Very few people seem to understand what a colossal pain, and sometimes blessing, it can be having ADHD. I thought I’d share some of my recent experiences.
Writing this has nothing to do with being wired for sound and not able to sleep…. noooo…..
So first some myth busting. Yes ADHD is real. No it’s not just kids that get it. No it doesn’t mean I was a naughty school boy.
I was diagnosed about 2 months ago. Not on any treatment yet (still having tests to see if I can handle the strength of the meds). Still trying to figure out strategies to get to grips with it.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is known by a variety of terms. In the UK it’s all ADHD – Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. Typically the kids that are earliest to be diagnosed are the hyperactive type, sometimes called ‘active ADHD’. And usually boys. It’s under diagnosed in girls, and under diagnosed if you have the ‘inactive ADHD’ type – or just ADD. ADD is the common catch-all term in the USA.
I have the inactive type – hence only being diagnosed at age 38. Everyone’s experience of ADHD is different. This is partly why it’s so hard to diagnose, and why some (thankfully a tiny minority now) medical peeps don’t think it’s a real thing. No-one’s sure of the causes – but current thinking is half of people are genetic, and the other half it comes on later due to environmental or mental health issues. No-one is totally sure though – there’s new studies all the time. Estimates in the UK are that up to 10% of people have ADHD. Only a small proportion of those are diagnosed.
ADHD is categorised by a few ‘typical’ traits, but as I say everyone’s is a bit different. Becoming easily distracted, spontaneous. Perhaps leaving things until the last minute and then rushing them, and preferring to work this way. Impulsivity. Very creative and able to generate a tonne of ideas. An ability to hyperfocus on something for hours on end sometimes – if its a topic you are interested in. Having a poor memory, being forgetful. Forgetting birthdays or appointments – even for close family members. My memory for names and faces is notoriously bad. I’ve even blanked cousins before.
As my psychiatrist said in an example: If you’re an electrician and do beautiful tidy work in your job at someone else’s house, but your own house is an electrical disaster zone with no project being finished, you may have ADHD. There was another example about an accountant, but I didn’t ask for that one. I thought it would be boring! 8o)
At school and in work it can be a major pain. You struggle to concentrate in school, and as a result you can get poor grades. You may feel a failure, inadequate, or broken. In the UK those with ADHD untreated can earn 8k per year less than average. The average UK wage is under 24k. That’s a whole one third less than average people. I was lucky – I found my passion for computers at age 8 and have been riding the crest of that interest ever since. Most people aren’t lucky, or even diagnosed.
ADHD in the UK can be classed as a disability under the Disabilities Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 Chapter 50 section 1 subsection 1 if a professional assesses it as serious enough (spoiler: mine is). Under the Equalities Act 2010 employers have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to help you out if you have a disability. I use two screens for example, listen to trance music on headphones, and have to move around regularly – nothing too difficult to achieve in a cool hip software company!
What is it like living with ADHD?
A pain in the arse. Truly and completely. There are good things. Having deeper empathy than average and hyperfocussing, and being able to feel at home in a chaotic situation and not being phased by it. Mostly though it’s just a pigging nightmare.
Everyday life is a struggle. I used to think I was lazy and suffering from early onset Alzheimers or something. I’d try and do a single thing in a work day and end up doing 200 things but not accomplishing my main aim. Didn’t matter how hard I worked. I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating this is. Sitting down and working for 8 hours with barely 20 minutes break but not achieving the one specific aim you had for the day. Best described as a feeling of ‘busy failure’.
Here’s a typical day as it plays in my head, or as it did do before I started some new techniques a couple of weeks ago. More on that later. Now for the typical ADHD brain day…
Wake up. Check the news on the phone. Get up and walk in to the next room. Oh look, clean clothes. Get changed. Walk on to landing, bathroom to the right, go for a wee. Ah crap, haven’t had a shower because I saw the fresh clothes first. Ah well, it’s a work day and I’m working from home, I can do that later.
Nip in to the home office room as that’s next along the hall. Intend to quickly check the schedule for the day. See a notification come in. It’s only a quick one, I’ll deal with it now. Spend 20 minutes writing an email response. Finally send it. See some other emails in the inbox. Ah I know the answer to these. I’ll just quickly reply. It’ll only take 5 minutes.
30 minutes and 5 emails later. I really should put these socks on rather than just carry them around… Oh I can hear the dogs. Crap, it’s 0930 already. Best go feed them. Let them through, apologise for being 30 minutes later, and feed them. They forgive me. Open door. Replace dog bowl water. Open curtains. Go out and wee then (the dogs, not me). Boys just look at me. Put shoes on and walk down the garden. Dogs eventually follow and have a wee.
Oh look this pond weed is growing back. I’ll just quickly pull some out before I feed the fish. 20 minutes later. Oh yeah feed the fish. Hmmm, cold out here with no socks and just loose trainers and a t-shirt on. Best go back in now as I can’t feel my fingers.
Back inside. I’m hungry, I should eat something. Oh is it a bin day? Which is it? Have they been yet? I’d best empty the bins. Remove bin bags from bin. Fill bin bag with 75% of the fill being stuff just sat on the counter for the last 5 days. Take the bin bag out. Put the main bin out. Probably missed the collection… Come back in. Forget to replace bags in the bins. (That’ll annoy the hell out of me later on…)
Right back to work… What’s this in my pocket. Oh yeah my socks. Finally put them on at 1030 in the morning (3.5 hours after waking). Still not showered / brushed teeth / had breakfast. It’s the working day now – can’t possibly let the side down and not be sat at my desk.
Re-check schedule. Already 2 tasks behind. Oh poo, zoom meeting in 2 minutes, best dial in. Do meeting (with style, finesse, and expertise, I might add – this bit isn’t the problem). Write up copious notes so I don’t forget anything (Evernote). Take tasks (the Evernote lines with many ***) and put them in to an Asana project as TODO items. See other TODO items I’d forgotten. Crap, better do one of those.
Continues to work on the old TODO item. Get distracted by emails, phone calls, and slack – forget to log half of the requests mentioned in passing in 30 minutes of conversation in to Asana so I’ll have to be reminded of them later. Manage some pop up tasks from the calls/messages (‘Can you email me X?’). What was I doing? Oh yeah, the old Asana task. Finally finish that.
Crap, still haven’t done the 2 tasks I missed earlier (now 3 tasks, time’s a marching), and not done the one big thing I wanted to achieve today. Damn I’m hungry, what time is it anyway? Gah, 3pm. Best have breakfast. Drive to mackies wearing combat trousers (super comfy) and database t-shirt (databases are cool). Get smiled at by the lady working in Mackies as I do most days I visit. Not because I’m hot or she’s desperate… well I guess she might be desperate too… anyway…, but because I’m randomly wearing a woolly hat which really sets off my ensemble. Totally sure I don’t look creepy.
Come home. Sit with the dogs and eat my food. Put on a bit of TV – just a 30 minute show. Finish food after 10 minutes. Feel guilty about not working on a work day so pause the TV show (takes three days to finish it) and go back to work, leaving the dogs downstairs… Actually before I do, better let them out. Boys demand playtime so play with them for 20 minutes.
Now 5 tasks behind the plan. Now I’ve got an hour to finish 6 hours worth of work. Awesome.
Repeat ad infinitum. It’s like swimming through treacle to get anything done.
Oh, and work is the easy part. I shalln’t even tell you the horrors or personal health, exercise, mail, cleaning, and gardening that don’t get done. Remember the electrician story from earlier???
What’s the cure?
There’s isn’t one. Bummer, right? Treatment is either or both of drugs and behavioural therapy (counseling with a psychologist) once a week for a loooooong time. Mine’s lovely and can do some appointments over zoom. Awesome!
The drugs are proper confusing. Hyperactivity so lets prescribe… amphetamines! Yeah, not even joking. They help stimulate the part of your brain responsible for concentration. They do raise your heart rate so you have to get thoroughly tested – bloods, ECG, physical etc. – before you can have them. I’m still being assessed. It’s like being a car and having a major service.
These drugs in the UK are illegal. You have to get a special prescription. Doing what I do with the public sector I may be asked to take a random drugs test. Will make for an interesting conversation I’m sure. Oh and traveling for conferences… best read and re-read the travel advice for the countries you are traveling through and to. Don’t want to get arrested. Would just ruin the time I should be spending in a nice restaurant eating dumplings… err I mean working with customers. Ahem.
Is it all bad?
Nope. Just at 1am when you’re trying to sleep and instead are killing the super wide awake time by writing a blog post about ADHD. You don’t get to choose when your brain decides to hyperfocus.
The enhanced empathy piece is definitely true for me. I’m very good at picking up on peoples emotions. Especially useful when you’re a youth leader in your spare time – you can spot school and exam stresses, and intervene in a caring way.
Hyperfocus is amazing. When you do get ‘in the zone’ you can work pretty much flat out for 36 hours with very little in the way of breaks or sleep. Boundless energy (‘like feeling you’re being driven by a motor’) helps you achieve this when mere mortals will fall to sleep. Losers. ;o)
Being able to think of 1001 solutions to a problem is really useful, especially in Computer Science where everything has multiple solutions and you need to pick the best one for your situation. I can also see ahead 20 steps, and spot implications very early. You spot pitfalls way in advance of hitting them. Unfortunately you then have to explain this complex process to people without ADHD and they can’t get their head around it until you get closer to the time the problem arises. Told ya so. ADHD premonitions.
So it’s a bit like being Clarke Kent – bumbling through office life most of the time until the hour comes and you turn in to an ADHD superhero. Except Superman was playing at being Clarke Kent. We can’t turn off the struggle when we want to.
What have I tried doing?
So over the years I’ve come up with some solutions that work for me. Some are more recent experiments than others.
Evernote: Write everything down so you don’t forget it. That way, just search for stuff when you need it. Evernote even recognises writing in hand drawn whiteboard photos – making searching easy. Depending on your industry you may have to resort to a physical notebook here.
Asana: Task lists that you can open up and share, and set up as traditional lists or multiple columns like a project board. One board per project, plus one for ‘personal admin’ one for ‘garden’ etc. Has a phone app too, and you can optionally set a deadline (DO NOT do this though! More on this another time).
Helper: A personal assistant for the afflicted. I have someone I pay for a few hours a week. We sit down and plan the upcoming week in 30 minute slots. Everything has a slot. Showers, watching TV, playing with the dogs, calling each of my friends, mindfulness. Sounds dumb but really works. I’ve noticed doing this though I’m exhausted by 1500 if I manage to stick to the plan, so I make sure to schedule in regular meditation or being outside with the dogs to break down my day instead of being constantly at it. My helper is amazing. She is the master of lists. And has a great memory. She’ll even text me to remind me of important appointments or todo items, and remember to remind me 20 minutes later when I’ve been inevitably distracted! Absolute legend! Paper (including letters) proper stresses me out, so she does all this for me too, and phoning utility companies and the like. We sit down for ten minutes a week to discuss mail TODOs, and it’s then done – no need to stress. She also helps me organise receipts and things for expenses – the bane of my existence.
Scheduled breaks and treats: People who work at home work harder than those in an office. There’s been studies and everything. (Plus there’s no annoying people distracting you with crap music or loud phone calls in communal spaces.) Having scheduled breaks and not feeling guilty about it is therefore vital. I go to a pizza place for lunch once a week to get away from the computer and have a change of scenery. I meditate and go walk the boys. I schedule a movie night, or a night out with friends now and again. (Not too often – I’m an antisocial Computer Scientist who prefers computers to people after all! ;o) )
Tomato timer: Related to the above, a pomodoro timer on my computer will run for 25 minutes. You work through your task list as much as you can in this time. With notifications on your computer and phones DISABLED. Ignore phone calls, texts, emails, the lot. At the end of this time you get 5 minutes. Call someone back, quickly convert emails to tasks, or file them in Evernote as useful info, or plain DELETE THEM if neither of the above. This is called ‘Inbox Zero’ and is a great idea to minimise stress. After 4 periods on your tomato timer you get 20 minutes off. Go play with the dogs, get a drink, walk outside, stretch. Aim for 10 periods (5 hours) per day. Scheduled calls will take care of the rest of the day anyway.
Break down complex tasks: Got a 40 page document to write? No chance. Write the contents page first. Go through the whole thing and bullet point each section. Then list things you need to complete each section that you don’t have yet. Request them now. As they arrive, fill in the blanks. Aim for a section a day. Short bursts are key here, and mix it up with other routine tasks. Also vital is logging all the external dependencies. I have a ‘waiting on others’ column in my task lists so I don’t stress if someone is blocking my task completion. Also so nothing is missed.
Trance music: A background noise I can control isn’t distracting – it drowns out distractions. Trance music is also fast paced. Weirdly, I find this calming. YMMV with Trance, but anything over 120 bpm works for me. Makes me smile and focuses the attention. I do love a good singalong. Hint: If doing this and joining zoom early, mute the microphone.
Meditation / Calm app: Especially half way through the day and before bedtime. Helps switch the brain off from distractions and builds mental discipline. You will suck at this for the first 2 months if you have ADHD. Start with the Calm app sessions on Self Compassion and acceptance. I’ve got a free headspace app account with work too, but Tamara Levitt’s voice on Calm is super soothing. She’d best outlive me, that’s all I’m saying.
Two screens: I have 2x 28″ monitors on my desk. The one directly in front of me is my ‘work screen’. The one slightly off view is for emails, calendars, TODO lists, slack/IRC, and iTunes. This helps keep me focussed, but means I can glance to my left to check I’m not late for anything, and to quickly see if anyone’s tried to get hold of me recently.
Lighting: Very bright daylight light in my office during the day, orange lights for after dark (room and monitor backlighting) so as not to affect your circadian rhythm. Night shift on the mac also good for this. Slightly yellows the screen so it doesn’t keep you awake.
Tests. Drugs (amphetamines man. Get to pretend to be a Mancunian junkie… but with strict limits, obvs. No rule breaking here.) More counseling. Change the drugs dosage. And again. And again. And again. 2-3 months later I should be sorted.
Also an assessment for ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). 40% of those with ASD have ADHD. Depending on what exact combo you have, some ASD traits will mask ADHD traits, and vice versa. ADHD energy and bubbliness masking social anxiety for example. ASD needing to be early (like 1.5 hours early) for everything masking ADHD disorganisation. Makes sense to check.
I’ve only started some of the methods above in the last couple of weeks. Time will tell if they work. Got loads done the last week though, so the signs are positive. Just need to make sure I don’t over commit. May have done this for this upcoming week, so I’ll try and take it steady.
I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, best website I’ve found: https://www.additudemag.com/
I hope you found this 1am brain dump useful. It wasn’t proof read – just a stream of consciousness. Now time for reading Harry Potter (for the 20th time. In order from the start, naturally) and bed. Should get to sleep now. Thanks for your help!
If you liked this post please let me know and I’ll write more like it. We should be able to talk about these things.