18? We don’t do diagnoses for adults

Max Laboyrie
Nov 11, 2022

Welcome to ADHD stories, a Cog series in which ADHDers share their journey from struggle to treatment to living well.

These stories are meant to help answer questions like: What does ADHD look like? How is the process of diagnosis? What is the impact of different treatments?

Most of all, we hope these stories help destigmatise ADHD and allow ADHDers (diagnosed or not) to feel seen and capable of improving their lives.

Today, we tell the story of Phoebe, who is a software developer and studies aerospace engineering. Phoebe sought a diagnosis three times in the span of ten years, and was turned away the first two times. Turns out third time’s indeed a charm; at 25 she finally got the diagnosis ADHD. Hers is a story of perseverance.

(For privacy reasons, we’re not using Phoebe’s actual name.)

When Phoebe got diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 25, it didn’t come as a surprise. She first suspected she might have ADHD ten years before, and she’d sought a diagnosis twice since. She was turned away both times.

“Upon being diagnosed, I felt I could make up for the time and energy I’d lost trying to get a diagnosis. Instead of brute forcing my way through life — through classes, tests, meetings and problems — I could now find professional help.”

And, indeed, Phoebe had not only been using brute force in programming problems in her work as a software developer, but also generally in life.

She first noticed she was different when her secondary school peers suddenly stopped playing around and got much more serious. “They were able to pay attention whenever they wanted, where I found it difficult to focus.”

Around that time, she got her first smartphone, and she started Googling questions like “Why can’t I focus?” and “How to concentrate?”

ADHD popped up in the search results, but when she first read about the condition, she felt the stories were exaggerated.

After struggling in school for a while longer, however, she mentioned her struggles to her parents and linked them to ADHD. Her parents thought the condition was exaggerated, as she too had thought initially, and they wouldn’t have any of it.

“I was left feeling angry. Something was clearly wrong, but my parents wouldn’t help me find out what that was.”

And so she continued to struggle silently through high school. Ultimately, after graduating, her symptoms — left unchecked — reached a boiling point and she started suffering from anxiety.

She saw a psychologist, who, during their second session, asked if she had ever been tested for ADHD.

She was put in touch with a public clinic, and she phoned them, hoping they could help her get a diagnosis. The call, however, didn’t go as planned:

“I vividly remember to this day, how rude the lady on the other end was. Upon telling her that I’d just turned 18, she said: 18? We don’t do diagnoses for adults and the line went dead.”

This upsetting experience discouraged her from seeking a diagnosis again, and after moving cities for university, she lost contact with her psychologist.

But when she moved cities and transitioned from secondary school to uni, her struggles stuck with her. In fact, her ADHD got a lot worse. “I was struggling, but I often thought I just ought to try harder. At a certain point, however, I started telling people I was on the verge of dropping out — though I never truly believed I would; I simply couldn’t admit that I couldn’t do what others could.”

And so, unwilling to quit, Phoebe sought a diagnosis at a public clinic again. She was met with more disappointment: her email to the clinic was never answered.

She plodded through uni, passing her tests by doing “a whole lot of cramming at the last minute” and rolled straight into working as a software developer.

“Working was so different from uni. In uni, whenever I hadn’t paid attention during a lecture, I could simply ask my fellow students what I’d missed. At work, if I zoned out during a meeting — which happened quite regularly — I would be too afraid to ask my colleagues what I’d missed. Working my way around this was like solving a puzzle: I knew what I was ultimately working towards and I had some bits of information here and there — the trick was to piece those together with a lot of hard work and creativity, and in the end the puzzle would be solved.”

Unfortunately, this process was accompanied by a lot of frustration and doubt. Once more, negative thoughts crept into Phoebe’s mind, and she even considered quitting software development altogether: “I thought I had to get out of my field, thinking I wasn’t good enough to make it work.”

Again, she thought that some of her issues might be linked to ADHD, and this time she thought “it’s now or never.” After ten years of self-doubt and frustration, after being turned away twice, and finally a lengthy process with clinics, she got the diagnosis.

It was as though a veil had been lifted from her eyes: she realised just how many aspects of her life were affected by her ADHD: not just her studies and work, but also in her day-to-day life. “I’d been so hard on myself for years, but the diagnosis really gave me perspective: it helped me understand that my struggles were not rooted in my personality, but rather in my ADHD.

“I used to get angry at myself for making silly mistakes and forgetting my keys and wallet for example.
I can still get annoyed at myself for this, but since the diagnosis, I find it much easier to accept that this forgetfulness is a part of me — I no longer have to fight it.”

After being diagnosed, Phoebe was initially put on medication, but that didn’t work for her. She opted for coaching instead, which helped her to organise her time and to break down tasks into manageable chunks: “so they weren’t quite so overwhelming.”

Coaching also helped her greatly in accepting herself. “One of the techniques I learned was to recognise that the brain jumps to conclusions with negative thoughts. Whenever I had a negative thought — that I wasn’t good enough for example — I would wonder whether there was any truth in that thought, or whether it was an exaggeration. I recognised that the feeling which accompanies a negative thought is valid, but the reasons behind it are often invalid!”

After struggling her way through her bachelor’s, she thought she’d never be able to do a master’s, but that turned out to be another negative thought she could invalidate — last year she started a master’s in aerospace engineering!

“The master’s is definitely tougher than my bachelor’s, but my organising skills are getting me through. Besides, now when I’m struggling and need help, I’m no longer afraid to ask and I’m not so hard on myself as before.”

And as if that isn’t enough, she’s still working as a full-time software developer. Her biggest motivator in developing is seeing the results of her work: “seeing an app which I helped develop makes me super happy and excited.”

Phoebe’s key tip for others with (undiagnosed) ADHD is to watch so-called study along videos: “watching someone studying really motivates me to work along with them. I invite everyone to try them, even if you’re sceptical initially!”

She also hoped people would not get discouraged when the going gets tough. “In tough times, it’s easy to be hard on yourself and forget how well you’re doing. You might not complete all your goals, but hard work will get you a very long way. I didn’t think I’d be doing a master’s, but here I am.”

Here she is indeed: doing a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and working as a software developer after years of self-doubt and frustration; feeling happier, smiling and finally able to accept herself for who she is.