The author with her beloved pocket rocket son, aged 8 months. (2020)

People often ask if there’s any point to getting an ADHD diagnosis as an adult, so I wanted to share a perspective which I don’t think gets talked about very often, possibly due to shame. I’m coming to the view, a couple of years after my late in life diagnosis (I was 48) that undiagnosed ADHD cost me the most precious thing of all – time with my young son.

My beloved son, (now a couple of months shy of turning 5) was born when I was about to turn 46. Within a year the COVID pandemic had taken hold, and Melbourne was in lockdown for the better part of 9 months. Like many middle-aged women, the pandemic lockdown took out my routines, my social connections, my opportunities to have me-time to rest and regroup… crumbling all my self-care into the ground. I had a new, much loved and wanted baby, but I was not coping with the everyday existence of being housebound with my whole family and new bub. I was overwhelmed, anxious and highly overstimulated most of the time. But, pre-diagnosis, I didn’t realise this was very understandable (and manageable) if you have ADHD. I just blamed myself for not coping. In the absence of understanding my ADHD brain, and my related sensory sensitivities, I thought I was unable to function as a mum. I thought there was something really wrong with me, because I would so easily ‘snap’ if more than two people were speaking at once or if my son was too loud (hello, toddler! my what a lot of noisy fun you are having ALL THE TIME). Once lockdown ended and school/work resumed, I discovered that a full day alone with my darling son left me completely drained, emotionally upset and desperate to lock myself in a room by myself and hide under the blanket. Having no room of my own (sharing with my husband and son) left me feeling incredibly on edge, like a caged animal with nowhere to escape to. I felt desperate. And I felt deeply awful that this was how I reacted to spending a day with my darling, beloved child. When I was in a calm, good place, I could enjoy being with him. But it seemed like I wasn’t ever in a good, calm place anymore. I began to feel that I was an extremely limited mother, who had something wrong with her, or was doing something very wrong, because I couldn’t handle spending a full day with my son without being a wreck at the end of it. I knew I loved him, we loved each other. We were beautifully bonded. We’d had trouble establishing breastfeeding, but with determination and the expert support of an IBCLC (lactation consultant) we’d gotten it working well. He co-slept in a sleeper and then moved into our bed to co-sleep at around 6 months when we felt confident we wouldn’t roll over and squish him in the night. I loved that closeness, so it wasn’t an attachment difficulty. But it felt extremely hard.

I chose to go back to work part time when our bub was 12 months old. It may sound a bit dark, but being a trauma counsellor in a pandemic, although a lot to carry emotionally and at times very, very stressful, was easier than being at home. I looked forward to dropping my son off at care, while feeling terribly guilty about how much easier I found work (or just about anything else) than spending a full day with him. I thought I was bad at being a mum. I didn’t know that the emotionally on edge and strung out feeling I had at the end of a day with a baby or toddler was very understandable if you understand that your ADHD brain means you have a very sensitive nervous system, which is very easily overstimulated by sensory input such as noise. And did I mention that toddlers interrupt their parent or carer approximately 3 times a minute? No chance to withdraw and regroup = sensory overwhelm. And for an ADHD brain which lockdown and its aftermath meant was starved of its normal ways to regulate – time with friends, time in nature, time to focus on enjoyable pursuits… that sensory overwhelm can be a gateway to snapping into anger when just one too many noises has crowded into the brain. It wasn’t my son’s fault. It wasn’t mine. I didn’t know why I was reacting the way I was. I didn’t know how to take care of myself and my brain in the way I needed, to avoid the sensory and emotional overwhelm of parenting a little one.

I wonder if this sounds familiar to any late diagnosed ADHD or autistic parents out there? Mums, especially. When our son was born, we had a friend with her 6 month old bub living with us. She was a great support and help. As was my husband, although he had to return to full time work two weeks after the birth. He’d been in a new job less than a month before our son was born. I lost count of the number of times I said to people “Even with the support of two other parents in the house, I barely feel like I’m coping most of the time.” This was my first baby, I had nothing to compare the experience to. So I accepted I was a chaotic mess, and as it didn’t feel good to be home with my son, I increased his days in care to 4. More because I was lacking knowledge about what I needed, and as a chaotic mess without the ability to put in place boundaries around my own needs and my son’s. And because as the cost of living was going up, and the cost of our new mortgage, our undiagnosed household was poor with money management and working another day per week felt necessary. So I went with the pressure of late stage capitalism and mum overwhelm and more often than not, I’d wimp out of having my son at home on his designated day with me, and drop him off at care instead. Feeling guilty but relieved at the same time.

You may be one of the legion of women who rocked up to their doctors during or post-pandemic to say “All my coping mechanisms are gone, what’s wrong with me?” I consider myself very lucky to also have stumbled across the key to much of my diminished coping ability, when I tuned into an episode of SBS Insight interviewing people about their experience of getting an adult diagnosis of ADHD. I had only been watching for a couple of minutes before I paused it to go get my husband and say “We both need to watch this!” Almost immediately, I’d identified myself in the stories of the adults who’d gotten overwhelmed with life, bogged down in trying to organise themselves, and had lived for so long feeling like there was something wrong with them, and they just didn’t measure up, and couldn’t function like everyone else around them.

A couple of years further down the track, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to afford a truckload of professional mental health support. The ADHD diagnosis and medication on its own was really not enough for me. In my case, it allowed me the executive function to be able to function ok at work, but then I’d crash off my meds in the mid to late afternoon and have zero to offer my family as I fell through the door at the end of the day. In my view, stimulant meds without a lot of other knowledge and self care can prop ADHDers up for work so they can be part of the capitalist machine, but it doesn’t really improve much else on its own. Your mileage may vary. But I benefited enormously from schema therapy and EMDR (trauma processing therapy). I believe it’s very common for people who receive a later in life diagnosis or ADHD or autism to be carrying trauma after a lifetime of being told they were different and wrong. So many late-diagnosed ADHDers I’ve spoken with have the cruestest inner voice. If you’re told you are bad, disruptive, careless, etc too many times as a kid, that becomes your punishing inner voice. Trauma therapy helped. Self compassion practice helped. Noise cancelling ear plugs helped. Hearing the stories of other ADHD and autistic women helped. May I give a big shout out to the extremely frank and generous interview given by author Katherine May on the topic “Why so many women don’t know they are autistic (you can read the transcript or listen to the episode at that link) to the We Can Do Hard Things podcast. Talking about how much it hurt when her husband told her that a family zoo trip would be more fun without her easily-overwhelmed self resonated so deeply with me. And it is not a small thing to be public about your mothering challenges. Katherine, your interview helped me see myself as someone with high sensitivity and unmet needs, rather than a failure of a mother. And it helped me identify that I’m likely autistic as well as ADHD. Thank you! 🙂

I wanted to share this story as an argument against those who believe there is little or no point in adults getting a diagnosis of ADHD or autism. I firmly believe that if I’d had my diagnosis before my darling son was born, I would have been able to access the information and support I needed to understand how to manage my sensory needs better, and explain them to those around me. Both my husband and myself are much more understanding now of why I can’t have a ticking clock in the house, and why I need to make sure I have some quiet alone time at the end of a workday, or at the end of a day solo parenting our little guy. I feel quite sure that with the proper support, I’d have been able to manage and enjoy being a part time stay at home mum, instead of missing out on so much of my little guy’s babyhood because I was so overwhelmed. As he appoaches turning 5, I grieve the time we lost together, but I am immersing myself in the time I’ve carved out with him now. Now that I’m well supported, I can be a much more supportive mum to him. <3