In the first of our ‘…and Me’ series, Karen Spencer, General Manager of SPACE Hertfordshire opens up about her recent ADHD diagnosis
When did you find out you had ADHD?
Officially? About a month ago, unofficially when the people I worked with and a Clinical Psychologist I work with told me about 5 years ago.
How did you feel about getting the diagnosis?
Still didn’t believe it. I always think I’m the only neurotypical in the village!
However, looking back it makes a lot of sense when I think about my experiences at school, my numerous jobs and how I have lived my life.
It’s helping me to be kinder to myself and begin to make sense of myself. I think it has also given me the validation I needed to be able to talk to other people, especially when delivering training, that I speak from the heart and may have more understanding of why our children do what they do.
What was your experience of school and how did that affect you growing up?
Primary was mainly ok I think, however my memory isn’t great. I do remember being told off for talking and not concentrating a lot. It was tricky for me as I didn’t know why I was being told off most of the time as I hadn’t heard the bell for example or didn’t realise that the teacher was speaking directly to me.
Senior school is when the wheels really fell off. I now believe I also have dyscalculia as I was quite bright in a lot of subjects but I still don’t know my times tables! My School reports were peppered with comments like “disruptive”, “doesn’t care”, “not concentrating”, “over talking” and “lying”. My poor mum was asked at parents evening what nights I worked at the Co-op but I had just told the teacher that I worked there to get out of yet another detention.
I started to get into so much trouble that in the end I would take the blame for things I hadn’t even done. I was “Asked to Leave” before my GCSE’s but they let me back to do them. In my Latin exam I wrote my name at the top of the paper and left. I got a mark for that!
Have your symptoms changed since childhood vs adulthood?
I’m not sure if my symptoms have changed or I’ve just become more aware of certain behaviours and learned to modify them. Working closely with the ADHD Foundation through my work at SPACE I’ve learned a lot of strategies.
I try hard to not blurt out everything that comes into my head, and I do try to wait my turn to speak. Having to behave in a certain way that doesn’t come naturally is exhausting however so I’m always quite tired after professional meetings.
Becoming a parent meant I had to look at my lifestyle and make some changes. As an adult I am also more able to make my own life choices whereas at school I was (hopelessly!) expected to conform to the rigid expectation of what’s considered “typical”.
Growing up in the 80s ADHD simply wasn’t recognised in the way it is now and I was definitely labelled “naughty” and “disruptive”. Some of the words used to describe me as a child have actually become positives such as being strong willed, funny and having high energy. My risk taking is also more channelled and so more productive.
How does ADHD influence your life now (work, friends, partner etc)
This is the first job I have had where I can be myself (to a certain extent – I could never truly be myself as the insurance premium doesn’t cover it!). It goes to show how important the right environment is to be able to thrive. I get to do loads of different things everyday. I love multi-tasking – which is just as well as we are a small team with lots to do so are constantly spinning plates and juggling balls. There’s no time or reason to get bored. I feel very lucky as the whole team understand neurodiversity. They recognise my strengths and play to them.
My husband is also an ADHDer, but where I am combined type he is inattentive and we are completely different. He takes forever to do something, and I’ve done it all before he’s had his first coffee.
What’s the most challenging thing about having ADHD?
The most challenging thing for me is my lack of organisation and also upsetting people by not having any patience for them. I’m not very tolerant, can find it hard to finish tasks and I bore very easily. I also have quite severe sensory difficulties so can’t function well in distracting places or if people drag chairs across carpets! Note to the rest of the SPACE team!! Oh and I have no emotional regulation at all so burst into tears or lose my temper very quickly and inappropriately. I also need to stop over sharing!
What positives are there for you living with ADHD?
The positives for me are that I usually move on very quickly if I’m upset. I hear about people having a late diagnosis and feeling bad about their life before and even though lots of things could have been so different I don’t have that angst of the past because today is a new day and I tend to live very much in the moment.
I think my best quality is thinking outside the box and being a problem solver. I bring a lot of energy, am full of ideas and bring people along for the ride. I’m very loyal and people seem to find me funny. Is this ADHD or personality? Hard to unpick sometimes.
What are your feelings towards having ADHD now?
I’m ok about it after being in denial for so long. I know I’ve always thought differently to other people because I’ve always been told that, but no one really knows what’s going on in someone else’s head do they.
I do wish it was called something else though because then people might take it more seriously. I still think ADHD gets a really bad press and it’s thought to be used as an excuse for poor behaviour.
Do you choose to medicate? If so, in what ways does it help?
Medication is always a personal choice. Right now, I am choosing not to medicate. Had I have known when I was at school then I think it would have been a good idea to get me through secondary. But doing what I do now, with the team I work with, I may just carry on driving them mad instead, but I’ll never say never.
What do you wish you could go back and tell 8 year old you?
I wouldn’t tell myself anything. I would instead deliver a training session about myself to all teaching staff. I would tell them that this little girl needs support and guidance and not punishment. She needs you to understand that her brain is busy and she isn’t ignoring you but she probably hasn’t heard you. I would ensure that she had transition support to secondary school with lots of guidance around risk taking behaviour. Would I have listened if the help had have been there though? We will never know ….!
If you or someone you know in our SPACE community would like to share their experiences of being neurodiverse to help raise awareness and understanding please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to chat with you in whatever way works best for you.