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Symptoms, Not Boxes: Why

Updated: Apr 12, 2020

Written by Clover

I have always struggled with my relationship with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In fourth grade I was diagnosed with ADHD, along with dyslexia and slow processing. At the time, my only experience with ADHD was my father. I thought I knew what ADHD was: inability to focus, disorganization, excess energy, etc. So, when I was diagnosed, I was understandably confused because I wasn’t like my father. I could focus for hours on an art project, my schoolwork looked meticulous, and my energy was what someone would expect from a ten year old. I can remember sitting in a diner with my mother as she told me that I had ADHD, “like dad.” While at first I was confused and resistant, I grew to accept my diagnosis. It provided me with an explanation to why school was so difficult. It explained why I found doing homework impossible and why sitting in class felt so taxing. In a way, I was relieved. Finally, I had something I could look to and say “this, this is why I am the way that I am.”

Fast forward to the summer after eighth grade, when I had to take yet another neuropsych. This time, when I received the results, they told a different narrative. Now, I didn’t have a diagnosis of ADHD but of anxiety. I felt invalidated by the psychologist’s report. I had grown to accept my diagnosis and, in some ways, make it part of my identity. While it was clear to me and my family that I also struggled with anxiety, the idea that all my troubles (with reading, with fidgeting) were not due to ADHD felt almost insulting. In my mind, ADHD was something that was out of my control. But anxiety? Anxiety was something I should be able to fix. Saying that my issues were due to anxiety sounded like people thought I was failing or that I wasn’t trying hard enough. Of course, none of those assumptions are true: ADHD can be helped through treatment and anxiety is not something you can easily control. At the time, however, I did not have the knowledge to understand why my assumptions were wrong. So instead, I felt defensive, but mostly confused.

This confusion lasted through the following years. As I began to seek treatment (in the form of therapy and medication) for my mental health (anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder), I was again and again tested and questioned about ADHD. Each clinician told me something different, and, at the time, I found it infuriating. Shouldn’t there be a correct answer? Shouldn’t it be clear that I either have it or I don’t? How could I be told that I didn’t have ADHD while also being medicated for it? The uncertainty made me simultaneously anxious and angry. My mental health issues intensified, which meant I saw a lot more clinicians and had to tell my story more times than I can count. I heard many different opinions on what my problem was and what kind of treatment was recommended, with each clinician contradicting the last one. Through this process I learned to not place my faith in diagnoses or a specific clinician’s opinion. I stopped holding diagnoses as the prime source of validation for my struggles, and instead focused on my experiences, regardless of labels. I looked at my life through symptoms rather than boxes, and decided to focus on what would help me improve rather than defining what was wrong with me. This has allowed me to focus on getting the help I need, which in turn means that I have made more progress on my mental health.

I still don’t have a definitive diagnosis of ADHD, but I’ve learned that I don’t need one to validate my struggles. Diagnoses are an important tool to help find clinicians and sort through all the various types of treatment available. A diagnosis is not what makes your struggle real. What makes your struggle real is self acceptance and self love. I still struggle to separate diagnosis from validity of the issue, but now it is something I work to remind myself of as I continue on through treatment. I hope others will recognize that their experience is valid and symptoms are real, even if they don’t match the criteria for a formal diagnosis. Instead, I hope people will focus on self validation.

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