Diagnosis is far from the end of the story though, particularly for adults, because they have an entire lifetime's worth of learned behaviour built around the management of the deficits caused by ADHD. Often, simply taking medication is not enough to overcome those patterns of behaviour because they have become ingrained over the decades. It also bears mentioning that there are states-of-mind and of mental-preparedness, that many people with ADHD have never experienced. Unfortunately there isn't a great deal of support for this side of an ADHD diagnosis. Official help usually consists of prescribing medicine, but after that the individual is often on their own.
I've been taking medication for my ADHD for about a year now and in that time I've come to recognise some of my learned behaviours and developed techniques for overcoming them. In particular I have gained a better understanding of the procrastination caused by my dopamine deficiency. My problem, as with so many people who have ADHD, wasn't just getting stuff done, but with simply being able to start them in the first place.
Much of the information that I have read about ADHD covers regulating the tasks themselves by using the Pomodoro technique or various time management tools, but very few of them talk about the equally important job of getting going in the first place. All the 'To Do' apps in the world are going to be of no use whatsoever if you can't push through the procrastination in the first place and actually begin.
Of course the stimulants that so many of us take for our ADHD are designed for precisely this purpose. These chemicals are engineered to arouse our slumbering brains, to artificially raise the level of stimulation in that frontal brain region and to bring our chronically under-stimulated brains up to a more normal human baseline. The good news is that they work - they can and do raise the levels of dopamine and noradrenaline - but particularly if you're an adult that is often still not enough.
The problem, as I see it, is this. We late-diagnosis adults have been this way for so long that we do not notice the decisive moment at which the brain is ready to begin a task. And rest assured - it is most definitely a moment - a window of time within which tasks can initiated. I have found that I suddenly become aware of a change in my brain, almost like my brain has changed gear, and if you have started taking stimulants as a late-diagnosis adult then you probably know what I'm talking about.
During that moment, when my brain is indicating that it is ready to initiate a task, I instinctively change whatever it is I'm doing at the time. For instance, if I had been simply browsing through Reddit, then I might close that tab on my browser. Or I might take a sip of coffee, readjust my chair, straighten my back and look to my computer screen for something to do. Or I might put my smartphone down and notice for the first time that day that there is a pile of dirty clothes on the floor. Or I might visualise myself on my exercise treadmill. In every one of these cases, the default mode network regions, that are active when the brain is idle, is going offline. It is at this point that you can tip your brain fully over from non-task to task-oriented mode. But this window of opportunity is easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for and, instead of doing a high-value task, you open a YouTube tab or fire up Solitaire.
Think of starting a task, like catching a wave. To catch a wave you need to be moving when it catches up with you - you need forward motion. The stimulants are giving you some of that motion. As you paddle either side of your surfboard, you start picking up speed, but you are not yet on that wave. There is a precise moment, a feeling which every surfer knows well, when you do actually catch the wave and it gathers you up in its own momentum and pushes you forward. Knowing when the window of opportunity for starting a task is presenting itself is like that decisive moment in surfing when you either catch the wave, or it flows over the top of you and passes you by. And just as it takes surfers practice to recognise that moment when they have caught a wave, so it takes practice to notice when your brain is ready to begin something.
Stimulants and other ADHD medication can only take you so far. I'm 54 years old and for 53 of those years, I didn't know I had ADHD. That's 53 years of trying and failing to cope with the deficits of a life-impairing neurodevelopmental disorder; of not knowing what it feels like to be motivated towards an uninteresting task; of building a framework of patterns of behaviour designed to either mask my failings or to attempt to circumvent them. Popping a couple of Ritalin pills will not undo all of that.
So my advice is to learn to study yourself. Begin to recognise how your brain works with stimulant medication as opposed to without it. The moments when the stimulants are working will slowly reveal themselves to you, but only if you choose to look for them. Meet the drugs half way, recognise the decisive moments and learn to begin.
When I first joined Facebook it was simply about staying in touch with friends and family. We emigrated to Australia from the UK nearly 20 years ago and found it a brilliant way of staying in the loop and maintaining relationships. However over time Facebook changed. The site became extremely commercial - pushing adverts and promoted posts into our timelines. Then it evolved from a site defined by our friends and family to a site defined by the pages we followed and the groups we belonged to.
Human nature being what it is, we all join groups that are of interest to us - ones centred around communities, our special interests and also ones that reflect our views and outlook on life, society and politics. Facebook began collecting information on us from the very beginning and used this vast treasure trove of metadata to fine-tune its content algorithms. It was a feedback loop and an echo chamber that slowly but surely poisoned all reasonable discourse and helped to polarise society at precisely the time when we should have been working together to solve global problems.
Fairly early on in my use of social media, I started getting a reputation as a shit-stirrer and a troll and I can now see that the symptoms of ADHD played a part in this. I used to seek out conflict and took it as a personal point of honour when I 'won' some long-winded argument with someone who was usually a complete stranger. Didn't really matter what the subject was, who the other person was or what I thought I had accomplished - I would wade into the row and relish being as a hurtful as possible. It even got to the stage where friends would call on me as some sort of enforcer to help them out when they were being attacked in a thread or post somewhere on the site. I'm not going to lie - I quite liked the reputation.
There are several ways in which ADHD brings out the worst in us on social media. Our brains are chronically under-stimulated and getting angry is a great way of changing that. When we get angry we also produce adrenaline, a neurotransmitter closely associated with dopamine and norepinephrine. In other words we self-medicate by getting triggered and then ride that wave of negative energy for as long as we can.
Impulsiveness and recklessness are also hallmarks of ADHD which means that when a non-ADHD person might reconsider and pull back from an argument, we have no such barriers to entry and cheerfully dive straight in. ADHD is a disorder of the moment - one that mutes our ability to think ahead, to plan, to gaze into the future and to analyse what effects our current actions might have on our future selves. In the real world and online we love a fight, we enjoy a row, we like nothing better than getting stuck in and throwing punches at anyone that comes near us.
Disorders such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder are closely linked to ADHD. ODD makes you mad at the world and causes you to get angered by authority figures and those in a position of control. On Facebook this manifests itself by taking issue with the administrators of groups and pages and, inevitably, with being banned from them. The way my ADHD brain works I always took a ban as a win, another anti-success to chalk up, almost like a fighter pilot adding a Victory marking to their plane's fuselage.
All of this negativity has a number of harmful effects on us and how we are perceived. The most obvious of these harmful effects is that we have absolutely terrible reputations. We are seen as trolls and keyboard warriors and certainly not the agents of justice that we think we are. In groups of a generalised nature this can be problematic but the real problems start when the groups and pages are local and in which the other people know you in real life. I have an absolutely awful reputation locally because for years and years I've been slagging people off and starting fights in small local Facebook groups and pages.
Since people with ADHD already have chronically low self esteem it's easy to see just how poisonous all of this can be to our mental health. It took me a long time to realise just how negative an effect social media was having on my life but I didn't really understand it until I was diagnosed with ADHD and began receiving treatment for it.
Facebook is not the only source of social negativity of course. Any platform on which you can connect with others is a potential feeding ground for aggressive behaviour triggered by an echo chamber of highly polarised interests. Twitter and Instagram are just as bad as Facebook, but also aggregating sites like Reddit, web forums and bulletin boards.
The other aspect of social media that is an absolute nightmare if you have ADHD, is the addictive side of it. In many ways social media sites seem to have been designed for the express purpose of attracting and imprisoning people with the disorder. They are constructed in such a way that, should an unsuspecting ADHDer wander into their sphere of influence, they are unlikely to ever re-emerge.
There are a couple of reasons that social media is addictive, but the main one is the like/love button. Every time someone gives you a virtual thumbs-up you experience a modest dopamine hit of approval. If we make a post and it attracts some positive attention then we get the warm glow of satisfaction that only comes from finding favour with Jeff from Pinedale in Wyoming, Antonio from Castellfollit de la Roca in Spain or Aiko from Kamakura in Japan. It's absolutely crazy that a thumbs-up from some total stranger on the other side of the planet makes us feel a teeny bit better, but it does.
Those little dopamine hits of approval are unfortunately quite addicting if you have ADHD and this is compounded by the algorithms that drive social media sites. We are constantly seeking approval for our posts or comments and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are kind enough to present us with a literally never-ending stream of them. So we enter into that zombie-like state of constant scrolling, immersed in the feed and (thanks to the ADHD) physically lacking in the motivational brain chemicals to extract ourselves. Worse still, using social media actually makes our ADHD symptoms worse.
It seems like there's no risk-free method of social media use for those of us with severe ADHD. In a 2019 study, researchers found that social media use increased ADHD symptoms but that it didn't matter how heavy that social media use was. In other words if you use it for half an hour a day, or sit on Instagram for four hours straight the same negative effect is observed. The bottom line is this - if you have ADHD then social media is a bit like crystal meth - there's no safe level of use.
Over the years I had various friends drop off social media. They would make a post saying how much they hated it, how lousy it made them feel and how awful they thought social media was. They would say that they were cancelling their accounts and that if we wanted to reach out to them we'd need to email. When I read these posts I would sigh, frown and roll my eyes. I thought these people were just being dramatic, throwing a pity-party and trying to get everyone to feel sorry for them. It's not a terribly empathetic viewpoint I realise, but I'm being honest here and I realise now that they were just ahead of their time.
There wasn't a single road to Damascus moment in my life when I suddenly realised how toxic social media was and how poisonous it was to my own well-being, instead there was a slowly revealed understanding. Over several years I gradually gained awareness of my actions and my behaviour and this was accelerated by my ADHD diagnosis and gradual appreciation of its symptoms. I always felt like I was on the side of 'right', whether it was arguing with climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers, gun lobbyists or anyone whose political views I didn't agree with. But eventually I understood that nobody ever had their mind changed by a comment on Facebook and that all I was doing was making myself look like a twat and harming my mental well-being in the process. I laboured under the delusion that I was somehow immune to the polarising effects of content algorithms and personalised newsfeeds, but now I understand that actually I was the perfect target.
I had intended to cancel my Facebook account for several years before I actually did it. I kept making excuses such as the fact that I used it for work (true), that I had pages I managed (true) and that I would otherwise have difficulty staying in touch with friends and family (partially true). In the end I found a work-around that finally enabled me to pull the plug. I made a new empty account on Facebook (with no friends or likes) and added that as admin of the photography page. That meant I could still upload for business purposes but the echo chamber was silenced. Beautiful, beautiful silence.
It's been about five months now since I deactivated my Facebook account. I haven't taken the final step of completely deleting my account because I wasn't convinced I'd be able to stay away. But I have been staying away and I think one day soon I will delete my account completely. These sites are absolutely genius at tempting you back and you need to cut them out of your life as much as humanly possible if you are to end their control over you. To this end I removed the apps from my iPhone, deleted the shortcuts in my browser toolbar and ensured that I wasn't getting any emails at all from Facebook and the other social media sites.
Thus far my experiment has proved to be successful. I have missed out on absolutely nothing except a load of toxic behaviour and abuse. I still know what's going on in the world, friends reach out to me via messaging apps and my business pages are ticking over fine. Social media is a hostile environment for even the most level-headed and well adjusted people in society, but if you have ADHD it is unadulterated poison. Get out while you can.