It’s like a super-power: The upside to ADHD in adulthood
Everyday life can be a constant battle, but it's not all bad news - we have the ability to hyper-focus
I can’t say I’ve ever thought that I had much in common with Ant McPartlin. In fact, I can’t say I’ve thought very much about the English TV celeb at all – until his shocking fall from grace, via a car crash, drunk-driving conviction and spell in rehab.
But it turns out that we are united by one thing, having both been diagnosed, as adults, with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I’ve got ADHD. I don’t mind talking about that,” he said in an interview last weekend, adding: “I never knew that until afterwards. I was so thoroughly examined and diagnosed, I found stuff out about me I hadn’t addressed for years.”
He is a long way from being alone. According to the charity ADHD Action, about 1.5 million adults in the UK have the condition, but only 120,000 are formally diagnosed. It is estimated that ADHD affects 5% of children and 3% of adults, making it the most common behavioural disorder in the country.
Even writing that last sentence is odd for me because, until two years ago, I would never have said I’d be affected by something like this. Indeed, I still think, perhaps wishfully, that none of my family, friends or colleagues could believe that I have a behavioural condition.
Yes, I’m disorganised. Forgetful, yes. And moody, just sometimes. But, and this is the big question I still struggle with: which of these are my personality traits, and which the result of ADHD? It’s a process I’m still working through.
That process began in January 2017, as my eldest son was doing his mock GCSEs. For years, his school reports had noted a tendency to daydream and an inability to focus, especially on written work. My wife and I put it down to his dyslexia – until one day he said to us: “I just can’t concentrate like other people.” Within a week or two, he was confirmed as having ADHD. Because he was not hyperactive, no one had ever thought he would be affected by it – but the first thing (of many) that we learnt is that not all symptoms are the same, or show in the same way.
ADHD is a spectrum, and you can be in many different places on it. The more I read up on the condition to try to help my son, the more I began to recognise myself. And I wasn’t the only one: one night, my wife looked up from one of the numerous self-help books we were devouring (listing symptoms and coping strategies and so on) and said: “You do realise that you’ve got this, too, don’t you?”
A year earlier, I would have laughed. I’d enjoyed a pretty good career, culminating in running my own small business. I travelled the world, working with interesting clients at very senior levels, and delivering well-received work to tight deadlines. I juggled long hours and travel with family life – pretty chaotically at times, it has to be said – but that’s how it goes, isn’t it?
At least, that’s what I thought. Back then, I’d have said I just worked hard, like many people do. I often got up early and worked before anyone else was awake. I frequently did another hour or two in the evenings, catching up. I always worked for part of the weekend, trying to get ahead of the week to come. I’d successfully jump from project to project and, I thought, still managed to do my bit at home, picking up the school run when I was around, working from home in order to be close at hand.
But it was a myth: the truth, I now realise, is that my everyday life was a constant battle. I was tearing through life, but making no real progress. Sprinting on the spot. My long hours were my way of trying to make up for my disorganisation; the project-hopping meant many of them simply never got finished, or at least finished properly. And underlying it all was stress, which would erupt into bad temper at any moment.
I read the ADHD checklist and ticked almost every single one, from carelessness to restlessness; lack of attention to detail, and regularly misplacing things. I’ve lost more wallets than most people own. I’ve left coats, luggage and, once, all my shopping on trains. On another occasion, I arrived well ahead of time for a flight departing from Gatwick – except that it was actually leaving from Heathrow.
Perhaps the best example is Project McCloud – named after Kevin, the presenter of Grand Designs – that my wife and I embarked upon 10 years ago: a self-build house that, at a glance, looks finished. But it’s never received its final sign-off from the local planners because I’ve never completed the paperwork. This means we can’t reclaim the VAT we spent on the build. Which is several thousand pounds. Sorting it has been on a vague to-do list for five years or more. But I just never get around to it. Plus, I’m not sure I’ve got all the necessary receipts any more. And I’ve got so many other half-done jobs afoot – which to pick back up first?
There are upsides, though. One of the things that those with ADHD can have is an ability to “hyper focus”: if something grabs my attention, I will mentally bury myself in it until it’s done. Writer Tim Lott, another with a midlife ADHD diagnosis, called it “a sort of superpower that enables sufferers to focus intensely on a task to the exclusion of all else” – and I kind of like having a superpower.
I finally decided to see a specialist in August, 18 months after my son’s diagnosis. My wife and somewhat nonplussed parents filled in a questionnaire about me, and I did the same, all before a 90-minute meeting with the specialist. To be honest, I thought she might diagnose mild ADHD, but in fact she noticed things I hadn’t even thought of: fidgeting, tangents that would circle back to the point I had been making as if no diversion had occurred. Most importantly, the insomnia I’d suffered from for years, which I’d put down to travel, was likely also symptomatic of the condition.
McPartlin summarised it perfectly: “In my job, having what they call ‘popcorn thinking’ is good because it means you can jump from one thing to another. Professionally, it’s brilliant. Personally, I’m all over the place.”
So now I do less. And try to do it better. And especially finish it. I spend quite a lot of time editing myself, and deciding what to pursue – maybe even a book on ADHD – and what to postpone or forget. And even more time organising: colour-coded Post-it notes and the calendar function on my computer are my new best friends.
There is medication, which I might explore, if needed, once I’ve got on top of the organisation. There are apps, too, that can help – though, as one ADHD coach I spoke to pointed out, you’ve got to actually remember to use them. Indeed, I’ve thus far downloaded five, and am yet to open the first one – a task I’ll certainly be adding to my to-do list.