Adult ADHD: Be the Person You Want to Be
When I was 21 years old, I was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and for the first time, my whole life made sense. ADHD is insidious; it sneaks into everything you do and undermines all your work and self-confidence. It made me feel miserable and ashamed and overwhelmed all the time. I loved school as a kid, but as I got older and classes became more challenging, it felt like pulling teeth to make myself pay attention or finish a project. I grew sad and frustrated that my love of learning became clouded by mental battles. My family wasn’t supportive and everyone around me told me I was just lazy. At some point, I started to believe them. For a long time, I closed myself off to the outside world and had trouble even getting out of bed. I was so overwhelmed by school, by everything I needed to get done that kept on piling up. I knew I could engage in topics that interested me—I was proud of several art projects I’d done—but even when I was able to accomplish tasks, I wasn’t motivated until the last minute to start working on them. It seemed like I had to be really stressed out and under pressure to get anything done.
Despite all this, I was, and am, a very persistent person. After graduating high school and working for a year, I started taking college courses. At first, my grades were good, because I put a ton of pressure on myself. I believed I had to be unbelievably stressed out to feel motivated. And it worked—I did well. But it wasn’t sustainable. My anxiety became debilitating and I started having panic attacks. I lived like this for about two years, with inconsistent results and really bad anxiety. Eventually, I was past the point of what I could handle, and I finally sought out the help of a psychiatrist.
Talking to my psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Choy, changed everything. I initially thought I just needed help with depression and anxiety, but after telling my story to Dr. Choy, it didn’t take long for him to suggest that I might have adult ADHD. Once he said it out loud, it made total sense. He gave me a book to read about ADHD and I felt like I was reading my life story. Everything clicked. It was exciting, but also hard to accept that I had a lot to learn about this condition. But it was a relief to know I wasn’t lazy or dumb; I just needed to figure out how to jump over these obstacles.
Dr. Choy explained how we’d go about treating my ADHD. He prescribed me a stimulant medication, and it took a while to find the right dosage and drug, but once we got there, my life felt balanced for the first time. He also emphasized the importance of behavioral therapy in addition to medication. He taught me, and continues to teach me, about how the brain works, how I can learn techniques to manage my time better, and how to find motivation without stressing myself out. He explained that people with ADHD struggle with executive function skills, the skills that help us organize, plan, categorize, and motivate ourselves. Everyone has a reservoir of willpower, but people with adult ADHD have a smaller reservoir. That’s why it was so difficult to force myself to do things I needed to do. And it can be even harder without a structured, supportive environment—something I never had.
I learned about the importance of self-care, consistency, and maintenance. It’s so easy to let things go for a long time until you feel like you’re drowning in stress and responsibilities. Dr. Choy taught me skills to stay on top of my life so I wasn’t always in crisis mode. I learned how important it is to exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet so my body can support me the way I need it to. I learned to take everything little by little, to break things down into smaller, doable chunks. I learned to set a timer for five minutes and just work on a task until the timer went off; once it did, I’d set it for 10 minutes, and eventually I was fully engaged and could commit to the work. Getting started is one of the hardest things for people with ADHD, and I figured out how to push past that barrier. I learned that emotions are fluid; they come and go. Meditation helps me understand this, too. It calms me, helps me focus on what’s in front of me, and allows me to prioritize the little things and small moments. I learned it’s the little building blocks that add up to that big, great accomplishment.
My biggest, greatest accomplishment was getting accepted into college, where I’ve just started my first semester. As I worked with Dr. Choy and a therapist, I started taking a few night courses and worked 60-hour weeks so I could save enough money to live on my own. At the same time, I filled out college applications. In my admissions essays, I wrote about the impact ADHD has had on my life. I talked about how my experiences led me to pursue a major in psychology. Two weeks after submitting my application, I was accepted to Indiana University. Last month, I drove across the country with a trailer hitched to the back of my car and moved in to my new apartment near campus. I got a job to make some money, and I feel empowered about taking on my workload. I never could have gotten here without managing my adult ADHD, and I’m so grateful for everything I’ve learned.
I know there are people out there like me who have struggled their entire lives. I want them to know it’s possible to get through this if you find the right psychiatrist and therapist. It’s hard to figure out the ways to stay on top of adult ADHD—it’s going to be a long road. But the really difficult moments will eventually pass. And at the end, you’ll have the opportunity to become the person you always felt you could be.
Kayla Empson is 25 years old and lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where she attends Indiana University as a psychology major.