By Emma Kirrage
NOUN – Acronym for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
Note from the editor:-
When I began putting together this magazine, there were certain topics I had in mind. One of those was ADHD, a particular passion of mine given my own late-life diagnosis.
In October 2022 I came across Emma on Instagram. I was really taken by her artistic sensibility, and she felt like a person looking to tell a story. Her bio (at the time) mentioned a recent ADHD diagnosis – I couldn’t have found a more perfect candidate.
A large part of my work as a therapist is guiding people through the emotional journey of ADHD diagnosis. I often equate it to grief, where those diagnosed seem to go through all the various stages of loss – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – with an inescapable feeling of permanence. Nothing feels the same thereafter.
I was also aware of the potential dangers of asking an ADHD-er to write an assignment. What followed told more of a story than perhaps I had anticipated – one of panic, sadness, frustration, and a perfect encapsulation of the ADHD lived experience. Eventually, Emma and I worked together via WhatsApp voice notes, translated into her words which follow.
This is Emma’s story.
I’m definitely experiencing a huge amount of overwhelming feelings and overstimulation a lot of the time. I’m just getting very, very easily and quickly irritated by things and people. I’ve been trying to write this article for ages, and to begin with I was just so busy that I couldn’t physically focus on it anyway, and then, the few times where I was like, ‘Oh, I do have the time’, I would go back to your email where you had put the questions and just sit and stare at it, and my brain would just go into power down mode, as though someone had drained the battery or pulled the plug or something. I would get in this frozen state of paralysis, I suppose – just not knowing how to start. I’d be simultaneously getting frustrated at myself because I know I’m an intelligent human being, but then berating myself for why I just can’t get on with it – just choose one of the questions and just start. But still, all the while, in this frozen kind of place. Then to top it off, I’d be feeling immensely guilty because I’d made a promise to write this article, and I really wanted to. There’s a feeling of guilt and shame that I still hadn’t been able to start it – that I hadn’t been able to say ‘Oh yeah, here you go, here’s the finished thing’.
It’s like attempting to write the article for the magazine is emblematic, I suppose, of how I feel about so much of my life, where there are so many things that I want or need or to have to do because I’m an adult, and I’ll try and make myself do those things but I just can’t seem to do them, and then I’m back in the vicious cycle of attacking myself for it. Trying to write this article has been like shining a light on how I’ve felt for most of my life about most things I’ve tried to do, and how much I wish I knew how to be able to help myself move through that frozen state of complete executive dysfunction and paralysis. It really gets on top of me sometimes.
The opportunity to write this piece came just after I’d received my diagnosis, and it felt like very apt timing. I felt really good about it. Then most days I’d be feeling quite overstimulated as I was really busy at work, and it started to become a thing that I knew that I needed to do, but was starting to feel anxious about not being able to find the time to do it. Then when I would sit and try and write, I wouldn’t know where to start and just felt overwhelmed. I’d berate myself and feel ashamed about it – why can’t I just do this thing, I should just be able to do it and get started. I tell myself off a lot. And then it just started to build up more and more the longer I was leaving it.
- Adhd is thought to affect one and a half million people in the UK, but with only 120,000 actually diagnosed with the condition.
- As children, boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed than girls, but are not three times more likely to have ADHD.
- The current waiting list for diagnosis via the NHS in the UK is currently anywhere from 12 months to seven years.
- Private diagnosis can cost up to £1,000.
- Approximately 37% of private diagnoses are sought because of excessive waiting times for NHS services.
- Symptoms of ADHD in undiagnosed adults can include:
- Being easily distracted or struggling to complete tasks.
- Having trouble sitting still, fidgeting, or interrupting others.
- Getting bored easily or have a tendency towards risky or addictive behaviour.
- Issues remaining motivated, or extreme sensitivity to rejection or criticism.
- Having low self-esteem, or a sense of insecurity or underachievement.
- A struggle with time-keeping, working memory, organisation, remembering appointments and/or procrastination. May often lose important items or forget things.
I found out I had ADHD, or suspected that I had ADHD, thanks to Instagram. It was probably towards the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022. I was just having a scroll on Instagram, liking lots of funny posts and memes and relating heavily to a lot of those posts and thinking, ‘oh that’s funny, I do that’, and then ‘and I do that. And that.’ After a while I started thinking ‘oh that’s odd, every single post that I seem to be heavily relating to are all from ADHD-specific accounts. That’s strange.’ And then I went down this whole thought process of thinking ‘well that’s ridiculous, I can’t have ADHD because I’m not a seven-year-old boy’. And then I would come across posts that would throw that myth out the window.
So I began to think, ‘Well, okay. So, obviously, you can have ADHD then as a woman and as an adult. But surely, I can’t have ADHD because I did really well in school’. I would end up stumbling across posts that would also dispel those myths as well, and the more I sort of started going down that rabbit hole, the more I came to realise just how much I related to everything I was reading. As I continued to research,, there was a lightbulb moment where suddenly, and for the first time, everything about me and my life made so much sense. Initially I kept it a secret pretty much from everyone, except for a couple of very select close friends who I knew also had ADHD, and are also women. I would talk to them about it, pick their brain about it, say, ‘this is what I do – is that an ADHD thing?’ They’d then share their experiences, which was incredibly validating.
What I came to realise through the information-gathering of my ADHD journey was that the reason why I did so well at school was because when I was in all the subjects I particularly enjoyed like English, history, art, or drama, I was hyper-focusing. I was completely fascinated by whatever the topic was and so when it came to doing the homework, because I was so intensely fascinated and interested in it, I would go into full hyperfocus mode and would go over and above what I actually needed to do and I would churn out these incredible homework pieces or essays, which would be met with praise and astonishment from both my parents and teachers. Because of that reason, I think my ADHD symptoms really flew under the radar.
My maths was always abysmal; I think it’s likely I have dyscalculia. I can’t do basic mental arithmetic. I’ve never been able to learn my times tables. It took me a lot longer as a child to be able to learn how to tell the time. But all of these things were masked by doing so well in other, more creative subjects. I was also incredibly busy all the time. I had lots of hobbies – dancing , gymnastics, swimming, netball, and playing the saxophone, among others. I was always doing something. As an adult, life started to really become difficult when I left the educational system – suddenly had no structure to my day, and didn’t know how to structure it myself.
NOUN – Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics.British Dyslexia Association
Over the course of the past few years, I had a lot of feelings of frustration at myself. I couldn’t understand why I was such a high achiever in school, and then as an adult, appeared to be just failing at life. I felt like I just was bad at being an adult. It baffled me why things seem to be so easy for certain friends, and why it seemed to be something I would struggle with. I’ve always felt like I’m very behind in life. I know part of this is having chronic perfectionism, which I’ve really tried to work on undoing. I’ve also realised that holding myself to often unattainably high standards has been a way of masking that I’m struggling with my ADHD. I’ve always put this outward appearance to people that everything’s fine and I’m doing really well, but for a long time I was just very confused as to why I seemed to have so much promise and do so well at school, and seem to be absolutely failing and not getting anywhere. As the years went on, it started to become more distressing. I’d get more and more into intense feelings of depression or numbness, and getting myself into a lot of very negative thought cycles. I felt broken.
really want to help build more awareness about ADHD; particularly in women and how ADHD can present itself differently and often goes undetected, and what it’s like to be diagnosed as an adult. I really think it’s important for those with ADHD to really show themselves kindness and understanding – something I’ve been learning to give more of to myself since the diagnosis.
My diagnosis really changed the way I viewed myself and whilst this is still an ongoing process, it’s enabled me to be more compassionate to myself. I’m learning about the areas in which I need to ask for help, and the diagnosis is also allowing me to know that it is okay to ask for that help if I need it. I feel less alone in how I’m feeling now because I know that I’m part of a community of people that also experience many of the same things I do.
I’m still very much on a journey of exploration and learning how complex ADHD is, and whilst there are many similarities that ADHD people will share, how it also differs so much from person to person. I think it’s viewed by people who don’t have an understanding of what ADHD is as something that’s just people with tons of uncontrollable energy, or talk all the time and forget things, but it’s so much more than that. The depth and complexity of ADHD as a condition is far greater than I had ever really thought about, as is the emerging understanding of just how much it affects me in so many areas. I hope that by sharing my experiences it might be helpful to someone else fighting a similar silent battle.
Emma is an actor, dancer, mo-cap performer and filmmaker, whose short film ‘Cliché’ was part of the Official Selection for the Lift-Off Film Festival ‘Hollywood First-Time Filmmakers Showcase’, and screened in New York at the MicroMania Film Festival.