Startup

Coping with ADHD for 27 years before diagnosis

Innes is a mathematician and software engineer at Cocoon smart home security, he's also a doting dad and husband. At 27 he was diagnosed with ADHD.
Cocoon Labs

Innes is a brilliant part of the Cocoon team, a mathematician and software engineer, he’s also a doting dad and husband. A the age of 27 he discovered he had ADHD, a neurological disorder where the frontal cortex of the brain is wired a little differently. It’s common worldwide, with estimates of 5% of children having the condition.

He hopes that sharing his story can help those also living with ADHD, which Innes has found to be, in some ways, a blessing in disguise.

Misdiagnosed with stress, anxiety and autism

I only found out that I had ADHD two years ago, in my late twenties. I was a teacher, I’d just become a dad and was very stressed. Everyone is envious of teachers’ long holidays but for me, they were essential. It was when I had time to be a human again, catch up on work and maybe spend some time with family too.

As my stress levels and anxiety increased I was lucky to have supportive friends and family – but there was a recurring comment; “this seems like more than work stress”. Eventually, I visited my GP to discuss it. He wasn’t great, declaring:

“You’re like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, clearly Autistic”

I was a teacher at a school with a unit that helped kids with Autism and had lots of experience with the condition. Knowing a key aspect of Autism was trouble communicating and struggling in social interactions made me doubt this. I was a teacher, communicating and engaging with people was something I knew I was good at. With only one option from my GP as to what was “wrong” with me, I felt I had no choice but to explore it. Under his recommendation, I visited a mental health specialist.

How forums helped

I was diagnosed with Anxiety at first, but the specialist knew that this wasn’t quite right for all of my symptoms. We both tried to find an alternative explanation for my stress levels and eventually my wife Katie noticed something. As a new mum, she was regularly researching and talking to other mothers online. One day she read a post from a mother describing how their child talked about their thought process. She read it and thought “Wow! This is describing Innes!” The child in question had ADHD.

Katie spoke to her mum who was headmistress of a school with lots of experience in ADHD. She admitted that she had thought that I might have ADHD for a while. I started to look into it as well, doing self-diagnosis tests online. As I did these tests Katie would be laughing at me. Watching how easily distracted I was by every flashing advert, despite trying to focus on the tests. We concluded what the likely cause of all this anxiety was and it felt like a revelation.

Then began the formal diagnosis.

Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult

We found a better GP who referred me to a specialist unit in York to be formally assessed. I sat a bunch of tests which, as a teacher, scared me. I was familiar with the simple comprehension and reasoning tests, they were often given to the kids in my class who were struggling with maths. Though they seemed simple, the time restrictions made them tough.

Tasks like “cross out only red triangles and blue circles from this page of coloured shapes: you have one minute” – it sounds simple but proved surprisingly difficult!

I was a maths teacher, so when the mental arithmetic section started the specialist joked that I could relax. It should have been easy but I struggled: I’m terrible at mental arithmetic, I always have been! I was in the habit of writing everything down, using hundreds of post-it notes even for the simplest calculations. The kids from the school I taught at used to tease me for it, but in hindsight, it was something I did to cope with the ADHD I didn’t know I had.

I now know that a key part of ADHD is a poor working memory, so I was replacing my working memory with paper.

It was an enormous relief when, after all these tests, I was formally diagnosed with ADHD.

The doctor was amazed that I’d managed to get a degree and then be an effective maths teacher. It felt simple to me, having never been diagnosed I had always found ways to achieve the best I could. This mainly meant writing everything down. While I was coping at university, and as a teacher with undiagnosed ADHD, the stress they induced in me was much more than for my peers. The silver lining is that this stress led to my diagnosis.

What ADHD means for me

The best way I have found to explain what having ADHD is like to other people is that it is more like Intention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It’s not so much that you can’t focus on things – people with ADHD often focus intensely on things – rather that you can’t direct you focus efficiently. I lose hours to interesting puzzles or Wikipedia spirals, hopping from one topic to the next. The part of my brain that regulates things like emotion and willpower is less developed than it should be, so the key difficulty is applying what I know to what is in front of me.

Interestingly, someone with ADHD actually has less activity in their brain than a neurotypical person, but the region of the brain that is less active is responsible for self-regulation. The sensation is one of constant stimulation: as my students used to joke, I find pretty much everything interesting! The net effect is that I bounce around between topics and activities until I land on something that can keep my attention.

That’s why programming at Cocoon works well for me, I find the variety of my work incredibly interesting. My ability to get completely absorbed in something, courtesy of ADHD, is how I got my job at Cocoon in the first place. I had taught myself to program much faster than most people could. This is because when I’m engaged in something I make extremely quick progress.

This feeling of getting lost in something is called Hyperfocus. It’s a lot like “the zone” that athletes experience, but hyperfocus isn’t something I can control. This means the overall effect can be a bit hit or miss. Strangely enough, coffee helps! Working in a similar way to some of the prescription drugs given to those with ADHD, which are also stimulants. They work by levelling out the speeds at which various sections of your brain work, giving you time to think about what you are doing.

Some simple ways I cope with my ADHD:

  • Post-it notes, writing everything down in a way that visually pops!
    I never learnt through practice, things either clicked or they didn’t. It turns out this is because ADHD impacts your working memory. Practice helps cement things in working memory for neurotypical people, but with ADHD I have less capacity for that. After diagnosis, I realised that using notebooks and post-it notes was my substitute for working memory.
  • Setting smartphone reminders
  • More post-it notes
  • Always having a pen and notebooks with me because unless I write it down I won’t remember it. (I didn’t realise this was unusual until family described it as “my weird thing”!)
  • A few more post-it notes
  • Sticking to regular routines at work. We have daily stand-up meetings summarising what we worked on yesterday and what we plan to work on today. They help keep me more focused that I’d otherwise be.
  • Doodling. I found this especially useful at university. In lectures, I’d always have two notepads, one for lecture notes and another for doodles and braindumps. This helped me to concentrate on the lecture and meant I didn’t clutter my lecture notes with brilliant drawings.

The reality of ADHD

Almost everyone has some ADHD symptoms, but that’s not the same as living undiagnosed for 27 years. I had always wondered why certain things were easy for my friends but seemed impossible for me. And why things, like maths problems, didn’t just click for everyone else, as they did for me. Things I struggle with can be as simple as sticking to my class timetable, making sure there’s food in the house or remembering to get my kids out of pyjamas and dressed on a weekend.

The every day can be tough, you rely on routines to know what you should do and daily life often doesn’t fall into a routine. The silver lining is an ability to really focus on something I find interesting and for things to sometimes click into place without practice. I learnt to program in just six months, while teaching full-time and a doting dad. This seemed an impossible feat for many of my friends but a straightforward and enjoyable hobby for me.

Others ADHD stories

I’ll follow up soon with a post about how programming has really helped my ADHD, and what I’ve learnt through it. In the meantime, there are two websites I’ve discovered since diagnosis that have proven immensely valuable, so might be for you too:

  • Reddit’s amazing ADHD community. A lively group of people who regularly post useful tips and articles, it’s really worth checking out.
  • How To ADHD – Jessica McCabe started a YouTube channel as a personal way to keep track of her ADHD toolbox, the various strategies learned and insights gained from having and living with ADHD. Her fun videos and useful tips have gained a following, a supportive and interesting community has grown around her content. It’s well worth watching her videos and joining the conversations.

Having ADHD isn’t all doom and gloom, but it isn’t a superpower either. It all depends on the task at hand. There are some really great things about the way my brain works and some incredibly frustrating ones too. My diagnosis has helped me understand what comes naturally to me and what will need more work. To be more accepting of my differences. Lots of my quirks make sense, they were how I learnt to cope with feeling like my experiences were different to those around me.

I hope sharing my story might help others discovering what ADHD means for them.