Seeking a diagnosis: Andrea Michaels
Girls are statistically far less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys. We know the outcomes for those with ADHD are vastly improved for those who receive a diagnosis earlier rather than later, but ADHD in young girls is often overlooked and many are not diagnosed until they are adults. Andrea Michaels has been living with the condition all her life. Similar to many women with ADHD, the red flags were always there but never acted upon, until recently. Here is her story, her battle to receive an ADHD diagnosis.
Life before my ADHD diagnosis
Life before my ADHD diagnosis was very interesting. Looking back at when I was at school, I always got told that I was bright, but I never paid attention. I was destructive and disruptive. I think that sums it up, how typically ADHD I was, but at the time, this was viewed as naughty behavior.
I remember telling stories. I would bend the truth, but making it sound so elaborate and so great, just to draw people in. I didn’t realize I was doing it. It’s with reflection now that I know. I was also extremely disorganized, especially as I moved into teenage years and my early 20s, it became more obvious. Even getting ready, just to go down the pub for a drink with my friends, my whole wardrobe would be out all over my bedroom floor below my bed. I was never been able to tidy up the disorganization.
Moving from secondary school and into college was also a big change for me. I moved away from having a stable structure. At college, I was expected to organize my homework, do my own revision. It all went pear-shaped, but nobody noticed it. And I think it was because I was doing well in my classes, I was articulate, I knew the subjects well. Then, when it came to writing stuff down and producing homework, essays, doing exams – it all went horribly wrong. I was predicted really good grades. I think in my best subject (sociology), I was predicted an A grade and I walked away with an N grade.
I always said that something was different – I was different. I stood out and I knew I stood out. My parents could see that I stood out. There were certain things other kids were doing that I could do but I had no interest in – I just couldn’t do it. I remember my parents taking me to the doctor and saying, “Look, she’s in tears, she’s struggling, there’s something wrong with her”. I guess that, being a girl, ADHD wasn’t considered a possibility. They took blood tests, ran checks and in the end, they said “No, she’s fine, she’s healthy”.
My mum kept chasing the doctor because I was also having severe difficulties with sleep. I had nights where I didn’t sleep at all but could still function the next day. Some days I would have a minimal amount of sleep – four hours at most if I was lucky. I remember one of my medical reports saying that the sleep difficulties were caused by deficits in executive function, but nothing was ever done about that. I was just given something that, back then, was the equivalent of melatonin. It was basically to calm me down to sleep, but they never looked at the mental side, the cognitive side of things.
Making the decision to seek a diagnosis
I went to my doctor again and I said “Look, this is what’s going on, this is what people are saying to me”. My doctor came back and said “No, it’s because of your anxiety. Yes, you are hyperactive, you’ve always been hyperactive”. My symptoms were always being attributed to my anxiety and they kept reaching this same conclusion. I remember my symptoms were attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) once but ADHD was still ignored as a possibility.
It wasn’t until my son was diagnosed with autism and ADHD that I was taken seriously because it appeared to be too much of a coincidence. He behaved the same way I behaved, and he was diagnosed quite early on. When my son received his diagnosis I reached out to the Centre for ADHD & Autism Support (CAAS) and initially went to see them about support for my son. I remember one of the facilitators saying to me, ‘Andrea, I think you should come to the adult ADHD support group’. And I did. I’m sat there in my first session, listening to everybody and I’m thinking “I really do have ADHD”. I remember their Director of ADHD Services, saying to me that I exhibited classic symptoms of ADHD.
My ‘better late than never’ diagnosis
I went back to my doctor and talked through all my symptoms (again) and after being referred to a specialist last year, time I got my diagnosis. I know why I wasn’t diagnosed when I was younger because my doctor kindly told me. I was a girl and girls didn’t have ADHD. He said it was seen as a ‘naughty boy syndrome’- girls didn’t have these things – or at least that was the consensus back then. And while I was really hyperactive, I was also quite physically active; I was involved in lots of activities out of school which seemed to have masked my symptoms for the most part.
I also remember being the life of the party because that’s what people wanted me to be like but, inside, it didn’t feel natural – I didn’t like being the centre of attention. I would find myself in a corner somewhere, hoping that the party was all over. This is an example of how girls behave in a certain way because we know what’s expected of us. As girls, we tend to mask our conditions because we copy our peers. We mimic what they’re doing around us. So, I would do what the other girls were doing and just follow in that sense and learn that this is how I’m supposed to behave. With boys, they don’t do that (as much) and so conditions like ADHD become more obvious.
Now I’m part of the patients’ group at my surgery and my area is neurodiversity. I talk to the doctors about it and what I think benefits parents and adults that are dealing with these conditions. I really want to help to make a change for the better, people like me need a voice.
The impacts of receiving a diagnosis
This is going to sound strange, but I stopped feeling like a fraud. I knew I had ADHD and I’ve been told by people close to me that I have ADHD. I was also getting support for ADHD but up until that point it was still suspected, I hadn’t received a formal diagnosis. That’s why I felt like a fraud, because I was never 100% sure whether I had it. Then, when I finally received the diagnosis, it was a sign of relief. I remember jumping up and down and going “see, I told you”. It gave me the confidence to speak up and ask for more help. Particularly at work I could now turn around and say: “I’ve been telling you this – this is what you need to do to help me remove the barriers at work”. It motivated me to ask for help outside of work too. I’ve been working with a life coach and I told them what my barriers were.
For me, the impacts of receiving a diagnosis were phenomenal – I was over the moon. The only way I can describe it is that I’ve always felt that my life has been a jigsaw puzzle and I’ve slowly been putting in pieces to complete this puzzle. This was one of the pieces that were missing. It isn’t just, you know, I put it there. It was nice to understand why I’ve always had this lifelong pattern of symptoms like inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
I now understand the heightened levels of stress and anxiety I experienced at different points in my life. As a teenager, I was diagnosed with anxiety, social anxiety and low mood and I was on medication for this – it never worked. So, I found holistic ways to deal with it, but it still wasn’t working. It was great to understand that this was in fact linked to my ADHD.
If you feel that you’re different, don’t be ashamed of it but do find out why. If you are experiencing the traits of ADHD, go and speak to your doctor about it, and take somebody with you. Just ask for help. Be honest, speak to people around you. Explain that you’re having difficulties. Explain that you need help and try and find solutions that work for you.
I think therapies have been very effective when they’ve been tailored for ADHD. Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) both have variations designed for ADHD. Combined with the earlier mentioned strategy sessions or even strategy coaching, I think these therapies are really valuable for people like us. After going to these sessions, it’s then taking what I’ve learned and practicing it… you need to put it into practice. It’s not just turning up and saying, “I know that now – why is it (not) working?” You need to put the hard work into it. Once you’ve done it and you see the results, it gives you a feeling of resilience as well.
Now I don’t procrastinate as much. I don’t get down after setbacks. I’ve got the mindset of “okay, today it was a hiccup, let’s pick it up again tomorrow”. I also learned things about myself. Although I can come across as assertive, it can be portrayed as me being aggressive or arrogant and that’s not always the case. I’m learning how to communicate and understand different situations. I can’t speak for everyone with ADHD, but we can get ourselves into pickles because we’ve said something wrong, miscommunicated it or didn’t understand it.
Many people with ADHD have an ability to hyper focus (get really focussed on particular tasks). I often hyper focus on things that I’m passionate about. In my previous workplace, for example, we had an initiative to provide better support for people with neurodiverse conditions and I made it my focus to make these changes. I couldn’t let it go until I’d put all the resources in place to support this initiative. There was this huge focus that went into it, nothing else mattered.
I know that the symptoms of ADHD can be frustrating for others, but these are wonderful traits that people with ADHD may bring to the table. There are real strengths and benefits for teams that support neurodiverse team members.
Andrea was supported by the Centre for ADHD & Autism Support (CAAS). CASS provides a range of services to support anyone affected by either ADHD and autism. Led and run by people with first hand experience of the conditions they understand the issues facing their service users .CAAS are based in North West London and provide information, training, support groups and practical help.