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Diagnosed Late with ADHD: Adults Talk about What It Has Meant to Them

By Mary Fetzer

ADHD is often described as a childhood disease. Indeed, it is most often diagnosed in children around the age of 7, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But very often, of course, ADHD does not end in childhood. In fact, a 2020 research review found that, globally, more than 366 million adults have ADHD.

We wanted to talk to some adults with ADHD — including several who were first diagnosed in middle age — to learn about the impact of the diagnosis on their lives. And to understand how they’ve learned to manage their ADHD.

Here’s what they said:

Q: At what age were you diagnosed with ADHD?

“I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 36,” says Michelle Donaldson Rouleau, a realtor from Ottawa, Ontario. “I had no idea that it was even a possibility because I equated ADHD with hyperactive kids, and I was never a ‘problem’ child.”

Alexandrea Holder, a marketing specialist from Hollywood, Fla., had a similar experience. At age 31, she felt that something was making her anxious and interfering with her ability to be fully productive.

“I always knew my brain didn’t work quite the same way as others, but because my symptoms weren’t as disruptive as others’ and I performed relatively well in most areas of my life, I always chalked it up to not putting in enough effort or just being a little scatterbrained,” she says. “I was finally prompted to schedule my evaluation when I found myself unable to sit still. I was fidgety and finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with work.”

Christina Meighen, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Annapolis, Md., was diagnosed with ADHD at 37.

“I was struggling with emotional regulation, rejection sensitivity and the responsibilities of contributing to my household,” she says. “I am a business owner, and it became evident that my inability to focus was impeding my professional growth. Conversations with my own therapist prompted me to seek a diagnosis.”

Like Alexandrea, Christina was a high-achieving child who didn’t exhibit the common behaviors often associated with ADHD, so parents and pediatricians never suspected the disorder.

Best-selling author Peter Shankman, on the other hand, did exhibit the stereotypical “sit down, you’re disrupting the class” symptoms. But he was a public school student in the 1970s, when awareness of ADHD was much lower. Peter wasn’t diagnosed until he was 35.

Q: How are you treating your ADHD?

“I manage ADHD with medication on days that I work,” says Jordan Brown, a licensed professional counselor in Wauwatosa, Wis. “I attend monthly therapy appointments and have made lifestyle changes. I have learned, and continue learning, ways that help manage my symptoms, such as using time blocking to get things done because it is difficult for me to switch my attention between different tasks.”

Medication is also helping Alexandrea, who’s taking a low dose of methylphenidate, known by the brand name Ritalin.

“Medication has been a life-changer,” she says. “It doesn’t fully negate my symptoms, but it does make them easier to manage. I can focus far better than I used to be able to, and when I do get distracted, I actually have a fighting chance of getting back on task again.”

Christina, too, has recently started stimulant medication. She also uses the cognitive behavioral therapy skills that she offers to the clients in her therapy group.

But not everyone is treating their ADHD symptoms with medication.

“I have learned to live with ADHD and accept it as a part of who I am,” says Valerie Smith, a psychotherapist from Bohemia, N.Y. who was diagnosed at age 22. “While I know that medication and other treatments would be beneficial, I am used to being this way.”

Instead, Valerie has made lifestyle adjustments to accommodate her “limitations.” A paper planner helps her to stay on task and keep appointments, and autopay options ensure that her bills are paid on time.

Q: How has receiving the diagnosis — giving a name to the disorder — impacted your life?

“Getting the diagnosis took a weight off my shoulders,” says Marie Jackson, a professional organizer from Charlotte, N.C. who was diagnosed with ADHD at age 38. “Life finally started to make sense.”

For Michelle, naming the disorder has helped her accept herself with grace.

“I was always so hard on myself because ‘everyone else could do it’ and I struggled so much with certain things,” she says. “Knowing that my mind is built differently takes that pressure off and lets me take things at my own pace.”

Peter made the most of his diagnosis, which prompted him to write “Faster Than Normal,” a New York Times bestseller.

“After the diagnosis, I looked inward and really worked on myself,” he says. “Neurodiversity is a gift, not a curse, and it’s the best thing about me, by far.”

Q: What do you want others to know about living with ADHD as an adult?

An ADHD diagnosis is the beginning, not the end of a journey. Knowing what they’re dealing with has made adults like Karisa Karmali, a personal trainer in Ontario, able to cope with the ups and downs and manage life accordingly.

“I don’t always have my ADHD under control,” says Karisa, who was diagnosed at age 32. “It is a daily active set of routines. And to make them work, I have to set aside time that other aspects of life cannot cut into.”

Valerie encourages adults with ADHD to accept the diagnosis as an explanation for their symptoms.

“Rather than wonder: ‘What is wrong with me?’ try to see it as something that is simply a part of you,” she says. “ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder — it can be managed. But even with treatment, it will not go away. Accept your limitations — don’t be afraid to bring your concerns to your employer for accommodations, for example. But also embrace and celebrate the gifts you have as a result of living with ADHD and the resiliency you have carried from childhood up to adulthood. Chances are you have developed a creative approach to coping with your symptoms. Give yourself credit!”

For Marie, the diagnosis was the start of something new.

“Life is only just beginning when you get the diagnosis — age doesn’t matter,” she says. “It’s the time to take that gift and let it fly.”

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