Hannah Castle for Varsity

Inability to focus and prioritise…tick. Restlessness… tick. Interrupting others or excessive talking… tick. Emotional mood swings, poor time management, misplacing things, fidgeting. Tick, tick, tick, again. I was filling in almost all the boxes of symptoms for ADHD, yet was never diagnosed — until now, at age 23.

“Many adults go undiagnosed, especially those who are successful in academics”

Why? The problem stems from the traditional view of ADHD: young boys who do poorly at school, are disruptive to their classmates, and cannot sit still, jumping out from their seats mid-lesson. In reality, ADHD has two key components: inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity. Depending on which ones an individual has, the disorder may be more or less visible to the outside world. Resultantly, many adults go undiagnosed, especially those who are successful in academics (especially likely at universities like Cambridge). This is worse for women, who tend to show symptoms of inattention rather than hyperactivity, and so are less noticed by their parents or teachers.

Thinking back, it all makes sense. I’ve always been talkative, my schoolteachers kicking me out of the classroom for disrupting others and giving me low ‘effort’ grades despite my academic attainment. I wander off on countless tangents when attempting to tell a story, and I can never sit through a conversation without fiddling (to my friends’ amusement, usually by destruction: scrunching up receipts, ruining pen caps, or, my favourite, tearing apart the peel of the tangerine I just ate into tiny pieces). I experience rather extreme mood swings within hours or even minutes: a sunny day has the potential to make me almost euphoric, while friends not inviting me to join their impromptu dinner can disrupt an entire afternoon.

Painfully, I often come across as rude, interrupting people and struggling to focus on what they have to say, despite caring a lot about them. I often speak before I think and regret my words immediately afterwards. I’m always, always late, annoying my friends for wasting their time (and rightfully so).

“Everyone is different, and, well, no one seeks help for talkativeness”

While frustrating, these don’t necessarily signal the presence of a disorder; some people are just more restless, talkative, and emotional than others, so why would I (or my parents) assume it was due to anything other than my inherent personality? Everyone is different, and, well, no one seeks help for talkativeness.

The major problems arose when my academic performance was affected. I always procrastinated my assignments and left everything to the very last moment while being an extreme perfectionist — but it worked. However, when the material got harder in my final year, I realised that I actually needed to put in proper work — something I was not used to nor capable of. While my peers revised for eight hours daily, I was managing four or five on my best days, and was unable to sit through a two-hour exam without getting bored and distracted. Unsurprisingly, the effects showed — I underperformed respective to my predicted grades and missed my undergraduate Cambridge offer as a result. I still did well compared to others and so, rather than suspecting an underlying issue, everyone (including myself) thought I had just been too lazy to prepare adequately, resulting in guilt and regret lasting the next five years.


Mountain View

Death, ecstasy and God: Life governed by epilepsy

Undergrad was similar; I got good grades, but rarely excellent ones. I struggled to finish coursework earlier than 4am on the day of the deadline, and I spent three hours running out of time in exams that my peers easily finished in two. I had never considered I might have ADHD until my second year, when a few articles and reels that my friend was sending me seemed too relatable. Unfortunately, the pandemic made it virtually impossible to get assessed, and the lengthy administrative process put me off (ironically). Well, until another horrible exam experience got the best of me, that is.

Five months later, I finally got assessed — and, surprise, surprise, I had ADHD, exhibiting signs of every single one of the symptoms at some point in my life. While I had been expecting it at that point, the diagnosis still brought a range of intense emotion. Anger, for not taking myself through the process earlier, enabling extra time in exams, and fulfilling my potential. Disbelief, that after all this time, my hunches proved true. Frustration, that so much of my struggles could have been ameliorated much earlier had psychiatrists 15 years ago been more aware of its prevalence in girls. Confusion, realising that a lot of my traits are due to ADHD, leading to questioning my entire personality.

“I feel more secure, confident, and accepting of my flaws”

Nonetheless, there is also a bright side. Perhaps most importantly, I feel vindicated. Many of the problems I had been blaming myself for over the years were not due to my laziness, rudeness, or general disorganisation, but could be directly explained by incorrect brain connectivity (the biological causes are not yet known, but scientists are working on it). I feel more secure, confident, and accepting of my flaws, because while ADHD can’t be used as an excuse for everything, it certainly plays a part. And, many of the resulting traits I have are positive — I am extremely keen to try new things, challenge others’ opinions, emotionally invest into the wellbeing of those I care about, and never boring to be around (or so I am told). While I may not need extra time any longer, I can use this diagnosis to improve my recruitment experiences for future jobs, enable fairer assessment, and seek out medication to manage my symptoms if I want to.

So, if you relate to all or some of my experiences, especially as a woman, I urge you to try to get assessed. Irrespective of whether it can still improve your academic experience, having an explanation for your lifelong struggles can have a positive effect on your mental health (as well as sharing it with others — but I suspect your close friends will not be surprised). And if you ever feel guilty about being unable to focus, it isn’t your fault — because, as my friend once told me, “Attention bro: it isn’t there.”