Have you ever met someone for the first time and got on well with them, only to be warned off by a friend? You know, when they discretely take you to one side and, mouth hidden by the back of their hand, offer you some unsolicited advice about your new acquaintance?
Imagine for a moment that you are the person they talk about behind the back of their hands. Why have you been singled out? Maybe it’s because you’re one of life’s perpetual losers; a sorry fuck-up; a washout. Maybe you don’t have to imagine too hard. Maybe you are that born loser.
Now imagine that you, the lemon, wake up one morning and discover that the hand you were given to play was from a rigged deck with marked cards. That it didn’t matter what head-starts you had, what advantages you were born into or how privileged your life was — you were always going to suck. Picture, if you will, finding out that there was a biological reason why you never amounted to much and a genetic explanation as to how you managed to screw-up pretty much every single opportunity you were given.
That is what it is like to discover, in your later years, that you have ADHD - and this is my story ...
I was diagnosed with adult ADHD at the age of 53 and, as I learnt about the disorder and the ripple of effects it had on my life, I felt like Alice plummeting down that rabbit hole. As I looked back at my life with eyes wide open and considered how that life panned-out, and how it affected those closest to me, I came to realise the enormity of this so-called hyperactivity disorder.
Here’s a recap.
After a series of incidents I was expelled from Kindergarten at the age of two because, impatient for my turn, I impulsively shoved Richard Mollison off the swing and he broke his wrist. In the last year of primary school I was so disruptive to the orderly functioning of class that I was reguarly relocated to my own desk in the corridor next to the toilets. I had a reading-age three years ahead of my peers but did badly in all assessments.
In secondary school things went from bad to worse. My school reports consistently suggested that I was capable of the work but would never apply myself. I got in trouble with the law for theft and vandalism. I had my own set of keys made for my mum’s XJ12 Jaguar and, from the age of 14, I would take it out on the motorway and drive at speeds in excess of 120mph. I was investigated by Scotland Yard for the the theft of over 400 detonators from a railway yard. I was ostracised by my peers for always being that idiot that took things too far.
I would indulge in stupid acts of bravado such as running around the perimeter wall of the four-storey car park and hanging from the light fittings on the side of that building. I got into fights. I would bunk off school, catch the train to London, and spend my days in the basement of Hamleys toy store, playing on the amazing new home consoles and electronic games. I did excel at sports — not team sports, god no — I competed at a national level in swimming and middle distance running. Turned out this was another clue nobody ever picked up on.
Academically nobody expected me to pass any exams, but at 16 I somehow got good enough results to continue studying. I continued to behave recklessly, endangering my life and the lives of people around me. I used to take my motorbike out at night and speed down the narrow country lanes with no helmet on. In my friend’s car I used to show off by climbing out of the left-side passenger window, sliding across the roof and re-entering the car on the right all while he was driving down the motorway. Excluded from a peer’s house party, I chucked beer over the home’s fuse box and killed power to the entire street. I had seven car accidents, all my fault. I failed my driving test three times, mainly due to in-attention. I did so little school work during that time that I got three ‘U’s in my advanced-level exams. (U stands for unclassified — so bad you don’t even merit a score). I re-took them at a sixth-form college and scraped through with a D and an E and, incredibly, got myself a place at college to do a degree.
University was a disaster. I was on the wrong course (Computer Science) so I switched to Geography and was happy until the depressing place I lived in (Wolverhampton in the 1980s) helped push me over the edge and I had a nervous breakdown and dropped out. I got work as a temp in the Thatcher-era City of London and, after a series of disastrous jobs, during which I exhausted the patience of the temping agency, decided to try college again. I somehow managed to wangle my way onto an American Studies degree at Middlesex University, during which I got to spend the best part of a year at the State University of New York. And perhaps because I was interested in stuff for the first time in my life and because it was all new and stimulating and fast paced — I actually got my honours degree. I failed the exams (are you seeing a trend here) but got a first for my thesis (which I wrote in the space of two crazy caffeine-frenzied days) and that lifted my score up to a 2:2.
My first proper job (in 1990) was, in hindsight, one of the few I could do and appear to be good at. I landed a position as a journalist on a computer magazine at a young magazine company staffed entirely by young people like me. The never-ending last-minute deadlines suited me down to the ground. There was no need to plan stuff because everything was required there and then. I quickly rose up through the ranks and within 18 months was the editor of a magazine. However editors have different responsibilities to staff writers and they need to be able to plan ahead and choreograph the team so that deadlines are successfully met. I was so bad at this that on one occasion we had to pull an all-nighter and lay-out the magazine on the print type-setting machines themselves. Incredibly I managed to last a couple of years as an editor, thanks mainly to other team-members stepping up for me, before my luck ran out and I was ‘made redundant’. At that time I did meet the amazing lady who would, a few years later, become my wife. She accepted my many flaws at face value and put up with more than 99% of partners would. Successful relationships are few and far between for people with ADHD and the fact that we are still together to this day is entirely down to her, not me.
Since I left that company, 25 years ago, I have accomplished very little of merit. Supported by Catherine, my wife (surely one of the most understanding humans on planet earth), I have drifted between freelance and full employment but basically I’ve done nothing. 16 years ago we emigrated to Australia (I have Australian citizenship, I would never have qualified for a skilled visa) and since then I have mainly worked with Catherine in the web design business she started in 1994. I did work as an I.T. guy at a non-profit organisation for several years, but it ended in another nervous breakdown. I have been pursuing an interest in photography and had moderate success selling images, so there’s that.
I have always had plans, some grand ones in fact. And ideas, god only knows I have plenty of ideas. I have over 50 ideas for novels sitting on my hard drive, most of which are only a few pages long, but some stretch to a few chapters. The bottom line is that, impulsive behaviour aside, I’ve never been able to get anything done, and up until about a year ago I thought it was just because I was a lazy arsehole.
In the past ADHD was seen as a made-up malady for twitchy teenagers, but these days it is starting to be treated with the seriousness it deserves. Let’s be absolutely crystal clear about one thing from the out-set — it is not a behavioural issue and it never has been; it is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is the result of a deficiency in a specific neurotransmitter called norepinephrine which works alongside dopamine to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centre.
People with ADHD have impaired function of the frontal cortex (which governs attention, executive functions, working memory and organisation), the limbic system (which regulates emotion and attention), the basal ganglia (inattention and impulsiveness) and the reticular activating system (the brain’s relay system). The disorder is best known for the afore-mentioned hyperactivity but it could be argued that the impaired executive function is more important since this part of the brain is what allows us to concentrate, plan, organise and otherwise complete tasks. If you compare CT scans of neurotypical people with people with ADHD you will see that the amygdala and hippocampus are smaller.
The disorder makes its presence known during childhood, but the majority of kids who have it continue to suffer from it through their adult lives.
One of the foremost experts on ADHD is Dr Russell Barkley, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Virginia Treatment Center for Children and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Over many years studying the disorder, Dr Barkley identified the central abnormalities of adult ADHD behaviour. Those abnormalities cover a lot of ground and, unfortunately for me, I have pretty much all of them.
Amongst the symptoms associated with adult ADHD are oppositional and defiant behaviour, conduct problems and antisocial difficulties, low self-esteem, anger and depression. Many abuse legal or illegal substances, experience difficulties with work, and according to Dr Barkley “may be under-employed in their occupations relative to their intelligence, and educational and family backgrounds.” Adults with ADHD tend to have a lot of jobs because they either get fired regularly or leave because they find the job too boring. There’s a high churn rate with friends (both social and romantic) and divorce rates for those with ADHD are far higher than normal. We tend to get more driving tickets, have more accidents and have our driver’s licenses suspended or revoked. And to top it all off, people with ADHD have— on average — a life expectancy 13 years less than people without.
My journey to a full diagnosis for adult ADHD began with an article I read in the Guardian. I realised that everything the writer referred to in that article was true of me as well and it piqued my interest. Could I have ADHD too? I had already been diagnosed with high-functioning autism — was it really that big a stretch to imagine that I had ADHD too? I started compulsively reading everything I could about ADHD, watched hundreds of videos on YouTube and hung out on ADHD forums, sub-reddits and Facebook groups. I also strained my marriage by bringing up the subject of ADHD at every possible opportunity.
I made an appointment with my G.P. and put my theory to him. I said I wanted to find out once and for all what was wrong with me. He agreed that there was merit to my theory and referred me to a consultant psychiatrist — Professor Gordon Davies. I attended his surgery, completed a raft of tests and then had a long consultation with Professor Davies. At the end of it all I asked him the $64,000 question.
Yes, I had adult ADHD.
Interestingly, Professor Davies also said that labels weren’t often that useful and that no disorder existed within a neatly delineated box with perfectly defined parameters — comorbidity is the medical term. I had a mixture of Aspergers and bipolar too, but the big one was undoubtedly ADHD. Finding the right medication, or combinations of medication, I was advised, was a case of trial and error.
At that consultation the Professor gave me a script for clonidine (trade name Catapres) — a medication originally created to treat high blood pressure. Clonidine was found to control the symptoms of ADHD and, in particular, anger. It had a small but noticeable effect on me, though my wife’s theory is that it’s more placebo than anything else and that I am less angry because I’m simply more aware of it now.
At my next consultation the Professor prescribed me with reboxitine (trade name Edronax). This was another pill that was repurposed, or rather, rebadged for ADHD. It was originally created as an anti-depressant but was found to be singularly useless in that regard. Subsequent clinical trials showed that it was an effective treatment for ADHD. This pill was a bit of a disaster for me — it had no positive effects on the symptoms of my ADHD, meant I couldn’t get an erection for the six weeks I was on it, gave me a dry mouth and headaches and caused me to piss all over myself on several occasions.
My next consultation came around and Professor Davies took my off the Edronax (yippee!) and decided to prescribe me with Ritalin (named after the inventor’s wife Rita — true story). Having read so much about ADHD I was extremely excited to try Ritalin and I rushed home and straight to the pharmacy to get a script.
I took my first dose of Ritalin that day and my life changed in an instant. Honestly, I really did feel like Neo from the film The Matrix, swallowing the red pill and seeing the world as it really was for the first time.
It’s hard to fully explain the impact that Ritalin has on me — if you do not suffer from ADHD yourself — but it has had a singularly positive effect on my brain. I am finally able to sit down at my desk and accomplish things.
Previously, when I sat down to complete a task, I would be endlessly distracted by everything that was not the task. I could be drawn away from what I was supposed to be doing by literally anything — the movement of the clouds in the sky outside my window, the sound of a pneumatic drill in the street, the conversation my wife was having with a client on the phone, the small stain of mayonnaise on my t-shirt, the lyrics to the song playing on Spotify, the itch in my big toe, that appointment card to the hairdressers, the ping of an incoming text message, the feel of the air from the air-conditioning unit on my hair, the way my face looked in the reflection of my monitor, the icon bouncing up and down in my iMac’s dock, the bird cheeping in a nearby tree, the small scab on the back of my hand, the piece of dirt I could feel under my bare foot. Literally anything.
When I take Ritalin my brain becomes a bit quieter and I can focus, properly focus, for the first time in my life. It’s the weirdest feeling to be able to do this, suddenly, at the age of 53. Now when I sit down to write something, I can keep at it until it’s done.
More importantly, however, I can concentrate on work-related tasks that fall outside my immediate sphere of interests. Because one of the weird things about ADHD is that actually — when a task interests you and excites you — you are able to hyper-focus on it. ADHD is synonymous with inattention, but actually it’s more a problem with regulating one’s attention span to desired tasks. I could write about subjects pertaining to photography from now until doomsday, but if you’d asked me to write a quote for a job or a guide to some software for a client’s website — no chance.
I have not experienced any side-effects from Ritalin. The only negative thing I have to say is that its effects wear off a bit too quickly, but it is early days and I am only on the starter dose of 10mg. I take one at breakfast and one at lunch and this is supposed to get me through the working day, but in reality if I take the first pill at 9:00am, its positive effects have fizzled out by about 11:00am. And so I have sometimes been taking three a day, to see me through. (Catherine has asked me to say at this point, that you should never self-medicate. She suggests that it is always best to see your doctor before upping your dosage).
You’ve probably seen those viral videos on Facebook or Reddit of people’s lives changing in an instant. You know the ones where someone who’s been deaf all their lives gets a hearing-aid and can hear for the first time and they burst into tears of joy in the doctor’s office. Or the colour-blind people who get gifted those glasses that let them see the world in colour as it is for the first time.
Discovering that I had ADHD and then being diagnosed with a drug that helps ‘fix’ some of the worst symptoms of that disorder has fundamentally changed my life.
On being diagnosed, many adult ADHD sufferers enter a period of intense depression. They look back on their lives and how crappy they were and they wonder how much better it would have been if they had been diagnosed at a younger age. I can understand that, but it certainly wasn’t my reaction. I was just elated that I finally knew what was wrong with me. It won’t undo any of the shitty things I did in the past or alter the fact that living with me (and dealing with my temper, non-existent short-term memory, over-eating, unkempt appearance, inappropriate outbursts in social situations, locking myself in a room to play World of Warcraft for a decade, complete silence at parties, or dominating the conversation and talking over the top of everyone at parties, bad driving, impulsiveness, messiness, absent will-power and complete aversion to planning for anything ever) — must have been a special kind of hell. Through it all Catherine has stuck by me.
After all these years I found out that I wasn’t just an arsehole. But if there’s an arsehole in your life, perhaps you ought to get them checked out.