Those with undiagnosed ADHD are so often coping, but blocked from truly shining Zebulon Goriely and Sarah Ashton

“No way, you were never a problem as a kid… and you are smart”.

Those are the first words my mum uttered after I told her last year I’d shimmied out of a meeting with an educational psychologist with a diagnosis of ADHD, and now I needed her help getting a medical diagnosis from a doctor. A snappy chat followed where she grumpily refused to believe or assist. The video call window beep-booped off. Crap, I thought, already ten steps down into catastrophizing. No maternal help – no statement from her of my childhood symptoms – conflicting evidence in my medical assessment – no medical diagnosis – no stimulant medication – no change in my attention style – lectures remain blurry and incomprehensible – no 2.I – no PhD opportunities – no world-travelling, dazzling science career – doomed to a boring day-to-day making me mentally ill: “homeless on the streets giving handjobs for crack”. That last bit was a line in a song from the South Park movie which I think I’d seen once when I was about 13; it resounded around my head, floating up from my humming neuronal soup.

Being able to see non-linear links between everything all at once can be a deadly skill when you use it to daydream up your demise. As is being able to access all of your long-term memory but only if it’s immediately relevant. As are racing, hyperfocussed thoughts.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is definitely something you can have if you are smart, non-disruptive and in the eyes of society, successful. In fact, you’re more likely to have it. CEOs, business leaders, artists, musicians, scientists, engineers, activists, politicians, philosophers, movers, dreamers, shakers, Oxbridge and Ivy League students are all over-represented for ADHD relative to other paths in life. Although people with ADHD are even more over-represented in prison, addiction rehab and trauma centers than in the successful world. Where we are not found is anywhere boring. Having a high-stimulation-chasing, impulsive, risk-taking streak is amazingly good at getting you into ER rooms both as a patient or a surgeon. When you have ADHD, it seems like the main difference between which role you occupy comes down to what type of support network you have.

It is far too common for invisible differences to be put down to whatever is most visible

I definitely have not been successfully supported by others during my time at Cambridge. Heartbreakingly, I gave up on supporting myself for a solid chunk. 

For example: my very first essay, in my first supervision, in my first week. My genius hypothesis about the evolution of bacterial plasmid DNA from viral transmissions. My supervisor, and DoS, raised her eyebrows handing it back. Niche, creative, convincing. She also lowered her voice. “This is brilliant BUT… you have gone completely off-task. It’s well researched and you have your own ideas. This is what you should be doing during your PhD, though. You have completely failed to answer the question. You haven’t included almost anything from the syllabus.”

I couldn’t understand. I thought at university we didn’t have a syllabus? Zooming exploration was advertised, sparkling quotes about mind-expansion in the prospectus. Buzz, my lecturers kept urging. Go, read, adventure. As a naïve 19-year-old, I listened to them far too attentively. Attention Surplus Hyperactivity Disorder.

I realised I had no idea how to work out where the emphasis was in the information I was given; everything I was taught sparked explosive, clashing ideas. I was in intellectual, daydreaming heaven. Nothing seemed irrelevant. Syllabus? Didn’t exist – there was not core material and periphery. Over and over, as my course went on, I was told to quieten my crackling mind. Underneath the crackle, I found surging overwhelm. I felt like natural sciences spaghetti was being thrown at the wall of my mind, and I kept begging for help making more of it stick. Over and over, I asked: what can I do to learn?

“Too much partying or something?” my DoS asked me over a morose, desperate phone call I made when I got a 2.II at the end of my second year.

Pay more attention to key lecture points. Stop making silly grammar mistakes. Order your arguments to achieve formal voice. Memorise, sequence and follow the instructions you’re given. Turn up on time, for God’s sake! You MUST try harder, if you don’t want to get a lower second class! It was cacophonic. Peers and teachers saw me as a space case, lazy. I made such good points out loud when I managed to turn up, that I just must not be putting the effort into my product. Interestingly, the strongest predictors of workplace bullying are deeper differences in working style.

I was ashamed of my burnt-out body, car-crash bedroom mess and fragile self-esteem

Despite what my academic record might say, I was killing it at science. I zipped off around the world throughout my degree, winning places on competitive research internships at the University of Dundee, IST Austria and Harvard University. My adept hack-and-slash jackhammer approach to problem-solving, which had evolved over a lifetime of never being prepared, gave me an edge in anything immediate. I wrote the application for my summer internship in Dundee over 48 hours, submitting 20 minutes before the deadline at midnight, waking up the next day to a call back - acing the interview after lunch time. Then upon arrival, in my first week, changing labs to a much better fit - racing through the project I was set and finishing it in the first of my three months.

But back home I was losing touch with friends, disorganised with my replies. I was ashamed of my burnt-out body, car-crash bedroom mess and fragile self-esteem. Sleepy from self-directed frustration and boredom. My patchy, pace-changing uni friendships and relationships felt embarrassing to talk about. Facebook invites, society mailing list emails and left-too-long Tinder messages slid by me, piling into a heap I didn’t want to look at. My spunky beat wouldn’t vibe with my untrusting coursemates nor unimpressed teachers. I lacked the ability to live out anything other than a disconnected life.

Lonely. Well, alone. I still had me, the boom of my imagination and a handful of mates who adored me when I saw them. Without them, I’d most likely be dead.

People with ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions are far more likely to experience abuse

Standard CBT or talk therapies tend to engender minimal improvement, even making things worse in some cases when patients have a neurodivergent condition like ADHD or autism. The University Counselling Centre (UCS) unfortunately lacks ADHD-inclusive CBT therapy (which exists!), as did my college counsellor and my college private therapist... as do many local NHS services. Coupled with my years lacking a diagnosis the bulk of care work for my untreated-undiagnosed-ADHD-induced-poor-mental-health-depression-thing has been carried by my stellar friends. They are just as clueless as the NHS and UCS but at least they are sharp enough to not obstructively think they know what they are doing.

Likewise, it was my friends and JCR women’s officer who helped me get help and report a violent, LGBT-phobic crime that I experienced in my first year. Procedures were way too bureaucratic for my bouncy brain and my empathetic, well-meaning tutor and harassment advisors were simply not trained in working with, or advocating for, someone who is disabled. Far too often in my recovery trained adults suggested that my problems are related to my bisexuality rather than disability, often because my bisexuality was more visible in the situation. This careless attitude of stereotyping me as a conflicted bisexual pervaded my upbringing and followed me as I waded into the minefield pathways for ADHD diagnosis. People packaged my ADHD symptoms up as me being bisexual, “flamboyant” and “undecided“ rather than hyperactive and disorganised.

Others with undiagnosed ADHD are so often coping – but blocked from truly shining

It is far too common for invisible differences to be put down to whatever is most visible, especially with women, non-binary people and racialised people. Given the insidiousness of ableism it is horrifying, but grimly unsurprising, that the rate of suicide attempts in people with ADHD is 10-fold higher than the average population. Furthermore, people with ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions are far more likely to experience abuse, violence and, especially at university age, sexual violence as we are especially vulnerable to predatory types and given inaccessible support services.


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Post-diagnosis I intermitted, volunteering with an ADHD charity to learn more about my condition and what I could do. I have now built myself a life with integrated support: I have an ADHD life coach from the DRC, a study skills tutor, a bunch of government-funded assistive technology, an ADHD-trained private therapist awarded through my college, exam adjustments and one-on-one supervisions with flexible deadlines. My mental health is better, I am engaging my lectures with vitality and I’ve finally invented an organization system with the help of my coach that enables me to keep friends, hobbies and a semblance of what’s going on with my course.

I’m still a work in progress. The NHS waiting list to trial me on stimulant medication is slow-moving, making it an awkward moment when people chat about getting pinged on Ritalin next night out. On paper, I could be seen as doing alright, flunking a bit but in reality, like so many disabled students, I am not reaching my potential.

I’m hoping my story can reach others with (undiagnosed) ADHD, who are so often coping – but blocked from truly shining. I helped write a website for ADHD awareness during my intermission. My mum believes me now and since finding out about ADHD’s genetic links she’s even wondering if her 3AM deadline scrambles during uni were a bit more neurobiological than previously thought…

For anyone who identifies with anything I’ve written in this article, I encourage you to reach out, get reliable information and ask someone (who knows about ADHD) for help!

If anyone ever wants to chat they can email me at chaygraham3@gmail.com, find me on Facebook or connect through CUSU Disabled Student’s Campaign which I am part of: https://www.facebook.com/CUSUdisabledstudents/ or https://twitter.com/CUSU_Disabled. CUSU’s Disabled Student’s Officer can also take questions, meet with you or pass you to me and can be emailed at disabled@cusu.cam.ac.uk. The Disability Resource Centre can advise and arrange assessments for AD(H)D and can be found at https://www.disability.admin.cam.ac.uk/.

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