How did you discover you had ADHD?
Since my early teens I’ve experienced challenges with my mental health, characterised by cycles of highs and lows, and rarely feeling comfortable in my own skin. My emotions often felt extreme and out of control. One particular outburst led to my first out-of-body experience, and I felt such incredible shame around how I behaved, I began to search for answers. I eventually came across the mood disorder, cyclothymia, which can be thought of as a mild form of bipolar disorder with a psychological root. I essentially self-diagnosed and sought confirmation from a GP, which was easily given, and I thought I had my answer. During my professional coach training, I worked with a few practitioners, who helped me heal unresolved grief and move beyond many limiting beliefs about myself, my relationships and the way the world worked. This had a significant impact on the cycles I had been experiencing; in fact, following my first four sessions, I didn’t experience another cycle for 18 months.
I thought I had worked through what I needed to and I could get on with living my life. Yet, something still niggled at me. I felt misunderstood and experienced a lot of anxiety. Life felt complex, like moving through a never-ending sea of waist-deep sludge. This time, I wasn’t looking for an explanation; instead, it found me.
I remember scrolling through social media one evening and finding a video of a young woman talking about her experiences with ADHD. All I could think was, ‘That’s me; everything she’s describing is my experience.’ I felt someone understood me and could clearly articulate my daily challenges. I started exploring online, finding more content that described my traits, and the approaches others had developed for working with these. My colour-coded calendar and constant alarm-setting reminders started to make sense, along with the random bruises I got from bumping into things, struggling to sit still, read books and focus on one thing at a time. These could all be related to ADHD.
What was your experience of getting an official diagnosis?
When I first raised the possibility of ADHD with a GP, they looked up my symptoms and suggested that I had a blend of traits connected to borderline personality disorder and ADHD, but, in their opinion, there wasn’t enough evidence for either. So, I let it go. However, social media had a different idea. I kept seeing content relating to ADHD, and the more I saw, the more convinced I became that I needed confirmation either way.
I made another appointment to speak with a GP, and the doctor I spoke with this time seemed more open to the possibility. They agreed to seek funding for a formal assessment, which took a few months to be approved. I completed the requested questionnaires, and had a conversation with a psychologist. Following this, and a second review of the information I’d provided, they confirmed a diagnosis of ADHD. It was about eight months from my initial conversation with a GP to the official diagnosis, and from what I understand, that’s relatively speedy in England at present.
What has been the greatest impact of receiving your diagnosis?
I finally feel a sense of validation of who I am and I recognise that I’ve been masking for most of my life. I used to disguise many of my traits in an effort to fit in and be like everyone else. I’m now learning to be myself, and be open about my traits with others, especially those that might impact them. I’m constantly late when meeting friends, and rather than constructing an ‘acceptable’ explanation for this, I’m now honest with them about getting distracted, even though I’d planned to arrive early. Often, they also allow an extra 10 minutes for me to arrive and intentionally plan to arrive a little later, which gives me some comfort that I’m not wasting their time. During conversations, my mind is rapidly creating connections between what is being shared and everything else I know or am aware of. I used to try to hide this and just focus on the present topic. That took far too much energy and I’d consequently find interactions exhausting. Now, I just let my mind do whatever it does. I usually have Post-it notes or my phone available to record actions I identify while speaking, or messages I want to share. This approach allows me to be more attentive to the person I’m interacting with in the moment.
How does ADHD show up in your day-to-day work?
In so many ways that I can’t even name them all. One of the elements I’ve learnt to embrace is that I rarely take a linear approach to work. As I understand it, neurotypical people will identify what they want to achieve, what they need to do, create a plan and take action on it. For me, though I have a sense of where I’m heading, specific goals can feel too restrictive. I identify the key things I need to do and then get
started on whichever feels most engaging at the time. If I create a clear plan, it’s more difficult for me to take action on it – as I know what’s going to happen and how, the task is essentially ‘complete’ in my head, and so no longer requires me to take action on it.
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Hyperfocus can be an incredibly valuable trait when it’s utilised well. Unfortunately, I can’t always influence this. There are times when I get excited by a project, such as writing my NLP training programme, and I can begin diving into the detail; for example, who developed a specific concept or process, its original purpose, the therapies it’s based on. Before I know it, several hours have passed, it’s turned from bright sunshine to pitch-black darkness, and I’ve forgotten the last time I ate. However, if I break the flow, I struggle to get started again. So, work happens when it happens. External deadlines help as I don’t like to let people down, and I’m a total over-achiever, so I like to submit ahead of deadline (yes, I’m a walking contradiction as I’ll also turn up late to meet a friend). Oh, and just to be clear, fake deadlines don’t work, as I know they’re fake!
ADHD paralysis is one trait that drives me a little potty. It’s like a little tax I need to pay to create enough energy (or dopamine) to get going (again). Every evening will find me sitting in my living room, often for an hour after I’ve switched off the TV, scrolling through social media, playing a game on my phone, or searching for the next thing I ‘need’ to buy. Usually, I’ve become over- or under-stimulated during the day, and I need to build up enough energy to get up, switch off the TV, clear up the kitchen (so it doesn’t cause a distraction in the morning), get my clothes ready for the next day (to reduce the number of tasks in the morning), go to the loo, brush my teeth, and eventually make it to bed. These are separate tasks, and each requires a certain amount of energy or I’ll simply find myself back on the sofa. Throughout the day, I’ll also pay ‘mini-taxes’ before a task that feels boring, like sending out my invoices, or during some project work that’s taking too long, or after a particularly intense coaching session where a client has shared deeply. I just get stuck in one spot and can’t move until I have recuperated my energy.
What impact does this have on your coaching approach?
I honestly didn’t realise that what I did as part of my norm wasn’t the norm for everyone else. It was only when a colleague pointed out that they had to work hard at replicating some of what I did naturally, that I started to acknowledge my natural approach and its potential relationship to ADHD.
When coaching, I very much work with the patterns of what is being shared, rather than the content. The content provides the vehicle for our conversation, but the change happens through a shift in the client’s patterns. I suspect that ADHD supports me to spot and work with these patterns, using very little effort. I can spot the connections between various pieces of information and create a simple expression of what that connection is. I also tend to work simultaneously on several different patterns, and look at each pattern from different directions. I can simply see how it’s all connected.
For example, imagine I am working with a client who wants to start a new career, and they have a hundred ideas about what they could do, but don’t know which to pursue. As they bounce back and forth between ideas, maybe even adding new ones along the way, I begin to notice the patterns of what is causing them to reject one idea over another. Each pattern appears to form part of a whole – what the client likes about their current role. I’m not necessarily listening out for this information or asking questions about it; the patterns form through the content being shared, and there seems to be an obvious connection between them. I can simply reflect the patterns and the connection I am noticing back to my client, for them to explore. When I’m at my best as a practitioner, that’s all I’m ever doing.
What are you noticing about the way you practise? And how are you adapting your practice since your diagnosis?
In general, I’m a lot more accepting of the way I am, and I’m learning to work with this, rather than constantly fighting myself. Consistency feels boring to me, and therefore becomes challenging. So, I focus on creating interest in my work, picking up new or different projects, having a variety of tasks and client sessions in my day, working to inconsistent hours etc. I struggle with the concept of work-life balance, as I have a natural tendency toward extremes. Instead, I aim for harmony, which usually means I do some work every day, I sometimes take three-hour lunch breaks, and if I can’t focus, I just get on with some housework or gardening.
I have struggled with emotional dysregulation, which I understand is fairly common with ADHD; essentially, having extreme responses to reasonable situations or the way others behave. In the past, I’d get angry or incredibly frustrated when things didn’t happen the way I’d expected or planned. I’d withdraw from disagreements when I didn’t feel seen or heard, even though the other person was very much still in the conversation. I’d worry incessantly if something went ‘wrong’ and I couldn’t immediately resolve the situation.
Since I have learned to adapt, I’m less likely to be triggered into these states, as I have a lot more space and flexibility to experience the emotions as they arise, which is very different from the ‘bottling up’ approach that used to be my norm. I still need to monitor my behaviours. If I find myself bouncing between different tasks without making progress, falling down rabbit holes without purpose, or having an unreasonable response to a situation or person, it’s usually an indication that I need to reset, let go of something or just take a break.
What would you say are the major challenges for you – personally and professionally?
I’m forgetful, which has led to me developing quite a few mechanisms to remind me of tasks I need to complete. All my work is mapped into my diary, and I usually allow more time than I initially expect, due to time blindness and not really having a sense of how long I need. I also colour-code items such as files or folders so I can recognise which client I’m completing work for, and I even block in multiple occasions for the same task in my calendar as it may take me a few attempts to get started. I leave items in my physical path to remind myself to do something with them, like putting my water on the stairs, so I take it to my office before I start work, or I’ll just forget to drink anything during the day. I set alarms 10 minutes ahead of anything I need to do, with a nine-minute snooze (that gets used nearly every time). My friends all know about my alarms; if I’m with them and an alarm goes off, they’ll ask, ‘What are you meant to be doing?’ or ‘Where are you meant to be?’ rather than ‘What’s that?’. They know my alarms have a purpose.
Paradoxically, I can get an idea in my head about something I need to do, and it won’t leave me alone until I resolve it. A good example of this is when I realise that I need to clean my home. I might have noticed some fluff on the floor, or someone’s due to visit in a few days, or perhaps someone mentions that they need to do cleaning. That’s it. I can’t seem to do anything else until the cleaning is done. As I start cleaning, I might notice some things that need to go into the dishwasher, and as I start that, I notice that the sink could do with a deeper clean, and then I’ll see the kettle and remember it needs a descale. I might have started out with some simple dusting and vacuuming, and before I know it, the whole house is being cleaned and I’m walking into cleaning products that I’ve left in specific places around the house as reminders. This is particularly tricky if I have a busy day or if I’m delivering training, as every break is used to clean until it’s all done. I’ve tried to put aside time in my diary and convince myself that it doesn’t need to happen straight away. The problem is that I can’t seem to fully focus on anything else until it’s started, so I’ve learnt to just go with it.
I recently came across the term ‘rejection sensitive dysphoria’, which I understand is an emotional sensitivity to being rejected or criticised by those who are important to us in some way. Particularly when I’m experiencing high levels of stress, or have limited internal resources to draw on, I can get caught up in constantly sense-checking my behaviours, as I worry that I may have upset someone. I can also build up expectations of others that I don’t communicate with them, and then feel let down when those expectations aren’t met. And when I’m through this tricky period, the experience can lead to feelings of shame and guilt, and a sense of failure as I didn’t notice this happening, even though I’ve encountered it hundreds of times before. So, essentially, I have even more hurt to process so I can let it go and move on. I’m definitely getting better at experiencing my emotions.
How would you say ADHD is enriching your life and your practice?
I’m learning to see more of the uniqueness in how everyone experiences the world around them. I used to feel that people didn’t understand me or couldn’t recognise how difficult I found day-to-day life. I then discovered that as much as some people didn’t understand me, I didn’t truly understand them either. I talk about how I see the world as a spider’s web when solving problems or working through a challenge, with everything connected to everything else, and all the information right there in front of me. When someone shared with me how they solve a problem by following a single pathway, my mind was blown. I could never truly grasp what that is like, as it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever experience. This has helped me recognise how we all experience and interact with the world around us in such different ways, and I love discovering those differences, and what is important to each individual. There’s something beautiful in knowing that I’ll never completely understand the breadth and depth of human experience – there’s always something else to explore.
Finally, what resources have you found helpful on your journey to diagnosis – and beyond?
Apart from the numerous social media posts I have mentioned, some online resources I have found informative and useful include the following: