As the sun rises over an early spring landscape and my cat grooms herself atop the filing cupboard next to my desk, I ponder my life with ADHD.
Since my diagnosis, I have become rather obsessed with the condition that has 37 letters in its name and even more symptoms on its diagnostic criteria. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – wow, that took some typing – is a name which has been sneakily following me for the whole of my life, but until July 17th 2020, I never actually knew what that meant.
Even when countless people mentioned those four anagramatic letters – slotting them into conversation like pennies at a children’s arcade – I still ignored their comments, resting my beliefs on outdated stigmas which now make me shudder. For years I lived in a world where ADHD didn’t affect girls and based my self-diagnosed ‘neurotypicalness’ on the fact I did pretty well in school, set up a successful business at 21 and have never been ‘too’ badly behaved.
Then I met children with ADHD.
Unbeknown to myself, I had set up an ADHD-friendly business from the onset, with shorter lesson times and a classroom full of every tactile resource you could ever dream of. It quickly became clear that most ADHDers loved our lessons and, in 2019, I finally gained the confidence to further develop my ADHD-friendly learning in order to appeal to children with this brain difference. As more and more children visited our classroom, I was exposed to ADHD in all of its forms. Always excitable and highly impulsive, I was the child who shouted out answers and started work prematurely as though I were in some kind of Olympic sprint – suddenly, I began to see these traits in others.
Consequently, I went on to develop my ADHD tuition, and it has now become an integral part of my teaching – I also started offering ADHD Coaching & Mentoring for 5-16 year olds in September 2020. Moreover, since my diagnosis, I have learnt much more about ADHD and the most startling realisation I have come to is that – much like autism spectrum disorder – it presents differently in every single person.
As mentioned earlier, I grew up in a world where ADHD was a ‘boy’s condition’ and also something which you ‘supposedly’ outgrew. Although I remember people in my school who had ADHD, they were all boys and I also associated it with bad behaviour in class and subsequent poor grades. I was nothing like this. Although I was often reprimanded for shouting out and starting work before the teacher had told us to begin, I was, overall, a good student who performed well and usually tried her best. However, outside of the classroom cocoon, I was a misunderstood and awkward person who struggled to maintain friendships with people my own age and never felt as though I fitted in anywhere. Although I never suffered from social anxiety, I did find break times at school extremely difficult as I never had friendship groups like my peers; consequently, I spent much of my time chatting to younger students at the school farm or in the library.
As I have researched more and more into ADHD, I have begun to realise the classroom was always my safe space as I thrived on the external structure and accountability it provided. A natural people-pleaser, I found the predictability of school largely comforting and, as I learnt more about my diagnosis, I also realised why I set up Bedford Tutor in 2021. Learning spaces were always my calm places and, unlike many people with ADHD, I always found I could focus most effectively when in a classroom environment. Since I can remember, I have always struggled with listening skills and, even though this behaviour was often mentioned in my pre-teenage years school reports, the classroom did help control my impulsive behaviour and lower my hyperactivity. Unfortunately, when I left school and found myself struggling to focus on a direction in which to steer my life, the familiar and comforting routine of the classroom was replaced by the frenetic buzz of an office – unsurprisingly, I lost two jobs in quick succession after my inattention became ever more clear and I eventually broke down in tears in front of two different bosses.
Only when I set up my business in 2012, did I rediscover the warmth of the learning environment which had cradled me for so long as I grew up in a strange and confusing world. From the moment I took on my first student in November 2012, I loved running Bedford Tutor. Learning new information has always been my passion and I soon found teaching came as naturally to me as swimming does to a dolphin. When I opened my own classroom in 2016, I was finally able to live my childhood dream and teach from my personal purpose-designed space, a wonderfully-colourful room which embraces me in its warmth just as my old primary school classroom used to when I was young.
My ADHD wasn’t picked up when I was in school, even though my parents know I ticked most of the boxes for hyperactivity/impulsivity and also many for inattention. Although I was frequently moaned at for starting early and struggled to make friends because I was incredibly intense and talkative, the classroom was my safe space as it was the environment where I learnt information, where I could fidget with my stationery and where I would get the chance to answer questions, learn about new topics and, most importantly, where my hungry brain could be fed.
Not everyone with ADHD performs poorly in school.
If you look up the causes of ADHD in any medical journal, you will see a mention of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which encourages you to stay focused and complete tasks. Many with ADHD struggle in classrooms because the work they are given doesn’t engage their brain, but for me, school was usually a place where I could focus reasonably well. Even now, teaching and learning is my main source of dopamine and I am aware there are few jobs I could manage in the way I do Bedford Tutor. Nowadays, my ADHD is ever more clear when I struggle to motivate myself to wash the dishes and try desperately to hold my attention when attending a non-interactive Zoom meeting. Just because I enjoyed school doesn’t make me any less ADHD; it is time we started to peel back the layers of misunderstanding and realise how differently ADHD manifests itself in every single person.
I am lucky in the fact I can attend a class and learn, even when partly distracted by something else. I never remember a time at school when I didn’t fidget and I remember my parents’ moans when they had to replace my gnawed jumpers and destroyed pens. I also recall the teachers who struggled to engage me to listen because I was so desperate to start working (usually so I could finish first), and remember their subtle comments directed at my frenetic mind, impulsiveness and excitability.
Nowadays, I may have come out with an ADHD diagnosis at eight, but I may still have slipped the net because of my ability to focus in a classroom setting. This destructive stigma, that having ADHD means you must perform poorly in school, caused me to feel misunderstood for 31 years and contributed to me developing anxiety at the age of ten and a subsequent panic disorder (emetophobia – fear of vomiting) which still haunts me to this day. Constantly being told by your peers that you are ‘too intense’, ‘too excitable’ and ‘childish’ is damaging and hearing similar words from adults is also difficult to handle when you are trying your best and suffering so much internally. I remember back to the days where mum dragged me into school, literally kicking and screaming because I was so terrified of being ill in class. Additionally, I remember the teachers who helped me settle into my new school by taking me under their wings and treating me with the kindness I needed. Most frustrating of all, I recall the day I saw two psychologists and was diagnosed with anxiety – my treatment consisted of a disgusting stomach-settling drink. Back then, nobody ever considered the possibility I had ADHD, because I wasn’t disruptive enough and was largely achieving good grades.
Please, please, please stop associating ADHD with poor school performance.
If I’d known about my overactive brain, I may not have developed such severe anxiety when I was only ten and, if I’d had the tools to help me cope with my neurology, I may have done even better in the education system. ADHD is NOT the same for everyone and some of us do well in school because we ENJOY it! We are living with interest-based nervous systems and if we are interested, we can be engaged. Usually, I found school subjects interesting, but when I was not stimulated, I became restless and my parents can tell you exactly what I was like when I was bored. Additionally, when you have ADHD you learn to mask and my frequent ‘tellings-off’ in primary helped me build a protective mask which, although covered up many of my symptoms, also helped build an inner anxiety which still haunts me to this day.
ADHD is a diverse condition and NOT something which is diagnosable solely on school performance.
When I had my assessment in July 2020, I was lucky enough to speak to a fabulous psychiatrist who has 31 years’ experience diagnosing Adult ADHD and who understands the difficulties faced by those who do not have major problems in the education system. When you meet me, my ADHD is as clear as the smile on my face, but that’s only because I no longer wear a mask to hide my true personality. Yes, I did well in school as I got good grades, did most of my homework and was relatively well behaved in class. However, I suffered intense anxiety from the age of ten, struggled forming friendships and always felt like an alien who’d been dropped from another planet.
Yes, I did well academically, but there is far more to life than that.
End the stigma and understand ADHD as the diverse condition it is!