Patience is a virtue, but not when it comes to seeking treatment for mental health issues.
Before I was diagnosed, I had some idea I might have ADHD. I knew it ran in my family, and I knew a lot of the symptoms applied to me. I knew there were some things I struggled with that other people seemed handle much better.
Nonetheless, seeking treatment for ADHD didn’t seem urgent. I didn’t realize what a big difference dealing with my ADHD could make in my life, and I didn’t see that the stress of living with undiagnosed ADHD was getting a little worse every day.
It wasn’t until my anxiety and depression boiled over, leading me to the point where it simply became impossible to continue going on with things the way I was feeling, that I finally took the step of seeking professional help. Only when I reached a place of crisis did I realize that I could benefit from a professional’s perspective, and only after I started meeting with a therapist and psychiatrist did I realize how much I stood to gain from developing insight into my ADHD and learning to manage my symptoms more effectively.
However, there’s no reason you have to wait that long to seek treatment for ADHD symptoms. In fact, you shouldn’t wait that long. If you even suspect that you might have ADHD, you owe it to yourself to meet with a professional.
A lot of people think that because ADHD itself doesn’t get worse over time, there’s no harm in waiting to seek treatment for it. And hey, ADHDers love to put things off until the last possible moment, so if you haven’t reached a point of all-out crisis, why not put off seeking help, right?
What this thinking doesn’t take into account – and what I didn’t take into account in the years when I was vaguely aware that I might have ADHD but didn’t see any compelling need to seek treatment – is that even though ADHD itself doesn’t get worse over time, the negative effects of ADHD on your life do.
If you’re living with undiagnosed ADHD, you’re constantly developing ADHD coping mechanisms you’re not even entirely aware of – some of them healthy, some of them not healthy. As you go through life with undiagnosed ADHD, you develop more and more unhealthy coping mechanisms, and the unhealthy coping mechanisms you’ve already developed grow larger, more complex and more fundamental to how you live. So the longer you delay seeking treatment, the harder it becomes to untangle your unhealthy ADHD coping mechanisms and the tighter the grip they have on your life.
Some of the coping mechanisms that tend to get worse over time include:
- Blaming: If you’re living with untreated ADHD, you’re constantly coming up against the problem of explaining why you aren’t able to do the things you “should” be able to do, things other people don’t have trouble managing. Often, people with ADHD solve this problem by finding someone to blame – other people or themselves or both, any combination of which tends to become more and more toxic over time.
- Learned helplessness: The more people with ADHD try and fail (or try and have people tell them to try harder), the easier it is for them to just learn not to try at all. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, right? In many cases, people with ADHD will learn that they are destined to fail in one environment, then generalize this lesson to all environments. This is one thing that’s damaging about the fact that school is such an ADHD-unfriendly environment: growing up, kids with ADHD experience repeated failure at school, so by the time they graduate they’ve internalized the message that they’re destined to fail no matter what and don’t realize how much of a difference it can make to seek out ADHD-friendly environments.
- Self-medication: Many people with undiagnosed ADHD are driven to self-medicate with anything from coffee to cigarettes to cannabis to stimulants. As with other coping mechanisms, self-medication can spiral out of control over time and end up creating far more problems than it solved.
Of course, these are hardly the only unhealthy coping mechanisms people with undiagnosed ADHD develop. Every person with undiagnosed ADHD is a unique snowflake of both constructive and destructive coping mechanisms.
Nor are unhealthy coping mechanisms the only effects of ADHD that get worse over time. The missed opportunities pile up, and the sense of living below one’s potential gets worse. So does the fallout from reckless decisions and dropped commitments and sudden life changes for the sake of novelty.
In my extended family, I’ve seen the entire spectrum from early diagnosis to late diagnosis to no diagnosis at all, and there are two lessons I’ve drawn:
- ADHD doesn’t get worse over time, but the repercussions of living with untreated ADHD absolutely do.
- That said, even if untangling the psychological effects of ADHD is more complicated when you’re diagnosed later in life, gaining insight into your ADHD will still bring a new sense of peace and help you figure out how to live a more fulfilling life no matter when you’re diagnosed.
So if you think you might have ADHD (or know someone who thinks they might have ADHD), my advice would be to seek treatment as soon as possible. You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.