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Being diagnosed with ADHD as a young adult: Ella's experience

By Ella Marcham (she/her)

Ella is smiling holding up a name tag. There is text underneath which reads "Talking about diagnosis"

I’ve always been a chatterbox. People are often amused by the pace at which I can talk and the sheer volume of conversation. I always put it down to being an extrovert, just something that was quirky about me. Even as a child I had no problem nattering away to unsuspecting adults. I’d never really come across ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), I had the same thoughts on it that most people do, it’s always the stereotype of young boys who disrupt the class and perform poorly in school. It wasn’t until I was older that I became more educated on the topic and realised that it resonated with me.

Throughout primary school and up to GCSE level I succeeded in school. I loved learning and always found that if I put in the work, I saw results. Some subjects came naturally to me, and I found them easy. English and languages seemed to come without much effort and I always did well even if I didn’t work very hard. I found maths and science more difficult but more interesting, so I pursued them and put in more work, and the grades reflected that. I got 7A*s and 3 As at GCSE and was pinned early on as a potential Oxbridge candidate. I told everyone I wanted to be a doctor, something that stuck for a good ten years. Then, I got to A-Level and everything fell apart. I didn’t want to be a doctor anymore, and probably couldn’t have ever got into medical school anyway. One of the reasons ADHD often goes undetected in young people is because they are performing well in school. I know now that I often lost focus, went off into a daydream or just didn’t listen but none of that mattered because I was naturally bright. I am also hard of hearing, so I think that partly covered things because it meant that my ability to take in information through listening required extra effort. At A-Level I was also struggling with epilepsy and mental health issues which is why I thought my grades were slipping. And in part, it was, but ADHD often presents as anxiety, and looking back there are some obvious things that I experienced that relate directly to ADHD that I was unaware of at the time. One of those things is being overly sensitive to rejection and criticism. Don’t get me wrong, constructive criticism is something that is required to help you learn and grow…I know that, but it doesn’t stop the crushing feeling of failure rippling through my body every time I receive any kind of negative feedback. In school, if I was ever told off by a teacher I would just burst into tears, even when I was 18! It’s just a natural reaction, and now I understand it better.

Despite A-Levels being a struggle, I got a place at my insurance choice at university to study physics. I cried my eyes out on results day, a C and two Ds seemed like the biggest failure in the world, but I put it behind me and enjoyed a gap year of working and travelling before moving to Nottingham the following year. The great thing about university is that there is a lot more room for error in terms of assessment. There are labs, presentations and pieces of coursework as well as exams. I really like this because after my A-Levels I developed a bit of a fear of exams, so knowing that there are other assessment methods was helpful. However, I struggled much more than I thought I would. Something I didn’t account for was that it wasn’t just my course that led to me feeling overwhelmed, but it was the responsibility of having to live away from home and look after myself. When I was diagnosed with ADHD, the doctor said a typical patient of his is a 19 year old woman who has just gone to university and suddenly her life has fallen apart and she doesn’t know why. This was exactly how I felt, I just couldn’t keep a proper work-play balance and organise myself properly. I’ve always taken pride in being organised, but in reality I am compensating for the total lack of organisation in my head because I have ADHD, it’s taking back some control. Last year in one of my classes, it was a sunny day and my lecturer joked “imagine where you would rather be right now” and I glanced out of the window and became so immersed in a day dream about sunny beaches that I didn’t remember a single thing from the lecture! When something is your normal, it’s hard to realise that it’s not something that everyone does.

I ended up being assessed for ADHD because it was something my mum had discovered in her job and she thought that we might both have it. ADHD is genetic, so this makes sense. After reading into it, a lot of the points seemed to describe my life so I agreed that an assessment would be a good idea.

Volunteering with New Scientist Live with uni, me and my husband Joe at the Boat Ball as part of the trampolining I do at uni, and me my mum, who also has ADHD, on my wedding day.

We ended up getting assessed by the same specialist and my appointment was first due to a cancellation. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t actually think I had ADHD. A lot of the things I read overlapped with symptoms of mental health problems I’ve experienced, and I was partly in denial. How could I have had something like this my whole life and only just be realising it? But sure enough, after a lengthy assessment I was diagnosed with ADHD. I was 21 and about to sit exams in my second year of university, and the diagnosis explained a lot. I read through the doctor’s notes, which was a bit strange but it highlighted things that I thought were normal, but are actually indicators of ADHD. I changed sitting positions a lot, I played with my necklace, I spoke very quickly, I forgot what I was saying, I seemed to go off into daydreams a lot. I did a lot more research and learned what my ADHD means for me, and how to manage it going forward.

Something interesting about ADHD is that a lot of people respond really well to medication. I didn’t know how I would be on it but decided to give it a go. I take methylphenidate which is commonly referred to under the brand name Ritalin. I could write a lot about the meds but that could lead to an entirely new blog post! After some experimenting, I now have a stable dose that helps me focus and manage daily life with less anxiety. This is something that is different for everyone though, and can take time to manage.

I told my tutors and support team at university about my diagnosis and they were wonderful. I now feel like I am learning to manage my daily life, with a combination of medication, exercise and mindfulness. Having ADHD is sometimes a nightmare, but it does come with its blessings. People with ADHD tend to ‘hyper focus’ on things that interest them. This means that they often have several hours of intense productivity on said interest, which can be good or bad depending on what it is. If it’s university work, it leads me to produce lab reports worthy of a first, but if it’s a new Nintendo Switch game I find myself blinking and hours have passed! It’s what allowed me to write this piece, and I try to use it to my advantage.

I now wear my diagnosis with pride, it makes me incredibly passionate and hard working as well as very emotional about everything, which I like when the emotions are positive! The support from uni, friends and family means a lot and connecting with other people who have ADHD is incredibly comforting. I sometimes wish I was diagnosed sooner, but then I wouldn’t be who I am today, so I just shrug it off and move forward. One step at a time.

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