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Zoë’s Pet Peeves: Late Diagnosis of ADHD

Zoë's Pet Peeve #6: Late diagnosis of ADHDThe butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”
Rabindranath Tagore

Adults diagnosed late in life with ADHD tend to experience an initial feeling of elation. Finally, their life makes sense (to them, if not anybody else).  Sadly, this initial euphoria is soon crushed by the smashing weight of grief.

It’s inevitable. We finally understand why we’ve stalled out so often.  Why, in spite of our best efforts, we haven’t met our goals. It’s like having all the pieces of a beautiful outfit on the floor, but no sewing machine to pull it all together.

No matter how beautiful the design, fabric, and threads – somehow – we end up feeling like the Emperor with no clothes. When I was diagnosed with ADHD at age 47, I suddenly felt like I’d been running around with my fly down and nobody had told me.  Thanks, guys.

On the other hand, my younger sister had the complete ensemble: the house, the husband, the two kids (boy, girl – what else?), the mortgage, the career… She remembers innumerable telephone calls from me over the years, in one crisis after another.  My refrain was always, “I just don’t know how other people do it.”  “It” being: how do people get through the day and accomplish all those seemingly normal things, juggle all those roles, and not trip over their own feet?

When I called her a day after my ADHD diagnosis to share the news she said, “That explains everything.”

Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘ five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), I think we ADHDers go through a similar sequence when diagnosed late in life. It looks something like this:

  1. Relief / Euphoria
  2. Grief
  3. Terror
  4. Acceptance / Realignment
  5. Rebirth

In Stage 1, we face the naked truth: we were dealing with a brain that acted differently than others’ without realizing it. What a relief! It wasn’t our fault.

Stage 2, grief hits you when you ask what would have happened if you’d been diagnosed in childhood? Would medication have helped? Behavioral modification? Understanding parents, teachers, employers? Where might your life have taken you had you known what you were dealing with? If someone had given you the key to unlock your true potential?

Stage 3 happens when you realize you’re middle-aged, have no retirement plan except to age gracefully, aren’t sure if your memory loss is ADHD-related or premature dementia or both, don’t know if this is as good as it gets or if it’s all downhill from here, and don’t know if you’ll have enough time to put all this new information to good use. Is there time left to have happy relationships, calm days, and a list of to-do’s that gets done? And where is the help you need? Panic can set in when you realize that the resources to help you are few and far between, so how do you implement all this new-found knowledge?

Stage 4, which is acceptance, may take a long time. I still have moments when I don’t believe ADHD exists. And if it does, it’s got nothing to do with me. I fight. I resist. I don’t want to have this horrible thing, and I sure don’t want it to be permanent. But then I realize that, even if ADHD is just a metaphor, it fits. Why not get some mileage from it? I can apply the knowledge to make my life better. And I have. One example is how I’ve realigned my relationship with time. I’m rarely late anymore; I know my pattern is to try to do far too many things before walking out the door. Now, I stop myself from doing them.  I just walk out the door.

The best part of Stage 5 – Rebirth – for me, is to finally give up trying to “fit in.” Even before my diagnosis, I’d decided to be myself. After my diagnosis, I realized that secretly, all along, I’d harbored the goal to prove that I could live up to all the measures of success that were defined for me by others. The expected accomplishments included spouse, house, kids, career.  I was trapped by the idea of getting these proscribed things, but I’d do it “my way.”  I’d show them!

My diagnosis let me see that I was still trying to live up to someone else’s idea of what was right for me.  I was finally liberated! Now I’m focusing on my strengths of creativity, joy and infinite curiosity about the world. The other stuff may or may not follow, and that’s OK.

I’m starting to accept myself exactly as I am. And there’s time enough for that.

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Zoë’s Pet Peeves: Late Diagnosis of ADHD

Zoë Kessler, BA, B.Ed.

Zoë Kessler is an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker specializing in women and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).

A frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine, Kessler has also created video, standup comedy, and guest blogs on ADHD and Marriage covering ADHD-related topics.

Zoë, an internationally recognized ADHD expert, has been interviewed on radio and featured in magazine articles, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD across North America.

Her newly-released memoir ADHD According to Zoë - The Real Deal on relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (New Harbinger Publications, 2013) about life with ADHD is now available.

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APA Reference
Kessler, Z. (2011). Zoë’s Pet Peeves: Late Diagnosis of ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 26 Feb 2011
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