A Neurodivergence Journey – What lies beneath?

This story is not unusual. Could it be yours too?
Iceberg, revealing what lies beneath. A journey into uncovering ADHD.

I am sharing a story of how I came to understand neurodivergence (ADHD) in my daughter and, through that journey, discovered a mirror reflecting my own story. I’m sharing this vulnerable part of myself to shed light on the strong genetic link and the importance of supporting neurodiversity in schools, workplaces, and relationships. If this story resonates with you, know that you’re not alone, and there’s no shame in your experience and you can rewrite your story with renewed understanding about who you are.

On paper, my childhood could be described as idyllic. I was brought up in the National Park of Dartmoor, UK. It is a place of incredible natural beauty and provides the perfect backdrop for a free and wild childhood. However, many things were not okay when you looked into the storybook of my life.

I attended 6 primary schools, all of which I was bullied for being different/weird, for being thin or for just being a female.  And in three of these schools, the perpetrator was an adult. So, I had a clear message by the time I was 11 that people are not kind and it takes a lot of self-acceptance to navigate this cruel and judgemental world I live in.

During high school, my Geography teacher once wrote in a report to my mother that she thought I was remedial and didn’t fit the traditional school mould. I remember submitting messy homework about the culture of Japan, I must have missed the brief. That comment hit me hard, but it sparked a rebellion. I stayed up all night to redo the project, pouring my heart into creating a beautiful booklet.  My new mark was an A.  I was exhausted.  That external validation became my fuel, but it also marked the beginning of a coping mechanism—pulling all-nighters to meet deadlines. Internalised message- you must try harder then everyone else to be enough.

Throughout my childhood, there’s been this ongoing commentary about being ‘too much’: too talkative, too messy, too intense, too emotional, too sensitive and stupid.

Because of the Behaviourist Psychology movement, the advice for parents was to make children toughen up, conform, and meet standard expectations, to respect authority and if that didn’t work, punitive measures were taken, freedoms were reduced, and conflict escalated. But what I craved was love, understanding, and compassion.

I became obsessed with new shiny stationery. I would always buy the best in the hope that this would transform me into a neat organised and respected and focused student. If my effort was seen, surely I can be forgiven. To be prepared I would take all my subject files to school every day to avoid forgetting something important. Lugging that full and heavy bag around high school every day was symbolic of the emotional baggage I was also carrying.

I would re-write my class notes every day from a scribble to colour-coded, neat descriptions with far too much information because I couldn’t work out what was useful and what wasn’t. However, it looked good. This is what an internalised expression of ‘being not good’ enough may look like. This is also where perfectionism is born.  It often looks like not wanting to try new things unless you think you are going to be good at it. (Procrastination, Lazy, not giving it go)  It is also being hypervigilent on your outward appearance. It is an adaptation from my messiness into hypervigilance and the mask of fitting into society at the cost of my true self. After a particularly horrible bullying encounter, where a boy humiliated me in front of my whole class. I witnessed the bystanders’ shock and also their inaction to support me, in fear of it happening to them.   I realised that it doesn’t matter if there are witnesses, harm still happens if people do nothing. So, I withdrew to the library and started evading classes that held no interest to me. I was bored and I was disappointed by people.

As I grew up, I made friends easily but had difficulty selecting healthy relationships. Often what I considered to be good for me – fun risky, and intense were extremely toxic and unsafe.  Which led to some unhealthy beliefs about myself.

In my 20s I attended a counselling course. Which led me to commit my time and energy to a 4-year degree. Shapeshifting from my full-time job and attending classes from Friday to Sunday.  I had to attend weekly therapy and my practice placement two evenings a week. The schedule was relentless, but I was thriving. I was encouraged by my tutor who told me ‘I was made for this career’. I focused intensely on my practice and studies. I had found meaning.  It taught me you have to work if you want anything to evolve.  I also learned I had been wearing a mask as a way to protect myself from pain or rejection.

Before the next step of adulting and finding my authenticity, I decided that my soul needed to wander or maybe escape mundanity. So, my partner and I bought a round-the-world ticket, and we thrived on adventure, spontaneity and newness.

When I returned from this beautiful year away the GFC had hit. I experienced a period of extreme environmental stress. I appeared to be having a human glitch. It was a natural response to the stress. I was then diagnosed with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) which seemed to make sense. APD is not a hearing issue, it is a cognitive difficulty in processing language and sound. Some sounds are too low to hear, some accents I cannot translate, and background noise is a constant source of discomfort for me (sensory overwhelm). Also, the short-term working memory is impacted.  APD symptoms are amplified by stress. Because I was stressed, my ability to cope was reduced.

Although relieved to be given a reason for my auditory challenges. I found that nobody understood what APD was. After a number of times of trying to explain it. I got used to people saying ‘oh everyone’s a bit like that’. So became well practised with experiencing people’s misunderstanding and prejudice about invisible disability.

We moved towns and I became healthy again (it took a while) and I was able to open up a private practice and work as a crisis counsellor for a sexual assault service.  My healthy self needed change and I knew it took work. So, we decided to emigrate to Australia and start again with my new healthy outlook.

Once in Sydney, I set about applying to MA programmes to extend my knowledge and reinforce my previous qualifications. The same year I completed the Master’s in Counselling and Psychotherapy I moved again to Queensland, started a new job, bought a house and became a mother to a delightful little girl.  I was so excited to be a mother.

My daughter has grown into an amazing child, she has a curiosity and emotional intelligence that people are attracted to. It is wonderful to witness how this little person impacts people around her with her witty humour and boundless creativity.

However, throughout her small lifespan, many a comment has been made about her exuberance, her energy, her fullness, even a little bit of sympathy towards me with my hands so full.  Which, was normalised as just being a parent and having to suck it all up. I didn’t have an alternative reference point.

And then something happened on Mar 23, and I watched helplessly, and I felt it in my body that something was different now.

Almost overnight my 6-year-old daughter became very rigid in her thinking and unaware of her boundaries. She would climb over our fence into the neighbour’s garden without telling us because she wanted a play date.   Then I noticed more that she couldn’t follow through on tasks, she couldn’t pack up, she wouldn’t sit still long enough to eat her food, and she barely ate. She could not regulate herself in a public place she would become overstimulated and act out, which made basic everyday tasks impossible. She would not play by herself and required my presence at all times. Which exhausted me. In short, she was a whirlwind.

Her boundaries in school were so loose she was getting into harmful situations, she kept walking out of class or walking off with children who appeared to be kind to her but had other motives in mind. I was despairing, no longer was I the Mother I wanted to be because I was fearful for her safety. And again, I withdrew socially and internalised Mum’s guilt.

I watched her as she diverted from one need to another.  This situation was not sustainable. So, instead of berating myself further, I started to get curious and reflected that this behaviour wasn’t part of my daughter’s nature. If it was exhausting for me to watch, how might it feel for her? Maybe this wasn’t intentional, maybe this was not her fault.

I took her to a psychologist who spent time observing her and then identified the need for assessment for ADHD. I was dumbfounded but relieved.  My exhaustion had been seen and validated.  An assessment led to a diagnosis of combined ADHD which includes both hyperactive/impulsive and inattentive/disorganised presentations. Which is the most common presentation for ADHD.

It is natural to want to find meaning in this diagnosis, where did it come from? How do I support it? What does it mean for her future?

A lot of the information out there is negative, it talks about the deficit, the issues, and the problems this condition creates.  Without support, it can be debilitating, and you are going to feel helpless and shamed.  However, it is important to highlight that many people are doing amazing things with ADHD. ADHERs will thrive if they do something with meaning. This is because ADHERs are creators and inventors, they are athletes and performers.  They are grounded in crisis so make good front-line workers. They think outside the box, so can be wonderful at adapting to change and they crave variety in their worlds. They also have an amazing capacity for intuition and empathy, so clearly healers, therapists, doctors, working with animals,  support and social work roles are a natural choice.  However, they are also every person that is unrecognised in everyday jobs which means they may be working in environments that aren’t conducive to supporting their brains, and unconsciously putting themselves under too much pressure, leading to self-medication and burnout.

So where does it come from? in my deep dive of information gathering it became clear that there was a strong genetic link with ADHD, which means it is most likely in the family already. Dr Russell Barkley who is an authority on ADHD cites studies indicating 74% – 80% connection. There have also been studies recognised that premature birth and other environmental factors may also contribute to traits of ADHD.  It is not recognised as a symptom or impact from trauma in your life span, contrary to controversial perspectives that are out there.    However, I would be interested to know if research links were found between intergenerational trauma and the prevalence of current ADHD traits. The symptoms may mirror each other. Because of this, it can be hard to separate the two, this also can lead to the wrong diagnosis and treatment options.

It is not caused by diet, too many screens or lazy parenting. However, a good balanced diet, access to nature and responsive parenting will support the ADHD system more effectively. But that is about gaining understanding and being proactive. Which will benefit all families.

Is it possible that ADHD is a direct impact of trauma? I think relating ADHD as an adaption from trauma is potentially dangerous, although I understand it makes sense to a lot of people and is well intended. I understand that there is fear about the medicalisation of childhood etc. I absolutely agree that trauma should always be considered when ADHD behaviour is observed.  However, I fear that identifying ADHD presentation as related to trauma, ( dysregulated nervous system, poor executive functioning, poor self-esteem) could pathologise someone who just has a different way of accessing the world. It has the potential to miss the support that a child/adult needs to maximise their potential. Once a child/adult recognises there isn’t anything wrong with them, they can adjust to the changes and support their particular needs. If someone cannot sleep, helping them to understand that is the way ADHD presents is a relief, rather than relating to distress relating to unprocessed memories. If protracted deadlines aren’t being met at work, helping someone to see that they might need to address the task as soon as possible stops the heavy lifting on executive functioning part of the brain. Feeling sensitive, maybe adjusting your sensory environment will give you what your body needs.

I also find that some people identify with ADHD traits when they are nearing the completion of addressing trauma events. It is what remains from therapy. It doesn’t feel congruent with a person’s therapeutic journey.

It is also important to note people who have ADHD, especially late-diagnosed ADHD are likely to have impacts from trauma regardless of whether they have experienced Child Adverse Experiences. Because the feeling of not belonging has been normalised and because of the individual sensory needs that have not been respected or understood. A child with ADHD will have experienced 10,000 more negative comments by the time they are 10 than a child without ADHD.

I started to relate to this unique brain why certain environments cause me stress and why I shaped my life in the way I had.  Why was I able to study so hard with such a hectic schedule when it was on my own terms but at school, I was so bored in some classes?  When APD had shown up in my 20s, was there something else happening? Was that neurodivergent burnout due to sensory overwhelm? What about those toxic relationships, was that due to low impulse control and pleasing people because of Rejection Sensitivity?  The penny dropped that maybe this was also my story. I decided to explore this further with assessment and diagnosis.  And I was right, I was also ADHD combined. I had it all my life and it went unnoticed, unsupported and uncared for.

It is important to note that most ADHD research has been completed on little boys so there is not much information which explores how it presents in female biology. But remember often boy biology externalise their feelings whereas girl biology internalise. Girls are extremely good at adapting and shifting to meet societal norms/expectations and therefore masking their difficulties. They may behave differently at school/work or the home. They will heavily self-monitor their behaviours to get accepted and will adapt accordingly for the promise of social reward.

Loudness/chaos becomes quiet but anxious, impulsiveness becomes internal noise/zoning out or online shopping. Being messy becomes obsessively cleaning and meticulous planning. Rage becomes depression. Anything to not being found out and not be told ‘you don’t fit in here’. So, when environmental stress happens the mask slips because the coping strategies go out of the window. Which leads to further dysregulation (quick to anger, anxiety, depression responses) and a rapid drop in self-esteem. A female may present at the doctor and be faced with a list of inadequate diagnoses, often bipolar, anxiety or even personality disorders when maybe it is ADHD.

I have noticed increasingly that people who present with impacts of trauma are also sitting with a hidden diagnosis of neurodivergence, which simply means neuro difference, relating to ADHD, Autism, Tourettes Dyslexia/Dyspraxia/Dysgraphia etc. Trauma and neurodivergence echo each other in masking and pretending to be ok when you are not. It is often hidden, internalised and shows up through a pattern of avoidance and failed toxic or unfulfilling relationships/jobs. Trauma is not always what happened to you. It may be what didn’t happen for you. (Neglect, Isolation, Not feeling seen or relevant) Neurodivergent people often feel rejected, not good enough, like they are broken.

People with ADHD have a low supply of dopamine. Dopamine is not just a reward hormone; it is essential to live. You would be catatonic without it. ADHERs have a low supply of dopamine and want to avoid feeling low energy as much as possible. So ADHERS are like the hunter-gatherers of old times they are not built for the industrialisation of modern times. They need stimulation and variety.  They go where they can find it. In impulses, spontaneity, variety and fun, which you can create if you understand why it is important. However, the reality is day-to-day life is mundane so there isn’t much dopamine.

Some ADHERS are quick to anger due to low frustration tolerance and misreading social cues, they may seek out conflict and unconsciously invite drama and toxicity into their life as antagonism can supply a source of dopamine. It becomes a vicious cycle as each time there is conflict, there is also emotional harm and the person’s rejection sensitivity is amplified which feeds into the want to protect themselves through externalising their anger or internalising their self-loathing.

ADHDers can make snap decisions based on impulse-driven ideas without much thought about the consequences or even control. Which can lead to reactionary breakups, walking out of work, and impulsive spending/eating.  Which also leads to addiction or self-medicating, affairs, extreme sports, gambling, risk-taking, toxic relationships and hours of gaming or doom-scrolling on the phone.  This is in part to get access to dopamine, but it is also because  ADHDers will do what they can to get out of the noise of their head. Anything to escape intrusive thoughts, the constant reminder to be different, be better, try harder, to stop the analysis of past social events, and the feedback loop of not being good enough. These are adaptations from stress to cope and survive.  There is also low frustration tolerance due to the difficulty with low executive functioning in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that works on focus, impulse control, mood regulation, prioritising, sequencing and time management. Which, affects every decision made. It means daily life can feel like heavy lifting to the ADHDer. Dr Barkley states that it eviscerates the two main human needs of executive function and regulation.

So of course it can just be a struggling, isolated and stressed person not understanding why they are challenged by everyday things.

ADHD is not a deficit of attention. It is attention to everything, and the brain can’t work out what to focus on at that moment. It is not a disorder; it is a difference. The ADHD brain looks at the detail and will notice things that an alternative brain cannot. Like being able to read people’s energy or intuitively knowing something is not ok with their partner or noticing the details of an outfit. So when this is supported correctly it leads to amazing things.

The ADHD brain can focus once it locates a subject of interest, however, this hyperfocus element often reduces signals of hunger, thirst, and the need to go to the bathroom (interoception). The ADHD brain cannot choose when to stop focusing, this can be a stressor on the body/brain and relationships. So, it contradicts itself through in-attentive/dissociated behaviours. This is often why people are so confused when sometimes they can focus intensely and sometimes they can’t at all. It isn’t a choice, it is also why people lose things, events, time, and energy constantly.

It is only a disorder because society reflects that. The message has been that you don’t meet the standards set for society and therefore you aren’t welcome unless you fake harder to become more neurotypical like, which leads to neurodivergent burnout and internalisation.

In my view, it is dangerous to not be diagnosed with ADHD or at least to not recognise it within yourself. There is a huge relief in realising that it wasn’t your fault or because of something that happened to you. It is okay to not fit in because you are looking in the wrong places and you can release yourself of hard to reach expectations. The hope is that you can support yourself with a better understanding and find people who do resonate with who you are. This isn’t about intelligence, it is about individual capacity.

However, what I have seen in my therapy practice and my life is the danger of undiagnosed dysregulated parents bringing up undiagnosed dysregulated neurodivergent children and perpetuating the neurotypical expectations that were placed on them as children, without the capacity or knowledge that they are causing irreparable harm. Without the understanding that they cannot model neurotypical behaviour because they aren’t neurotypical themselves.  You can’t parent a child out of neurodiversity. Additionally, your parenting did not create ADHD, although the way you parent will influence your child’s management of their ADHD traits.

I am not suggesting that people with ADHD are bad parents.  I think ADHERs make the most wonderful parents often at the detriment of themselves. I am talking about the ability to attune to your child’s needs in the present moment, which is not possible if you are dysregulated. You cannot regulate someone from a dysregulated state. A child can pick up on this inauthenticity and it leads them to internalise something is wrong with them. If ADHD is unseen, you can’t understand what or why something is happening and this is where the wrong parenting framework choice has dire consequences. This is creating intergenerational trauma at an alarming rate.  My psychotherapy practice is filled with these stories.

And if you do recognise ADHD in you or your family, I think it is important to address the privilege that an ADHD diagnosis currently assumes. The process in Queensland currently is to find a psychologist who will provide an assessment. The assumption is you will find one who has availability and in addition is skilled enough to uncover high masking late diagnosed females. Also, it is expensive. Mine was $1800 and included 4hrs of interviews and a report detailing the reasons for the diagnosis, which was pretty confronting and validating at the same time. If you want medication you will need to find a psychiatrist. Medication for adults is not subsidised. Then to process the diagnosis, uncover masking and also deal with trauma/grief there are additional costs of therapy. This was a painful financial and time commitment and for most people, not an option.

However, there also wasn’t a choice for me because the alternative would have put me into survival mode. I could have potentially lost everything I spent decades fighting for. I can only imagine how many families are currently sitting in survival mode with their ADHD unseen and unsupported. Conversely, there are so many stories that highlight how getting access to the medication has been ‘life-saving’.

Why is it so complicated, painful and expensive for people to get their ADHD recognised? Why do we have to ask for this particular assessment to confirm what we already know about ourselves? No other ‘disorder’ asks this from us.  Usually, a mental health diagnosis is provided to us after being seen by a specialist. With ADHD you have to ask for it to be assessed, and then prove it, despite the fact you spent decades hiding it. and then ask for medication, which puts people in a place of mistrust/misunderstanding and abject fear that their ADHD will not be recognised because they have become so good at masking to be accepted.

If you do identify with what you read, find a neuroaffirming Psychologist who understands the nuances of masking in female biology. Please choose your practitioner carefully to avoid a misdiagnosis. Remember ‘shame dies when stories are told in safe places’,

There is so much work that needs to be done to educate society on the important and different needs of neurodiversity.  Workplaces need to adapt and become proactive rather than reactive, schools need to become sensory and offer choice and control over how a child can access their learning. Relationships need to work to build awareness to recognise what may be a misinterpretation of a social situation, dysregulation or overstimulation.  ADHDers are people who have brilliant and beautiful minds they just need the right environment to be able to thrive. The positives of ADHD are numerous and mighty, who knows what lies beneath waiting for you when you start to unmask and unpack the trauma that has been hiding in plain sight?

Research is changing and more information is coming forward as the prevalence of presentations increases in our communities. Previously it was presumed that ADHD and Autism were separate from each other. Now, it is better understood that many people have both (AuDHD) which can make it more complex to recognise.   Previously, it was also presumed that ADHD affected boys only. Even now there is some belief that ADHD only affects children. Well, children are affected and they grow into adults that will also be impacted by ADHD. I wonder what we will know in 2years or 5years time through research.  We all need better education about how to support Neurodivergence in our lives. I am hopeful for the future because the prevalence of ADHD and Autism diagnoses means things have to change to reflect the evolving needs of our society. If this is a progression of evolution then I welcome the biological expression of the human need to turn away from the industrialisation model we have been conditioned to normalise.

Because I now have a new understanding and curiosity about the unique needs of myself and my daughter. We are rebuilding a beautiful and loving relationship; she advocates for me when I am forgetful, and I advocate for her when she is overstimulated. I accept that our future is likely to be turbulent and spicy at times.  However, I can be the mirror that I didn’t have. I can model my strengths and be open about my vulnerabilities and that way we can break the cycle of ‘not belonging.

It is important to focus on the differences that make you unique and brilliant. So, that you can support the challenges and amplify the strengths. So, you can honour your differences and accept the difficulties that are in place. The acceptance of who we are, as we are and not who we should be or ought to be is how we break the cycle of neurodivergent trauma.

For further information, I recommend https://neurodivergentinsights.com www.additude.com and www.adhdaustralia.org.au

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