Always in trouble at school. Dead-end jobs. Failed relationships. James Bloodworth often wondered why he found life so difficult. Then four months ago, a psychiatrist gave him the answer – and a new way of looking at the world.
I'd given up. No amount of willpower was enough. Every time I sat down at the computer I got up again soon after, the empty Word document a shameful testament to my lack of focus.
Some days I didn’t make it to my desk. It felt as if my thoughts were written down on Post-it notes, hundreds of Post-it notes that were swirling around in a giant wind tunnel. I was in the wind tunnel too, frantically grabbing at each slip of paper.
I was supposed to be a writer. But I was a writer who didn’t write. Instead I lay in bed, paralysed with ennui and despair.
I kidded myself that this mental shutdown was a result of lockdown. It was November 2020 and a second wave of Covid-19 was coming. Everyone was struggling to concentrate, I told myself, I would probably be fine once things settled down again.
However, in my case this had been building up for years. Blaming it on Covid was a coping mechanism, one final dogged rationalisation. It was time to see someone about it, whatever “it” was.
I had hit a similar wall during my schooldays. I knew I was different. My brain was frenetic. Sometimes frenetic and at other times like a sieve.
It’s striking how often the same comments appear in my school reports, year after year. “Prone to interrupting”, “poor presentation”, “great difficulty concentrating”, “easily distracted”.
These evolved into disciplinary problems as the years trickled by. I went from distracted child to problem child. I thought I was dyslexic for a while. I couldn’t spell and my handwriting was illegible. Other kids would write sentences, whereas I’d put squiggly lines on paper. I was that familiar classroom underachiever: disorganised, often surly, always lost in a world of my own.
But then, so apparently were my teachers. My school reports should have given away that something was wrong.
Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children are frequently mistaken for bad behaviour. Sometimes the frustration that accompanies it gives rise to children and adolescents “acting up”. Children with ADHD face a higher risk of engaging in criminality when they get older.
I was 16 when I started smoking cannabis. It slowed everything down in my head. For most people that’s one of its drawbacks, but it made me feel normal. It was as if treacle were being poured over my brain; my thoughts became stickier.
According to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions in the US, adults with ADHD use cannabis two to three times more than adults without ADHD.
I smoked with friends almost every day. I had run-ins with the police, spending a night in the cells, and was suspended from school a few times. The deputy head used to tell me I looked “zonked out” when he walked past me.
It was from talking to the novelist Tim Lott, who had ADHD diagnosed in 2016, when he was 61, that I began to reflect on my employment history. At 29 he was made the editor of the London magazine City Limits because he was “so bloody good in the interview, against very stiff competition”. However, two weeks later he had to resign because he couldn’t cope.
This was a repeating pattern.
“I was a TV producer for a while, and I was promoted very quickly up the ladder because my ideas were so vibrant. But I couldn’t do the organisation, and so I got sacked. That was the last job I had, 30 years ago,” he told me.
I worked in a series of low-paid jobs when I left compulsory education. At a petrol station. A yoghurt factory. A toilet-paper factory.
It recently dawned on me that I’ve never held down a job for more than two-and-a-half years. Tim says that, like me, he “can’t really exist in a structured environment”.
Restlessness and poor attention to detail – classic symptoms of ADHD – don’t help much either.
Eventually I managed to get to university after I rewrote exams. It was at varsity in Nottingham that the penny began to drop. Maybe I wasn’t just lazy and mischievous at school; perhaps it was something deeper.
I was doing a degree in politics and international relations. I skipped lectures and wrote my essays the night before they were due in. While some classmates struggled with the work, I found most of it easy. I was passionate about the subjects I was taking. And I could approach the coursework in my own eccentric way.
Extracting myself from the hole I’d fallen into at school turned out to have a paradoxical effect: it made it harder to dig myself out of a deeper hole 10 years later, during lockdown. At university I thought I was getting away with it (whatever it was that I had). Ha! I may have been wildly disorganised, but did half-arsed academic achievement not make a person seem cool and enigmatic?
A housemate at university said I was brilliant but lazy. My stepfather had just said I was lazy. This seemed like an upgrade.
What no one saw was the sheer willpower it took to strap the figurative harnesses on a brain that was forever racing in a thousand directions at once. Sitting down to write an essay was an act of endurance, the cognitive equivalent of an expedition to the South Pole.
As the years passed, the herculean feats of concentration it took to produce even a modest amount of work increased. For a book I was writing I was working undercover at a call centre in 2016 when I had another indication of what might be wrong. I found myself falling behind during our training and having to copy notes from the teenager next to me. The material wasn’t difficult – cold-calling scripts aren’t – yet I’d notice my brain teleporting elsewhere. It was like being back at school. Why couldn’t I concentrate on these stupid scripts?
When I got back to London I decided to see a doctor. I did some ill-advised googling prior to my appointment. An anxious hour passed. Did I have a brain tumour? Was I going mad with syphilis, like [German philosopher] Nietzsche? Yet I was starting to gain some clarity. Everything pointed to ADHD. I dialled the surgery.
When I had my consultation with the doctor, I ran through my personal story in minutes, from my earliest school days through to my irritability, forgetfulness and the impulsiveness that so often marred my adult relationships. The speed at which I reeled off this abridged version of my life story ought perhaps to have been a sign that I had ADHD (“Thoughts are put together quickly and linearly in conversation” – the ADD Resource Center). I was definitely a severe case, wasn’t I? The doctor will see that, surely.
I finished, breathlessly. The doctor blinked a few times. He looked at me blankly. I returned his gaze, expectantly. He got up out of his chair and left the consultation room.
Maybe he’d gone to get a second opinion.
He re-entered the room, sat down and handed me a leaflet. He tried to look sympathetic, but it was obvious he didn’t have a clue. He wrote down the number of a charity, which he said I should call. Really good at that sort of thing, he told me.
I thanked him and left. By the time I got home I’d forgotten the name of the charity. I tried to forget about ADHD for the next three years.
ADHD didn’t return the favour, of course. I’d snap at members of my family and start pointless beefs on social media. Distractedness became the bane of romantic relationships.
“Yes, I am listening to you,” I would say, as the probably quite important words coming from the direction of my girlfriend floated past me like a cloud. They were competing with a thousand racing thoughts.
I’d use the line “It’s not you, it’s me”, and I’d actually mean it.
The last person I was in a serious relationship with told me I made it obvious when I didn’t like someone. I didn’t pretend to hide it, she said. It wasn’t that – I really did like her friends. It was just that when a conversation took a ponderous turn my brain would take that as its cue to leave. My physical form would still be there, rooted to the spot, but my mind was off elsewhere.
Josh Feldberg (39), a digital strategist from London, is a good friend of mine who has ADHD. We were talking recently about relationships – he has stories like mine. “People will make you a nice dinner and you plan to go, and then you’ve just forgotten all about it. I honestly do care, but when that happens people think you don’t.”
About 1,5 million adults in the UK are believed to have ADHD. It runs in families. Josh’s mum has ADHD. Tim Lott had an uncle who had it. I’ve never met my dad; perhaps he had it too. He certainly had commitment issues.
Part of my reluctance to confront my ADHD was driven by the fact I’d written an 80 000-word book. And it’d turned out all right – it got good reviews and caused a modest splash. It was the first thing my friend Josh remarked upon when I told him about my ADHD diagnosis. “But, mate, how the f*** did you write a book?” he asked incredulously.
This is where the so-called ADHD superpowers come in. There’s no ripping open of shirts to reveal a giant letter “A” – “ADHD MAN, the most abstracted superhero of them all”. But, like being Spider-Man, ADHD does come with a few added extras.
Creativity is one of these superpowers. Put me in a room with 10 people and there’s a good chance I will come up with the most interesting, off-the-wall ideas (others may also say “most troubling”).
But ask me to put my ideas into some sort of structure, however, and I will sink like a lead weight in water.
Tim tells me he is brilliant at coming up with ideas, but that like me he often struggles to follow them through.
These days he intermittently takes a low dose of medication and is able to sit very still and “enjoy the moment”, which he calls “a great liberation”. That said, the way he’s working on his latest novel sounds familiar.
“Even now as a writer, I’m just so unstructured about it. One day I’ll do 5 000 words, and then I won’t do anything for three weeks. I know I am going to get there in the end. But it’s not the way most people work.”
“Hyperfocus” is another ADHD superpower. I can focus intensely on a task, for hours, to the exclusion of everything else. I can lose several kilos in a week because I forget to eat. But this is rare. I must be extremely interested in the topic at hand.
With ADHD it’s often impossible to concentrate on something about which you aren’t passionate. That was how I wrote my books and essays: I homed in on topics that fascinated me, and I shut out the world.
These fluctuations – between flashes of brilliance and a disorganised, frenetic stupidity – were one of the most confusing aspects of ADHD. I might deliver a glittering performance in a job interview, or give a talk in which the words flow through me like an electrical current, or be free and charismatic in a social environment, as if someone were whispering lines from Cyrano de Bergerac into an earpiece. Then I’d get up the next morning and I wouldn’t be able to tie my shoelaces. Or I’d forget the name of a close friend.
But until my formal diagnosis, I still had my doubts that I had ADHD, if I’m being honest. I noticed books on Amazon with titles such as There’s No Such Thing as ADHD. Films like The Social Dilemma showed how algorithms were designed to nurture an addiction to digital platforms by giving users dopamine hits in a similar way to drugs. Maybe I was just struggling to shut out digital distractions?
There were some “ADHD-typical” behaviours that I didn’t possess. I had few problems locating my car keys. I wasn’t clumsy, nor particularly good at multitasking, which made me anxious. Nor had I been physically hyperactive as a child.
I wasn’t immune from the residual cynicism about ADHD that permeates popular culture. Some see it as a status badge of victimhood, a fashionable affliction in an overdiagnosed, overmedicated culture: a get-out-of-jail-free card for idleness and ineptitude.
“What you want is to get a bit of fresh air,” my 91-year-old grandmother, whom I’d been locked down with for most of 2020, said on the morning of my ADHD consultation with a psychiatrist. In her mind fresh air has magical virtues attached to it, a cure for everything.
The established ways weren’t going to solve my problems, however. I was going to follow through this time, to finish what I’d started; to go against my ADHD instincts and make the call for my appointment.
I had a Zoom consultation with Dr Rahman of the ADHD Centre. We ran through some of the behaviours that are associated with ADHD. Prone to lateness? Check. Leave tasks incomplete? Check. Impulsive? Check. Poor concentration? Check. Prone to making careless mistakes? Check. Struggle to wait my turn to speak . . . “Yes!”
The assessment went into much more depth, of course. There are three main criteria for ADHD. There must be deficits in attention and hyperactivity. These must be significant impairments, and they must have been present since childhood.
There’s also an appraisal of the person’s collateral history, which involves things such as school reports, as well as testimonies from relatives or friends who’ve known them during childhood.
Since my consultation with Rahman I’ve been prescribed medication which I take every morning. It helps me to lock in on tasks: writing this article, for example. I’m productive again – extremely so, in fact. I no longer have 10 books lying around, each one bookmarked after the first few chapters. I don’t need as much sleep either.
Medication is not a panacea; there are lifestyle adjustments I’ve had to make. I’ve had to give up caffeine in combination with the medication or my heart beats intrusively and I struggle to sleep at night.
Diet plays an important role in managing my ADHD. If I eat too much sugar my concentration suffers the next day. I set lots of timers. I meditate. I have put locks on my internet browser to stop me from procrastinating when I should be working.
When I tell friends I have ADHD, they sometimes diagnose themselves with it on the spot. They will often pathologise their use of social media. “Oh, I think I’m a little bit ADHD,” they will say, before talking me through their scrolling habits and screen time. I feel like telling them that they’re trivialising my condition but since I started taking medication I’ve become more attentive to others’ feelings. Most of the time I just stand there and nod.
I’ve had pangs of resentment since the diagnosis, especially when I cast my mind back to wasted years and unfulfilled potential. Why didn’t my teachers notice something? Reading my school reports, it seems obvious I had ADHD. Different times, I guess.
Rahman gives me a more philosophical way of looking at my life prior to diagnosis, aged 37. “I have met plenty of people like you, who had the ‘dead-end jobs’, as you call them. You didn’t stick with them; you didn’t like them. You went back [to education] and you found [journalism]. But if you had [always] had full treatment of your symptoms, would you have gone on to find something that absolutely grabbed you?”
In other words, an extremely low threshold for boredom can have its rewards. Chronic restlessness propelled me into finding work that I actually enjoy, as the doctor puts it.
I feel lucky. I’ve come to terms with my ADHD diagnosis. I’m starting to see it as a gift, even if I’m still learning how to harness those mysterious superpowers.
I only wish I could go back in time, to have a word with the 10-year-old kid at the back of the class. I’d tell him not to worry about the stuff going on in his head. To try to make the most of the powers he’s been endowed with. You’re basically Spider-Man, I’d tell him. And with great power comes great responsibility.
© JAMES BLOODWORTH/THE TIMES MAGAZINE/ NEWS LICENSING