What It's Like to Have ADHD as an Adult

London city centre
City workers cross the River Thames with the City of London financial district seen behind in London, in Britain October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Toby Melville

I am not easily cowed. But on Friday morning, standing by the roadside in rain-spattered London, I was. Suddenly the city rearing up on every side of me felt intimidating: the Cheesegrater building reflected dull metallic shadows into a matte London skyline; the Shard's point bluntly stabbed the sky; while pedestrians with white, hollow faces paced along leaden pavements. Halfway into my commute, I realised I couldn't make it to work. My legs stopped turning the wheels of my bicycle. Buses sped past, billowing noxious black fumes from their exhausts.

This is not depression, but adult ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactive disorder). It suddenly swoops at me from time to time and forces me to stop, take stock, and swallow, once, twice, and maybe a third time. I was diagnosed with ADHD aged 21 by a university psychiatrist who watched me ace the reading, maths, and Rubik's cube shape tests, but couldn't keep me engaged after hours in a stuffy room. Once every few months, especially when I'm stressed, I get overwhelmed by smells, colors, and lights. Everything becomes a distraction.

I don't recognize the descriptions of children with ADHD—the kids who were called delinquents in the early 2000s, and whose parents were castigated for using a mental health condition as an excuse for bad parenting. After my diagnosis I stuffed the brown envelope that held my terrible secret onto a bookshelf and hid it behind a textbook. I had exams to study for and a graduate job with the government to start. I wanted to pretend this hadn't happened.

I'm certainly not alone as an adult ADHD sufferer. Around 4.4 percent of America's adult population is affected by ADHD, and 43 percent of them have severe ADHD, and are recommended medication.

Six months into my new job, I climbed onto a chair in my apartment and reached up to the top shelf. Pulling the brown envelope down, I read the description of my condition written by the psychiatrist six months before. "Difficulty concentrating for long periods of time; must put more effort into attention to detail than most; distracted by loud noises; recommend a quiet space; tasks better if written down or repeated."

I wish I'd read the document sooner and hadn't hidden it away. I found the long days working in an open plan office challenging and I was struggling to make sure I paid attention to detail—looking back, if only I'd done some more research into adult ADHD then it could have all been so much more manageable. Now, I know that I work better in a quiet space, away from the buzz of telephones and people chatting behind my desk. Even as a writer, my brain works weirdly, and sometimes I skip between sentences too quickly, leaving words out. If I'd read more about the condition, I would have learned sooner that lists are my friend, and using a calendar might have saved relationships.

General symptoms of adult ADHD (many of which I don't have) include a hot temper, excessive restlessness, and poor time management. To deal with the latter two, which I do suffer from, I do a ridiculous amount of exercise, and leave super early for everything. This really annoys my friends.

Distractions are like a drug if you're an ADHD sufferer. You get a bit of noise, then you notice a bit more, and then another conversation, and finally you're like the dog at Christmas with both ears alert for news of titbits, treats, walkies, and cuddles—too afraid to put your ears down in case you miss something. Controlling the mind to refocus back on work once distracted is the hard part, but it's something I can do significantly quicker now than five years ago.

ADHD diagnosis of adults is not unusual, even when there's been no evidence of ADHD symptoms as a child. Psychologists suggest it happens when traditional support structures break down, like leaving home, or graduating from university, or school. Suddenly an adult who has been well-cared for and supported, at school and at home, realizes they are disorganized and haphazard. It's not clear what exactly causes ADHD, but it's thought to be related to an imbalance in the brain's neurotransmitters (which send chemical messages between neurons)—especially the ones that control judgement, control, and behaviour. Other risk factors include exposure to lead toxins as a child, being born prematurely, or having a mother who smoked, drank or used drugs duringpregnancy.

My impulsiveness has made me buy an (extraordinarily cheap) apartment in a different country online without having visited it first, while disorganization led to me being fired from a waitressing job. I'd notice a plate on the pass getting cold, remember I should take it to a table, and then immediately get distracted by a colleague pushing by me. The dish would slip my mind, and customers would go hungry.

Symptoms of hyperactivity that kids experience tend to become internalized with age. They build up within and swamp our brains. Or at least, that's how it felt on Friday morning. To deal with that, I knew I couldn't go into the office. I sent my editor an email, explained that I was feeling "weird" (I wasn't sure how else to put it other than "I had a kind of ice-cream brain freeze, but not") and quickly got my laptop set up in my study.

It took me several years to know what worked for me, and thankfully, as more people than ever explore the possibility of remote working, I've realized that to do well in my career I don't need to be in an office 45 hours a week. Doing lots of exercise also helps manage ADHD, controlling the elements of excess energy that aren't burned up inside. From when I wake up to around noon, my ADHD brain feels invincible. By 6 p.m. I'm slumping, and by 9 p.m. I'm out. Having ADHD can feel like playing a video game, and using up your lives super-fast.

Having adult ADHD can be frustrating, because it can feel like you have a lot more to give, if only you could just focus. Social media doesn't help, nor do the hundreds of ways people can keep in touch: Slack, Facebook, IMs, Whatsapp, texts, calls. For ADHD sufferers, it can feel like every moment in life is incomplete or broken. A romantic moment with a partner is destroyed by minor distractions; a film-night with friends is impossible. I'm the one getting up every 10 minutes to mix everyone cocktails, go to the bathroom, or pace around in the kitchen, totally unable to sit still for three hours.

Managing it is fine. I don't take medication, and I'm thankful to my managers who know about the condition I can't really explain. On days like Friday, I wish I didn't have ADHD. On most days, when my crazy, energetic body pulls me out of bed at 5am and makes me go on long runs or read a book, or embark on a spontaneous adventure, it really isn't all that bad.

Eleanor Ross is a staff writer for Newsweek, writing about Asia.