How it feels to be diagnosed with ADHD in midlife

Emma Mahoney was suprised to be diagnosed with ADHD I am sitting in my psychiatrist’s office

Emma Mahoney was suprised to be diagnosed with ADHD
Emma Mahoney was suprised to be diagnosed with ADHD

I am sitting in my psychiatrist’s office being interviewed for a possible diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). The psychiatrist’s interview is like a character assassination; rapid-fire bullet-like questions raining down on me. “Had I ever tried drugs?” “Yes.” “Which ones?” “Cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, magic mushrooms, LSD…”

He ticked away, not wanting to know when or how much. Occasionally he would break off. “But how have you managed to hold down a job as a journalist?” he asked at one point. “Because I have to write everything down, so I don’t forget things,” I explained.

At the end of the hour and a half he tells me, yes, at age 52 I do have ADHD. As he hands me a prescription for stimulant medication, he looks at me seriously and says: “It’s very important you get the message out about ADHD. I see people in here every day who have been diagnosed wrongly with all sorts of mental health issues, like bipolar disorder and others. Their medication doesn’t work because what’s really going on is undiagnosed ADHD.”

His words still ring in my ears whenever I feel sheepish about being ‘out’ about my ADHD.

Like many adults diagnosed later in life, my diagnosis came about because of my son’s in 2011. He was 10 years old and in his final year at primary school when his ebullient behaviour, which a nursery teacher had first spotted when he was four, could no longer be ignored.

Why shouldn’t I have it?

Both genders are equally affected by this neurodevelopmental disorder, which the National Institute of Mental Health in the US estimates affects around 4 per cent of the adult population. So why shouldn’t I have it have as his mother? However, because it is diagnosed three times more commonly in boys, perhaps, I was convinced that it was my husband, his father, who carried the gene. ADHD is as heritable as height – around 70-80 per cent is inherited – so it was likely to have come from one of us.  

However, ADHD didn’t even seem to exist when I was young and even today, despite the thousands of medical studies on it, naysayers question whether it actually exists, often attributing its symptoms to poor parenting, junk food or too many video games.

The very first time a paper was published on it was in 1904 in the medical journal The Lancet, next to the poem Fidgety Phil from the poetry book Struwwelpeter by Dr Heinrich Hoffman. “Fidgety Phil” became my family nickname, because I held on to the cot bars and rocked myself to sleep when a baby, and banged my head against the pillow as a child.

At boarding school at Millfield in Somerset, aged 10, I had been ushered into the school on an academic bursary but, by the age of 15, I was drinking, smoking and shoplifting with my best friend. Apart from the odd letter home, my parents had very little idea about what I was up to. During my school career, where I was the only pupil doing Oxbridge not to be made a prefect, I was “gated” 13 times (a form of punishment where you had to report to the head of house for a week and stay inside during breaks, banned from certain school areas). Most pupils were suspended and then expelled after two gatings. Fortunately, I was never found out for the more serious shoplifting crimes in town, but as I researched ADHD I found this is one of the most common antisocial behaviours. It is probably unsurprising to learn that around 20 per cent of the prison population are said to have ADHD.

Railing against rules

The straitjacket of a boarding school life, with its routines and rules, actually helped keep me in check through my teenage years, although my school reports unearthed for my ADHD diagnosis reflected qualities familiar with this disorder. “Emma’s untidiness is exasperating,” railed my house mistress. “Her absentmindedness and ability to keep hold of her books are infuriating,” wrote another. My subject teachers complained of “scattiness”,  “mind-wandering” – all in the un-politically correct dialogue of education in the Eighties.

Today’s parents would have to scour for clues in the teacher jargon of “lacks concentration” and “needs to improve in focus”.

And yet my denial over being the source of the ADHD in the family after my son Michael’s diagnosis became a problem. After all, I had managed this well with the condition throughout all these years, set up a business in publishing, sustained numerous jobs in journalism where deadlines, novelty and ability to respond to an ever-changing news roster seemed to suit the traits of restlessness, distractibility and impulsivity.  It was hard to see myself, or Michael’s behaviour, as the problem. As far as I was concerned, everyone else had the problem, not us.

This kind of family blindness to ADHD, where the traits are normalised because you have them yourself, is quite common. However, with my refusal to consider medication for my son, it took his suspension from secondary school to make me finally address the issue. The school said he could return when he was “under control” and, on top of a serious road accident where he had been airlifted to hospital after being knocked down crossing the road in front of the school bus, I knew that I had to take action. The more I began to research this complex condition, the more I began to see a mirror in my own early school life.

Getting my diagnosis in midlife was an emotionally painful process. There is grief around realising that perhaps some of your behaviours and poor decisions were made in a flurry of impulsivity, or a need for drama to keep the dopamine levels up. It made me wonder about how I might have behaved if I had known earlier – would I have chosen unsuitable boyfriends, bust up friendships, or been able to manage my money a bit more responsibly?

For example, if I had known I had ADHD before I got married, would I have moved house 15 times during my marriage, or moved my three children in and out of 11 schools? Of course, these numbers may mean little on a page, but the upheaval and heartache caused by such chronic restlessness affects all the family, not just me.

Moving on from diagnosis

However, I also realised how lucky I was. What really turned my life around was therapy, which began during a rocky patch of my marriage. The weekly sessions seemed to keep me on track and accountable, as I wondered how everyone else seemed to function without losing keys, handbags, laptops and, sometimes, jobs. By the time I met the ADHD psychiatrist, I knew that I had somewhere I could explore the fallout from a diagnosis. With diagnosis came access to medication, which I saw had had a dramatic effect on my son at school, where his grades were improving, so I felt ready to see the benefits in my own life.

After all, many famous and creative people have ADHD, and are advocates of understanding and awareness of it, from musician to comedian Rory Bremner, as well as the most decorated Olympian ever, swimmer Michael Phelps. 

Two years ago, I qualified as a Modern Foreign Languages teacher with the Now Teach scheme, and currently teach Spanish and French in secondary schools in Sussex and London. I believe that the energy I needed to qualify was actually helped by my ADHD, and not just because I had the medication to help me focus to pass the necessary exams. The resilience in overcoming obstacles I have picked up along the way, the atypical thinking, and the energy to keep going, are all bonuses that can be part of this condition. With the right support, it doesn’t have to be a problem. As my psychiatrist showed me, that day in his office.

Emma Mahony’s new book Better Late Than Never: Understand, Survive and Thrive – Midlife ADHD Diagnosis is published on October 1 by Trigger Publishing, priced £12.99, available online and from all good bookstores.

ADHD Awareness month runs throughout October.

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