Sally (Sal-ee) Gatenby (she/her) has lived with anxiety and depression for most of her adult life and has recently been diagnosed with ADHD. She shares how the diagnosis has impacted her understanding of self and how the insights have helped her life and work.
"Neurodiversity is the idea that there are many unique ways to think, behave, and learn. Some examples of people who may identify as neurodivergent include, but are not limited to, those with dyslexia, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or autism.
‘In hindsight we tend to see everything very clearly! It took a series of appointments, lightbulb moments, chats with friends and some amateur detective work to put together a solid inkling I shared a lot of traits of ADHD – and this led to my diagnosis at 41 years old.
I’ve had depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, and I have hypothyroidism, so I put my exhaustion down to that and the juggle most people relate to – work, family, social life and other commitments. I was always exhausted, but it was normal to me – I just needed a nap sometimes to get through things.
A year prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, I’d been diagnosed with sleep apnoea and, in going for an annual review and sleep study with my sleep doctor, he mentioned ‘your brain really doesn’t ever stop, even when you are asleep’. I’d laughed and put that down to me being busy busy busy. But his comment stuck with me. Clue #1.
During the lockdowns in Melbourne, I took some time off from work, and coupled with the isolation requirements, it quickly became apparent that without the traditional framework of “get up, go to work, do meetings, lunch, work, home, dinner, socialise, bed” I was completely adrift. I wasn’t busy, or focused on anything – aside from marathoning Mad Men for the fifth time - but my brain was just as flat out. Clue #2.
At some point, I’d stumbled across an article on the ABC News website about a woman my age who had ADHD and the more I read, the more it sounded like me.
The traits she’d described for her were very similar to mine: always on the go, brain not stopping, exhausted, hugely disorganised in my personal life, great at starting projects and then running out of steam. There were and are more traits, but that was Clue #3. I did some googling, called a friend who’d been diagnosed and spoke to my doctor who referred me to a psychiatrist. After some pretty intensive testing, I was diagnosed with ADHD. I finally had an answer for this muddle of a mind.
I am now medicated, and the difference has been monumental. The best way to describe it is like putting a pair of prescription glasses on, but for your mind. I have an ADHD coach who gives me tools and strategies to navigate this new world. Best of all, the chatter in my brain is quietened, and I’m sleeping well - and I haven’t had any days with depression and/or anxiety. I’ve found a new enthusiasm for my work, which has improved, as has my project management. I’ve even won awards!
It’s early days, and it’s a learning process. ADHD means Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. So, I am either highly interested or highly disinterested – all or nothing! Hyper focus is amazing and at the same time, not great - I can work until 3am and not notice at all because I’m in the flow. Naturally, this is unsustainable! I’ve had to make firm rules with myself to avoid this by using Pomodoro technique and forcing myself to leave the interesting article I’ve just found for another day.
Burnout is a problem for a people with ADHD, because we can just hyperfocus and not stop until you’re running on empty. I see it in others and will relate my story of burnout in the hope I can offer support. Additionally, my manager, colleagues and IDP have been great with understanding me, reminding me to step away for a break, and providing the flexi time I need to function efficiently.
There’s a lot more awareness about ADHD – this is largely thanks to increased awareness of how girls and women present with the condition. Traditionally, it was seen as a childhood diagnosis for disruptive boys, but improved research and knowledge has led to stories like mine. I’ve told my story freely, and it has prompted a number of my friends to investigate their own traits. The more we talk, ask questions, and learn about each other, the better off we all are. We learn about ourselves and others as we grow. I encourage everyone to be open, ask questions, offer information, and accept all our strengths and differences.
When I got my diagnosis, I felt a huge relief that I finally had an answer for my weird brain. But then I had a few weeks of anger - why no one has picked up on this earlier? I mentioned my anger to a close friend, who looked me dead in the eye and said “don’t look at what you haven’t achieved, look at what you have achieved despite this”. And I really wonder how I did manage it all.”
Thank you, Sally, for sharing your self-awareness, your insights, and for raising our awareness about this particular neurodiverse trait. You are right – the more inquisitive and open we are, the more we understand and know ourselves and each other; and the better we become as individuals and teams.
If you would like to read some more IDP people stories on mental health, give this story a read.