Growing up, I knew I was struggling with things that other people seemed to be able to do without a second thought. I thought I was just lazy, that I needed to be more disciplined and to take things more seriously. But it never worked, and I never understood why.
Now, after a lifetime of searching, I finally have the answers.
This week, I want to talk with you about my experiences with having been diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, how it can affect you and your relationships, and my experiences with getting diagnosed and getting treated.
Here’s what happened.
- What people get wrong about ADHD
- Why so many people don’t get diagnosed or treated when they need it
- How having ADHD can affect your confidence and your relationships
- Why people with ADHD have anxiety and depression
- How getting treatment has changed my life
…and so much more.
Overcome Your Fear of Rejection – https://www.doctornerdlove.com/overcome-your-fear-of-rejection/
Top 5 Dating Mistakes — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/top-5-dating-mistakes/
This is What Happened After I Tried Meditation for 30 Days — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/this-is-what-happened-after-30-days-of-meditation/
You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/how-to-unlearn-what-you-have-learned/
When It’s Time To Ask For Help — https://www.doctornerdlove.com/when-its-time-to-ask-for-help/
ADHD In Adults — https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-in-adults/
Like the podcast? Become a Dr. NerdLove patron at Patreon.com/DrNerdLove
Want more dating advice? Check out my books at www.www.doctornerdlove.com/books
So this week, I want to do things a little differently and get personal with you.
Back during my episode on getting over the fear of rejection, I mentioned briefly that I’d recently been diagnosed with ADHD. I mentioned it at the time because of the way rejection sensitivity and rejection sensitive dysphoria are co-morbid with ADHD, but this week I want to talk about my experiences both with ADHD and with having gotten tested and starting treatment
Because, really, what is my life except fodder for more Content!
Actually, if we’re being strictly honest, what’s really motivated me to dedicate an episode to the topic is the fact that a lot of folks get the wrong idea about ADHD. Like many issues surrounding mental health, it’s something that a lot of folks don’t talk about openly… and that’s something I think should be normalized.
I mean, many people really don’t understand it and — in some cases, folks may not realize that they actually have it. Which, frankly, was the case with me.
One thing that’s important to keep in mind: I’m talking strictly about MY experiences with ADHD. It manifests in a lot of different ways in folks, so if you have it and I don’t bring up some of the ways it’s affected you… that may just be because I haven’t experienced it, or didn’t experience it the same way you did.
And of course, my standard disclaimer: Dr. NerdLove is NOT a real doctor. These are just my experiences and thoughts on the matter and how it’s affected me.
So, part of the problem, to my mind, anyway, is the name. Calling it Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder tends to give people the wrong idea; it really leads people to think that ADHD is like being the golden retriever from UP, where you’ll be about to do something and then SQUIRREL!
In reality, it’s not that you’re easily distracted, or that you can’t pay attention; it’s more that you have five thousand things that you’re paying attention to all at the same time. The best description that I’d ever heard of what it’s like having ADHD — and God knows it describes me to a T — is that it’s like your brain is a web browser that has 50 tabs open, four of them are making noise and two are frozen… and you’re not entirely sure which.
But that whole “can’t sit still/ gets distracted by the shiny” idea is STILL the dominant idea of what ADHD is like. It’s part of why so many joke-y-jokes from folks who don’t have it fall into the whole SQUIRREL bit.
And frankly I find that to be unhelpful at best and actively harmful at worst.
That belief is a huge part of why I was never diagnosed as a child. Sure, I paid next to no attention in class, I forgot to do my homework or appointments, I was incredibly disorganized, I tended to rush through my assignments and I had a tendency to zone out or be off in my own little world — which was rapidly running out of oxygen — but hey, I could spend all goddamn day reading or playing video games. So clearly Attention Deficit Disorder or ADHD weren’t the problem. I just needed to be MORE DISCIPLINED and PAY MORE ATTENTION and REALLY TAKE RESPONSIBILITY.
That belief stuck with me through… pretty much my entire life, from childhood up until a few months ago — even though evidently a doctor recommended my going on Ritalin as a child. I honestly and sincerely thought that, because I could focus like a laser on playing Baldur’s Gate or spend all day reading without giving it a second thought, then I couldn’t possibly have it.
Except, as it turns out, that ability to just get completely lost in a book or game or something is a state known as hyperfocus, and it’s an incredibly common symptom for folks with ADHD. You get so into a particular activity that you basically have tuned out literally everything else. If you got so into a book or a game or social media or some project and then looked up and realized that the entire day had gone by and you didn’t even notice, then you’ve experienced hyperfocus.
When you’re focused on something productive, this can be incredibly useful. I’ve had times when I’ve been writing and I was so in the zone that I blasted out six thousand words without having to think about it. But when you have ADHD you have absolutely NO control over it. You’re more likely to hyper focus on things you enjoy — more on that in a second — but there’ll be times when instead of focusing on the thing you want or NEED to do, you latch onto, say, social media. Or falling down a YouTube or Wikipedia rabbit hole. Or deciding you need to absorb everything you can about how to paint Warhammer miniatures or something.
Now the more you dig something the more likely you are to hyperfocus on it; part of ADHD — as I understand it, anyway — is that your brain doesn’t produce dopamine the same way that other nuerotypical brains do. So when you find something that DOES make you generate dopamine, you latch onto it and try to wring every last drop out of it.
But the hell of it is that sometimes that “stuck or fixated on something” isn’t hyperfocus; it’s what’s known as executive dysfunction, where you, quite literally, CAN’T get started on a task. It’s not a case of being unmotivated or not being disciplined enough or not taking things seriously — all things I used to believe about myself — it’s that you quite literally cannot break out of what you’re doing in order to start the task that you know you need to do. It’s not like you aren’t aware that you need to do it, or that you don’t think it’s important. It’s much closer to “the activation signal that triggers the parts of your brain to shift gears to that activity doesn’t fire”.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I so frequently never got anything done until it was coming down to the wire. I would make all the usual jokes like “oh the best work is always done at the last minute,” but in reality it’s more that the panic of the impending deadline is what FINALLY broke through the executive dysfunction and kicked my brain into the gear it needed to hit in order to actually get shit done.
And the hell of it is that this wasn’t restricted to just important shit. Sometimes it would literally be my deciding “ok, gonna get in the shower and head out to get dinner” and my brain going “nah, time to go through all those tabs you opened up in Chrome that you were going to get through later” or “Cool but right now you’re going to be playing Threes for an hour first”.
Then there’s the memory issues. I tend to have two modes. Either my memory is near-photographic… or it’s next to non-existent. And again, the meme of being Dory from Finding Nemo is another one of those “yeah cool very funny, so not helping” situations. I used to make those “joking but not really” comments about how my brain would go into “out of sight, out of mind” mode, where I would have a thing that I needed to do or was about to do and then something would catch my attention and I’d forget about the thing I needed to do.
But it wasn’t exactly that I forgot; it was far closer to that the first task or obligation was in the process of going from short-term to long-term memory and then something would interrupt the process and overwrite it — like you accidentally saved a different document over the one you were just working on.
Again: this wasn’t just “ok, need to remember to call my mother or pay my credit card bill”, sometimes it was what somebody had been saying — or their name. Or that I’d cleared my schedule and had time to finally get started playing Dragon Age or — hell — that I was going to switch to this other tab I’d had open for later. Then I’d look something up or try to chase down a quick idea before I got started and then I’d lose track of both time and whatever it was I had been about to do.
Then it became a matter of trying to backtrack my own thought process and try to get back to the original circumstances so I could hopefully cause whatever neuron that memory was stored in to fire.
To give you an idea of how pernicious it could be, I could literally have written the check for my rent, put it in an envelope and then paused to check my email and then ended up leaving it on my desk for three days before realizing that I was late on the rent. Again.
I’ve spent a not inconsiderable amount of time and energy finding work-arounds for so much of my life. I’ve got some of the most annoying calendar notifications possible set up to help ensure that I don’t miss deadlines or forget appointments. The advent of online bill payment systems was an honest-to-god life saver. Finding a bunch of different ways to automate those parts of my life became vital to things like saving my credit score and not getting kicked out of my apartment.
But even with those workarounds and systems in place, an incredibly significant part of my life has been spent trying to work around a mental health issue I didn’t realize I had and that was affecting me in ways I never realized. And frankly… it’s fucking exhausting.
In fact, looking back, there are so many things about me, the way I’ve lived my life and the decisions that I made — good and bad — that make so much more sense in the context of my diagnosis.
The most obvious example is that my caffeine intake was, in a word, prodigious. My coffee and soda consumption could be the stuff of legend. I joked — in one of those joking-but-not-really ways — about how I’d had so much caffeine in my time that I was basically immune to it. What I didn’t realize is that this was a form of self-medicating; most ADHD medications are stimulants after all. I didn’t get the same effects that other people did after five or six cups of coffee because the caffeine wasn’t making me vibrate through space and time, it was making me FUNCTIONAL.
I also used to joke about how my brain was always three or four steps ahead of my mouth. And while this was true — I’ve always been fairly quick at processing things or picking up ideas or lessons — it was also my way of explaining away weird little tics that cropped up. There would be times that I would stumble over my words or say the wrong thing because my thoughts had raced ahead of what I was saying then I’d get caught up between what I was saying out loud and the thoughts that were still in my head. Or I would make leaps in conversation that never made a lick of goddamn sense to anyone, because I had jumped ahead in the conversation. I could backtrack and explain my logic to folks, and steps that lead there, and then they’d understand… but more often than not it would seem like a complete non sequitur to anyone who didn’t know me well.
But that multi-track thought process lead to a lot of things like not being able to concentrate on one thing at a time. I’ve long been the classic “addicted to his phone” guy; watching TV meant I usually was on my phone at the same time too, I’d check my email or Twitter incessantly, and so on.
Turns out, that’s because when you’ve got ADHD, your smartphone like the perfect dopamine factory; there’s always something happening to give you near-constant stimulation.
Having ADHD also affected my impulse control. I was always a little proud that I could make decisions fairly quickly, instead of needing to weigh every variable or check every possible option first. But it also meant that I would latch onto something fairly quickly and need to run it down right THEN. So if I had the idea that I wanted to work on a particular project… it usually meant that I was going to go out right then and track down all the stuff I needed for it. And occasionally that meant driving all over town trying to find one damn thing I “needed” instead of just ordering it online or something reasonable.
It also meant that I could be prone to doing things impulsively. Occasionally it would have that “seemed like a good idea at the time” factor. Other times… well, it was more just a lack of time between “having the idea” and “acting on it” and not enough time to actually think about the potential ramifications in between.
Hell, it even meant that my reflexes were a little off. I would anticipate things and move too early. I had to find ways of working around that tendency to jump the gun, especially in games with quicktime events or timed button presses. Games that had audio cues could be a lifesaver. To pull a random example: in Animal Crossing, I couldn’t watch the bobber if I went fishing; I had to listen for the audio that said I had a bite.
But what where having ADHD REALLY screwed with my life was with my self-esteem… and my relationships.
I’ve mentioned before that I have chronic depression, and that I’ve wrestled with a lot of social anxiety. In fact, that social anxiety and the feeling that there had to be some way I could get over it were a big part of why I studied pick-up and became a pick-up artist. What I didn’t know at the time was how much of my anxiety was rejection sensitive dysphoria. I was trying to find ways of basically brute-force my way through my constant — and at times incredibly intense — anxiety and fear that people didn’t like me or were mad at me for some reason.
And in fairness: I learned a lot about overcoming issues like approach anxiety and pushing through those fears in the MOMENT. In fact, that was among the most valuable things I learned from pick-up… but that didn’t keep the anxiety building up and affecting me either over the course of an evening or during my day to day life. This meant I spent a lot of time overthinking things, over-analyzing conversations, messages and texts… all things that were exacerbated by what I learned in pick-up, where you’re encouraged to believe that there’re always incredibly subtle and complex messages in everything someone does.
It also meant that I was walking around with a constant low-grade hum of anxiety, worrying about all but a select few of my relationships. Didn’t matter what kind of relationship — familial, platonic, romantic, sexual… there was almost always a certain level of anxiety that was the background radiation of my life. The more I liked someone, the higher that level would be.
This lead to a LOT of 4 AM wake-up calls, where my anxiety would either infect my dreams, or I would just snap awake and be unable to get back to sleep because I couldn’t get my brain to shut up and not make me think of all the ways I probably fucked up my relationship with… insert name here.
That also lead to a lot of behavior that, in retrospect I can recognize as compensating for or working around the anxiety. While I didn’t drink much at home or in most social situations with just one or two people, when I was out at parties or with large groups friends, I could have more than a few, and it wasn’t that unusual for me to be somewhere between kinda buzzed to “yeah, he’s gonna regret that in the morning.”
Having a couple drinks felt at the time to be a great, short term way to turn down that sense of anxiety and give a buff to the psychological techniques I’d already learned to manage it. The problem is, it’s also a great way to end up having more than you intended to and not realizing how drunk you actually were.
Which, of course, would increase the anxiety and that rejection-sensitivity.
Just to be clear: I’m not saying that having ADHD caused me to make stupid decisions or not pay my rent or what-have-you. I obviously still had agency and made those choices. But I spent so much time wrestling with my own brain that short term relief was so incredibly welcome that I didn’t want to think about possible down sides.
Now maybe some of this is sounding familiar to you. Maybe it’s giving you that feeling of “oooooh shit,” that “I’m in this picture and I don’t like it” sensation. Which is ironic because… that’s almost literally how I ended up deciding to get tested in my 40s.
It was — I shit you not — goddamn memes on Facebook and Twitter that felt WAY TOO FAMILIAR that made me decide that I should actually get off my ass and talk to a psychologist. Seeing people describing their ADHD experience kept tweaking parts of my brain and saying “hey that sounds like you.” And talking to friends on DMs and in Discords and having them say “um… yeah, that’s actually a really common symptom dude.” led to my having a minor freakout and reaching out to friends of mine in the mental health industry to get some referrals.
And so I went and got tested. Getting tested, instead of just going to the doctor and saying “hey, I have these symptoms” was important to me. Part of it was because I wanted to have an official diagnosis from an expert, instead of having that lingering feeling of “well, maybe you DON’T have it and this is just another temporary fix”. But I also wanted to go through the testing process, because if I didn’t have ADHD then I wanted to know what it could be.
I’m not going to get too deep into the testing process, only to say that it was oddly familiar; as it turned out, I’d gone through a series of tests like this when I was a child, when the doctor said I would probably benefit from Ritalin. This time around, I got my results that said “yeah, you actually DO have this,” which was honestly a relief. Now I had some answers, and I could actually DO something about it all.
And straight talk, I really can’t emphasize enough how much of a difference treatment has made.
It took a little trial and error to find the right dosage for my medication — and I may still need to adjust it some — but once I did… hoo man, it’s like a revelation.
I’m not gonna lie: there was a part of me that had this vague fantasy that this was going to be like taking the pills from Limitless. In reality… it’s a lot more like this weird feeling of “Wait, this is what normal functioning is like? Is this what neurotypical people feel like ALL THE TIME?”
One of my friends has referred to getting on Adderall as putting glasses on their brain. For me it’s not quite like that… in some ways it’s a little closer to putting on noise-cancelling headphones. All those other thoughts and impulses are still there, but the volume’s been turned down so far that I can ignore them pretty easily and direct my focus where I need it to go. If I’m not careful, I can still get distracted, but I don’t have to fight it tooth and nail. It’s more like being being able to tune out some noises in the background until you don’t notice them any more.
But what’s kind of astounding is how much the day to day things changed. One of the first things I noticed is that my anxiety and that vague constant worry about being rejected or people not liking me is gone. Or at least, it’s at the levels it should be. It’s not that rejection no longer hurts or anything, but that I don’t dwell on it constantly or analyze everything in hopes that I can either anticipate it and avoid it or at least know it’s coming. I’m a lot more zen about it than I have been before.
That’s also lead to really cutting down on my drinking, too. Now granted, we’ve been in quarantine and it’s not like I’ve been going out. But the feeling of “ok, gonna need this to take the edge off” is gone.
My memory is much, much better as well. I don’t get that out-of-sight-out-of-mind effect or lose track of things. I still have my notification system and my automation set up, but I’m more conscious, more present and much more aware. It’s like I don’t have to fight through a fog to remember what I was going to do or what I’d been planning.
I’m also better able to direct my hyperfocus when I need to. I still have issues with getting started on some things, but I don’t have to fight it as often or as hard. And that makes it a lot easier to do some of the fiddly, tedious things I don’t really care for… like editing these episodes.
Seriously, support me on Patreon so I can afford to hire an editor.
Oddly, I’ve also been snacking less. Which I think is as much about boredom and frustration as it is about actually being hungry, although the meds CAN cause loss of appetite.
Of course, there’re some side-effects too. The medication is a pretty powerful stimulant, which means I have to monitor my blood pressure, and there’re times that it REALLY makes my heart pound. It took some time for my body to get used to the new normal, which meant that for a while, working out could raise my heart rate to kind of intense levels.
I also have to be pretty mindful of when I take it and how long the effects last. I’ve had insomnia and disordered sleeping since I was a teenager, so I’m already kinda neurotic about how much sleep I get. If I’m not careful with when I take my medication, it won’t taper off until well past midnight, which screws with my ability to get to sleep and stay asleep.
I also notice that I tend to clench my jaw a lot, which… honestly starts to kinda hurt after a while. So I have to be mindful of that.
And in one of the weirder side effects, I have to be pretty mindful of when the pills kick in and to try to be sure I’m ready to start focusing my attention where it’s needed. Otherwise in that early stage, it can be a little like a runaway horse; if you don’t point it where it needs to go, you’re going to find yourself along for the ride with little control, focusing like a laser on whatever you happen to be doing at that moment.
Now to be sure: the medication is only ONE aspect of how I’ve been treating my ADHD. I started a mindfulness meditation practice in mid-August, before I got my diagnosis. That’s been a huge help too; it’s a great way to both learn how to quiet your brain and improve your ability to focus and calm yourself. It was especially helpful in learning how to mange that nagging fear of rejection that was so often in the background. It’s also been pretty helpful for my insomnia issues, which can ALSO affect ADHD symptoms.
Exercise has been important too. Getting out for runs, long walks, jump rope routines, Tabata workouts — these have all been pretty crucial. Not only does it help me get out of my head — a form of meditation in and of itself, really — but it also helps burn off some of the excess, twitchy energy and makes it that much easier to direct my focus where it’s needed.
Now I need to emphasize: I’m still pretty early in to both having gotten the diagnosis AND starting treatment. I may still need to tweak my medication to get the best effects from it and I’m still in that period of adjustment where I’m discovering how much I’d been affected by having ADHD. And of course, this is still happening during the COVID pandemic and life’s had some pretty hefty disruptions already. So it’s still something of an open question as to how different life is going to be once we’ve gotten back to something resembling normalcy.
But I’m not gonna lie: I’m kind of excited. I do wish I’d gotten this diagnosis sooner, but better now than never. As with a lot of things: it’s never too late to find out and it’s never too late to make start changes.