I’m a Surgeon Who Was Diagnosed with ADHD in My Thirties
My ADHD was hard for my family and friends to understand, but it’s one of life’s greatest gifts to me
Six months into therapy, I was grumbling, as one is prone to, about my mother. Despite the fact that I’m a surgeon, a mother myself, and almost forty, I exclaimed in utter frustration, “My mother just won’t listen! Whenever I talk to her, she jumps from one topic to another and then another, before I can complete what I’m saying!”
My therapist eyed me thoughtfully. “Have you considered the possibility that your mother has ADHD?”
That brought me up short. My mother is a remedial teacher for children with learning disabilities, and she’s prone to toss about the phrase, We’re all a little bit ADHD! Her trivializing conditions like ADHD, in spite of being a remedial teacher, was yet another infuriating thing about her.
Now my therapist, in one of our weekly sessions, most of which revolved around my mother, was suggesting she might actually have ADHD?
In the hopes of understanding my mother better, I went straight to my favorite expert on parenting, trauma, and all the things, Dr. Gabor Maté. Right away, I dove into Scattered Minds, Dr. Maté’s account of his experience as a person with ADHD that went undiagnosed until well into adulthood. He also describes the working of an ADHD brain. I read it almost straight through, pausing only to tend to the pressing needs of my then toddler.
The first few chapters made me feel sympathetic toward my mother. If she has undiagnosed ADHD, she must be struggling so much internally, I thought, softening in a way I hadn’t in several years when I considered her POV. But as I read further, it was disquieting to find the book strangely familiar, and not in a secondhand this-is-the-way-my-mother-behaves kind of way. No, the book described the inner workings of my own brain extremely accurately. There were whole sections in that book which revealed openly the way I thought about certain things, stuff I hadn’t dared to share with anyone (not even my therapist!) for fear of how odd they would make me seem. (For example, there’s a passage about how an ADHD-er, the term I prefer, can over-identify with another person’s problems to the point of experiencing acutely discomfiting shame. This bit particularly resonated with me.)
Although I finished the book before my next therapy session, I waited until the last ten minutes of the appointment to bring it up with my therapist. I felt hesitant to share with her that the book seemed to describe me as much as or even more than it described my mum. Being a surgeon, I didn’t want to stray out of my lane and step on my therapist’s toes or challenge her expertise. She was the one with a degree in psychiatry, additional diplomas, and fellowships. Surely, she would have diagnosed me as ADHD in six months’ worth of interactions if I truly had it?
Her response surprised me. She just smiled and said, “It’s highly likely you have ADHD.”
It shocked me because, at that time, I didn’t know self-diagnosis was a valid way of diagnosing ADHD. I was amazed that she didn’t reprimand me for over-thinking.
Would you believe it took me an additional six months, during which I lurked on Facebook pages and groups for and about ADHD, laughing in sheer relief at all the relatable memes and stories, before I asked my therapist for a formal evaluation? Of course, my logical surgeon’s brain wanted proof. Once again, she floored me by telling me she was now certain of the diagnosis based on our year-long interactions. No further evaluation was necessary.
Sharing the diagnosis with my parents was odd. On the one hand, I felt a strange compulsion to tell them, as though I needed their approval to really be ADHD. But there was an equally strong reluctance in me, as though I was afraid of disappointing them, as though the diagnosis would tarnish the glow of my academic achievements that they basked in.
My mother was surprised. “You’re not like me, though,” she insisted.
Indeed, we aren’t alike! If she has undiagnosed ADHD, as I strongly suspect now, we are certainly very different flavors. But eventually, the diagnosis gave her a sense of kinship with me.
My father, on the other hand, was furious. Like a typical Indian father, he roared down the telephone line.
“Who’s this therapist? How dare she diagnose my doctor-daughter to be… to have… ADHD?” He was so angry, he was spluttering. I’d been dreading his reaction the most.
When I tried to explain some of my struggles in school that pointed toward ADHD, struggles we had missed because I was a typically well-behaved girl, always a top-ranking student, he said, “It’s like that for everyone!”
My issues included daydreaming in class to the point that I lost track of which subject was being taught, time blindness to the extent that I ended up not completing examination papers in time, and doing homework on autopilot with no recall whatsoever of what I had just studied. I was pretty sure everyone didn’t struggle like that!
Initially, I felt frustrated that my father couldn’t see this struggle of being unable to complete a third of an examination paper, just because I also ranked second in class that year. It felt as though he was furious because he had always assumed that I “got my brains” from him. We thought alike, our minds made similar leaps of logic so much so that when we spoke, we often interrupted each other, anticipating what the other person would say, and impatiently responding to that (often correct) assumption. My mother and brother would stay away from our conversations, because neither of them could follow our train of thought, nor match its speed. Our similarities made him proud. But now ADHD loomed like a spectre between us.
Then the penny dropped. We are similar, dad and me. He possesses yet another flavor of undiagnosed neurodivergence!
I have had several differences with my parents but after my formal-ish diagnosis, I look back and see not only my past struggles, but all the little workarounds my undiagnosed neurodivergent parents have supplied me with, hacks that eased much of my struggle. I tear up thinking of how my mother taught me to engage two senses while studying so that I read aloud to myself well into medical college. She also taught me to walk while studying to aid focus. When it was impossible to haul heavy medical tomes and walk, I tried to concentrate by hopping from one foot to another while standing at the table.
My father taught me time-blocking, a tool I use even now, although he didn’t call it that. It was just something he had stumbled upon himself and found useful. My diagnosis has made me look at my parents and their actions through a neurodivergent lens, and that makes me more empathetic toward them and more understanding of behaviors that previously seemed unforgivable to me.
When I came out to a friend from medical college, she was confused. “How do you focus during surgery?” My answer: ADHD hyper-focus is real, and it’s the closest thing I know to a superpower.
Yet another doctor friend told me, “You don’t have ADHD. You’re just hyper, like me!” I thought, Yes, my friend, I am like you because we both have ADHD. My sneaky agenda in telling her about it was the hope that she would recognize how similar we were and pursue her own diagnosis of ADHD. I was certain it would be as life-changing for her as it was for me. When she didn’t take the hint, I dropped the topic, although I was conscious of feeling disappointed at her curt dismissal of my self-knowledge. Of course, this may either be projection on my part, or defensiveness on hers because she subconsciously realizes we are similarly wired. (See how self-aware I can be!)
I have now stopped outing myself to people who already know me. At one level, the dismissal still stings. Although I don’t feel it quite as keenly as I used to (bye-bye Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria!), it’s still unpleasant and I would rather avoid it as far as possible.
Online though, I openly share my diagnosis and the experience of being a late-diagnosed ADHD-er, especially since I’m part of several parenting groups on Facebook, where more and more mothers are discovering that they are neurodivergent. The biggest gift ADHD has given me is a lens through which my actions and my past make sense. I make sense. I hope that through my writing, I can show people that although ADHD may be a significant disability in some situations, acceptance of the diagnosis leads to self-acceptance, which has been precious and life-changing for me.
Nimisha Kantharia is a surgeon and writer from India. Her work has been published in Lunch Ticket, Hot Pot Magazine and addastories, the online literary magazine of the Commonwealth foundation. Her essay, “The Girl with the Turquoise Eye-Shadow,” was awarded the Diana Woods Memorial Award for Creative Non-Fiction. She writes fiction under the pen name Faye Coutinho and can be found at www.fayecoutinho.com.
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