What's It Really Like to Have ADHD?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 07, 2021
4 min read

Duane Gordon was a project manager at a firm in Montreal when his boss asked him to run the Monday morning meeting. "I was excited because this was obviously a test of [whether] I could eventually be groomed for taking over the department," he recalls.

That discussion took place on Friday afternoon. On Monday, everyone showed up for the meeting, wondering where the boss was, including Gordon. "It was completely gone from my memory that I was to run this meeting," he says. When the boss didn't show up, everyone went back to their desks. Later in the day, the boss came in and asked Gordon how the meeting went. "I said, 'We didn't have the meeting, you weren't here. I figured we'd have it when you came in.' And he looked at me completely dumbfounded, like, 'How is that even possible?'"

Gordon has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He describes it as a feeling of paranoia. “You're always, always on edge."

He explains: “You never know when something is going to go horribly wrong. There's every chance it will. If my boss calls me, I wonder what went wrong. If I get mail, I wonder if I'm going to jail. You assume and expect that at any moment you're going to get sideswiped by something, and it's something you did or forgot to do that is going to have severe repercussions.”

ADHD is a condition that both children and adults can have. The symptoms include an inability to focus, being easily distracted, hyperactivity, poor organization skills, and impulsiveness. Not everyone who has ADHD has all these symptoms. They vary from person to person and tend to change with age.

Only in the last few decades have researchers realized that ADHD can last into adulthood. Experts say every adult with ADHD had it as a child, too, whether it was diagnosed or not. And most adults with ADHD weren’t diagnosed as children, says Linda Walker, an ADHD coach. She helps clients with time management, organization, and anything else they need to be successful in life.

"We [humans] are not very empathetic," Walker says. She says it’s hard for people who don’t have ADHD to understand someone with it. Walker says she learned through experience: She’s married to Gordon. ”When you live with a person who has ADHD, you realize that there is no one on Earth who would put that much effort into failing over and over again."

Gordon was diagnosed in his early 30s when they were looking for help for their daughter. She was having a lot of trouble focusing in school. They started learning about ADHD and soon found out both Gordon and their daughter had the condition.

Terry Matlen is a therapist who specializes in adults with ADHD, particularly women. She too has ADHD. Her diagnosis came after her daughter’s. "A real common theme," she says. ADHD tends to run in families.

She describes having ADHD like this: "It's a chronic sense of overwhelmed. It feels like you're being attacked in all areas of your daily life -- like sounds, and lights, and sensory things can be overwhelming." Matlen is the author of Survival Tips for Women with ADHD.

She says she hit a wall after she became a mother. “And that is what we see a lot with women, once their lives become more complicated, they can't stay on top of things. Both of my children turned out to be hyperactive. I couldn't keep up. I felt like a total failure, someone with two college degrees couldn't do something as seemingly easy as putting dinner on the table every night or keeping the house organized."

She says it took a toll on her self-esteem, “Like, what is wrong with me? There's people with five kids who can juggle all the responsibilities of taking care of a family. Why couldn't I do it with two? Am I dumb? Am I incompetent?"

She wants others with ADHD to understand what she now knows: “You're not broken, you're not hopeless, you just need a little extra help.”

Karen Thompson is an Atlanta-based drafter at an engineering firm who sought help in her 30s. "People said I had no filter, that I would jump from subject to subject and I had a lot of thoughts in my head." A psychiatrist diagnosed her with ADHD and put her on medication, which she says helped her calm down but also made her very sleepy and nauseous. So she came off of it and tries to control her ADHD in other ways, like working out and practicing yoga.

"I feel like a healthy person when I wake up in the morning and continue with my day, but I do have a lot of thoughts in my head. I'm fidgety a lot. I can't sit still; I can't get comfortable in a chair. Maybe I'm a little emotional. ADHD can [do that]. Sometimes I'm feeling good and then someone says something bad to me and next I'm feeling kind of down."

She says her condition has caused negative interactions with co-workers and managers. "People don't understand the difficulties you have when it comes to focusing and distractions. “Instead of excelling, you're always [considered] mediocre," she says.

"You can't [always] look at someone and say they have ADHD," Matlen says. "Particularly if they have outgrown the hyperactive component of ADHD, you don't see the inner struggle."

As for Gordon, after the meeting that didn’t happen, he was put on probation, demoted, and had to take a pay cut. But it was also a turning point. He had just started working with an ADHD coach. "I discovered I would be much better if I went with my strengths," he says. "And my strengths are not details. They are creativity and finding solutions to technical problems.”