Home Health Snap out of it: A journey of undiagnosed ADHD

Snap out of it: A journey of undiagnosed ADHD

As reporter Zehra Raza explains it: School can be unbearable for students with undiagnosed ADHD

by Zehra Raza
Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with school. 

While my academic performance was generally strong throughout elementary and high school, I found myself constantly struggling with productivity and focus.

In Grade 12, I remember sitting down at my desk to work on an essay for English class. Two hours later, I had written five sentences but reorganized my closet. 

This wasn’t an isolated occurrence: Day after day, night after night, I couldn’t bring myself to complete basic tasks in a timely manner.

My inconsistent ability to focus and get work done led to me associating the concept of school with anxiety and uneasiness.

Despite the high marks and academic praise I got, I told myself that I didn’t deserve it since I was not diligent or disciplined enough to be considered a good student.

When I got a 90 per cent on that English essay, all I could think of was the fact that it took me two hours to write five sentences.

At first, I chalked it up to being a lazy teenager. That, at least, was an easy problem with an easy solution.

I tried whatever I could to build my attention span — concentration music, productivity journals, mindfulness exercises— the list is endless.

Nothing ever worked long enough for me to notice a substantial difference in my work ethic. Minor things turned into big distractions that started to take a toll on my self-esteem.

When I reached university, an inconsistent ability to focus and get work done led to me associating the concept of school with anxiety and uneasiness.

Eventually, I learned that I wasn’t dealing with typical school stress. I had been battling attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD).

But having gone undiagnosed for the majority of my education put me at a disadvantage when I got to university.

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that causes differences in the brain relating to attention and activity levels, including hyperactivity and impulsivity, according to Medical News Today.

Symptoms often begin in early childhood and can follow a person into adolescence and adulthood, according to Mayo Clinic.

ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in children than adults. The British Journal of Psychiatry estimates that ADHD prevalence in adults 18-44 is at an average of 3.4 per cent worldwide. 

Clinical psychologist Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee says undiagnosed ADHD can compromise a student’s ability to focus, complete tasks and succeed academically.

They may be more impulsive, disorganized, and experience intense emotions.

“None of these things are ‘bad,’ but, when they go untreated and/or unaccommodated, this can make it really hard to be successful with school,” said Alani-Verjee. “It may take students with ADHD longer to complete tasks, more complicated or multi-stepped projects may seem impossible to complete, and there is a higher likelihood of students forgetting deadlines and dates related to school.”

Mohammed Siddique, a second-year biology student, feels lucky to have received his diagnosis at the age of 10 after showing significant symptoms in elementary school.

Siddique says having his ADHD caught early had a positive impact on his poor experience of school, as well as his poor performance.

His school was able to make adjustments to his education plan to accommodate his ADHD, which followed him into university.

“I’m really grateful that I didn’t have to spend years hating school just because I had an undiagnosed condition,” said Siddique.

Alani-Verjee stresses the importance of academic accommodations for those with ADHD, such as extra time on tests and assignments, access to class notes and lecture recordings, and an accessibility adviser who can help them break down larger tasks so they do not seem as insurmountable.

“While students without ADHD are still likely to get distracted, and have difficulty getting complex projects done, the ways in which this impairs a student with ADHD is significantly different than for a student without ADHD,” says Alani-Verjee. “When a student with ADHD has access to accommodations, this can allow them better opportunities to be successful.”

Siddique is one of the 7.2 per cent that get diagnosed as a child.

For people like myself who are diagnosed much later in life, those accommodations and preventive measures are not provided in school, and it can make it a more difficult environment to navigate.   

In my third year of university, I felt like I had hit a breaking point.

I was entrenched in a university culture that glamourizes — sometimes even encourages — working non-stop to the point of exhaustion.

If you weren’t a part of several clubs, juggling an internship and a part-time job and spending countless hours every night reviewing class notes, you weren’t doing enough.

Without a proper diagnosis, life had become a nightmare.

University is already stressful enough, and when it felt like my productivity and determination was not as strong as my peers, I developed an inferiority complex and imposter syndrome.

All that pressure made me lose any motivation I had left, not only in school but in life.

After an emotional meeting with an undergraduate academic adviser, I decided that I wasn’t going to let these intrusive thoughts take over my life and I reached out for help.

But here in Ontario, adult ADHD assessments by psychologists can be costly — often ranging from $1,000 to $4,000 according to the Centre for ADHD Wellness, Canada.

I am fortunate enough to have health insurance that covered a portion of my assessment, but people who don’t have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket, which can be a deterrent and further delay diagnosis.

Alani-Verjee says that those who can’t afford an ADHD assessment out of pocket can take alternative steps to receive a diagnosis such as speaking to a family physician, although they may face trouble along the way.

“The tricky thing about that path is that family physicians may not have the experience in assessing ADHD, and may refer to a psychologist,” said Alani-Verjee. “The diagnosis from a family physician will also likely not be sufficient for accessing accommodations at the post-secondary level.”

However, according to Alani-Verjee, if a post-secondary student is eligible for the Ontario Student Assistance Program, it is possible that the cost (or majority of the cost) of an ADHD assessment will be covered.

She recommends students start by speaking to their school’s accessibility services office to learn more about this. 

After weeks of appointments and psychological assessment, I was officially diagnosed.

Initially, it felt like every aspect of my life had just fallen back into place — or at least started to. However, it was not an easy trek from that point on.

While everything my doctor explained to me about the disorder and my behaviour started to make sense of my years of confusion, I learned that those years of struggling couldn’t be resolved overnight.

Receiving a diagnosis was only the first step. Treatment looks different for everyone.

Medicated stimulants, behavioural therapy and skills training have shown promise in people with ADHD, according to the CDC.

My journey to recovering has been one of trial and error with just as many highs as lows.

Once I learned that this disorder isn’t linear, I accepted the fact that ADHD is something I will face for the rest of my life, but that there will always be room for growth. 

I’ve spent most of my life undiagnosed, so I’ve found it hard to have to suddenly learn how to cope with the disorder.

School as a person with ADHD is a different experience.

However, I’m continuously learning what helps me as a student and am proud of the progress I have made thus far. 

Anyone struggling with ADHD, diagnosed or undiagnosed, please know that it does not make you a bad person or someone incapable of reaching their goals.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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