When my ten-year-old son Michael was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), I can’t say I felt a sense of relief. If anything, my reaction was anger. Anger at the psychiatrist who announced it in front of my son’s teachers, whom he was interviewing as part of the final stage of diagnosis.
It was 2011, and we were sitting in the school office, with the smell of shepherd’s pie coming down the hall. He was a private psychiatrist, paid for by our health insurance, so surely we should hear first — not anyone else?
Because getting a NHS verdict would take a long time, and with my son in year six of primary school, with SATS tests looming, the school had suggested we take the fast route and go private to secure a speedy diagnosis.
That was how I found myself watching the specialist ADHD psychiatrist ask the Special Educational Needs and form teachers for information. At the end, he totted up the numbers on a score-sheet as casually as if he was announcing who had just won at mini-golf.
Emma Mahony revealed how her son Michael’s (pictured) diagnosis of ADHD led to her also being diagnosed with the disorder aged 52
‘Yes, your son does have ADHD,’ he repeated. ‘He scored eight out of nine for the inattentive type [of the condition], but he doesn’t seem to have the hyperactive type — he only scored five out of nine for that.’
I already knew that ADHD was a complex neurodevelopmental disorder, with sufferers restless, impulsive and easily distracted.
But how dare he tell me in front of his teachers? I was furious. The teachers, sensing me fuming in the corner, asked what could be done to help.
‘Well, we recommend medication as the first line,’ said the psychiatrist.
I exploded. ‘Well, I don’t believe in drugs for ten-year-olds,’ I said, grabbing my handbag and pushing my way out of the door. As far as I was concerned, the meeting was over.
Storming out was my standard response to most things I didn’t want to hear back then. Even in my late 40s, as a mother of three and a journalist, I had a reputation for fiery reactions. This was no different.
A year after that meeting with the psychiatrist, Michael was suspended from secondary school, with a letter saying he was allowed to return when he was deemed ‘under control’.
I finally had to relent and accept that he needed something more than just fish oils to tackle his ADHD and keep him in mainstream education. Until then I always found it hard to see him as a problem, because he was so . . . well, like me.
Emma (pictured) said she dragged her mother-in-law to an international ADHD conference in Liverpool because she was convinced it was her husband who held the gene
ADHD tends to run in families and, in most cases, it’s thought the genes you inherit from your parents are a significant factor in developing the condition. After Michael’s ADHD diagnosis, I was convinced it was my husband who held the genetic fault line. In fact, I was so convinced it was his side of the family, that I even dragged my mother-in-law along to the 2013 international ADHD conference in Liverpool, thinking she would have a light bulb moment and help me put the pieces of the family puzzle together.
Little did I know as she left me there, chatting with some of the other women, that the light bulb would go off above my own head.
The more I talked to these women, already diagnosed with ADHD, about things like their childhood nicknames (mine was Fidgety Phil), or their tricky teenage years (the smoking, the drinking, the shoplifting), the more I began suspect it was me all along who could explain my son’s diagnosis. Our life stories were so similar.
Could it be time to finally look at my own volatile behaviour? At 49, I had to face up to exactly why it had taken me 14 attempts to quit smoking; why I was late for everything (those with ADHD suffer something called ‘time blindness’); and why I seemed totally unable to go to bed at a decent time (sufferers often have an atypical circadian rhythm, with a delayed sleep phase which means they seem to wake up in the evenings).
Emma who had been happily married for 15 years, said she had to examine her history of unraveling friendships. Pictured: Emma and her husband Adam
More painful to examine were the friendships that had often unravelled after a falling out. Despite being happily married for 15 years, I had always enjoyed drama. I had plenty of ‘new best friends’ that had fallen by the wayside over the years, resulting in many a sticky ending.
It was only later that I learnt that emotional affairs, intense non-physical relationships, are a recognised aspect of the condition.
And the more I looked into the condition following Michael’s diagnosis, the more I started to wonder if this might be the reason why I had also struggled in school.
I know now that I am not alone in this. Most adults come to an understanding of having ADHD through the diagnosis of their children, because the condition is inherited in 80 per cent of the cases — it is as much down to your genes as height.
However ADHD does show up differently in girls to boys.
Boys tend to be diagnosed three times more frequently than girls, perhaps because they act up, exhibiting the hyperactive presentation — swinging off drainpipes in the playground (in my son’s case). Rather than the inattentive type — looking dreamily out of the window (me).
It’s not just the chronic distraction and restlessness both girls and boys suffer from (unless interested in the subject when they can lose all sense of time in a state of ‘hyperfocus’), female ADHD is more likely to manifest in talkativeness (I was banned from my secondary school library) or underperformance at school, as my A-level results and failed Oxbridge attempt were perhaps evidence of.
Emma said it is little wonder that around 20 per cent of the prison population in the UK are estimated to have ADHD. Pictured: Emma and her son Michael
I had been ushered into my private boarding school, Millfield, on an academic bursary at the age of ten, and crashed out at 18 as nothing more than a fully paid-up rebel. Now, some 30 years later, I was questioning whether something else might have been going on.
As a teenager I took to climbing on top of the sports hall, raiding the larder at midnight, riding in the boot of the bus, smoking, drinking, and, worst of all, occasionally shoplifting with my best friend. I was 15, luckily rarely caught, although I was ‘gated’ 13 times (no make-up, no jewellery, skirts only, report to the head of house during break times).
It is little wonder that around 20 per cent of the prison population are estimated to have ADHD in the UK, and I sometimes wonder if I married a criminal barrister as insurance against some future fate.
Adam and I had met at a party through his late sister, who was working for me when I ran a magazine publishing company in London. We clicked instantly, although he was four years younger and just starting out as a criminal barrister.
Apparently, I told him that I preferred to lose my purse occasionally rather than spend all my time worrying about where it was. So, in one way, he knew what he was getting into — but I think he read my carelessness as confidence.
Emma (pictured) said in hindsight she recognizes restlessness in her early days of motherhood as a key characteristic of having ADHD
We were very happy at first. We functioned in our own slightly chaotic way, day to day. But in the early days of motherhood, our house became more like a war zone than a haven to return home to, and Adam and I argued daily, as our growing family of a three-year-old son and newborn twins Millie and Michael added to the stress of managing our two jobs.
I was working as a freelance journalist, having just left a national newspaper as a commissioning editor, while my husband was pushing hard to become a music lawyer, so we were both under a fair amount of stress.
My restlessness, which in hindsight I recognise as a key characteristic of ADHD, would result in endless house moves — 15 in total by the time we moved out of London to the country to find better schools.
Impulsivity, another ADHD hallmark, could be seen in occasional poor-decision making — like the time I decided to dash off an article which overnight turned the whole village against us (its headline was ‘Stuck in the sticks: the misery of the countryside’). Facing the mothers at the school gate the next day made me realise I had truly left the world of metropolitan thinking.
Fortunately, my husband has a great sense of humour, so tends to find my mishaps amusing, despite our sudden dearth of dinner party invites.
Emma argues ADHD is poorly understand despite having celebrity advocates including Rory Bremner and Michael Phelps. Pictured: Emma and Michael
Distractibility meant I struggled to keep hold of keys, handbags, laptops, credit cards, and would lead me to wonder, often, how other people seem to function so effortlessly?
What followed my light bulb moment at the conference was a long process to get diagnosed on the NHS.
ADHD is so poorly understood that despite many advocates in the celebrity and sporting world — from comedian Rory Bremner to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps — some people still don’t believe it exists. It differs from other neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism because, with a diagnosis, instant help is available with access to medication.
But it is a condition we need to take seriously. By the time Michael was diagnosed at ten, he had already moved school four times, an attempt by me to keep his behaviour under the radar. But, worse, he had also suffered a terrible road accident where he was airlifted to hospital with a broken leg and concussion after being knocked down by a car while crossing in front of the school bus. ADHD is a serious condition which has all sorts of side-effects, including a shorter life expectancy.
I had seen the miraculous transformation when Michael began taking stimulant medication (ADHD is treated with stimulants which, counterintuitively, have a calming effect). Although he was no longer the ebullient character I loved, I watched his confidence grow as his grades improved.
Emma (pictured) said she was politely fired from two jobs around the time of her ADHD diagnoses from the NHS
The only godsend throughout my years of turbulence was that I had chosen to go into therapy early in my marriage, soon after the twins were born. I had been unable to cope with the demands of keeping house, children and career on an even keel.
While most use psychotherapy as a short-term tool, I continued with it year in and year out. Interestingly, although I saw a number of therapists, not one spotted the ADHD in the quiet of their rooms, which I think is related to the intensity of the counselling experience.
In the end, it took almost three years to get my own NHS diagnosis. It’s no coincidence I got the diagnosis aged 52 either.
With oestrogen levels falling during menopause, my usual forgetfulness became so bad I not only seemed incapable of keeping hold of my handbag, but also jobs.
I was politely fired from two jobs for making cumulative petty mistakes around the time of my diagnosis. My usual trick of getting angry and blaming others was no longer working.
As part of the diagnosis process, I was asked to bring in my school reports, and there — more than 30 years earlier — were the comments from my teachers: ‘her absent-mindedness is exasperating’ or ‘she has difficulty keeping hold of her belongings’. By the time the psychiatrist announced I had it, too, I had come round to the idea that I was one of the 3-8 per cent of the population who have ADHD.
Emma (pictured) said since being given medication, she has retrained as a secondary school teacher and loves it
More importantly, I started to find the positives in the condition; the energy that meant I wasn’t ready to retire, but actually wanted to use the self-knowledge to advocate for others in a similar situation. When I heard a fellow journalist, Lucy Kellaway, talk about her career-changing organisation called Now Teach — I knew immediately that was what I needed to do.
With the benefit of medication, I retrained with her organisation as a secondary school teacher of modern foreign languages and now teach French and Spanish in a number of different schools in Sussex and London. I love it.
The children keep you on your toes and many of the so-called ‘naughty’ ones are secretly my favourites. It confirms my belief that neurodifferences don’t have to be a disability if you know why you behave like you do.
Since my diagnosis, I have learnt to recognise that I am wired differently, so need to have routines in place to stop me losing things or turning up late and to keep me organised — especially as a teacher.
I married an opposite in my husband, who feels finally vindicated that keeping the house in order is the best way to avoid conflict. We spend far less time arguing these days and more time planning the odd adventure instead (his concession to me). We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary scuba diving in Antigua in January.
It may have taken me 30 years to come to know myself better, but I feel lucky that I now understand my brain-based difference. Better late than never.
Better Late Than Never: Understand, Survive And Thrive — Midlife ADHD Diagnosis, by Emma Mahony (£12.99, Trigger Publishing), is out on Thursday.
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