Untreated ADHD Wreaked Havoc On My Life But A Diagnosis Changed Everything

I couldn’t sit still through a feature length movie but it never clicked I had ADHD.
Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD meant that I felt humiliated by the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep up with everyone else.
Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD meant that I felt humiliated by the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep up with everyone else.

For most of my schooling, I wanted to crawl up into a ball and disappear. I was met with an extreme inability to focus, and constantly found myself in trouble – which led to the failure of keeping up with my peers. I had no idea however, it was a result of untreated ADHD.

Until well into adulthood, I knew very little about the disorder – simply because I never understood what it was. I had only ever heard the narratives of the uncontrollable kid, from abuse or neglect; or that ADHD was a result of kids who consumed too much television.

On the other hand, there was commentary around ADHD being a myth, an excuse, or a benign condition, part of the reason why I – and many others, are left undiagnosed for so long.

“Sit still or go outside” teachers would constantly bellow at me, as I’d disrupt other kids in class. It led to me spending more time outside of the classroom, in the principal’s office, or skipping school, than I ever did at my desk.

Report cards would come, and teachers would echo each other’s sentiments. “Carolyn needs to apply herself more”, “Carolyn’s marks indicate a lack of understanding” and “Carolyn’s grades would be better if she paid more attention”.

With the lack of accommodations that I didn’t know I needed, I felt humiliated that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep up with everyone else.

I soon found myself in all sorts of trouble, figuring out that I’d be far more accepted by my classmates as the “naughty kid”, than one who couldn’t follow simple instructions – and because of that, I neglected any opportunity there was to learn.

At a young age I realised I’d be far more accepted by my classmates as the “naughty kid” rather than one who couldn’t follow simple instructions.   This resulted in me neglecting any opportunity there was to learn.
At a young age I realised I’d be far more accepted by my classmates as the “naughty kid” rather than one who couldn’t follow simple instructions. This resulted in me neglecting any opportunity there was to learn.

My grades fell well-below average, and during my final year of school it was suggested I didn’t sit my year 12 exams alongside my peers. It meant I would not receive a University Index Admission (UAI), but was reassured I could finish with a year 12 certificate, if I attended my classes.

In my media class however, learning via the means of visual communication, and in an environment where I could express my creativity freely, I was excelling far beyond my peers. Upon receiving our year 12 certificates, to my surprise - and everyone else’s, I was awarded Dux of Media.

Once school finished, I applied for a management course at TAFE while others enrolled to go to university. The same problems that presented at school resurfaced, so I dropped out after the first semester resigning myself to the fact studying just wasn’t for me.

The following year, I saw myself in six different jobs which was a pattern I’d repeat whilst moving to four different cities in the same amount of years. Once those who went to university started graduating and embarking on their careers – once again I felt like I was falling behind.

Mustering up the courage to give studying one final go, I applied for university as a mature aged student, to study media this time – the one thing I felt confident at. Because I’d failed so miserably at school and TAFE, I took time to consciously think about what I needed to do in order to succeed.

University was much easier than school ever was however, because it gave me the freedom to learn how I needed to. I wasn’t constrained to a desk, I didn’t have to work around others, and could take breaks when I needed, without having to wait for the bell to go off.

In every single one of my lectures I was the first to arrive and last to leave, and was acquainted with the library as if it were my second home. I would play tutorials on repeat even though I had attended them in person, and filled exercise books with one-on-one feedback I sought from all my tutors.

I spent three years fixated on study, losing track of everything around me. Although I completed my degree with distinction and a scholarship to study overseas, I neglected other areas of my life – including my mental health. Unaware of the hyper focus element of the disorder left it undetected for longer, instead resulting in comorbidity.

Then came applying for jobs. I can’t tell you how many I had applied for, simply because I’ve lost count. I’d spend days on end preparing for interviews, but either during or beforehand, and sometimes even after being awarded the job, I’d decline from the anxiety of working in a neurotypical environment.

There was three months of a contract job I spent working in an office, but found myself hypersensitive to noise and easily distracted by conversations around me. I struggled to work effectively, which didn’t reflect my capabilities, so I told myself working around others just wasn’t for me.

Instead I made a career out of freelancing, and accepted jobs only when there was the prospect of working from home. I worked across multiple industries, with numerous clients, and eventually started up my own business.

I enjoyed the variety, but there was still an element where I felt left behind. I wasn’t learning anything outside of what I could teach myself, nor was I expanding my networks, or meeting new people. I felt like a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

At home, my partner and I grew accustomed to the fact that I couldn’t sit still through a feature length movie, and designated the pile of ever-growing mess and unfinished projects as “Carol’s Corner”.

I’d refer to my life as “organised chaos”, and didn’t use my phone as a means of communication, but first and foremost an alarm clock of reminders and lists – but still, it never clicked that I had ADHD.

It wasn’t until one Christmas, talking to a family member who had recently been diagnosed, when I started to think about the struggles we shared growing up. Perhaps this is why I’m constantly colliding with road blocks I told myself, and it was only then that I began to think about it seriously in the context of myself.

I started doing research, but fell short of finding information about ADHD in adults, or more specifically women. Women are often undiagnosed as girls, instead labelled as daydreamers, oversensitive or tomboys – words used to describe me my whole life. So, I searched for an adult ADHD specialist in Melbourne, and nervously waited three months for my appointment.

Upon receiving my diagnosis, I burst into tears. Not because I was upset or disappointed, but because I felt the weight of frustration that I had been harbouring all those years depart from my body. For the first time in my life everything made sense – and I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I soon came to realise that ADHD is more than being deficit, despite it being part of the name. We’re just built with a unique set of strengths, as divergent thinkers with non-sequential thought processes, and we possess the ability to intensely mentally focus. With appropriate accommodations, we can be extremely creative, curious, spontaneous and of course resilient.

Since that day, finding the right treatment and learning to manage it, my life has dramatically changed – and despite spending years in anguish and self-doubt, now that I’m aware of how someone with ADHD functions best, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Carolyn Cage is a Malaysian Chinese-Australian Journalist, Researcher and Writer based in Melbourne, Australia. You can follow her on Twitter @carolynanncage.

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