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My journey with ADHD: never-ending guilt, low self-esteem and a constant sense of failure

On May 24th, 2021 I was officially diagnosed with Combined ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). My diagnosis didn’t come as a shock to me. Rather, it was something that was long-awaited. I was pretty much certain I had ADHD months before my diagnosis. ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a brain disorder which affects an estimated 3-4% of adults in the UK (the majority of whom are undiagnosed). The title ‘ADHD’ is an umbrella term used to refer to the three different ADHD subtypes: hyperactive-impulse, inattentive and combined. The first of these describes the subtype which involves the typical kind of fidgetiness and bouncing-off-the-walls energy that most of us associate with the word ‘ADHD’, whilst the second involves spacing out, forgetfulness and extreme disorganization. Combined ADHD is a combination of both sets of symptoms. This is what I have, meaning I often feel overwhelmed, hyperactive, easily distracted, slow and unproductive all at once, yay (!). I discovered it last year December, thanks to a friend of mine who shared her recent ADHD discovery with me. As she listed her symptoms, I couldn't help but think “OMG, this sounds like me!”. I mean, I’d always known that I wasn’t completely “normal”, whatever normal is, lol. However, I’d just attributed my symptoms to me being giddy and excitable, but at the same time quite lazy, and just a general slowcoach. I had been drifting by for so long thinking I was the problem, and I ought to do better.

My own personal struggles with ADHD - How has it affected me?

As a high-achieving student who cruised through both primary and secondary school with very little struggle, I never had much reason to ever question my mental capacity, and definitely would not have considered myself as someone who struggled to concentrate. I’d always managed to get top grades and excel in most extra-curricular activities I took part in. I was always quite sure of myself and rarely ever doubted my ability. However, I was also a last-minute person. I would put off completing homework tasks until the night before and would arrive late to pretty much everything. A friend of mine once joked that I would even arrive late to my own funeral! She probably isn't wrong about that, lol. Nevertheless, my ‘time-blindness’ still never seemed to hold me back in life.

Once I started my GCSE’s, I began to experience my ADHD more severely. I procrastinated a lot when revising for my GCSE’s, so much so that I would pull all-nighters the night before my exams and end up falling asleep during a couple of them. Despite this, I still did very well in my GCSE’s and never doubted my ability to perform highly in my studies. Suddenly, things started to change when I got into 6th form. I remember constantly being reminded by my A-Level teachers that A-Levels were a completely different ball game from GCSE’s, and we would all need to put in at least 3 hours of independent revision every day. I understood this, but I honestly wasn’t prepared for just how independent I had to be. Revising for my GCSE exams in the last two weeks before my exams had already taken a toll on me, let alone revising for A-Levels every day for two years! For the first time in my life, I found myself really struggling: I found it difficult to study independently and began falling far behind on my essay assignments (I studied English Literature, History, Sociology and French, so there were a lot of essays!). I desperately started dodging my teachers in corridors because I knew I hadn’t completed my homework. I even got disqualified from the EPQ qualification because I had missed the submission deadline. It wasn’t like I didn’t enjoy learning, writing or even reading... I love all of these things. I just couldn’t bring myself to concentrate for long periods of time when studying alone, and I certainly couldn’t work as efficiently as my peers.

As a result, I became increasingly avoidant of tasks, and began to procrastinate even more. I started to throw myself into extracurricular activities: attending countless summer schools across different universities, attending Saturday schools, masterclasses and live talks, applying to university programmes, creating my own blog and even starting a debate society in school. I did anything to validate my sense of self-worth and prove to myself that I wasn’t lazy. I was a busy-bee, how could I be lazy? My inability to prioritise my studies over extracurricular activities only served to hold me back further in school. At the end of my first year of 6th form, for the first time in my life, I had become a B-student. *Gasp*. The problem with high-achieving students is that many of us tend to use our academic performance to shape our sense of self-worth - this is a dangerous mistake. Being a B-student isn’t actually an issue, of course, but becoming a B-student who’d gotten used to achieving only A’s and A*’s all my life made me feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment in myself. I felt like a failure.

On top of all this, my dependency on ‘body doubling’ as a strategy for work became crippling. Since I was 14, I’d always relied on studying at a library to get work done, because I thought that my home environment didn’t allow for me to concentrate. Plus, I could relieve myself during study breaks with light-hearted chats with my ‘library buddies’. But in 6th form, this dependency on library sessions began to hinder me. Most of my friends could easily work at home, so no matter how much I asked them to join me for a library session, they wouldn’t, because they didn’t need to. I mean, why should they? If working at home worked out fine for them, why change things? But this reality was hard for me to swallow. I would become so stressed at the thought of having to go to the library alone after school and complete the recommended 3 hours of study (which was really 5-6 hours at my working pace, considering how long it takes me to process information and gain concentration). I would sit in different libraries across London from 5pm till 11pm every single weekday, desperately trying to juggle homework essays with a couple hours of exam revision. By time I had completed my essays, I barely ever had time to get to the revision. This eventually left me unprepared when it came to my A-Level exams at the end of the two years. Despite all this, I still managed to leave 6th form with good grades – A*, A, B. However, deep down I knew that these weren’t grades which truly reflected my ability.

University was just a continuation of my failed efforts at being the ideal student. For the first two years, I would try so hard to work like my peers, wondering how on earth they were able to submit essays on time! And without needing to go to the library on top?! It was honestly a miracle to me, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to replicate this. But I always fell short. I turned up to my English Literature seminars having read just one chapter of a novel, I almost failed my first year of uni because of all the late penalties I accumulated, and in second year I had to convince my friend to work side-by-side with me just so I had a constant ‘body double’. In my third year of uni, at the start of December 2020, it all became too much. With university being completely remote due to the pandemic, it felt impossible for me to be productive. I would sit at the desk in my room trying so desparately to make a start on my dissertation. It would only be 10 minutes into working, before I would suddenly feel the urge to either get up and run around playfully bothering my housemates, or simply fall asleep… there was no in-between. I physically could not get work done. Eventually, I broke down to my friends crying: "I don't know what's wrong with me", I told them. I truly wanted to do well in my studies, but doing the work seemed so impossible. There's nothing more painful than wanting success so badly, yet it feels so out of reach, and you constantly blame yourself.

My discovery: the light at the end of the tunnel

A couple weeks after my nervous breakdown, when it first occurred to me that I may actually have ADHD, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I carried out more and more research into ADHD, and the more I found out, the lighter my burden became. I’d lived my life for the past 5 years beating myself up: blaming myself for not submitting my essays by their deadlines, for turning up late to school every other day, for never finishing my exams, for taking 3 hours to read 5 pages of a book. From the age of 16, all I’d felt was guilt, guilt, guilt, and the overwhelming, depressing feeling that I wasn’t living up to my full potential. As a high-achiever, no one ever noticed how much I struggled because I always just about managed to ‘pull the cat out the bag’ at the last minute. However, thanks to that amazing friend of mine educating me about what ADHD was, I unlocked the key to it all… an explanation, a reason, a justification for why I always felt like the black sheep. It finally all made sense.

Onwards and upwards

Since discovering my neurodiversity 10 months ago, I’ve felt a range of emotions. I’ve had to accept the fact that my brain doesn’t function like the neurotypical brain. I’ve had to accept that I cannot change the past; I cannot change the feeling that I was cheated - cheated out of getting the support which I so desperately needed: deadline extensions, extra time in exams, therapy, and most importantly, patience and understanding from teachers, friends, and family. I've had to adjust to having a brain which makes me slower at doing almost everything, but also makes me feel super energetic, excitable, and creative in short bursts. I’ve had to make the necessary adaptations to reach my full potential, maximising my productivity and efficiency when my forever-busy mind is at its best, but also being able to realise when it needs to be unpacked, decongested, and simply unwind. I’m pleased to say that I am getting better at this every day.

Having an ADHD brain doesn’t have to be a curse, it can also be a blessing. In some ways, it has shaped me into the intelligent, passionate, fun-loving, and sociable individual I am today. Since discovering my ADHD, I have taken the steps needed to cultivate and regulate my mind, and I am now on my way to becoming the best version of myself.

Estelle is our Founder and Editor-in-Chief. She is a final year student studying BA English & Sociology at the University of Leeds, but is currently spending a year abroad in Montpellier, France. She is pursuing a career in journalism, writing and activism, and is interested in society, politics, foreign languages and cultures. Her Instagram handle is @estelleuba.

* If you suspect that you may have ADHD, please visit Psychiatry-UK, the only organisation in the UK which offers free diagnoses. For further support on how to go about applying for a free diagnosis, feel free to reach out to the GZT team for a thorough and useful support pack curated by a friend of the team.

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