Living With ADHD Often Feels Like Failing At Living Normally

It’s strange to accept there's battles I will never win with myself – but my diagnosis has allowed me understand myself better
Andy Hall
HuffPost UK

I took part of this title from a TED talk by Jessica McCabe that I watched at the end of last year. I’d grown increasingly suspicious that I had undiagnosed ADHD and after I watched it, I felt certain.

Confirmation came five months later when I was finally referred to a specialist, who told with an expression of mild sympathy that I definitely had ADHD: “You’re in the 98th percentile, and I’ve been with you for the past 90 minutes and, to be honest, you haven’t stopped moving.” I laughed, because... what else could I do?

Then I went home and re-watched the TED talk with my parents. Afterwards, induced by a mixture of relief at finally getting the diagnosis, and distress at all I’d endured without knowing why, I burst into tears.

ADHD not only gets a bad press, it gets a very specific kind of bad press. Images of disruptive boys at the back of the class dominate connotations; it’s certainly not something most of us associate with girls. At secondary school, I would get sent out of the classroom for talking too much most weeks. At primary school, all my school reports emphasised the extent of my daydreaming. But I was a high-achiever, and though I consistently got into this kind of low-level trouble, I wasn’t badly behaved. Contrary to common perception, my ADHD didn’t appear to hold me back in the classroom; if anything, the creative assets that are a part of it helped me develop a flair for writing and, in subjects like English and History, I thrived.

University was more difficult. Sitting for hours in a library didn’t really work, and though I did well enough, I never got rid of the niggling feeling that I hadn’t fulfilled my potential. I forced myself to accept that I just hadn’t worked hard enough. In some senses this was true, but if I’d known what I know now, I might have taken a different approach. ADHD brains need stimulation to focus; I often do my best thinking on the move. (As I’m writing this, I’m shifting positions almost constantly. And I’ll probably get up to make a tea in a minute, for the sake of it, even though I’ve just had one). While getting a 2:1 rather than a first was hardly cause for concern, I did begin to battle with my mental health more and more, and it was in my post-university adult life that my ADHD really came into its own.

What most people don’t know about ADHD is that its effects span far wider than being fidgety and easily distracted. It’s a ‘disorder’ that describes a brain developed differently – in structure, function and chemistry. Emotionality is overwhelmingly higher in people with ADHD I’d always thought of myself as sensitive, and the crashing lows and intense frustration I experienced periodically caused me to seek a bipolar diagnosis (negative).

Aged 24, I went on anti-depressants in desperation. With the 20/20 vision belonging to hindsight, it was obvious I wasn’t depressed – I’m far too optimistic for that. I saw therapists, none of whom really got to the bottom of anything. I lost things constantly and broke things in spasms of movement, I spent too much money all the time, I acted on impulse in situations that required consideration, and I grew more and more frustrated with who I was. Whilst everybody else seemed to be growing into themselves, becoming adults, moving out, paying bills, I felt increasingly isolated. It wasn’t until I was 26, when I moved to Berlin to work in a newsroom, that it was suggested to me that I had ADHD (it turns out that in an office environment, it’s quite distracting when you have to move to think).

Researching ADHD brought the illumination I’d been waiting for, and I came across several articles reporting that large numbers of women around my age were being diagnosed. Because ADHD manifests differently in boys and girls, it is often missed in the latter. While boys err on the more disruptive and traditionally ‘naughty’ side, it tends to manifest in girls as daydreaming, losing and forgetting.

It took me a year from the point of referral to see a psychiatrist. After that, I started on Ritalin, which was horrible. Then I switched to Strattera, which I‘m still on, and which is better (unlike Ritalin it’s not a stimulant, and it doesn’t give me crippling anxiety, though I’m still not completely convinced it’s helping me focus more.) The diagnosis has been an overwhelmingly good thing, allowing me understand myself better. I still feel different, but at least now I know why.

I’m working on coping mechanisms for the day-to-day tasks that overwhelm me. I’m on my sixth bank card of the year, but I’m determined to make it until at least Christmas before I get another one (because, let’s face it…). I’m working harder than ever to manage my money, drawing up daily budgets that sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. Impulsivity is harder to control, but I’m a thoughtful person and I think I’m getting there. It’s strange to accept that these battles will never truly be won.

But I’m also learning to love myself, even the maddening bits. Without my ADHD, I almost certainly wouldn’t have embarked on the creative and risk-taking ventures that I’m most proud of – running for MP at 25, curating an exhibition earlier this year. I also wouldn’t be the passionate person that I am; because ADHD brains get bored easily, when we find something we’re interested in, we jump straight in at the deep end. And my emotionality may be higher, but with that comes a great capacity for love and empathy; sensitivity works two ways.

Like all ‘disorders,’ there’s much more to ADHD than the public narrative tells. And I have come to the conclusion that, whilst I’ll probably struggle forever with things that other people find easy, I also thrive at things that most people can’t even contemplate doing.

I might be failing at normal, but I’m winning at not-normal. And I think that counts for something.

How It Feels is a weekly blogs series which aims to shine a light on people’s stories, covering subjects where voices are rarely heard. If you want to get involved, please email