One year ago, at 22:00 on a quiet Sunday night, I excitedly filled in a load of forms as a precursor to finding out if I was autistic.
My friend Kirsten, who has an autistic boy, saw traits in me, and my wife Emmalou agreed. She asked me to seek assessment.
I was happy to to find out. I’d always known I was ‘different’. I’d always been called weird/eccentric/funny (bizarre)/unique/batshit. Whatever. I’m (now) proud of who I am, so what was the harm?
By 22:15 I knew I wasn’t autistic or on that spectrum.
Instead, I knew I had ADHD. It was so glaringly obvious now, where it hadn’t been a few minutes before. This was, contradictorily, a total surprise and something I immediately knew to be true.
I, like many, thought ADHD was for over-excited 10 year old boys who smash up classrooms and get expelled (sadly this does happen, but it’s not their fault). Not me.
I breezed through 6 online tests for autistic traits. I answered honestly but knew that wasn’t me. The scores agreed.
The last sheet was for ADHD. As I started filling it in, my adrenaline rose, and the epiphany came. This was it. This was the key.
This was why life never quite fitted. Why I never quite felt certain of what or who I was. It was a rush. What a rush. I spent the next hour devouring articles on ADHD, emailed the assessor my results, and managed to go to bed, impatient for my consultation.
A few weeks later I met Deborah at Aspire Autism (ADHD is closely aligned with autism and they’ve both forms of neurodiversity) online, for a 90 minute chat. She asked me to describe my life. I’ll attempt to distil what I said!
“I was badly bullied at school. I had no friends until I was 9. I was always called weird. I said stuff other kids didn’t say. I had a strange sense of humour and would often be accused of not thinking before I spoke. I was called over-sensitive and thinking about it, the slightest wrong word made me feel terrible. I was assessed as being extremely intelligent, but teachers said I was lazy or a daydreamer. “If only Nick would put in the effort, he would realise his potential”. Etc. I can remember saying to my mum, in tears as a boy “Mum, I can’t stop thinking about everything at once. It’s so exhausting. I just want quiet.” I often felt I was my own worst enemy. I didn’t like or respect myself as a child.
Problem was, I wasn’t lazy, I felt like I was always working SO FUCKING HARD. This made me very depressed and self loathing in my teens. I understand now that I felt suicidal and depressed at a number of periods of my life, starting in my teens. I fluffed my A-Levels, and left my degree in my third year. I was on a 1st at one point, but couldn’t maintain interest. I would always hand in essays a the VERY last moment, just as the professor was walking away with the pile, and would always wait until after midnight to do it, often falling asleep at my desk. They also said I was lazy and “a lead swinger”. “Always an excuse with you Nick. If only you buckled down, you could be the star here.” This just made me feel worse. I didn’t know HOW to get it right.
I loved work, so I left and helped run a nightclub. I found I had a gift with people and the creative. I preferred talking and doing to writing and researching. I need to see, touch, feel, do, to learn. I am not methodical, but instinctual. I think I am very empathetic, I love people, but I’m exhausted by being around people. My career bounced around from path to path, ridiculously. I would achieve lots, very quickly, then get bored and leave. It drove my wife crazy. I would stay up until 3am in the morning, every night, playing computer games if she wasn’t there. Then ALWAYS be 5 minutes late for work, having ALWAYS run for the tube. I found my stride working in film, and rose quickly, but again, ended up hating it.
I became an entrepreneur, which seemed to suit my interest in many things, my intense passion and drive (which people had always spoken about), and my frightening work ethic (a therapist once said “everything you do is to try and prove to yourself that you’re a good person, but you don’t believe that. That’s why you can work yourself until you literally pass out. Its a dangerous source of pride.) My first business went well at first, but I wasn’t good enough, and it went bust. I realise now I was burnt out, then the collapse of the business and the subsequent effects on our household and finances, caused my intense shame, humiliation and self loathing. I had a nervous breakdown and made a plan to kill myself. I hated myself so much, and thought people were better off without me. But luckily I was an unemployed househusband at that point, and my little kids kept me alive. They made me, with their innocence and dependence upon me, seek help.
Now? I’m well, but regularly have terrible suicidal thoughts that pop into my head, especially when I drink (my dad is an alcoholic and I’m pretty sure is on a spectrum). I find it impossible to work in an open office and hold a conversation, when other people are in the room. I talk over people, because I feel I’ll forget what I’m saying if I don’t say it NOW! Emmalou says she loves me, but I’m very hard to live with. I’m random, forgetful, and can get so focussed on something, I forget everything else. And that’s me!”
She said “Nick, normally I wait until the end of the session, but you are so clear and consistent with your description, that I can confirm I do think you have ADHD.” Then we chatted.
I was over the moon! I’m not one to avoid truths. The truth, painful or not, enables us. We can make better decisions with our lives, even if they’re hard. Now I could re-build, or at least rejig my life to fit with this new understanding. So I began.
I immediately told you, my FRAHM audience, in the hope it would help others. I received 100s of replies, asking how to get diagnosed (info at the end of this blog) and relating to any story. This gave me great joy and made me feel less alone.
I got educated. Then I made changes. Here are the ways I’ve immeasurably improved my life, and my productivity, and thus FRAHM, knowing I have ADHD.
Note on Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: I have a bit of the H - Hyperactivity, but I’m mostly Attention Deficit bit. My understanding of it is that I lack the normal control of dopamine that most folk have, which controls concentration. So I am either VERY concentrated, to the detriment of everything else (I often won’t eat or go to the loo, all day!!), or I can’t hold a conversation without daydreaming. My hyperactivity is I am constantly energetic, and if I start talking, it’s quite hard for me to stop.
I am very lucky that I don’t have the impulsivity of many severe ADHD sufferers, who may harm themselves, spend money they don’t have, or do something illegal (a huge proportion of the prison population is likely to have undiagnosed ADHD). ADHDers often chase dopamine, by taking risks, or by self-medication. A lot of us are alcoholics or addicts in many dopamine-chasing ways. I am extremely grateful that I’m not. I’m also very lucky that I’m not a ’loser of things’. It’s called The ADHD Tax - the extra money an ADHDer spends on replacing lost wallets, keys, laptops, bags, etc.
ADHD is not all daydreaming and being a bit eccentric. It can ruin lives. My version (everyone is different) means I’m just a bit rubbish at certain stuff. But importantly, I’m also extremely good at certain things too - Strategic and creative thinking. Being innovative. Having a clear ‘vision’. I can picture objects in perfect detail easily - like jacket designs! I have extremely sensitive sight and hearing (this can also be overwhelming). I am very curious and and take nothing at face value. I can focus so intensely (Hyperfocus) that I can complete SOME tasks to a far higher standard, far quicker than others. But I can also fluff a lot more, with very poor focus.
Anyway, I’ve lost my thread (yea, ADHD). Actions!:
Telling People - I’m lucky that I run my own business, so I don’t worry about consequences - there’s still prejudice out there, though it is illegal to affect someone’s job if they have ADHD, by the way. Telling my fiends, colleagues, anyone that’ll listen, helps people understand how to best work with me. Why I interrupt. Why I’m totally exhausted after meetings (listening to many people at once is HARDCORE! It’s why I’m crap at parties).
Drinking - I gave up drinking nearly a year ago. The difference is frightening. I am so much calmer, steadier, less given to down periods of self-loathing. I don’t wake up confused or depressed. I’ve less snappy and bad tempered (but not perfect). Just, what I suppose is ‘normal’. Normal is LOVELY. FYI, I was always a light drinker. I find any drink makes me feel shit about myself, so I’m now teetotal, I assume for life. I’m not superhumanly self-disciplined. It’s no hardship, as it has so positively improved my life. It’s very motivating, having the ability to think clearly and not hate yourself.
Exercise - I’ve always loved cycling, walking, gym, anything. Now it’s a prescription. I am a far better person for it, and far trickier without. I MAKE time for it.
Outdoors - Now I know why I love countryside, space and air. It’s simple and quiet. I get massive overstimulation sometimes, especially at work or being around my family. I call it “overheating the hard drive” - I stutter - like a drive skipping. I can’t think. So to cure, or prevent that, I walk or cycle amongst the green, in all weathers. Ahhhhh.
Noise Cancelling Headphones - I can’t cope with multiple sources of input. Especially voices. I actually started wearing NCH before my diagnosis. It’s funny how you find the things that help you by instinct. I’m wearing mine now…In my own office.
Own Office - FRAHM now pays for me to work in my own separate office from my colleagues. It’s low-lit (bright lights are a thought-killer for me), cool, quiet and simple - just the things I need. It is a sanctuary that has seen my contentment and work output skyrocket. It’s extraordinary. I need to make FRAHM more successful, so that I can afford a house with a study, or a garden to put an office at the end of!
Mushrooms - I was very cynical about nootropics, until Dr. Andrew Huberman (check out this one on ADHD, and his other podcasts) validated some of them and a friend of mine, who had life-saving brain surgery, said his surgeon has recommended Lion’s Mane to help rebuild his damaged brain! Despite being very creative and random, I’m also weirdly logical and not given to fads. Having started taking Bristol Fungarium’s Lion’s Mane Tincture, I’ve seen a huge effect on my calm and concentration. Me and Emmalou both take it twice a day.
Help From The Government - Weirdly (to me anyway) I now have a recognised disability, and thus can get funded help with my work. I’m talking-to my ADHD work coach in a few minutes actually. The scheme is called Access To Work.
Medication? - I went to my GP and got diagnosed by a psychiatrist in October. This gives me access to drugs, if I want them. I am wary, as the most common tool is Ritalin, essentially amphetamine (speed!). Obviously it’s not in the doses I may *cough* have tried when I was clubbing as a young man (with its horrible side effects, I don’t recommend it). But it is still a stimulant. I’ll probably try it (I’m still waiting to be given it), as I’m too curious not to.
I didn’t do it all at once, it’s taken a year, but a year of huge improvements.
This all sounds super awesome. But I had a major wobble in November and became depressed. Apparently it’s common that about 3-6 months after a diagnosis, there’s a delayed reaction. My initial Amazing Positivity (friends often said this) gave way to sadness and regret. The sadness that comes from knowing and now understanding, having post-rationalised my life and all it’s events, that it’s been an unnecessarily shitty struggle. “If only I’d known?” I hate regret and “if only” because hindsight is bullshit. It’s time travel - we can’t do it. But the human brain has habits and it does these things. Even to yours truly.
In November I went back onto anti-depressants for the first time in 5 years. I wasn’t suicidal, but Emmalou recognised I was not in a good place, and I immediately agreed with her. I am, despite my openness and seemingly being on top of it all (don’t trust social media folks!), just as fragile as anyone.
Now it’s March, a year after this truly life-changing epiphany, and I’m so glad. I’m not depressed anymore and hoping to come off the drugs soon. I’m 50 in June, I don’t drink, fitter than I’ve ever been, and I have far far fewer moments of frighteningly horrible thoughts that I can’t help.
ADHD is shit and wonderful. It is part of what makes me special. Specially shit and specially great. I wouldn’t be doing FRAHM without it. It’s been a hard journey, with many peaks and troughs, to the understanding I have now. I’ve learnt so much, and have so much more to learn.
I’m so glad I know. If this strikes a chord, or if you’ve always felt things ‘didn’t fit’, in a different way, do something about it.
You deserve it. You deserve contentment and peace of mind. We all do.