April 17, 2024

I have ADHD – here’s how I manage executive dysfunction

In the latest installment of her monthly column, writer and author, Beth McColl, explores explores the stigma that still exists around more ‘taboo’, less palatable mental health illnesses. Beth is the author of ‘How to Come Alive Again’ which is a relatable and honest practical guide for anyone who has a mental illness. She’s also very, very funny on Twitter.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2020 at the age of 27. By then, I’d started and abandoned the assessment process several times – an unsurprisingly common occurrence among people who are eventually diagnosed.

The process itself is an ADHD nightmare, requiring that you fill out seemingly endless forms, keep up to date with appointments and correspondences, remember to pay the correct fees on time, and collect supporting evidence from various sources, all the while enduring a berating from your own mind, long practised in receiving and repeating negative messages. Pre-diagnosis, my brain felt separated into two warring factions: one side knowing that I was working myself to the bone and struggling, the other convinced I was wasting people’s time and just needed to try even harder.

The diagnosis was both a relief and a source of real grief. I had spent my teens and adult life quietly but deeply suffering, mis-characterising myself as lazy and less disciplined than my peers. In reality, I had simply not had access to the accommodations, tools and patience that would have allowed me to cope and even to thrive.

Like a lot of people with ADHD – and many without – I have measured difficulty with executive functioning. Executive functioning refers to the skills that help a person to manage a human life- to organise their time, think and act flexibly, focus, set priorities, rely on memory, regulate their emotions and just feel like they’re coping in general. When these skills are compromised or incomplete, living day to day can be hard, requiring more workarounds and ‘life hacks’ just to stop everything – work, relationships, mental health, sense of self – from collapsing like a poorly built beach house sliding into the sea.

Executive dysfunction can have a serious impact on academic or professional performance, in part because most schools and workplaces are not built with neurodivergent working and learning styles in mind. As a result we’re forced to make frequent, private improvisations – working weekends and after-hours or utilising as many “helpful” apps as our phone’s memory will hold – all the while trying to obscure the worst of our struggles to avoid detection. This is incredibly exhausting and alienating, and leads many of us away from what we’re truly passionate about and towards more ‘suitable’ environments. It may be that we’re even encouraged to do this by managers or educators who are unable to see beyond the executive dysfunction to the natural talent or genuine skill.

My own executive dysfunction looks like struggling to organise my time effectively, transition between tasks and keep up to date with admin (even exciting admin – I once fumbled the bag on a huge PR package from my favourite chocolate brand because I couldn’t get it together enough to reply to a simple request for an address). I rely on a rotation of apps, lists and organisational techniques – a complex juggling act because of my brain’s need for novelty. Even the most effective and seemingly groundbreaking systems needs to be shelved and replaced after a few weeks or months.

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