Finding out I had ADHD

Do you know what it’s like to try to run in a dream, where no matter how hard your brain tries to tell your legs to go, they just won’t move? That’s how I like to describe what having ADHD feels like to people when they ask. In less figurative language, I can’t focus. I’ve never been able to actually, no matter how hard I’ve tried.

For most of my life, however, I was oblivious to my condition – I assumed that everyone around me experienced this same disconnect between wanting to focus and being unable to, but was just able to hide it better. This is the story of how I found out that that wasn’t the case, and the impact that finding out only when I got older had on me.

For more perspectives, check out:

Growing up “hyper”

The first thing you should know about ADHD is that it manifests differently in individuals. Although the term stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, there’s a lot more to having ADHD than just being antsy or inattentive. This means that my experience is my experience, not everyone will have the same story to tell. 

Growing up, I was always hyper. Not just loud or excited, but bouncing off the walls hyper. In primary school, I would roam around the classroom freely during lesson time and yell out any thoughts that came to mind, much to the teacher’s dismay. 

growing up with adhd photo of young cherisse
This was basically my vibe all throughout childhood – imagine this sass in a classroom.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

And when I say I was bouncing off the walls hyper, I mean it literally – I once got in trouble for running into the classroom wall at full force and making a hole in the plaster, just because I wanted to see if I could run right through and leave a human-shaped hole, like in cartoons. 

Because of this, I was the kid who was made to sit at the front of the class so teachers could keep an eye on her, the kid whose parents became very friendly with school administration through their frequent chats, and certainly the kid that was the topic of countless staff meetings.

My poor teachers tried everything – first, they tried exclusion; leaving me out of classroom activities and making me sit outside alone until I had calmed down, every time I got a little too rowdy. 

When that didn’t work, they moved on to leadership incentives, where they would assign me leadership roles and hope that my newfound responsibility and shiny “class monitor” badge would motivate me to correct my behaviour and set an example for others. This was a little more successful, but even then, it mostly just suppressed my behaviour. 

Still, even though I had my issues in the classroom, I never struggled academically. In fact, it was quite the opposite – seeing gold star stickers on my papers was a frequent occurrence, and I regularly topped my class. 

growing up with adhd results slip
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

I often wonder if it was this clean academic track-record that was part of the reason why nobody suspected that anything was wrong with me – after all, this is Singapore; if your grades are good, what else could possibly matter? I think the adults around me mostly just dismissed my behaviour as childhood immaturity, and thought I would grow out of it. 

I often wonder if things would have been different had my grades been worse. Perhaps a couple Fs here and there would have set off the alarm bells necessary to prompt an ADHD evaluation. Regardless, I ended up doing great on the PSLE, and graduated from primary school without a hitch. 

growing up with adhd results slip
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

By the time I got to secondary school, however, the teachers no longer had time to babysit me. They had more important things to do, so I was mostly just labelled “disruptive” and left to my own devices. 

I mean devices here literally – my school offered digital learning before it was even really a thing;  each kid had their own personal laptop, which they were free to use during class, and take home after school. This arrangement was largely unsupervised and unregulated – big mistake for me. 

The funny thing about having ADHD is that while it makes it impossible to focus on serious tasks, somehow, it’s the opposite when it comes to frivolous activities. 

In class, my MacBook was a beacon, and I was one of those stupid little flies with big wings and a worm body that couldn’t help but be attracted to it, even if it meant getting burnt in the end. I spent more lesson time staring at the screen than I did the whiteboard, and pushed more buttons on my Mac than I ever did on my calculator.

You can probably guess, then, what happened to my grades – they fell just as fast as the battery did. 

Struggling in school

Now, we had a problem. With school no longer being so simple that exams could be aced without prep, and without having the ability to focus and get that prep done, my grades took a nosedive. There was only so far my smarts could take me – I had been speeding through the race, but ran out of gas. 

I was no longer the stellar student, or the whiz. Now, I was struggling. 

results slip struggling in school
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

Funnily enough, when I say my grades worsened, I don’t mean all of them. While my Maths and Sciences hit rock bottom, I continued to ace the subjects I liked – regularly getting As in English, History and Literature. Again, I believe this was because I was never really interested enough in the subject matter to focus – it’s hard to concentrate when your brain can tell it’s work. 

Plus, as a student in the Integrated Programme, I was guaranteed a spot in Junior College (JC), so it didn’t really bother me that my grades were as poor as they were. Without the stress of needing to do well at O Levels to earn that same spot, I didn’t see it as a problem that needed to be addressed right away, so I just let things be. Another mistake

Just like with primary school, I graduated, and moved on to JC. Unlike primary school, however, this time, I didn’t graduate with the same confidence, optimism or outstanding grades. With A Levels now looming, it became clear I needed to do something. 

Finally seeking the help I needed

In my last year of JC, just a month before the start of my A Levels, I decided to bite the bullet and ask my parents about getting tested. It wasn’t an easy ask, but I knew that it was necessary. 

Although my parents are, and have always been huge proponents of asking for help when you need it, my mother was pretty resistant to the idea of me seeing a “shrink”. 

I’m not sure if it was the perceived stigma that came with seeking psychological treatment, the mental associations of incurable insanity and “lunatics” locked up in asylums, or the fear of how our relatives would react if they found out – whatever it was, the idea put a bad taste in her mouth. 

Still, as one of my most fervent supporters, my mother eventually gave in. At some point, she must have realised that her resistance would end up being to my detriment, and with A Levels on the line, we couldn’t afford to play around. I was lucky to be able to seek help, and I thank my stars every day that my parents took me seriously. 

It was at this point that I embarked on my search for a reputable psychiatrist. Without any friends or teachers familiar enough with the condition to offer me any guidance, I turned to the all-knowing Google. To my surprise however, my countless searches turned up barely any helpful results – it seemed that for once, even Google was stumped. 

growing up with adhd making an appointment to see the doctor
I wasted no time in arranging my first appointment.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich 

After many a deep dive and scouring the internet for days on end, I eventually found a private psych who practised relatively close by. 

If you think public psychiatrists are far more affordable than private physicians, you’re right. Before you start facepalming, know that I was fully aware of this. Still, I decided to go down the private route because I didn’t have the luxury of time to wait around for an appointment; with A Levels fast approaching, I needed a diagnosis and any accompanying medication ASAP.

Before my first appointment, I had a mental image of what I envisioned the clinic to look like. I imagined sitting in a cold waiting room illuminated by glaring fluorescent light, surrounded by people who were all just a little bit off their rocker. To my surprise however, the clinic was much calmer than any other medical office I’ve ever been to. 

the doctor's office
A picture from the waiting room – the comfy chairs should give you an idea of how relaxing the place was.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

This initial sight was a relief for me – the serenity and privacy of the space did wonders for my nerves. They went away entirely when I was ushered into the consultation suite: a large, quaint room plastered from floor to ceiling with Star Wars paraphernalia.

The consultation was just about an hour-long – it felt more like a laid-back conversation than a clinical evaluation. Frankly, I quite enjoyed it – the doctor was incredibly personable, and after all, we were discussing my favourite topic: myself. After about 40 or so hows, whens, whys and whats, I received my diagnosis. 

You don’t need me to tell you what it was.

Getting diagnosed with ADHD

Finding out wasn’t as dramatic as you might expect. Granted, it was pretty surreal to finally have a definitive answer to an age-old question, but more than that, it offered me great comfort and relief to know that the speculation and suspense was finally over. 

doctor's diagnosis
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

In fact, it was almost reductive – to have years of wondering what was wrong with me exposited in 3 short lines, the damning phrase “has been diagnosed” confirming my condition. I would almost go so far as to say I felt a little duped; why had I been through the wringer all this time when the tiny pills I was prescribed proved that putting an end to it had always been this easy?

growing up with adhd ritalin prescription
I was prescribed Ritalin to help
manage my ADHD.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

While some may be troubled by the prospect of needing to rely on medication to focus, I see it as a lifesaver. But I get it – taking pills is something we typically associate with more serious conditions, and consumption should never be taken lightly.

However, everyone copes with their situation differently. Ritalin also isn’t like most other medications; it doesn’t cure ADHD. In fact, there is no cure. It simply “takes away” the symptoms, making it easier to focus by shushing the hundreds of distractions that normally make it impossible, even if just for a couple of hours.

Once it wears off, you’re back to “normal”, whatever that may be for you.

 focus on school work
Being medicated made it possible for me to focus. If you look closely, you’ll see my Ritalin boxes inside a plastic bag.
Image credit: Cherisse Goldwich

Once the initial wave of emotions dissipated, the feeling that was left was difficult to explain; on one hand, I didn’t want to be upset about my diagnosis because it would lend credence to an unfounded stigma. Yet, this unwillingness to perpetuate the stigma couldn’t stop me from resenting the fact that I was now, and had always been, a member of this stigmatised group. 

Grappling with this was, and is still, hard. I am not any more morally evolved than anyone else, so I still think about this from time to time. I mostly try to ignore it though, because I’ve realised that trying to rationalise my position is often futile and dwelling on it offers me no real solution. 

Coming to terms with having ADHD

So, where am I now? As I write this perspective it’s nearly 4am on a Saturday. Ironically, I’m writing at this time because it is only now, when the rest of the world is quiet, that I am able to focus. 

I know all this probably sounds a little negative, so on a lighter note, let me say this: when my doctor was writing up the results of my evaluation, his phrase of choice to describe my diagnosis was that I was confirmed to be “suffering” from ADHD. He’s not alone in his choice of words, and I understand why. 

Nobody wants to find out they’re anything but “normal” – fair enough. That said, I disagree with the diction – I’m not suffering from anything; I don’t feel victimised by my condition at all, and if anything, I appreciate that it makes me more empathetic to the difficulties and learning differences of others. 

Yes, it makes my life a little harder, but it’s nothing a little Ritalin can’t fix. 

For more perspectives, check out:

Cover image adapted from: Cherisse Goldwich

Drop us your email so you won't miss the latest news.