Grief, Acceptance, and Why Life After an ADHD Diagnosis Doesn’t Have to Look So Different
Life after an ADHD diagnosis doesn’t have to be so scary. It also doesn’t have to change so much – not really.
Maybe, if we gave ourselves permission, it could be a celebration of who we are. I’m starting to see my late-life ADHD diagnosis as a gift, from myself to myself. On the whole, it’s not a bad one.
Overall, I’d prefer a Playsation, but it’s still better than a kick up the bum.
The Effects of a Late ADHD Diagnosis
Grief is the big one. Learning about your neurodivergence – or, at least, crystallising your acceptance of it – is a huge change. Change brings grief, and in the case of a late ADHD diagnosis, it can often be retroactive.
For me, some part of myself always knew that I wasn’t typical. I didn’t ever seem to do life like everyone else did; I always had to take the hard way. I and others had floated autism, ADHD’s more reserved cousin that prefers learning loom weaving to backflips. But due to the strange social (mis)understanding that still persists about ADHD, my diagnosis went overlooked for years – even by a healthy mix of a proverbial food pyramid’s worth of mental health professionals.
Counsellors, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, art therapists, psychotherapists, and so many more nutritious constituents of a good mental health diet: they all missed what was staring them in the face.
So when I did finally receive my ADHD diagnosis later in life, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. The arc of my life hadn’t changed, but the story beats made more sense. Like a good movie rewatch, I noticed all the nuanced layers that I’d missed the first time around – the foreshadowings and the payoffs. The me that was me made more sense.
And then came the grief.
Life After an ADHD Diagnosis: Grief
The “wasted life” effect of a late ADHD diagnosis… The grief that accompanies the diagnosis… I believe everyone will experience this differently, but I also believe everyone will experience it.
I wasn’t someone whose undiagnosed ADHD had ruined the life of with its untethered Dennis the Menace-like output. Rather, I was someone who had unwittingly learned to harness their ADHD superpowers (mostly) and use them to their advantage. I reckon for someone who felt their undiagnosed ADHD had guided a lot of their life’s pivotal turning points towards cataclysmic errors in judgement, the grief might be more extreme.
However, all the same, I believe we all have those moments of reflection post-chrysalis with all the complex feelings that accompany (which we also now understand to be amplified by our neurodivergence). And in that reflection, the dichotomy emerges.
My childhood might have been a dash easier had I not been so tremendous at masking… everything. My early adulthood severe mental health struggles might also have been more navigable with this piece of the puzzle.
There are a few relationships I don’t think I would have burnt out quite the same. A few humans I feel I could have loved better – more fully and kindly – had I known we were just two neurodivergents that needed a bit of extra care in our communication.
My family relations look a lot different when I start to view the genealogical line of troubled artists, musicians, writers, and serial fanatics of all things musical theatre through the frame of neurodivergence. If anything, I feel closer to them for it, but I also mourn the years I felt so estranged.
These are some of the story beats I grieve, but in true dialectical form, the inverse is equally true.
My childhood was tough for many reasons, but my undiagnosed ADHD didn’t help. Nor was I a lost cause of the mental health system; just a casualty of its poor framework of understanding pertaining to neurodivergence. The grief over these things comes attached with some inner peace through their resolution.
It’s a shame we burnt out the way we did, but at least now I know that we did the best we could. It’s a shame Dad couldn’t do any better, but at least now I know that was never an option. These are sad story beats, but it’s not a heavy grief. It’s light; a freeing grief, like someone has lifted something that I didn’t even know I was carrying off my shoulders.
This makes more sense. I make more sense. And as a detail-obsessed ADHD-infused problem-solver hyperfocused on all associated solutions and pathways to success, that’s exactly how I like it.
Why Life After an ADHD Diagnosis Doesn’t Have to Change
I know a lot of people won’t be like me and will have experienced a much rougher version of the undiagnosed ADHD tale. The long-term effects of untreated ADHD in adults can be real; the “wasted life” and resulting repercussions can hit you where it hurts.
But, despite being the eternal cynic, I like the positive reframe. On some level, regardless of the severity, this has always been you. You’ve always been this ADHD-charged superhero.
I often like to take it back to the idea of ADHD superpowers. Imagine a version of Clark ‘Superman’ Kent that lived the life he did, saving lives, planets, and mmm-bopping the baddies… except he never knew his origins. Not of Planet Krypton nor his familial roots as an interstellar being. What would fundamentally change for this hypothetical Superman when he found out the truth about himself?
Superficially, a lot. Some medical records denoting him as a human. There would likely be a few torrid emotional processes to go through too. Grief over the loss of his perception of himself; maybe a bit of rage at absent father figures.
But at a more fundamental level, nothing would change. He would still be the same Clark kent – beloved farmboy son of the Kents. He would still be Superman, using his (ADHD) superpowers for all the good he chooses to do, irrespective of his distant roots. And maybe, with this new layer of understanding, it would give that much more power to his choice to be the person he is. Despite everything he is and could be, he chooses to use his powers for good – to live in harmony, enriching the lives of all the normies that surround him.
That’s where I stand after my late ADHD diagnosis: I am still me. The story might make more sense, and I’m grateful for that understanding. But no matter what, it’s the story that happened and nothing changes that, nor would I want anything to. I like that story.
My choices in my life carry the same weight they always did – or, perhaps, even more weight. I am not who I am in spite of my ADHD – I am who I am because of it.
What I have found though, is more insight. There are a few extra management tools for my ADHD utility belt, sure, but even more importantly I’ve found a greater appreciation of the ones I’d already developed.
I have greater self-compassion for myself. I have a lot of gratitude and even self-respect for having made it this far and succeeding as much as I have in a world that simply isn’t built for me. I allow myself a lot more grace for the ebbs and flows of the 24-hour dopamine cycle.
If anything, the biggest change is simply that I understand myself more. And while there’s some grief at letting go of the idea I had of myself, I get to embrace myself more fully now in all my wonderful weirdness. I am better friends with myself.
So maybe I misspoke: life after an ADHD diagnosis DOES change. For the better. It’s one of the best gifts you can give yourself – better than both a Playsation AND a kick up the bum.
But what doesn’t change is you. You’re still the same flawed, golden-hearted, superhero alien crash-landed on this planet of normies that you always were. And God knows someone’s gotta look out for them!
Whatever your journey to your diagnosis has been, embrace the change. And embrace the sameness. After all, Dr. Seuss said it best:
Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive that is youer than you.
And nothing ever gets to change that.
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