I recently discovered something about myself: I have ADHD.
Well actually, I re-discovered this about myself. I had strong suspicions about it in college—and even took medication for it briefly—but somehow I mostly forgot about that until my late 20’s.
But now, I’m 28 (at the time of writing this) and know for a fact I have ADHD. As an adult. And as a female.
I stress those last two points because up until recently (and even today, often), people thought ADHD was exclusively something kids—and mostly boys—had. But now we’re realizing there is so much more to the story.
A great many people struggle with ADHD into adulthood—and through their entire lives!
It can also affect manifest in a many of different ways. For example, it can look much different in women.
So I’m sharing this post because we need more awareness about what ADHD is and how it truly affects the people who have it (Spoiler alert: real ADHD is not simply an excuse to be lazy or unproductive).
I’m going to cover some basics sprinkled with the main ways this condition affects me personally.
Most Commonly Known Symptoms of Adult ADHD (It’s Not Just for the Kiddos)
The problem with having adult ADHD is that many descriptions of it and pieces of advice about it focus on ADHD in kids. Most people picture an elementary-aged boy who can’t sit still or focus or is disruptive to the class.
But that’s just simplify things way too much.
So let’s start with what it literally is: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an imbalance in the brain. It’s a medical condition where differences in brain function affect important aspects of life—including attention, self-control, and the ability to sit still.
There are technically three recognized types of ADHD:
1. Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD
- Squirming or fidgeting
- Has trouble staying seated
- Talking a lot or interrupting people’s sentences
- Always being on-the-go or having trouble sitting and doing leisurely activities
- Finishing someone’s sentence before they get done saying it, blurting out answers before the question’s been asked, etc
- Making impulsive decisions, such as suddenly quitting a job, starting a new hobby or business idea
2. Inattentive ADHD
This used to be categorized as simply ADD (minus the ‘H’ for hyperactive), but now it’s just referred to as ADHD inattentive type.
- Difficulty paying attention
- Being easily distracted
- Doesn’t usually include hyperactivity or impulsivity
- Seeming shy or daydreaming
3. Combined ADHD
Combined type is what it sounds like: a combination of hyperactive/impulsive and inattentive.
(I was diagnosed with combined type.)
Dr. Daniel Amen, one of the biggest voices on ADHD and brain health, has divided this further into seven different types. (Some people discount him as a quack, and I’m honestly not sure how I feel about him, so you can read about them yourself here.)
Either way, the truth is that having ADHD is about so much more than not being able to pay attention or sit still in class as a kid.
Above is the most commonly known and accepted aspects of ADHD. But I’m often frustrated that they’re the biggest ones discussed.
It’s not as simple as just “not being able to focus.” Of course everyone has trouble with being focused or getting distracted sometimes.
But when you have ADHD, those symptoms are magnified. (And the methods other people use to get focused or stay on task don’t work for an ADHD brain—or at least not well enough to function as normally as we’d like.) And they extend into so many other factors.
That’s really one of the biggest points I want to drive home in this article: having adult ADHD affects so many aspects of your life.
Is it all negative? NO! I believe ADHD is a gift if we learn how to harness it well, but I won’t deny that it affects just about everything—much more than is portrayed out there.What It's Like Living with Adult ADHD Click To Tweet
Adult ADHD and Life Quality: It Affects Everything
I can only speak from personal experience, but I’ve seen and spoken with other adults with ADHD and they seem to have similar experiences.
Based on what I know, here are nine common areas where ADHD can make life different:
1. Trouble in School as an Adult
I actually made really good grades through elementary school, junior high, and high school. But even though I made good grades, even though I had many achievements, I still struggled—and it made college very difficult at first.
Completely missing what the assignment was in elementary school classes, right after the teacher had described it.
Forgetting to bring important assignments or homework to class.
Not being able to sit down and study at home; I felt like I just couldn’t physically do it.
People with ADHD become great at improvising. I got very good at pretending like I knew what was going on even when my head felt like it was in a cloud.
When I started college, my first year was a bust. I couldn’t hold onto what the professors were saying in class. I struggled to sit still and complete work, and to pick apart the information I needed to know and use it to study. There were a lot of problems like this in my first 1.5 years.
Thankfully, I eventually found a major I loved—with awesome professors—and graduated with a good GPA. But not everyone is that fortunate, and knowing what was going on, learning tools to help myself, would have made a world of difference.
Because of the above, I always felt like such an underachiever—even though I knew had potential. I knew deep down I wasn’t lazy or dumb or incompetent. But it grew increasingly harder to remember as I moved into the expectations of adulthood and adult education.
2. Struggles at Work: Being Late, Trouble Completing Projects, Etc
I finally saw someone for a diagnosis because I was struggling with work as an adult, and I needed to know what was going on.
My work and business was suffering, my mental health was suffering because I thought I was incompetent, lazy, and just not trying hard enough.
ADHD affects executive function—a set of mental skills that help you do things like:
- Paying attention
- Switching focus from one thing to another
- Remembering important details
- Managing time efficiently
- Avoiding doing or saying the “wrong thing”
It can make certain work tasks very difficult as an adult with ADHD.
One of my first jobs out of college involved phone customer support all day. I had to juggle many different things at once while on a call with a customer, and it was really hard.
Another job was in IT. I remember one specific incident where my boss was helping me on a call with a sales rep having tech issues. He was giving me instructions to give the person on the phone—to tell them to close out of all their windows.
Having to juggle the two conversations while trying to solve the problem confused me… and I closed out of all my windows instead. Even though it made no sense, I became easily confused.
My boss got really frustrated with me, which I guess was understandable. But I honestly was trying my hardest to do the job right. This has happened to me so many times in work situations.
When you have ADHD, it can be hard to regulate things like that, especially along with work pressures. That includes time management and juggling different instructions or projects at once.
Even now, working for myself, I’m the woman you’ll see at the coffee shop all day, toting meals and snacks from home, a huge water bottle, and staring intently at the computer screen purposely not talking to anyone. I’ve had several people even come up to me just to say, “you’ve been here so long!” Because that’s what it takes to have a decent day’s work. 🙂
3. Comorbid Conditions like Anxiety and Depression
Many adults with ADHD spent a lot of time feeling like they don’t measure up, so it’s not surprising to me that many of us also deal with anxiety and/or depression.
I have little doubt my generalized anxiety and social anxiety at least partly stem from not feeling like I could trust myself to get things done or act “normal” around others.
Thankfully, educating ourselves about ADHD and learning coping tools that fit our brains (and getting the support we need) can help a lot!
4. Procrastination and Hyperfocus
People with ADHD can also do something called hyperfocus—the ability to become very intensely concentrated on something that we really care about—which some have called a superpower! 🙂
On the flip side, we’re known to procrastinate because it’s much harder for our brains to stay engaged in something we don’t find interesting or exciting.
Researchers have found ADHD associated with lower levels of dopamine—a neurotransmitter related to reward-motivated behavior—in the brain [*]. So you could say it takes more for us to feel that dopamine “hit” to engage us.
Now that I understand how my brain works and have tools in place that fit it, I’m much, much better at not procrastinating (more on those tips in part two.)
5. Poor Working Memory
Working memory allows you to hold onto information long enough to use it or manipulate it.
It’s the memory you use when remembering what you need from the grocery store without a list, holding a phone number in your mind long enough to dial, or trying to do a complex math problems that involve holding numbers or pictures in your head.
According to Tracy Packiam Alloway, Ph.D, ADHD students are four times more likely to have problems with working memory than their neurotypical classmates.
In school, I remember having trouble remembering instructions for a project right after a teacher had said them and forgetting important homework assignments.
In my professional adult life as a writer, this can significantly increase my work time on a project. For example, I’ve lost count of how many times I had to go back and forth between what I’m researching and this article just to make sure I have the facts right.
6. Emotional Regulation and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
It’s not as common for doctors to consider emotional regulation when diagnosing ADHD. But oh my gosh, it’s a factor.
According to Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D in this ADDitude article, research shows it’s a lot harder for ADHDers to regulate frustration, impatience, and excitability. They’re also more prone to having a “hot temper.”
Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD)—experiencing extreme emotional pain or sensitivity when feeling rejected or criticized by important people in your life or feeling like you don’t measure up—is also common in those with ADHD and (in my opinion) not talked about nearly enough. If you experience this like I do, I’d love to hear from you.
7. Hyperactive (Mind and/or Body) as an Adult
During my first meeting with my psychiatrist, I talked about how in a previous desk job I had so much trouble sitting still at my desk. I would need to get up and get a snack, or go to the bathroom, or get some water.
Related: Why I’m So Glad I Saw a Psychiatrist
Just SITTING made me feel like I wanted to die. I know, that sound so dramatic, but it’s the only way to explain it.
In school, I remember always fidgeting with my hands or my pencil.
(P.S. I’ve found incorporating mindfulness or meditation to be very helpful for this.)
Hyperactivity can also show up as a hyperactive mind—having so many thoughts at once and feeling like you can’t turn them off.
Fun fact: one of my favorite songs growing up was Schizophrenic Conversations by Staind because I always felt like there were a million and one things going on in my head—and I remember saying the same thing as an adult!
Whew! Alright, I know this might all seem really negative. That’s really not my intent. I just want to highlight some aspects of ADHD as an adult that aren’t widely spoken about. I want to spread awareness by talking about it more.
But that includes the positives too! Like these:
8. Entrepreneurship and Thinking Outside of the Box
Adult ADHDers are the dreamers, the inventors, the people who can see things from a thousand different points of view and are always thinking outside of the box. They dream big and have hundreds of business ideas—and most of the time, they spontaneously and enthusiastically chase those dreams.
In the two years post-college graduation, I went through four job changes before becoming self-employed. I tried about a billion different businesses in the 1-2 years after that. (I’m still working through self-doubt that gets in the way of the success I want, but I’ll get there!)
There’s a reason many business owners and entrepreneurs have ADHD (and are three times more likely to own their own business). We don’t fit the mold much of the time. We’re different, and when we can tap into that difference and make it work for us, it can be a beautiful thing.
Just look at people like Peter Shankman (basically my ADHD business idol), David Neeleman (founder of JetBlue), Albert Einstein, Ned Hallowell (amazing psychiatrist and author), Justin Timberlake, and so many more.
I’ve also found the more I learn about my ADHD and embrace the positives, the more (slowly but surely) successful I’ve become.9 Symptoms of Adult ADHD We're Not Talking About Enough Click To Tweet
9. Creativity, Ingenuity, and Empathy
Growing up and living with ADHD can give you a unique perspective on life.
You’re forced to learn ways of approaching the world from different angles, to find work-arounds. ADHDers can be very creative, artistic, and thoughtful for these reasons.
Feeling different (and not knowing why for a long time) has also made me more empathetic to others’ situations. I know much of the world doesn’t understand how I think and perceive things. This reminds me I can’t possibly know everything others go through either.
No one has the same perspective, and that’s what makes the world go ‘round.
The GOOD NEWS about ADHD: It Can Be a Blessing
I want to be very clear again: ADHD is not all negative. People with ADHD are loving, creative, innovative, and often world-changers.
There is no shame in having adult ADHD. The past belief about ADHD was that it went away after childhood, but we now know that isn’t the case. So the best thing we can do is embrace it, learn from it, and use it to find our place in this world.
If you have ADHD (or think you might) or know someone who does, I’d love to hear your own experience, including what works for you or what you still struggle with. Feel free to comment below or reach out to me.
And stay tuned for part two of this post where I share tips and advice for managing adult ADHD!