I Was Diagnosed With ADHD as an Adult

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, ADHD is “a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” While ADHD can manifest in myriad ways, Zanita Whittington, an Australian model/photographer-cum-influencer, shared her experience of receiving her relatively-recent diagnosis as an adult. Below is her as-told-to story. –Leandra


I’ve had ADHD my whole life. It wasn’t like there was something suddenly wrong with me, but it got to the point where I was thinking, “Why can’t I be the same way as people around me? Why can’t I achieve things the way my friends do? Why do they make it look so easy?”

When I was a kid my mom would say that I had “selective hearing.” That’s how she put it. I used to get in trouble a bit at school, not for being cheeky or disruptive, more for being absentminded.

Officially, I was diagnosed two years ago, but only started speaking up about it recently. The reason I waited is because I wanted to have a better breadth of experience with the diagnosis, with my interactions with others who have it, with my research and with my medication.

The symptoms

I had a lot of anxiety and didn’t feel that I was achieving anything with my work; I would get to the end of the week to find I’d completed just a day’s worth of work. It became frustrating and my self-loathing was at an all-time high. I was getting overwhelmed just being in New York — there is so much stimulation here. I was depressed. I drank too much because that was my cue I didn’t have to worry anymore because it would slow my mind down.

I’d think, “I’m just useless. I want these things but I’m just not doing them. I hate myself, I’m just crap. People think that I’m doing so well from the outside, but I’m not. I’m failing. I could’ve taken my career so much further if I just applied myself better.”

I could objectively see that I was doing okay, but I subjectively felt like my peers were eclipsing me and that I was a failure.

The high

Working in social media and on the fast-paced internet probably doesn’t seem like it would help me, but I don’t think I could’ve had my career without it, because one thing I do well is adapt to change quickly. With creative direction and shooting, nothing ever really goes as planned, but it never phases me to have things change and to have to shift my thought process. I’m constantly looking for solutions.

I think having ADHD also influenced my operating under so many monikers, which I like because I wouldn’t want to do the same thing over and over. Even when I was in high school, I went through at least ten different extra-curricular activities. I played six or seven sports. That constant need for change is a result of my short attention span.

The low

The biggest challenge came when I started my business as a blogger with my partner. I didn’t have the kind of work habits he had and I felt like I was constantly letting people down. Before I hired anyone and it was just me, if I fucked up, I just forgot about it because I was the only person responsible or affected. But as soon as I started working with a team, I realized I wasn’t measuring up. I was so unreliable, forgetting details, missing deadlines. I struggled sitting at a computer; I would kind of reflect on a day of work and it would give me a panic attack. I’d be like, I know I’m sitting here working but I can’t really recall what I’ve achieved. My mind would constantly jump. I’d feel like I was useless. My confidence was so low.

But I’ve come up with different ways to deal with it. Something I have learned, and I wasn’t actually aware of this when I was diagnosed, is that sound is incredibly distracting, and always, when I would edit photos, which takes hours, I would listen to electronic music because it’s quite monotonous. I realized this was a coping mechanism, but if I’m trying to work in a café and I hear someone having a conversation, immediately my brain begins to focus on their conversation. So I use white noise, like the sounds of the ocean or wind or rain falling. It puts up a wall to those outside and doesn’t distract me because it’s monotonous.

Getting tested

The thing is, ADHD is so common that you almost brush it off when you hear about it. Initially, I went to see a therapist because I felt that I just needed to talk to someone. I felt that I wasn’t handling my life very well and, in one of our early conversations, I mentioned that I thought I had ADHD. When I was younger I’d come across articles about the disorder and felt they described me, but I never really followed up on a diagnosis then, particularly because I grew up in a small country town in Western Australia and the assumption was that ADHD was a “made up thing.” The other thing is that in spite of absent mindedness at school, I got good grades. Knowing what I know about it now, I can see it’s extremely common for women to be under-diagnosed, especially because the element of acting out that many people associate with children with ADHD is more prevalent in young boys than young girls dealing with this.

My therapist referred me to a specialist, who officially diagnosed me.

Medicating

I’ve been on medication a year and a half now. I remember the first week I started taking it, I was talking to one of my friends and crying (happily) because my productivity had increased so much. I was able to have meetings and write down lists, share thorough ideas — it was something I’d never been able to do before with confidence. But as you adjust, that immediate impact begins to feel less and less.

So of course, it’s not perfect. I don’t think the medication is for everybody and I’ve toyed with coming off it as well. The medication can ease symptoms, but essentially the best way to work through it is by finding coping mechanisms and strategizing, something like meditation or making reasonable requests of yourself. I’m a leader in my business, but I know that I need to be managed as well.

I never used to get much satisfaction upon the completion of a job, but I’ve tried to teach that to myself, and reward myself – even something simple, like when I’ve finished an hour-long task, I’ll reward myself with a walk, or some chocolate. Just to trigger that satisfaction, to drive me to the completion of tasks, really helps.

I experience side effects from the medication. It makes me thirsty. It can suppress my appetite, impact my sleep and sometimes make me really agitated. If I don’t take it, I’ll likely go through withdrawal, but on the other side of that is getting used to it, and then having to up the dosage. I don’t want to do that to my body, so I try to be as self-aware as possible, which has never really been my strong suit, either.

Moving forward

When I was first diagnosed, I had this moment where I resented my parents for not helping me get diagnosed as a kid. But even the worst mistakes we make impact who we are in a positive way so I wouldn’t change the timing. It’s hard for me to say what would have changed if I’d known earlier. Maybe I would have kept going to university? I dropped out of university, but I don’t really want that life anyway.

I definitely haven’t overcome a lot of it. Mostly, I’ve just moved on from letting it define me, which has helped with the negative self-talk. I’m working on forgiveness. I do feel like I’m getting on top of my career and feeling more confident in myself as a boss. I’m lucky to have a great career; I know there are people who haven’t been able to find a passion.

Right now, I just hope to just share a bit of awareness about ADHD.

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