Biggest Misconceptions About ADHD (That I Had Before I Found Out I Had ADHD)

An illustration of a squirrel from the side

If I say picture someone with ADHD, there’s a high chance you’re thinking about a young hyper boy, wreaking havoc like a giant monster terrorizing a city. Or you’re thinking about that same boy, but now sedated and in a zombie-like state, pumped with medication. If you are, I don’t blame you. I used to think the same until I got diagnosed with ADHD.

To accept my diagnosis, I had to accept that my idea of someone with ADHD wasn’t congruent with the reality of the disorder. Now that I’ve come to terms with what it means, I’ve put together a list of my biggest misconceptions about ADHD – that I had before I found out I had ADHD.

ADHD only happens in children

As an adult with ADHD, I’m disproving this with the fact that I am an adult with ADHD. But just in case that’s not enough, let me hit you with the facts.

ADHD symptoms have to be present in childhood (before the age of 12) in order to be diagnosed because ADHD doesn’t come out of nowhere. What can happen, is that symptoms can be less evident in childhood for some. For those suffering from mainly inattentive-type ADHD, this can be expressed by being forgetful and spacey, rather than being the human embodiment of the Tasmanian Devil. Think less Dennis the Menace, more Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes, or Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter.

How ADHD symptoms present themselves will change over the years, making it more or less evident in adulthood. This means that symptoms can begin interfering more later in life, once you’re expected to structure yourself and your ever-growing mountain of responsibilities.

ADHD is a guy thing

If you look at any list of “characters with ADHD” – as I may have just done for that last section – you’ll find that 99% are male. Boys will be three times more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis, despite it affecting men and women in equal parts.

The reason? ADHD presents differently in women than men. Two factors that play a role in this:

  1. Women are more prone to suffering from inattentive-type ADHD, which, as mentioned, goes unnoticed more often.
  2. Women are socialized to internalize their thoughts and feelings, meaning less running around, causing chaos. They’ll mask their symptoms, leading to inner restlessness.

Consequences of untreated ADHD in women can be depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse. In a Catch-22, these expressions of untreated ADHD can lead to those being the point of focus for mental health professionals, making it more difficult to get the appropriate treatment and diagnosis.

ADHD is all about being hyper and getting distracted

ADHD can be hyperactive, inattentive, or a combination of both. It’s not only about running around or chatting a lot but can also be about being forgetful or in a world of your own.

A large deterrent I had to get diagnosed was the fact that I could laser-focus on certain tasks I enjoyed, even forgetting to eat or drink or sleep. If I’m reading, playing videogames, or making art, there’s no way you’ll be able to get through to me until I want to stop. I’ve always been incapable of sticking to only one hour of an activity I enjoy – making scheduling daily tasks impossible. If I can’t have unlimited time, don’t even talk to me about doing it.

I petition for ADHD to be renamed because it’s not about an attention deficit but an attention deregulation. This means that hyperfocus, the act of being intensely focused on an activity, blocking out the world, can be a part of it for some ADHDers.

ADHD has nothing to do with emotions

Being over-emotional/expressing rash emotions is not on the official symptom list for ADHD diagnosis. But boy, can those other symptoms lead to it.

My initial misdiagnosis of a personality disorder was heavily based on me expressing that I was over-emotional and overwhelmed. It felt like I’d be going from 0-100 all the time. Now I understand that my executive dysfunction was at the core of it.

Executive function encompasses the cognitive and mental abilities that help people engage in goal-directed action. Executive dysfunction is what happens when these abilities are not up to snuff. Executive dysfunction can contribute to emotional dysregulation, as it can lead to being unprepared for future events, in itself, leading to low self-esteem, and rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD). RSD is about being sensitive to rejection and criticism, to the point of emotional pain.

These very-fun consequences tend to accumulate into a state of overwhelm, where you’re toeing the line between keeping it together and falling apart at the slightest push. It feels like spinning as many plates as you can, while someone points out how you could do it better, or that you’re not holding them right, or that you should add another plate because it can’t be that hard.

Very little wonder how you could become emotional from that.

ADHD medication turns people into unfeeling zombies with no personality

I blame popular culture for making me terrified to start taking medication for my ADHD. Popular culture had told me that it would change my personality and that I’d become addicted to popping pills. What it did was bring some quiet to the incessant monologue in my head.

ADHD medication hasn’t completely eradicated my ADHD symptoms, but it’s made life more manageable. Instead of procrastinating for weeks on a project, I’ll procrastinate several days. I now sit down and finish a task, only getting up 15 times a day to get tea, without also fixing every little thing I see needs fixing around the home. And instead of becoming overwhelmed when something happens that would tip me over the edge, I have an extra second in between thoughts to prevent catastrophizing.

Of course, medication works differently for every person, and there’s the risk that it won’t react well with your body chemistry. But for some of us, it works and takes life from “how-is-anyone-able-to-manage-this” hard mode to “sometimes-things-are-a-bit-much-but-its-mostly-pretty-alright” normal mode.

While still being the same person as without it.

Everybody’s a little ADHD

If I had a euro for the amount of times that I’ve heard the phrase “everybody’s a little ADHD”, I’d have enough for the robot litter box I’ve had my eye on for months.

I get it. Procrastinating, forgetting things, feeling scatterbrained, having different niche interests and hobbies over your life, not being good at time management, getting anxious or overwhelmed, and being prone to distraction are human experiences. What designates if it veers into ADHD territory, is the severity of it.

Procrastination means feeling physically unable to do a task, yelling at yourself to just get the thing done, being incapable of stopping you scrolling on your phone, even if you want and need to. Feeling scatterbrained means not being able to connect with others because you’re finding it impossible to be present in a situation you really want to be present in because there are ten thousand things on your mind. Niche interests can mean messing up your sleep schedule and ignoring the need for a social life for weeks because you can only think about that new interest. Being forgetful could mean repeatedly forgetting the very appointment you made to get your ADHD looked at. And getting overwhelmed can mean a burnout, because your need for stimulation means you always need to take on more than you can handle while simultaneously leaving everything until it’s urgent, to feel like you’re accomplishing anything.

All of these behaviors can have a severe negative impact on my life if I don’t keep them under control. At its worse, I feel burnt out, depressed, and incapable of functioning as a human being. This means a self-esteem so low it’s underground, and turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like excessive drinking or other reckless behaviors.

“A little ADHD” is manageable. The issue is when it’s more “a lot ADHD”. There’s no easy structuring or planning or schedule-ing away “a lot ADHD”.

Had I known what I know now, I would have been able to get the help I needed a lot sooner. But, discourse around ADHD is improving. There are more and more resources online, more openness around mental health, and more awareness around the different ways it can express.

While there’s still a long way to go, let’s keep the ball rolling in sharing neurodivergent experiences in an open, honest, transparent way. The human experience is too vast and colorful to stick to only one.

For ADHD Awareness Month, I’ve decided to share my personal journey with ADHD, because ADHD can look different from person to person. So, DISCLAIMER: some of these experiences may resonate because to an extent, a lot of them happen to most people. The biggest difference is the extreme to which these symptoms affect ADHDers life adversely. If you think you might have ADHD, please contact your doctor or mental health professional.

Like what you see? I post a new blog every Sunday/Monday where I talk about… whatever THOUGHT interests me that week. Expect a bit of books, travel, beauty, and taking pop culture way too seriously.

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