. I couldn’t do that. The restlessness was so overwhelming that, at times, it felt like severe anxiety. If I wasn’t doing something (or some THINGS, as was more common), I felt physically shaky.

At this point I have to stress: ‘ADHD’ covers a wide umbrella of behaviours – what I describe here is from my personal experience and isn’t intended to explain the condition in any comprehensive way. If you want to understand ADHD better, I’d recommend reading people’s experiences from a wide range of sources.

My ADHD diagnosis showed me that there isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me – I’m just a little different. Lots of people are ‘different’ in that way, and that neurodiversity makes me – makes us – capable of a different kind of work. It’s valuable, but it is a compulsion which, without help, takes away our ability to choose. Before starting treatment, I would go into a state of hyper-focus without choosing to. I usually wouldn’t notice that it had happened, and wouldn’t have the ability to stop. I couldn’t choose.

Undergoing treatment has meant that I have the tools I need to be able to notice when hyper-focus is happening, and to be able to choose when to stop or change. I was scared about treatment at first, and it’s very early days, but at the moment it feels as if I have regained some control. It is important at this point that people understand that the NHS waiting list for ADHD diagnosis is over two years long for adults – for people having to wait with no support in the interim, this can significantly limit lives. I am one of the lucky ones, but there are people suffering these challenges without the support they need.

My consultant told me she sees a lot of people (mostly women, but men too) who are ‘high-functioning’ adults who have coped with their ADHD behaviours for years by using their own strategies – being super organised, regimented schedules, alarms and reminders – but they reach a point where their work and/or personal lives get so complicated that those strategies aren’t enough any more. I had a baby on the first day of the first lockdown, then spent some of my maternity leave running my online CPD program. When I returned to work, I almost immediately started a new role in a new school and, though I absolutely LOVE my job, all of those things make for a pretty complex life. Add into that being a parent of TWO, and my musician husband going back to work as lockdowns eased and live music started up again, this was a perfect storm for the ADHD symptoms I outlined earlier. My consultant also said that she sees a LOT of professional women who come to her aged 30-40 because everything has suddenly ‘fallen apart.’ Women mask their symptoms and, much like the diagnosis gap for young children with autism, little girls, teen girls and women often experience symptoms of ADHD which are quieter and less obvious. We know that late diagnosis of ADHD leads to a greater prevalence of mental health conditions, and that people in certain groups, such as black women, or non-binary people, face the challenges of intersectionality: late diagnosis, mis-diagnosis and other symptoms of discrimination prevalent in the health service.

Many people with ADHD have challenges which are profound and difficult. I know that I am incredibly lucky to have the agency to get diagnosis and treatment, and to have a support network at home and at work. I do still struggle to stop, and I get frustrated when I have to slow down. When I’m at work, it still feels like I’m being pulled along all day by an internal engine – I don’t notice details because my head is already on the next thing. The difference now is that my team know that, if they need me to slow down and notice something, they can tell me, and I will. I can choose to stop, notice, recognise, talk, support. Choice is everything. I would like to support other people to have that same choice.

For the rest of this academic year, my CPD sessions will raise money for ‘ADHD Babes’. Find them on Twitter here.

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