Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults: What It Really Looks Like

D.R. McElroy

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I have severe ADD. I identify with ADD rather than ADHD, partly because I’m female and, as is common in females, the hyperactivity symptoms rarely manifest in me. My biggest problem is distractability.

I am easily distracted from whatever I’m doing — whether it’s a chore, a work task, or even a conversation — by the smallest thing. A sound, a flash of light or a glimpse of movement, a random thought or itch can turn my attention from what I’m doing at the moment. And lord help me if I have to go to the bathroom.

ADD at work.

The worst part of being distracted is trying to return to the task at hand afterward. If I change direction midstream I am highly unlikely to remember where I left off. If I don’t finish one task before starting something else (a problem that I frequently have), I won’t remember to go back and finish the first thing I was doing. I won’t, in fact, even remember that I was doing something previously.

Even simply reading is problematic. I can’t read with anything else going on: no music, no TV, no conversations in the same room. Forget about trying to do any work in a coffee shop!

I am so easily distracted while reading that I frequently have to re-read a sentence or even an entire paragraph several times before I can move on to the next paragraph. While I have a very high reading level and great comprehension, it might take me 10 or 15 minutes to read an article that should be a 5-minute read.

Jobs were always difficult for me. Despite having gained both a BS and an MS in scientific disciplines (a feat that took me 10 years instead of 6), I was forced to take menial jobs for minimum wage because I couldn’t concentrate well enough to handle complex work requirements. I wanted to be a GIS designer (geographic information systems) but had great difficulty remembering the many steps required to produce useful maps from the software.

Instead, I worked retail for 34 years. The various jobs all had the same basic requirements: work a cash register, greet people, sell stuff. There was nothing difficult about it, and once I learned the routine I could do it in my sleep. This routine was critical since I usually operated in zombie-mode due to sensory overload.

Sensory processing problems and ADD.

A lot of people (children and adults) with ADD/ADHD suffer from sensory processing difficulties. Sensory Processing Disorder is a condition where a person is either overstimulated or understimulated by elements of their environment. Here’s a link to a checklist of the symptoms of SPD in teens and adults.

Also known as Sensory Integration Disorder or Sensory Integration Dysfunction, SPD as a diagnosis by itself is controversial. Sensory processing difficulties are frequently associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADD/ADHD, but the psychiatric community has largely resisted classifying SPD as its own disorder.

In my case, everything in the environment is a distraction, and frequently an annoyance. As I write this, there’s something in the sleeve of my shirt that keeps poking the back of my arm. I’ve probed the sleeve again and again, trying to find the irritant without success. Also, there are birds outside the window, and their movements, colors, and sounds keep drawing my eye. I’ve written 500 words in an hour of work.

While I am overly sensitive to environmental stimuli, others can be undersensitive. People who are undersensitive are commonly sensation seekers who might enjoy fast driving or twisty amusement park rides. Other people have central nervous systems that get the messages confused and the person responds inappropriately to the stimulus (e.g. failing to pull their hand from a hot surface, or stumbling while walking).

Treatment of sensory processing problems.

Sensory processing issues are typically treated with occupational therapy, which works through identifying and then building tolerance to offending stimuli. This type of therapy tends to take time and isn’t always covered by insurance.

Another problem in getting treatment is the general lack of understanding as to what causes sensory processing difficulties. It is generally believed that there is a “short-circuit” or disconnect of some sort in the central nervous system that prevents the brain from properly assimilating environmental information. The actual mechanism of this disconnect is unknown, and SPD is still mostly regarded as a psychological rather than a medical issue.

Dealing with ADD in everyday life.

Whether you call it ADD or ADHD, the first hurdle is getting a diagnosis. Nearly everyone is distracted by something at some time. Maybe your daughter is getting married and your mind is full of wedding plans; maybe you’ve got drama at work or in your personal life that’s keeping you awake at night.

These types of distractions are not ADD. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about the signs and symptoms of ADD/ADHD. It’s worth your time to do some research if you think you might have it. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was over 50; I’d spent my whole life thinking I was some kind of loser scatterbrain who couldn’t handle stress and didn’t have the wherewithal to get a better-paying career going.

Because of the association of ADD/ADHD with hyperactivity, a lot of people — especially women — assume they don’t have the disorder. I strongly resisted the diagnosis until my psychiatrist told me that females often don’t show symptoms of hyperactivity. That was a revelation, and further research on my part has shown that ADD may be greatly underdiagnosed in females because of this misconception.

It’s possible to deal with ADD by yourself, but it’s certainly not easy. Low self-esteem frequently accompanies the disorder and makes it difficult for us not to blame ourselves for our problems. The good news is that there are a number of effective medications for both children and adults that help make it easier to focus on tasks and screen out distractions.

In addition to medication, various therapies and coping strategies (such as organizing systems and task management procedures) can help keep distractions to a minimum — and help us return to those neglected items we never seem to finish.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.

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