My anxiety and ADHD: Hiding behind a perfect veneer

I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 30. I know that for some people — especially women, whose ADHD symptoms are often overlooked — an ADHD diagnosis can clear things up. When diagnosed as adults, they may look back on school with relief and think, “That’s why I was struggling.”

But for me, the ADHD diagnosis felt confusing at first. I was a straight-A student and star athlete. I’ve been successful in my professional life, too. How could I have ADHD?

Over time, though, the ADHD diagnosis has brought certain pieces of my life into perspective. I discovered something behind the perfect grades and awards — something painful. And I’d already gotten one diagnosis that was hard for me to swallow.

The first diagnosis was anxiety

In my late 20s, I started going to therapy to cope with a very difficult breakup. Through therapy, my struggles with anxiety became clear. My therapist pointed me to a psychiatrist. And he prescribed me anxiety medication.

I hated that I needed to take it. I felt defeated at first — like somehow I’d messed up because I couldn’t handle my anxiety without medication.

But I came to see that anxiety medication was life-changing for me. Before taking it, my feelings had no rhythm — they were chaotic. Suddenly, with the medication, it was like I had a metronome for my feelings. I could finally “hear” when something was off pace.

That’s how I came to pay attention to the things that still made me anxious: I was feeling anxious because I had so much trouble getting started on big tasks. Or I’d start them but struggle to get them to the finish line.

To compensate, I’d give myself fake deadlines to pressure myself into getting things done. I was essentially creating stressful situations to make myself hyperfocus.

I mentioned this to my psychiatrist. He responded with a specific question: “Do small noises distract you to the point of completely derailing you from work?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. How did he know? I thought.

He then suggested an ADHD evaluation, which shocked me. At that time I didn’t know about the link between ADHD and anxiety. Or that ADHD made it hard to manage emotions. Plus I was doing well at my job. (My fake-deadlines “strategy” was working.)

I agreed to the evaluation nonetheless. Eventually, he diagnosed me with ADHD.

In disbelief, I sought a second opinion from another psychiatrist. But he confirmed the ADHD diagnosis.

Looking for “proof” of my ADHD

When I got the diagnosis, my first instinct was to look for “proof” of my ADHD. I pulled out my old journals from high school and started poring over them.

I gasped when I saw what I’d written.

There, clear as day, was page after page of entries about how frustrated I was with my inability to focus.

There were of course entries of classic teenage angst. But many were followed by a version of, “I don’t even know if I felt that. I can’t hold on to anything long enough to ever know what I’m thinking.”

Some entries were simply the word “Focus” scribbled over and over again in various sizes.

Around this time, I heard something that made the whole thing click for me. I went to a conference where an ADHD expert named Tom Brown spoke. He described how some kids with ADHD manage to perform well when they’re not treated for ADHD: They either need to be highly interested in the task, or feel like “there’s a gun to their head” to get it done, he said.

That couldn’t have been truer in my case. Growing up I was so afraid of making a mistake, afraid of not being perfect. I’m sure this was at least partially due to my anxiety.

That fear drove me to battle through distractions at lengths no child should have to. I often barely slept. I scribbled thoughts on sticky notes and stuck them all over my bedroom walls, so I’d have a record of them before they slipped away.

If you’d seen my flawless report cards back then, you never would have guessed I was dealing with attention issues. But looking back, it’s clear that I was struggling. I got the good grades — but at what price?

Where I am — and where I could have been

I take ADHD medication now, in addition to anxiety medication. My doctor and I have fine-tuned my medication. We’ve carefully monitored how I’m doing. I still go to therapy, too. I feel healthy and clear-headed.

Now that I’m an adult and being treated, it’s emotional to visit my childhood home and reflect on what I went through as a teenager.

Framed awards and newspaper articles about me cover the walls of my childhood bedroom. When I see those awards and clippings now, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been treated for ADHD, anxiety or both when I was younger.

Maybe I wouldn’t have been so anxious about being perfect. I might not have beaten myself up so much about my trouble with focus.

Maybe I would have eased up on myself and won fewer awards. And maybe, for me, that would have been a good thing.


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