Is It Forgetfulness, Or Is It Adult ADHD?
If you've never been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but you find yourself having tendencies that seem to point in that direction, or other people are telling you that you might have ADHD, how do you figure out what is really going on? Is it just a case of forgetfulness, or is it Adult ADHD?
If you’ve found yourself clicking on this article, the first thing we want you to know is that there is nothing wrong with you. Whether you discover if your forgetfulness is rooted in ADHD or not, the challenges you face are not the sign of a broken brain or a reason to feel shame about who you are, although unfortunately, many of us do.
There is no DSM 5 diagnosis of “Adult ADHD;” however, reading over a symptom list like this one may have you feeling exposed in ways that you’re not sure you were ready for. You may be grateful to see that there is a name for the pattern of challenges that keep showing up in your life, or you may feel triggered by the matter-of-fact way that they are presented. Ultimately, you’re not sure what to do with the information except feel guilty about all of the ways that you seemingly don’t measure up as a relational human being.
Instead of feeling shame and guilt, let’s seek to understand how an ADHD brain works and learn to love it instead of despise it. Using the example of forgetfulness and memory opens the door for us to be able to develop a better mental picture of how ADHD impacts us in an important aspect of everyday life: our relationships.
How Is ADHD Related to Memory?
Adults with ADHD are notorious for performing poorly on long-term memory tests, whether verbal (involve words presented audibly or visually) or nonverbal (involve drawings). Why? Particularly when it’s called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, not Memory Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
ADHD shakes hands with memory in the areas of the brain that deal with what we colloquially refer to as “working memory,” or our “mental chalkboards.”
Working memory is what we use when we engage in complex conversations: as we listen, we choose which parts of what we heard to keep and which to let go, placing them on our temporary chalkboards for safekeeping. We then consider this information and mix it with our existing knowledge and what we are currently learning from our conversation partner.
Working memory is part of our executive functioning, or organization, planning, and self-control skills. These include being patient, finishing projects and tasks before moving on to others, setting goals and following through, and living by an organizational system. The struggle for an adult with ADHD is mainly in the first two parts: being a traditionally “attentive” listener and staying focused while choosing which pieces of information to keep and which to throw.
Beyond this point, ADHD has typically done its damage; the information has become altered in some way, and your response will create an uncomfortable gap in the conversation. It may seem to the original speaker that you don’t remember what they said, and it may even seem that way to you because you are truly not encoding the information you’re taking in properly. This leads to the illusion of a memory problem when in reality, it’s a matter of attention.
Many of the things we label as faults within ourselves—forgetfulness, lack of organization or follow-through, interrupting others—are not character flaws, but really just an expression of our difficulty sustaining attention.
People think I’m spacey…
When not properly medicated, employing your behavioral strategies, or attending treatment, you may seem lost in a conversation, unfocused, or unorganized. However, being that you made it through childhood without garnering enough attention to your ADHD to get diagnosed and treated, my guess is that you have developed some advanced skills in learning to manage yourself, a.k.a. your ADHD before you knew what to call it.
Instead of thinking about your ADHD as a problem to solve, can you begin the healing process by marveling at all the ways you’ve been able to find success because of the way your brain is wired? Whether it’s a complex system of sticky notes, living by your calendar or company’s task management system, or setting multiple alarms for important meetings, you are adaptable, creative, and flexible. These are incredible strengths to be proud of.
How else can you make your ADHD a strength?
Adults with ADHD may work harder than others- there is a new mantra for you! “I'm the type of person who works hard and perseveres even when it's difficult.”
You are constantly forming unexpected, unanticipated combinations of information. Try spending more time with your friends who are artistic, or find ways to engage yourself creatively. It’s only one bus ride between “distracted” and “original,” so some of this may only be a linguistic reframe for you.
Let a few people in on the secret. That way, they won’t mind redirecting the conversation or going with the flow if that becomes necessary.
Or better yet, just own it! Freely share that you have an ADHD brain, and be proud of it. Letting others know how awesome you think your brain is will also help them to feel better about their own.
If you’re continuing to feel shame about your ADHD, whether suspected or diagnosed, talking with a mental health professional and learning more about the way your brain works can be a great help!