Noor Banu couldn’t believe it. Her psychiatrist had just diagnosed her with ADHD. But she didn’t trust him. She had read that people with this disorder did things like get into fights and have problems with the law, and that wasn’t her at all.
“It took a long time to accept that,” she says. “Honestly, there was a lot of confusion.”
Pannu is a high energy woman in her 30s who is full of ideas and enthusiasm. Leads the digital strategy for an e-commerce company in Winnipeg, Canada. She has gotten many promotions and has good relationships with her co-workers. However, she has difficulty staying productive, focusing and managing anxiety about deadlines. After years of these symptoms and some annoying memory lapses, I decided to get help at the age of 29.
“I went to my family doctor and said, ‘I think I’m going crazy. There’s something seriously wrong with me.’”
“It took about six months for me to get over it and start taking medication,” she says. She feared the stigmas surrounding both mental health problems and ADHD. How people view it is: “People with ADHD are not productive.” It’s not cool to work with them. They are not doing well. They cannot be trusted. And those are really bad things to say about other people.”
The disbelief and denial that Pannu felt are just a few of the huge feelings you may feel after learning you have ADHD as an adult. First, there are all the emotions that come with being diagnosed with a condition you’ve dealt with your whole life. You may feel sad, relieved, or both. Then, there’s the fact that people with ADHD often feel more emotions than others.
“The ADHD brain experiences emotions in a magnified way,” says Amy Moore, PhD, a cognitive psychologist with LearningRx in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and vice president of research at the Gibson Institute for Cognitive Research. “Every emotion is greater, greater, and magnified. That sadness can feel utterly overwhelming. And that relief can be a feeling of joy.”
An ADHD support group helped Pannu gradually accept her diagnosis. She met people with similar symptoms, asked them questions, and shared her experiences. “If it weren’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have started the medication and I might even be disoriented by now,” she says.
Once she started taking stimulant medications, she felt like she was starting to tap into her brain’s full potential. Now planning to get a master’s degree in business. She is studying for the GMAT Business School entrance exam and aims to get a high score.
Despite her high hopes for the future, Bano is disappointed that she did not know that she had ADHD earlier. She grew up in India, where she says a lack of awareness of the disorder, along with the stigma around women’s mental health, prevented her from being diagnosed early in life.
“I wish I knew about this diagnosis sooner. I would have done better in academics and accomplished a lot more,” she says. “I feel like there was more in my life that I could have done.”
Sadness is one of the main feelings you may have when you learn you have ADHD in your late teens or adulthood, says psychologist Moore.
“You grieve the realization that your life could have been so much easier, if you had just known. You grieve the loss of the life you could have had all along. And you grieve the loss of the perfect adulthood that you imagined for yourself,” she says.
Some people feel angry and sad: “An anger that no one understood [your ADHD] before, or that no one had ever done anything about it—and that you had long suffered without explanation or help.”
Pannu didn’t find the help she needed until she was about thirty. But now that she has accepted her diagnosis, she has a better understanding of herself. And she has a healthy sense of humor about who she is.
“I always thought I was weird. I didn’t know what kind of weirdness was,” she laughs. “But I know now.”
When Melissa Carroll’s doctor diagnosed her with ADHD last year, the 34-year-old credit analyst in Nashville was grateful to know the news. After years of struggling to finish assignments, advance her education, and strengthen various relationships, she felt at peace with the diagnosis.
“I’m a little bit all over the place, and not everyone can keep up,” says Carol, describing what it might be like for others to have a conversation with her. Her thoughts make sense in her mind, she says, “but trying to have that conversation or make sense of it in a professional setting is hard sometimes.” She also says she also struggles to keep up. “Being pushed enough in one direction long enough to get to the next is hard.”
treatment otherwise. I started taking stimulant medication, which improved my ADHD symptoms. It also eased her severe depression, which she believes stems in part from decades of going untreated for her ADHD. She had a difficult childhood without a very stable home life. Adults tend to dismiss her symptoms as Carol “behaving inappropriately”.
“You adjust to life so much that you get used to spinning your wheels, but at some point you get overwhelmed with spinning your wheels, and then you give up,” she says.
Medication and therapy helped Carroll gain traction. It all started with an ADHD diagnosis that gave her hope that life could get better.
It’s common to feel some relief knowing you have adult ADHD, says cognitive psychologist Moore. “That initial feeling of relief comes from the fact that you finally have this explanation for your helplessness. The reason you struggle in school and in relationships. It relieves you that there is a real name for why you struggle with time management and organization.”
After she got the diagnosis, Carol took steps to improve her organization. “If I need lists or need an app to remind me which rooms I need to clean, or the order I need to do things, that’s fine to do,” she says.
She told everyone she knew she had ADHD. Not many were surprised. “I was amazed. I didn’t realize it was so obvious to some people — because it wasn’t me,” she laughs. “I was excited to be able to say, ‘I found this out about myself, and it makes sense. “I think it’s the key to what I missed.”
Moore can relate to Carol’s excitement. I felt the same way when I learned she had ADHD at the age of 20.
“I was so excited to have a name for what was going on with me that I wanted everyone in the world to know,” she says. “I sang it from the rooftops.”
Moore learned she had ADHD during college in the late 1980s. “Before that time, the only people diagnosed were hyperactive young boys. So for a girl with mostly ADHD, I was one of those who fell through the cracks.”
When she was a child, her parents gave her a very orderly home life. Once she went off to college, she struggled with staying organized and managing her time. But her mother, a child development specialist, worked with children at the age when they began being diagnosed with ADHD. When she recognized the signs in her daughter, she urged Moore to see a doctor about it.
After Moore discovered she had the disorder, she took stimulant medication and proceeded to navigate college, graduate school, and a doctoral program.
“I didn’t feel sad as much as I was relieved,” she says. “It may be because in the 1980s, this wasn’t a widely prevalent diagnosis. Maybe if I had been in the same situation a couple of decades later, I would have known that they could have done something and they didn’t.”
Moore finds that many people who are subsequently diagnosed experience a “tug of war” between grief and relief.
Treatments such as medication and cognitive behavioral therapy help many adults with ADHD take charge of their lives and their emotions. Moore says it’s also important to understand the root cause of these big feelings. ADHD affects thinking skills called executive functions. These include organizational skills, working memory, concentration, and the ability to control your emotions. Moore says a treatment called cognitive training, or brain training, can boost these skills.
“Cognitive training is engaging in intense, repetitive mental tasks that directly target these skills. Once you strengthen them, you get the benefits of emotional regulation, because this is an executive function skill, too.”
It can also help set boundaries in your life, she says. If you work in an office, for example, you can stick a do not disturb sign on the door or cubicle when you need a little extra quiet to focus. Or you can talk openly with your boss about your ADHD and ask him or her to move you to a less crowded part of the office, so you can be as productive as possible.
Meeting other people with ADHD can also be a great refresher. “Something amazing happens in support groups,” says Moore. “Just the idea that you’re not experiencing something on your own has a powerful therapeutic aspect.”
If you were newly diagnosed with adult ADHD, consider talking to your family and close friends about it. “If you educate your loved ones, and they are able to look at your reactions and say, ‘Hey, is it because they have ADHD and they respond to me that way?'” “They may show you more grace,” Moore says.