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Living with ADHD

Leanne Ling describes her daily struggle and the techiques that help her cope

Professional Social Work magazine - 9 October, 2020

When you think of ADHD what comes to mind - distracted, loud, hyperactive, “annoying and naughty” children and teenagers?

Fortunately, this unenlightened and outdated view is now being replaced with the realistic, evidence-based understanding that, the habits and behaviours of children and young people with ADHD, are actually the unintended symptoms of a restless, neurodiverse brain; constantly on the search for stimulation and the next interesting thing to do or ponder.

An imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and noradrenaline, results in neurologically atypical patterns of thoughts and behaviours. These symptoms can include inattention, low motivation and disorganisation; impulsivity and hyperactivity; as well as emotional dysregulation and mood swings.

Mornings are the most difficult part of the day. Feelings vary from being overwhelmed at the thought of so many things to do or that there is nothing interesting or motivating to get up for.

Sometimes it’s because I’m soo comfy I can’t stand the thought of the cold air and clothes touching my skin; then I’m agitated about deciding what to wear.

Sleep is hideous if not managed effectively, the mind just does not rest. We have to tire it out with things like reading, or bore it to sleep with listening to things, meditation or bedtime stories and medication sometimes. I have used all of the above over the past 35 years and now, when my mind is restless anxious or worried, I can even talk it to sleep with reassuring words, self-comfort and mindfulness.

Distraction and not following through is probably one of my greatest challenges. Every, single, day – no matter how many drugs I’m taking or memory techniques I’m trying. It can happen in literally seconds and with any situation or task.

The brain has a reticular activating system to filter out extraneous stuff but it doesn’t work as it should with ADHD. The brain is distracted in milliseconds by anything and everything. All the bodily senses and functions –  oh I need a pee, oh I’m hungry, oh I’m thirsty. Ugh, my jumper feels itchy; ugh, the label is irritating; ugh, I’m cold; ugh, I’m hot; ugh, is that a spot on my cheek, is that a hair on my chin?!

At any time of day or night, I might have a thought or idea and either ruminate or hop onto the internet to Google this and that I suddenly absolutely need, or this and that I want to know a bit more about, which my brain believes is now more important than anything else.

When I am watching telly or films I Google actors and other things they were in, because I recognise them and it bugs me, “Where have I seen him/her before…?”

I get dates mixed up ALL the time, my brain fixates on a number and it might be completely wrong. It reads too fast and doesn’t digest all the information properly. I will have the correct date in my phone but will be so convinced it is the one in my head. I may arrive early or late for appointments. I booked online yoga last week, had the confirmation at 5.30pm for a 7.30pm start and then completely forgot about it until the next day, because I was engrossed in washing up and cleaning the kitchen.

Children do not necessarily grow out of ADHD though and the symptoms associated with the condition can last a lifetime.  With maturity, experience and coping strategies, adults may appear somewhat less hyperactive and forgetful, calmer and better organised.

However, behind the façade the underlying invisible impairments remain a constant, serious challenge. This can result in chronic stress and exhaustion, low self-esteem and other co-morbid mental disorders; as well as work and relationship instability, addictions and criminality.

I was diagnosed with ADHD five years ago at the age of 46 and what a relief it was! My whole life started to make sense, all those flipping durrs! The stress, behaviours, emotions, mental health difficulties, forgetfulness, impulses, zoning out and just being sooo busy (and late!) all the time.

I may not be neurotypical, but I am representative of most human beings in that, we evolved to live in tribes, connected with others and needing to fit in with the group. It was a matter of survival and safety in numbers; alone there was more chance we would attacked by a wild animal or die of starvation on our own.

Even now, if we are isolated, detached or feel excluded, our primal threat system unconsciously kicks in – leading to all kinds of trouble psychologically and behaviourally. During Lockdown people have been experiencing negative effects like feeling imprisoned and withdrawn; more or uncharacteristically lonely, depressed and anxious; binge-watching television, eating more and drinking excessive alcohol. Relationships are under pressure and in the worst cases, families are in crisis or dangerous situations.

Fatigue, lethargy and poor sleep can be a big problem for many and especially ADHDers; because there is no structure, routine or accountability. Unfortunately, lots of people have been less active, missing social interactions, going to bed late, getting up late and watching television at all times of day and night.

So, before lockdown and thinking I knew myself well after 50 years of coping with ADHD, I never thought I could successfully and productively work from home. Even with medication - on my own all day, every day - I’d surely be rubbish, a fake; too distracted, bored, lonely and disorganised?!

Conversely though, lockdown has been beneficial for me. I have learned to become comfortable on my own because I have had to. I have been meditating more and slowing down my hyperactivity. Staying at home I have increased self-awareness and practiced new strategies. I have been creative and engaged in new ways of on-line learning and communicating.

I have pleasantly surprised myself - here I am, alone, in a silent kitchen, sitting still for wholly reasonable amounts of time, working well. A break away from my laptop now involves throwing a pile of washing in the machine, having a little fuss with my cat or sitting out in the garden.

Over the months I have also steadily become more organised and settled during my days off. The slower pace, quiet and isolation helps me prioritise my values, self-care, acceptance and gratitude. I saved money too: no coffees or meals out, no impulsive spending in shops on things I don’t really need. No haircuts at £40 a snip, no £25 manicures, no train tickets and barely any diesel. I have also fully awakened to the skill and pleasures of hubby’s gardening talents and bird watching!

For the ADHDer and those around them, knowledge, understanding, awareness, reflection, communication, honesty, skills, strategies, initiative, creativity, positive self-talk, realistic self-talk, compassionate self-talk, honesty, patience, humour and courage to ask for help are all needed in crateloads to manage it calmly and with kindness.

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.