Diagnosed with ADHD at the Age of 53
The diagnosis sure explains a lot.
I’m gonna need to be cagey about some things to protect the privacy of others and be evasive about self-medication that may not have been entirely proper. Not illegal, just not exactly the way you’re supposed to. This is not mental health advice, it’s just my story.
I always thought I was lazy.
Growing up, I had one ambition: don’t fail a grade. That was it. Make it to the next year. Don’t be left behind. Nothing more than that. So, I got Cs. I didn’t do any sports. Didn’t have many friends. I wanted to read fantasy novels and daydream and watch TV and be left alone. I was easily bored and hated school, but I also saw the need to finish school.
After high school I worked a series of jobs that included waiter, bartender, bank teller, tree planter, and construction laborer. I hated all of them. After two years I decided to go to university because it couldn’t be worse than the jobs I hated. Back then, it was easy to get into the University of Calgary. My 65% average barely did the job.
So at the age of 20 I went to university and promptly began failing. Then I met my wife and for the second time in my life I found a new mission: don’t lose her.
She was a straight-A student and super ambitious. I needed to try and keep up. I begged my way back into school telling them I was ready to be a good boy and study hard. They believed me and let me back in. Through an outstanding bit of luck, I took a military history course with an excellent lecturer. Suddenly, I found another passion.
It took 14 courses minimum to declare a major, but the max allowed was 20. For my degree I took the max 20 history courses, plus three “classics” courses, which were basically ancient history, plus some religious studies courses, because it was a lot of history of religion.
In hindsight, I’ve learned that I’m one of those ADHD types who can hyper fixate, so that’s what I did. History was the one thing, other than my wife to be, that I had a passion for, so I went all in. The master’s program had 300 applicants for 19 spots, and I got one. Only 9 of those 19 finished their thesis, and I was one of the 9. I’d wanted to do a PhD, but it was going to involve moving away and my wife was doing her family medicine residency and I could not bear to be away from her. Our lives were in Calgary, and that was that. It was an easy decision.
And so, there was a new passion, which was to be a good husband and future father. To me, that meant being a good provider. I needed a fucking job. An MBA was suggested, and it looked like a fast track to money, so I took it. My wife got pregnant halfway through my first year, so I took a bunch of extra courses and finished four months early. That last semester was a trip. I had a brand-new baby, a full course load, and had to look for a job. I remember December 11, 1998, as a joyous day. I handed in my last assignment for my MBA and had three weeks off to spend with my wife and son before my new job began on January 2.
The MBA was where I learned about the wonders of Ritalin.
I did not pay money for it. No laws were broken. During the first semester of my MBA, I struggled with accounting and operations management. It was like reading Klingon. My brain could not interpret it. In total, I took about 25 Ritalin during that time. I never thought “I have ADHD”. I thought I’m fucking exhausted from this course load and my brain isn’t working and this stuff helps.
The rest of my MBA and my career that followed I designed to take advantage of my research and writing skills. I went into marketing because, like I said, research and writing. Being able to communicate shit to other people kind of stuff.
I want to be clear about something: I didn’t like marketing. I didn’t like business. I liked having a good-paying job. I liked providing. My history skills transferred over to marketing because it made me good at telling stories.
I spent a decade in the business world and did … fine. I actually could have been very rich had I wanted. My mother had become a mega-earning stockbroker and was willing to bring me in and eventually I would have taken over her business. I don’t want to say how much money I could have made, but it was a stupid amount. Problem was, I fucking hated it. There wasn’t enough Ritalin in the world to get me to read past Chapter 1 of The Canadian Securities Course.
I could be driving a Ferrari right now. Or dead. I’m not sure I would have survived it.
So for the entirety of my 30s I did a variety of marketing jobs and did reasonably well but wasn’t some cutthroat corporate climber. I wanted to work my 40 hours a week and spend time with my family.
Oh shit I skipped over something. Fitness.
After I finished my BA I realized I’d gained a fair bit of weight. The whole “body for wife” thing is rooted in some truth. I’d wanted to propose to my wife, and it made sense to get in shape prior to proposing. In hindsight, that may sound toxic, but it’s not. This was something I did for me, using a proposal as an impetus to change. I liked the idea of having a fit body for my wife. She would have said yes regardless.
I began getting in shape at the age of 25, and I was in “good” shape for the next 14 years. I didn’t get in great shape until I decided to become a fitness writer. This is all related to the ADHD and hyper fixation stuff.
Where was I? Okay so by the age of 39 I was like shit I really want to be a writer. I tried writing science fiction and I was shit at it but the main reason I didn’t persevere was because I did some research and learned that the likelihood of making a living as a novelist, especially a science fiction novelist, was extraordinarily remote. But in my years of being a fit guy I’d also learned a lot about fitness and realized how most of the popular information was bullshit. What’s more, most fitness writers were shitty. And so, I got an idea that I actually could make a living as a fitness writer because there were lots of freelancing opportunities and I knew I could be one of the better ones.
But I figured for branding purposes I should be in better shape. I mostly just lifted weights, but didn’t do much for aerobic training at all. And I liked to eat and drink. I figured dropping about 20 pounds would be a good idea, so I ran. I ran a lot. It took a while, but I was getting into this hyper fixation thing over becoming a fitness writer, and Step 1 was to be able to see at least some abs. And so, at the age of 40, this oily and well-lit guy was me.
At the time I was working full time for a not-for-profit technology incubator kind of thing. The funding for one project came to an end and there was an opportunity to be executive director for the wireless and telecom association. It was 20 hours a week and paid quite well and they wanted me for it and I was all fuck yeah that’s perfect because I could spend the other 20 hours working on fitness writing.
Then they offered me a second exec director job so I could work 40 hours a week and I was AH NO MY DREAM! And they were all please we really need you and I said wait I know someone she’d be great and she wanted the job and she was great and I was off the hook.
This is turning into a fucking life story about my various careers and it’s kind of boring I’ll try and speed shit up.
The point is, for the next decade fitness was my life. Writing about it and doing it were one and the same. I was always really fit because it was part of the job. Again: the hyper fixation shit. I wrote and I wrote and I ran and I ran and I lifted and I lifted.
Shit I left out another thing. The second experiment with Ritalin. It was in 2008. I was studying for the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist exam. I chose it because it was highly respected, and it was respected because it was hard. Most of it I understood fine, but there were other things, like the fucking Krebs Cycle, that once again were like reading Klingon. Ritalin was a translation device. I’d try and try to make sense of some things and it was nigh impossible. Then I’d pop a Ritalin and suddenly it all made sense. I still hadn’t clued in. During that studying I took maybe 20 pills in total. Again, didn’t pay for them. No one broke any laws. My wife had nothing to do with it either time. This is not mental health advice.
Okay now we’re fast forwarding to the spring of 2020. My writing career was in the shitter. The Holy Sh!t Moment didn’t sell and my agent wasn’t hopeful of selling another book. I said okay fine I’ll make money via starting a speaking career but then fucking Covid nuked that idea. Also, at the time it was a near certainty that Trump would be re-elected. I was a ball of fucking stress.
April 17, 2020, I had the idea to say fuck all the fitness / motivation writing stuff and switch to history. As soon as I stopped being a fitness guy, my drive to be super fit was gone. I mostly stopped running, because while I liked running, it also took a lot of mental energy to make myself run because, well, running is fucking hard. And at the time, because of all the stress, I didn’t have it in me to run. I gained 25 pounds. I still cycled and lifted some, but it wasn’t keeping ahead of the stress eating and stress drinking.
See, I’d always managed my stress by doing shit. Determine the problem, take action, fix the problem, stress goes bye. That was something I’d trained myself to be good at.
But this time, there was nothing to do. I couldn’t make Covid go away. I couldn’t make Trump lose. I had no fucking idea if the history thing would work out. My wife was super supportive on the switch of genres, but I still had the whole “gotta be a good provider” thing in my head. I know it’s patriarchal bullshit, but it’s been beaten into me by society since day 1 and it’s not fucking going anywhere.
So now let’s fast forward to summer of 2021. I’m double vaccinated, the history writing is going amazing and I’m making good money, and Trump is fucking gone. All the shit stressing me out is mostly taken care of, so why am I still so fucking stressed? Why am I waking up in the morning with a pounding heart? Why do I get tightness in my chest and short of breath? Why does my skin tingle? Why am I so obsessed with my social media and hyper fixating on my history writing and my fucking Facebook page so I can’t fucking step away from it? Why am I not getting back to the fitness level I’m happiest with? Why can’t I start running again? Why can I write for ten hours but not clean a toilet or make a decent meal?
Then, because there is some genetic history, it was suggested I might be ADHD. That didn’t seem right because I can write for hours and hours. I didn’t realize that my ability to tune out the world and hyper fixate—I’m writing this while I can hear my wife on a conference call and I can totally tune out that meeting and focus on my work—was related to the ADHD.
I did an online test and found out that yeah I actually have it to a moderate degree. I did some personal experimenting to see what would come of it. Again, not medical advice. Don’t try this at home. No laws were broken. I tried Vyvanse. Bleh! Totally killed my sex drive and my creativity, and when coming off it the anxiety roared back. No thanks. Then tried Biphentin. Didn’t do much. Barely made a difference.
I made an appointment with my physician, and we had a good long chat.
She gave me the full test and explained that my anxiety seemed to be directly related to the untreated ADHD, which she sees all the time. Apparently, it’s common to have ADHD manifest as anxiety.
My issue, it seemed, was a kind of FOMO—fear of missing out. My need to control shit was manifesting in my career. I had to constantly write and promote and hover over social media and sell sell sell and make money and grow my audience and I can’t do housework or work out or cook because I need to mindlessly scroll fucking Facebook just in case there is someone I need to reply to because I gotta manage that brand and maybe sell just one more copy of my book.
And I wanted to stop that. I wanted to live my life outside of being James Fell Sweary Historian.
We decided on a different form of Ritalin, the 8-hour kind. Because I don’t need it to write. I need it to STOP writing. I am at my computer writing away by 7:00am each day. I can pop a Ritalin at noon, and it starts hitting at 1:00 and then I can step away and leave it alone and go do other stuff.
It’s a low dose. It’s subtle. I don’t feel it kick in. I just feel … normal. More relaxed. I don’t have to check my Facebook or whatever. I can leave it and do other stuff and take joy in it. I can run and lift weights and actually watch TV without also scrolling my phone at the same time. I can do housework and … live in the moment. I barely feel it, but I feel it when I don’t take it. Then it starts to wear off by about 9:00 and I’m an in bed by 10:00 kind of guy anyway so it’s pretty smooth. I just start getting tired around 9:30 as usual and then I sleep well.
My anxiety is way reduced. I’ve been taking it for a month and my quality of life is going way up, even though I had that fucking bike crash that I’m still suffering from. But it’s just after 1:00 now and the Ritalin is kicking in so I’m going to publish this then go for a run.
In conclusion, I always thought I was pretty bullet-proof. I didn’t like admitting there was shit I couldn’t handle. I’d had my big “get your shit together” epiphany in my early 20s that I wrote about in The Holy Sh!t Moment, and I figured I was a get shit done / solve problems kind of guy. Then I hit some problems I couldn’t solve, and it made me realize that all along I’d just been slapping metaphorical band aids on shit and that I’d been suffering because of toxic masculinity bullshit and I didn’t need to be. I asked for help, I got it, and it’s good.
I’m grateful for it. If you need help, please seek it. The professional kind.
Of course, I still gotta be me, so please subscribe / buy my fucking history book.