Receiving a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be overwhelming, confusing and liberating. Now you have a name for your longtime struggles.
But you also might have many questions, such as: Where do I go from here?
Below, clinicians and coaches who have ADHD reflect back on the days they were diagnosed, revealing the insights they wish they would’ve known.
Don’t wait to get diagnosed. If you think you have ADHD, get a proper evaluation.
“I first suspected I had ADHD 10 years ago, but tried the hard way to deal with my symptoms on my own. Newly diagnosed this year, at 37, I realize all the time I wasted trying to figure myself out, without ever fully understanding the brain wiring I’ve been working with,” said ADHD coach Andrea Nordstrom, RPN, PG Dip. CBT.
Similarly, Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach, wishes she knew earlier that her struggles were the result of ADHD – not incompetence or laziness. She said:
I was diagnosed with [the inattentive type of] ADHD back in the day when little was understood about adult ADHD and even less about women with ADHD. At the time, I thought I had a hearing problem because I couldn’t filter out noises and would get extremely frustrated when, say, someone called on the phone and I couldn’t hear them if there was even the slightest sound near me. After a hearing test showed that my hearing was actually very acute, I went for the ADD evaluation and tested “positive.” My head was reeling as I thought back on all the quirky things about me that affected me negatively.
I wish I had known back then that my inability to finish projects was due to the ADHD and not laziness. I wish I had known that my inability to de-clutter a room was due to the ADHD. I wish I had known that my short attention span, especially when it involved audio — staying connected in social settings [and] phone conversations — was from ADHD.
Find an ADHD specialist. “I’m one of those people who was fortunate enough to have all my questions answered by my doctor at the time of my diagnosis,” said psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D. She emphasized the importance of seeing a good clinician. These are her tips for having a good diagnostic experience:
- Search the CHADD website for clinicians.
- Before your first appointment, jot down your medical history and your family’s medical history. Make another list of your current medications, including dosage and dates. You can bring the bottles to your appointment, too. Sarkis’s books, 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD and Adult ADD: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed, include information sheets that you can complete and bring to your appointment.
- Ask questions. “Good doctors welcome questions about your diagnosis and treatment. If you feel your questions haven’t been answered to your satisfaction, let the doctor know,” Sarkis said.
Switch providers if it’s a poor fit. “I can’t tell you how many people I have worked with who came to me having given up on therapy years ago because of a bad experience with another therapist,” Nordstrom said. Sarkis stressed the importance of trusting your intuition. “If you don’t ‘click’ with the doctor or feel like it is a good fit, seek a referral for another doctor,” she said. “It really saddens me to think that these people missed out on a better quality of life because they didn’t get on with a provider,” Nordstrom said.
Don’t take stock in the stereotypes. Jennifer Koretsky, a senior certified ADHD coach and author of Odd One Out: The Maverick’s Guide to Adult ADD, said that her diagnosis would’ve been easier to accept had she known more about ADHD. “I didn’t know adults could have it, and I certainly didn’t associate ADHD with women. In my mind, ADHD was something only annoying little boys had. I remember telling my doctor, ‘But you don’t understand! I was good in school! I got good grades! And they love me at work! I mean, sure, I have some problems, but I do good work!’”
Know how your ADHD manifests. “I wish I would’ve known about the propensity toward addictions [such as] smoking [and] drinking, impulsivity, trusting too much, talking too much, lack of boundaries [and] getting in trouble,” said Nancy Ratey, an ADHD coach and author of The Disorganized Mind. Once you can better understand your symptoms, you can create specific strategies – and separate yourself from the diagnosis, she said. As Matlen mentioned above, it’s all too easy to misinterpret ADHD symptoms as character faults. That’s why education is key.
Know you’re not alone. Koretsky always felt different, which caused her to feel very alone — that is, until she met the many others with ADHD. She said:
My entire life, I always felt like I was “on my own wavelength.” That was the only way I knew how to describe it. I felt like no one looked at the world the way I did. That no one really “got” me or understood how I thought. And feeling misunderstood is one of the most painful experiences that I think a person can have. But when I went to my first ADHD conference, I was in awe. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was among my tribe. Everyone was on my wavelength, and it was a great feeling!
It’s OK to ask for help. Matlen wishes she had known that it was OK to hire a babysitter even though she was a stay-at-home mom or a tutor for her daughter or a professional organizer to make her home office “ADD-friendly.” (She hired an organizer years later, and it was a huge help.)
Understand the importance of lifestyle habits. ADHD coach Sandy Maynard, MS, wished she realized early on the value of exercise, sleep and a protein-rich diet for improving symptoms. Maynard was always a runner. But when she started exercising less often, she noticed that her symptoms were more pronounced. Also, according to Maynard, “Protein is good for mental acuity and staying focused.”
Make accommodations, and work to your strengths. After she was diagnosed, Ratey took a semester off from her graduate work at Harvard to learn about ADHD and what worked for her. “I came back the second year with a vengeance.” She spoke with every professor about her specific challenges and the accommodations she needed. She knew that synthesizing a lot of reading material was especially difficult for her. So she leveraged her people skills and conducted surveys and interviews. “Instead of reading the book, I’d call and interview the author.”
Have a mentor. One of the biggest indicators of success for people with a learning disability – which tends to co-occur with ADHD – is having a mentor, said Ratey, who also has dyslexia. This person is in your corner, helps you spot patterns, puts things into perspective and reminds you that it’s not about what you do, but who you are, she said. Ratey’s dad used to point out when she was taking on too much and also reminded her of all she’d accomplished.
Join a support group. Maynard suggested finding an online or face-to-face solutions-oriented support group. You can find a group on the CHADD site, she said.
Remember there are no shoulds. “I wish I had learned earlier that I didn’t have to cook fancy dinners each night — that it was OK to throw together simple meals with pre-packaged items like bagged salads or frozen sides, or better, to carry out,” said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD.
Matlen’s struggles initially sank her self-esteem. “All these things gave me a significant self-esteem ‘hit’ and it took quite a while to integrate my understanding of my ADHD to reframe who and what I was: a woman who happened to have an ADHD brain.”