How my ADHD diagnosis and treatment has saved my career, and possibly my life.
Content warning: Mental illness, suicide.
Just over a year ago I walked into my GP Surgery in Berlin, approached the reception desk and handed the assistant my phone. Written in my messaging app was the note: “I’m really sorry to burden you with this, but I think I’m going to kill myself.” The assistant told me to take a seat and breathe, and that a doctor will see me very soon. Half an hour later I was in an ambulance to hospital.
I’ve been medicated for depression and anxiety for a number of years now, but the latter had got considerably worse as time went on. Just over a year before this incident, I’d acknowledged my alcoholism and stopped drinking. Booze was the way I’d self-medicate for brief events of extreme anxiety and, as I had them very often, I was self-medicating all night, every night. Giving up alcohol was good for me, but it meant I had to face these demons without being able to numb them for a few hours with a couple of bottles of red.
That week, anxiety had got the better of me. It starts with the overthinking, then progresses to the depth-first mental exploration of every worst case scenario, then the slow, piercing panic that things beyond the worst case scenario could happen. The dread works with the churning sickness in your stomach and the raw hot panic in your head to produce a feeling that, just occasionally, you feel you’ll do anything just to make it stop. Today was the day I was considering anything. On my way to work I had to convince myself not to jump in front of an incoming U-Bahn train. At work, my mind couldn’t concentrate. Contrary to what you might think, I really didn’t want to kill myself. This isn’t a case of having nothing to live for, it’s a situation whereby you want this searing mental pain to stop and there being a risk that, in a moment of thoughtlessness, you choose the most final and permanent way of doing that. So I decided the best thing to do was to go to my doctor.
Fast forward to today, and I am a month into my ADHD diagnosis and medication. ADHD, isn’t that the thing people are diagnosed with as a child when they’re hyperactive, unruly and not very good at school? Yup, that’s what I thought. It’s clearly what the teachers thought too. I was in the top set for every subject, so why would anyone consider there to be anything wrong?
Now I have my treatment and I see precisely what it’s like to function as a normal human being, I see not only the symptoms that cooperated with my other mental problems to bring me to the brink, but also symptoms have disappeared that I had no idea were problems in the first place until now.
“Incredibly intellectual, but his laziness lets him down.”
At school I was what I’d describe as a B+ student. I was very good at things, but I was so uninterested in them that I’d sail through them with an above average grade rather than excel. This pattern stretched into sixth form (college) and university, then later work. I would start off really interested, engaged and hard-working, then things would slip. I just assumed I was lazy, and then I’d beat myself up for being lazy, which only seemed to make me more lazy.
The last three years have been the only years of my adult life where alcohol hasn’t clouded my brain every day. This gave me the opportunity to have a clearer assessment of where things were really going wrong. What I believed to be a product of feeling rubbish from drinking was actually still present — tasks that should be simple (e.g., taking the bins out) would provoke the biggest rejection from my mind. Multiple tasks would build up, and my mind would think about them all at once, never focusing on one and fixing it. So instead of completing a few tasks on my vast list, I’d end up completing nothing. Large tasks that were not well-defined found themselves forever on the backlog. In addition, for no good reason I was terrible at prioritising — the compulsion in my mind to ignore some tasks and get on with others meant that priority was decided on the whim of my brain that day. As a result, almost every piece of university coursework was done the night before. This became more problematic at work, where missing deadlines has a serious effect. Of course, at the time, I just thought I was lazy.
“I don’t understand what the problem is?”, the manager in my first grad job would tell me, “your code is great, so you don’t struggle with the knowledge, but why does the work not get done?”
Just by chance, a friend of mine had been recently diagnosed with ADHD. This was a surprise to me, as he was the top of the class at university and somebody I considered to be intensely successful. Out of interest, presumably one day whilst procrastinating, I looked at the list of symptoms and had the biggest of huge EUREKA moments. It read like an autobiography.
Eventually, after an entire year, I managed to find a psychiatrist in Berlin who had space for a new patient and was happy to engage in my broken German. I was convinced that this disorder was the key driving factor behind all my mental ailments. If, for every small task you are presented with, your mind tells you it’s as insurmountable as climbing Everest, you may be able to force yourself to do it; but experiencing that level of mental anxiety so regularly just for the smallest of things takes a toll. It leaves you feeling on edge constantly, at all times. By the time you finish work you can’t relax. It puts you at a position of weakness where just one small thing can push you over the edge into a major spiralling panic attack. Long story short, I felt that if I missed this opportunity, I may end up in hospital again, or worse. It’s no way to live. So I wasn’t going to let this go wrong — I noted down all my symptoms from severe to mild, both in English and German, and sent it to the psychiatrist before the meeting. It worked. The appointment was short, but he very much agreed I was the textbook ADHD case and gave me a prescription.
“HOW ARE THERE THIS MANY HOURS IN THE DAY?!”
The effects were almost instant. The next day I woke up at the crazy hour the cat wants feeding, took my pill, then went back to bed for an hour nap before my day started properly.
The words I’d use to describe my feelings that day are focus and clarity. I found myself worrying about one thing at a time instead of everything in one go. I found that I wouldn’t drift off whilst concentrating on a task. I found that the massive wave of insurmountability that faced me every time I contemplated working on a task had significantly reduced. By the afternoon I had accomplished more than I normally manage in a day. The chaos of an ordinary day was gone. It was like I was travelling through time at half the speed, but in a good way. I was more alert, but I also felt less physically fatigued, which underlined to me just how much your mental state impacts your general physical exhaustion.
I also noticed that when I spent some time in a learning environment, I was no longer finding myself intensely sleepy after about an hour. I could get through the material and keep going. Previously, learning a new thing would leave me absolutely shattered.
At one point I stopped what I was doing and just started crying. Partially out of happiness that something so fundamental and damaging in my life had been fixed by a small daily pill, but also sadness, anger and regret at the so many missed opportunities that had disappeared because this illness was not diagnosed until I was 36 years old. When I think of how different university could have been — I might have got that First instead of the 2:1 and then proper PhD funding. I might not have averaged my way through various jobs, never quite progressing upwards.
“Oh, so that was the ADHD, was it?”
There were various other things that suddenly disappeared after the treatment began. The most notable one is impulsiveness.
I have always been bad with money. I’d buy nonsense I didn’t need regularly. Despite having a reasonably-paying job I was still working from paycheque to paycheque. This was heavily interlinked with my tendency to overeat, along with my alcoholism. I’d buy lots of alcohol before the shops closed, just in case I needed it, and of course I’d finish it all off that evening. Regularly, I’d find myself buying vast amounts of deeply unhealthy snack-food from the supermarket and then go through it all in one sitting. Essentially, I had quite a severe overeating disorder.
These compulsions disappeared after I began my treatment. No more eating five chocolate bars in one go (I have since lost 8kg, solely from not having the compulsion to binge-eat). No compulsion to go to Amazon and check out the recommendations for nonsense I didn’t really need. No more making big life decisions to start some sort of massive project I’ll never finish.
But more importantly I felt calmer, more rational, more measured. And it made me think about the times in my past when this cycle got out of control and I’d impulsively make a very big decision based upon very small stimuli — this could range from an angry tweet/Facebook post all the way up to resigning from a political party over something pretty inconsequential. That’s when I started to realise that this condition had affected my personal relationships with individuals too. My compulsiveness was far more of a problem than I ever thought it was.
In addition, my short-term memory has improved, whereas previously I’d regularly have blanks at very unfortunate moments, which of course dented my confidence and didn’t make me look particularly attentive or interested to the people around me at the time, who probably just assumed I didn’t care. I also had no idea that my difficulties getting out of bed in the morning were ADHD-related, I just assumed everybody had that problem and I was just particularly bad at dealing with it. Since taking the drugs, I have a regular sleeping pattern and I wake up feeling much more refreshed.
Life, apparently, for me anyway, begins at 37
Not having these thousands of tiny needle pricks slowly but surely eroding my personal confidence in myself has gone some way to reducing my imposter syndrome at work. The lack of overthinking means I can focus, prioritise, and most importantly, not see every task as some impossible endeavour, and not having to deal with the emotional and mental fallout of that happening so many times every day.
I have kept a thread of symptoms and changes I’ve noticed since the treatment began. If you have your own eureka moment and wonder whether in fact you may have ADHD, I can’t recommend enough for you to be persistent with your doctor and get checked.
Besides the annoyance at living half my life thinking I was a functioning human being whilst actually swimming against a particularly vicious tide, not realising most other people were in calmer waters, this anguish is very much countered by the fact I can now live. My ADHD diagnosis has not just saved my life, but it has given me what I need to be the best I can be.