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Living with undiagnosed ADHD felt like I was always chasing my tail

Living with is a new and exclusive Yahoo UK series, where we delve into long-term health conditions by speaking to experts and real life case studies

Living with ADHD. (Supplied/Yahoo Life UK)
Laura Wall showed signs of ADHD in childhood but it wasn't picked up. (Supplied/Yahoo Life UK)

Laura Wall, 40, was only diagnosed with ADHD by chance last year. Here she shares how the condition has affected her – from being a little girl who felt like she didn't fit in to a busy working mum of three – and why it needs better representation. Plus, expert advice from Dr Tony Lloyd, CEO of ADHD Foundation, including why ADHD is not a trend.

"I feel like I have a brain that just doesn't switch off. I have a million thoughts in a second," says Laura from Southport, a specialist counsellor at ADHD Foundation.

"What I set out to do, I actually do an hour later, because I end up doing so many tasks in between."

While everyone's ADHD manifests differently, Laura has now learnt how it presents for her.

"If something is not happening in the immediate moment, or not coming up tomorrow, I don't tend to plan for things as well as I should," she explains.

"I'm always chasing my tail with everything, probably setting too many unrealistic jobs.

"Before diagnosis, my emotional regulation was terrible," Laura adds. "I would cry at everything. I'd go from a raging bull to someone in tears in 10 seconds over the smallest of things."

Before understanding her behaviours, she spent decades being hard on herself for being 'different'.

Laura ADHD (Supplied/Yahoo Life UK)
A diagnosis has helped Laura develop more self-compassion. (Supplied)

Early signs of ADHD

"When we think of what ADHD is and how it's represented, I'm a minority to represent the group," says Laura.

"I grew up in a small seaside town in the mid-eighties/nineties, where as a woman of colour, very few people looked like me.

"I was also never that classic jumping up and down person. I've always been in my own bubble, writing stories, creating things in my head, quite happy in my own little space or playing by myself on the climbing frame.

"I found the social side of things really difficult because I always felt different. I didn't feel like I was 'normal'. People around me would just seem to get it and connect easily, and I wouldn't."

I didn't feel like I was 'normal'

Journey to ADHD diagnosis

Laura ADHD daughter. (Supplied/Yahoo Life UK)
Laura and her eldest daughter. (Supplied)

Laura was diagnosed at 39 after joining the ADHD Foundation.

After struggling with her GCSEs and drifting from job to job, making impulsive decisions, Laura became a mother in her early 20s, which gave her purpose and drive. She worked hard to go to uni and gained a 1st in children's health and wellbeing, before completing a masters, and joining the Foundation.

Her eldest daughter, now 16, had been diagnosed with ADHD and she wanted to help make a positive change. But even then, she didn't suspect it in herself.

"My line manager started picking up on how I was coping with the increased demands of the job, and pointed out ADHD was probably the case," she explains.

"It was strange as I'd spent so long accepting 'I'm not normal'. Initially I was very dubious that I actually had it. Then I felt really low, let down, and angry that I'd struggled along, beating myself up about not getting things right. I'd been really hard on myself for no reason."

But, ultimately, Laura adds, "Diagnosis helped me to develop self-understanding and self-compassion."

Overlooked ADHD

"I'm not classically hyperactive physically, it's all unseen and going on in my head because of my hyperactive brain. Because I've been quiet, learnt to sit still, and do things on command, it was all overlooked," Laura reflects.

"I learned to perfect masking. I seemed quite popular by the last year of primary; I told jokes and made others laugh. Girls are really good at masking and we don't all present like boys, though of course some will present like me too. It's really important that it starts to be picked up more."

I learned to perfect masking... It's really important ADHD starts to be picked up more

Family life

Laura Wall ADHD. (Supplied)
Laura is a happy mum of three. (Supplied)

Two out of three of Laura's children have been diagnosed with ADHD, her eldest daughter and son, 12, but she plans on getting her 9-year-old daughter tested too.

"Everything at home is a little chaotic. It might not feel chaotic, but it might look it. It's organised chaos. My husband jokes that our towel cupboard is the witches den, I've got everything in there, from towels to printers," she says humorously.

"The kids and I have working memories that aren't too great. I have to go in and out of the front door a million times before leaving the house."

The positives of ADHD

Laura ADHD kids. (Supplied)
ADHD helps Laura juggle her busy life and achieve everything she wants to. (Supplied)

Working for the ADHD Foundation means Laura gets great support, though this isn't the case for everyone. "Hearing 'it's okay' is what really helps," she says, adding there needs to be more options for people at work and in school.

"I don't think I could juggle the amount of things I do, if I didn't have ADHD," she says.

"I've never sat on my couch in my front room, it's just a piece of furniture. While I'm not really hyperactive, it's that I'm always pottering with stuff to do.

"I juggle three kids, do most of the cleaning, shopping, cooking, work in schools three days a week, have a private practice two days of the week, and am also doing a PhD in psychology.

"I'm not sure everyone else would manage that, or want to."

Does she ever get exhausted? "My brain doesn't like to not keep going. I need to be on the go and doing a couple of things at the same time, to give it the stimulation it needs."

"We need to stop seeing ADHD as a deficit," says Laura passionately. "Yes there are challenges, but it's not that we're missing something."

We need to stop seeing ADHD as a deficit

How can ADHD present?

Worried businesswoman looking at computer screen
Many women especially have learnt to mask ADHD symptoms. (Getty Images)

"ADHD affects different people in different ways," says Dr Tony Lloyd. "It's not just about people who can't focus or are hyperactive."

Some key things, he says, may include:

  • Forgetfulness, which can cause anxiety because it's difficult to organise

  • Difficulty sustaining focus and concentration in certain aspects of life (people with ADHD can concentrate, but typically hyper-focused on something they're interested in)

  • Hyperactivity, more so in males than females

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Poor sleep and anxiety that can severely impair daily functioning

Women who are not managing their ADHD because they don't know they have it may be more likely to have premenstrual tension, postnatal depression, eating disorders, or a difficult perimenopause and menopause, he adds.

There are also correlations with ADHD and migraine, crohn's disease, colitis, and fibromyalgia.

ADHD misconceptions

A naughty boy with his feet on a desk sits in the classroom and throws a plane. Selective focus . High quality photo
ADHD isn't just something naughty school boys have. (Getty Images)

"There's a lot of enduring myths, stigma and shame about ADHD. It's not about naughty children and boys who can't sit still. There are lots of successful, happy, healthy people with ADHD," says Dr Lloyd.

"There's also a gender bias issue. Some 75% of women with ADHD don't know they have it. But it's not just ADHD, it's autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia – girls are completely overlooked."

When asked if NHS diagnoses are more reliable than private diagnoses, he said, "No, that is absolutely not the case." Here you can see the ADHD Foundation's response to a Panorama investigation on this subject.

Managing ADHD

Handsome runner jogging in London, listening to music.
Things like exercise and diet can help with managing ADHD. (Getty Images)

Treatment may include medication, but not for everybody. "And it's not just about medication either for those that do need it. It's about a whole range of lifestyle strategies and understanding how your mind works to play to your strengths," says Dr Lloyd.

"If you suspect you have ADHD, there is a free booklet to download on our website. Anyone experiencing acute distress and struggling with their daily functioning should go to their GP and emphasise to what extent their life is being impaired and request an urgent appointment for assessment."

If you go private because of long waiting lists (depending where you live) Dr Lloyd urges being aware of any hidden costs and asking (if you do try medication and once you've completed the initial three months of monitoring) whether you can get prescriptions from the NHS on a shared care agreement with your GP.

"It's absolutely crucial you do not wait for a diagnosis before you start to make the necessary lifestyle changes."

ADHD isn't a 'trend'

"This is insulting and cynical," says Dr Lloyd. "It shouldn't be either 'these people are deserving of health care' or 'these people are making it up'. I don't know any adult who wants to be given a label that says they're disordered.

"In the UK, it's always been significantly under-diagnosed, particularly for girls and women."

Out of around three million people in the UK who meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, about half are struggling and half have found ways to manage it successfully, he says.

"Of the adults we know experience difficulty with ADHD, only 11% (220,000) who have a diagnosis are getting treatment with medication. This is compared to eight million people who are on antidepressants."

For more information, you can visit ADHD Foundation, view the campaign Staring back at me, or watch short videos of adults living with and managing ADHD here.

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Watch: Barry Keoghan went years without knowing he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder