Learning You Have Adult ADHD Can Bring Grief, Relief, and Other Emotions
Noor Pannu couldn’t believe it. Her psychiatrist had just diagnosed her with ADHD. But she didn’t trust him. She’d read that people with the disorder did things like get into fights and have trouble with the law, and that wasn’t her at all.
“It took me a long time to accept it,” she says. “It was a lot of confusion, honestly.”
Pannu is a high-energy woman in her 30s who’s full of ideas and enthusiasm. She leads digital strategy for an e-commerce company in Winnipeg, Canada. She’s had multiple promotions and good relationships with her co-workers. Still, she has a hard time staying productive, focusing, and managing anxiety about deadlines. After years of those symptoms and some troubling memory lapses, she decided to get help at 29.
“I went to my family doctor and I told him, ‘I think I’m going crazy. Something is seriously wrong with me.’” He referred her to the psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with ADHD.
“It took me almost 6 months to come to terms with it and start taking medication,” she says. She feared the stigmas around both mental health problems and ADHD. “How people view it is: ‘People with ADHD just aren’t productive. They’re not great to work with. They don’t deliver well. They can’t be trusted.’ And those are really bad things to say about other people.”
The disbelief and denial that Pannu felt are just a few of the outsized emotions that you may feel after you learn as an adult that you have ADHD. First, there are all the feelings that come with getting a diagnosis of a condition you have dealt with all your life. You may feel grief, relief, or both. Then, there’s the fact that people with ADHD often feel emotions more strongly than other people.
“The ADHD brain experiences emotions in a magnified way,” says Amy Moore, PhD, a cognitive psychologist with LearningRx in Colorado Springs, CO, and vice president of research at the Gibson Institute of Cognitive Research. “Every emotion is bigger and greater and magnified. That grief can feel absolutely overwhelming. And that relief can be almost a sense of exhilaration.”
An ADHD support group helped Pannu gradually accept her diagnosis. She met people with similar symptoms, asked them questions, and shared her experiences. “If it wasn’t for them,” she says, “I may not have started my medication and I probably would be confused even now.”
Once she started taking stimulant medication, she felt like she’d begun tapping into her mind’s full potential. She now plans to pursue a master’s degree in business. She’s studying for the GMAT business school entrance exam and aiming for a high score.
Despite her high hopes for the future, Pannu is disappointed that she didn’t learn she had ADHD earlier. She grew up in India, where she says a lack of awareness about the disorder, along with stigma about women’s mental health, kept her from getting diagnosed earlier in life.
“I wish I knew about this diagnosis sooner. I would have performed way better in my academics and accomplished a lot more,” she says. “I feel like there was so much in my life that I could have done.”
Grief is one of the main emotions you might feel when you learn you have ADHD in your late teens or adulthood, psychologist Moore says.
“You grieve the realization that your life could have been so much easier, if you had just known. You grieve the loss of the life that you could have had that whole time. And you grieve the loss of the ideal adulthood that you pictured for yourself,” she says.
Some people feel anger along with sadness: “Anger that nobody recognized [your ADHD] before, or that nobody did anything about it before — and that you have suffered so long without an explanation or without help.”
Pannu didn’t find the help she needed until she was almost 30. But now that she’s accepted her diagnosis, she understands herself better. And she has a healthy sense of humor about who she is.
“I always thought that I was weird. I didn’t know what kind of weird,” she laughs. “But I know now.”
When Melissa Carroll’s doctor diagnosed her with ADHD last year, the 34-year-old credit analyst in Nashville was grateful to learn the news. After years of struggling to finish tasks, advance her education, and hold together various relationships, she felt at peace with the diagnosis.
“I’m a little bit all over the place, and not everyone can keep up with that,” Carroll says, describing what it may be like for others to have a conversation with her. She says that her ideas make sense in her head, “but trying to hold that conversation or to make it make sense in a professional setting is sometimes difficult.” She also struggles with follow-through, she says. “Being driven enough in one direction for long enough to get to the next stage is difficult.”
Treatment changed that. She started taking stimulant medication, which improved her ADHD symptoms. It also eased her severe depression, which she believes stemmed partly from decades of untreated ADHD. She’d had a tough childhood without a very stable home life. Adults tended to dismiss her symptoms as Carroll just “acting out.”
“You adapt to life so much that you get used to spinning your wheels, but at some point you just get burned out on spinning your wheels, and you give up,” she says.
Medication and therapy helped Carroll get traction. It all started with the ADHD diagnosis that gave her hope that life could get better.
It’s common to feel some comfort when you learn you have adult ADHD, says cognitive psychologist Moore. “That initial feeling of relief comes from the fact that you finally have this explanation for your deficits. A reason why you struggled in school and in relationships. Relief that there’s an actual name for why you struggle with time management and organization.”
After she got the diagnosis, Carroll took steps to get better-organized. “If I need lists or I need an app to remind me what rooms I need to clean, or what order I need to do things in, then it’s OK for me to do that,” she says.
She told everyone she knew that she had ADHD. Many weren’t surprised. “I was blown away. I didn’t realize it was so evident to some people — because it wasn’t to me,” she laughs. “I was excited to be able to say, ‘I found this out about myself, and it makes sense.’ I think it’s the key to what I’ve been missing.”
Moore can relate to Carroll’s excitement. She felt the same way when she learned that she had ADHD at 20 years old.
“I was so excited that I had a name for what was going on with me that I wanted everybody in the world to know,” she says. “I sang it from the rooftops.”
Moore learned she had ADHD during college in the late ’80s. “Before then, the only people that got diagnosed were hyperactive little boys. So for a girl with predominantly inattentive ADHD, I was one of those that fell through the cracks.”
When she was a child, her parents gave her a highly structured home life. Once she went away to college, though, she struggled to stay organized and manage her time. But her mother, a child development specialist, worked with children in the era when they were starting to get diagnoses of ADHD. When she recognized the signs in her own daughter, she urged Moore to see a doctor about it.
After Moore found out she had the disorder, she went on stimulant medication and proceeded to sail through college, graduate school, and a doctoral program.
“I did not grieve as much as I felt relieved,” she says. “It may be because in the ’80s, this was not a diagnosis that was widespread. Maybe if I were going through the same situation two decades later, I would have known that they could’ve done something and didn’t.”
Moore sees many people who get a later diagnosis go through a “tug of war” between grief and relief.
Treatments like medication and cognitive behavioral therapy help many adults with ADHD take charge of their lives and their emotions. Moore says it’s also important to understand the key reason for these big emotions. ADHD affects thinking skills called executive functions. These include organizational skills, working memory, focus, and the ability to control your emotions. A treatment called cognitive training, or brain training, can boost these skills, Moore says.
“Cognitive training is participation in intense repetitive mental tasks that directly target those skills. Once you strengthen those, you’ll get the benefits of emotional regulation, since that’s an executive function skill as well.”
It can also help to set boundaries in your life, she says. If you work in an office, for example, you could stick a do-not-disturb sign on your door or cubicle when you need extra quiet to focus. Or you could have a candid talk with your boss about your ADHD and ask them to move you to a less-busy part of the office, so you can be as productive as possible.
Meeting other people with ADHD can be a big pick-me-up, too. “Something amazing happens in support groups,” Moore says. “Just the idea that you’re not experiencing something alone has a powerful therapeutic aspect.”
If you’re newly diagnosed with adult ADHD, consider talking to your close family and friends about it. “If you educate your loved ones, and they’re able to look at your reactions and say, ‘Hey, is this because they have ADHD that they’re responding to me this way?’ they might show you a little more grace,” Moore says.