Adult ADHD: The 10 Stages of Diagnosis Grief

Niamh Shields | May 7, 2021

One google search leads to another, and the grief process begins.

Living a life with undiagnosed ADHD means living a life of periodic derailment.

How can I be this age, yet be incapable of the simplest things? My home is a mess, my finances a disaster, I can’t focus at work — and I used to be so good at my job, too.

You seem to get it together, only to be derailed yet again. Each time it becomes harder, and the next time it comes faster... until eventually, you land on one question: What is my problem?

One Google search leads to another, and the grief process begins.

Stage 1 – Recognition

You read your first article on Adult ADHD, written in first-person and you recognize most, if not all of it, intimately.

Stage 2 – ADHD Hyperfocus Rabbit Hole

You can’t stop thinking about that article. Before you know it, you're deep down a rabbit hole that makes Alice in Wonderland seem monochrome.

You consume more and more articles, follow every ADHDer you can find on social media, and learn as much as you possibly can.

Stage 3 – 'I Can Fix This!'

This is it, the sudden burst of motivation you needed! Yes, I'm going to get a diagnosis. I might even make an appointment right now instead of procrastinating again.

Stage 4 – The Gatekeepers and Despair

It's time to go to your doctor with complete confidence that you'll at last be seen for who you are. After all, you appear to be a textbook case!

Except... your doctor doesn't agree. You're not what ADHD is! ADHD people can’t hold down a job, can’t get a degree, can’t be in relationships. Clearly you're doing just fine.

At this point, you either manage to persuade your doctor to refer you anyway, or you have a struggle ahead. But you'll get there one way or another... because you have to.

Stage 5 – The Referral, Mild Terror, And Too Much Admin

You finally get word that you'll be seeing a psychiatrist. At last!

They send you lots of forms. So many forms. Cue: overwhelm.

Most of us in the ADHD Late Diagnosis Club have been misdiagnosed a few times now (Anxiety and Depression? CHECK!). We have a lot of hope invested in this, so much so that it teeters on the edge of terror.

You fill in your forms with such bald honesty that it may take a few therapy sessions just to unpack it all. Your family or friends have filled in forms, too, detailing all of the things they find peculiar about you.

Stage 6 – Shame

For years you've been told that you're messy, unfocused, lazy, distracted, and that you "never apply yourself." The state of your home! Your missed deadlines! Your performance at work! The friends you have neglected...

You can barely manage the most basic responsibilities. You're so tired. How can you have ADHD and be this tired? (Fun fact: It is precisely because you have ADHD that you're this tired).

Years of this negative discourse, external and internal, has done untold damage to your self-esteem. You feel defeated.

Can I be fixed?

Stage 7 – DIAGNOSED!

Hopefully your psychiatrist says that it's clear that you have ADHD. (If not? Return to Stage 4. It's unfair, I know.)

You feel lighter. You feel seen. What's next?

Stage 8 – Wait, Treatment Actually Helps??

If you''re open to medication, you'll become a guinea pig — temporarily, of course. Hopefully you'll hit the right molecule, even medication, on the first go. (Most people will try a few.)

Wow, is this what it's like for everyone else? Just kind of quiet and you can carry on doing what you started doing?

The most surprising thing? You feel more like yourself than you have for years. The static in your head is finally dialed back.

Stage 9 – Fury

Wait, why did this take so long?

How did this go unnoticed by everyone? By me?

Why didn't my parents, my teachers, ANYONE do something?

Yes, anger is a part of the ADHD grief experience.

Because someone should have noticed. Because what happened wasn't okay. Because it didn't have to be like this. You deserved better.

Stage 10 – Self-Acceptance

You spend ages looking for that panacea. That ADHD fix. That thing that would make you normal, like everyone else.

But... it doesn’t exist.

Because you're not broken. You're just... different.

You have a neurodivergent brain. And sure, that brain doesn't always work with the rules and structures of a (neurotypical) society, which can be an isolating and painful experience.

But, you realize, your ADHD brain is a source of strength, too. For all of the challenges that ADHD brings, it's also part of the spark that makes you who you are. Your creativity and your empathy. Your curiosity, your wit, your sense of justice and your passion.

Who you are isn't in need of fixing.

It's finally time to thrive by embracing your ADHD self fully. It's been a long time coming.

Niamh Shields is an enthusiast who writes and cooks and shares much

about both of these things. The author of two cookbooks (Comfort &

Spice and Bacon the Cookbook), her website Eat Like a Girl and her ADHD newsletter Runaway Brain. Niamh is also studying Neuroscience. She

writes about many things that interest, from travel to culture to ADHD

and neurodiversity. Niamh was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 45

and has been in hyperfocus on the topic ever since.

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