“You’re not stupid you know.” “You could do well if you just applied yourself.” “Slow down and for goodness sake, stop talking!” I grew up hearing these statements, and variations of them, my whole life. I even have the report cards to prove it. I still hear these criticisms in my head when I make a careless mistake, but now I tell myself, “You’re not stupid you know, you just have ADHD.”
ADHD is often associated with the stereotypical hyperactive child who can’t sit still. The belief that a person with ADHD has boundless energy and outgrows their symptoms over time prevents many adults from getting properly diagnosed and treated.
A person with ADHD is often chronically tired, restless, and bored, lacking the boundless energy often associated with ADHD. Some people have significant symptoms of attention deficit disorder and few, if any, symptoms of hyperactivity.
Girls with ADHD often have different symptoms than boys and are lower on the hyperactivity scale and higher on the attention deficit scale. If females do have hyperactivity, it tends to manifest itself in constant chatter and impulsive behaviour. Because girls don’t fit the stereotype associated with ADHD, they are often under diagnosed.
ADHD has 3 main components:
2. Impulsivity, and
3. Attention deficit.
You can have predominantly attention deficit disorder, predominantly hyperactivity-impulsivity disorder, or a combination of the two.
My Experience with ADHD
I remember how painful it was to sit in school watching the clock tick slowly by. Five minutes until the bell rang took forever. I didn’t listen to teachers because they were boring and it physically hurt my head to try to concentrate on what they were saying. I passed the time by day dreaming, passing notes, and trying to catch the attention of my class-mates.
Later at home, with no distractions, I would do my best to learn the material I dreamed away during the day. Studying involved temporarily memorizing things I didn’t understand, then quickly forgetting the information as soon as the test was over. Assignments were something to race through as quickly as possible. There was no joy in learning; only pain and frustration.
I managed to squeak by both grade school and high school with a P, C-, or occasional C. I sometimes managed a C+ in English because of my creative writing, but my marks stayed relatively low due to poor spelling and messy, rushed work. I couldn’t seem to slow down like the teachers suggested. Everything I did, I did as fast as possible to get it over with.
I was an incessant talker and every report card belabored this point. Because of my lack of attentiveness, I never knew what was going on around me and my general knowledge was embarrassingly low. This exposed me to repeated teasing and ridicule.
I was prone to obsessing, which I now know is called hyper-focusing. Because it was so difficult for me to pay attention, I could only focus by over or hyper-focusing; in other words, obsessing. Unfortunately, I could only hyper-focus if I was really interested in something. Doing a task I had little interest in was so painful as to be almost impossible.
Many people with ADHD are successful in some areas of their lives, and there are many famous people who have ADHD; Justin Timberlake, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Karina Smirnoff, just to name a few. People with ADHD can be successful in areas of strong interest, but in areas of little or no interest, they are disorganized, forgetful, and overwhelmed.
Like most adults diagnosed with ADHD, I only became aware of my problem while learning about ADHD to help a family member. It was shocking to see myself described in what I was reading. I thought of my deficits as character flaws, or proof I wasn’t particularly smart, not the result of the way my brain processed information.
ADHD tends to run in families and it is widely believed to have a strong genetic component and aggravated by a chaotic or disorganized childhood. Most adults with ADHD are diagnosed only after their child is diagnosed.
It used to be thought that children outgrew ADHD because the overt hyper-activity settles down over time.
Studies that followed children with ADHD into adulthood found that many still manifested symptoms.
Adults with ADHD often have the following symptoms:
Problems with employment
Problems with personal relationships
Problems with different types of addiction or substance abuse
Poor attention span
Poor concentration, especially when reading
Low frustration tolerance
Antisocial or overly social behaviour
Inability to cope with stress
Difficulty finishing tasks
Difficulty switching from one task to another
A Diagnosis of Adult ADHD
To receive an official diagnosis of ADHD, it is necessary to be tested by a psychologist trained in administering extensive tests. The testing not only diagnoses ADHD, but rules out other possible causes such as learning disabilities, bi-polar disorder, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, or depression; all with similar symptoms to ADHD. Unlike some disorders, the symptoms of ADHD always begin in childhood.
Realistically, most adults cannot afford the $1500 psychologist fee for extensive testing and it’s not covered under Canadian medical. Instead, many doctors rely on simple, self-administered tests. If you have ADHD and take the test, it’s typical to say, “Doesn’t everyone feel this way?” The answer is NO!
If you suspect ADHD, show your doctor any report cards that could help support the diagnosis as well as anecdotal experiences from your childhood. The doctor will also be interested in all current symptoms you experience that interfere with daily life.
Treatment for Adult ADHD
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) was originally designed as a treatment for borderline personality disorder, DBT has proven successful in treating people with a variety of diagnoses and problems. DBT’s focus on managing extreme emotions, disorganized behaviour, and impulsive behaviour, makes it an effective treatment for people with adult ADHD.
DBT Mindfulness skills focus on slowing down, stepping back, observing, describing, and participating one-mindfully. These skills, as well as many others, are particularly useful for people with ADHD.
In addition to therapy, people with adult ADHD may benefit from medication to treat the symptoms.
To learn more, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,
Author: Jenny DeReis
Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.
Jenny has intensive and advanced training in DBT from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.