'I'll never forget the moment I was told I wasn't normal'

I’ll never forget the moment I was told I wasn’t normal.

By Glen Foreman

That is, of course, deliberately written flippantly and I can now look back and laugh with my friends when they point out, “We’ve always known you weren’t normal, mate”.

But, at the time and in that moment, it wasn’t funny; it was one of those fork-in-the-road moments in life and I burst into tears.

I was sitting in my GP’s office, with three pages of a printed medical article, telling her I thought something was wrong.

I had just turned 30-years-old and, as I read out the symptoms on the page, describing in as precise detail as I could muster my adherence to each one, my breath began to shorten, my voice began to quiver and my blinking became more rapid.

I ended my spiel and looked at her, hoping she heard the desperation in my voice, but waiting for the rebuttal. Waiting for the accusatory question of whether I was just in it for the drugs.

She placed a hand on my shoulder, calmly looked at me and said: “I think you’re right and I’m going to do everything I can to help you”.

I burst into tears over the knowledge that what I was feeling wasn’t normal. That I didn’t have to feel that way anymore. That life didn’t have to be the way it was.

I was diagnosed with a case of ADHD on the “extreme end of the spectrum”, according the diagnosing psychiatrist to whom my GP referred me.

Why has it taken me about 10 sentences to say that? For the same reason I rarely discuss it.

At best, telling people of an ADHD diagnosis conjures images of hyperactive kids, who can’t pay attention in class and disrupt everyone around them.

At worst, it comes bundled with a stigma of immaturity and systemic weakness, like it’s a condition that is owned solely by children whose parents couldn’t parent correctly, so required a tablet to do their job for them.

But it’s misunderstood. And the notes I was holding in my GP’s office had nothing to do with behaviour – they were the emotional symptoms and I was no longer coping with them.

I was 30-years-old, employed full-time and married and, therefore, it was self-evident that I had developed strategies to manage behaviours, but my life had taken some dramatic turns and those strategies were no longer working.

My life was going nowhere fast after high school; I was working a menial job in a warehouse that I hated, with no plans or ideas on how to plan for the future.

Then my dad passed away when I was 21-years-old.

My family and friends rallied and, instead of giving me permission to keep my head down, they told me to stand the hell up and do something, which led to me going to university as a mature-age student to study journalism, becoming sports editor of a major online news outlet before I graduated, progressing to the paper and covering national and international events.

I decided in 2011 to embark on the ambitious project of writing my dad’s biography, then I was approached a year later by the WACA to head up its communications team.

I accepted the position and, a few months after that, my wife and I found out we were expecting our first child.

So, in short, there was a lot going on.

Then something changed.

I started cancelling catch-ups with friends – even close ones – because I felt anxious about seeing anyone, I rarely left the house and my mood fluctuated wildly.

My thoughts darkened and I catastrophised everything; how was I going to be a father when I felt out of my depth in a new job, I hadn’t even made significant progress on the book and I couldn’t even pull myself together?

I projected my fears an insecurities onto those around me and my wife was suffering the most, because she had to live with this raging storm.

I felt exhausted, but if I rested I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing one of the 100 things I felt needed to be done at any one time. My legs twitched wildly and I would pick up my phone as quickly as I put it down.

And there was no reprieve in sleep, because the demons that haunted the night were worse than those of the day; insomnia had become an unwelcomed companion, which only compounded the situation.

Anyone with any knowledge of psychology will know the ramifications of depriving someone of sleep and the ability to dream – things go south very quickly.

It didn’t take long for my thoughts to drift into places I never again want to visit.

I had no idea what was going on, but I knew something wasn’t right.

Worse: I knew if I didn’t do something fast, I was going to lose the last few buoys of positivity in my life that were keeping me afloat.

That was when, during another late night in the office and once everyone had gone home, I Googled everything I was feeling: anxiety; depression; restlessness; insomnia; panic; social withdrawal; underachievement.

The results returned were remarkably consistent: Adult ADHD.

I printed the page that changed my life and, the next morning, I drove straight to my GP, with no appointment – classic compulsive ADHD, right?

I asked my wife to go for a walk that evening and I told her what had happened those past 24hrs. She wept – the diagnosis wasn’t only life-changing for me.

I told my mum, because God knows the heartbreak she felt as she watched me struggle with all this for my whole life, with no way of knowing what was going on. She openly cried – it explained everything.

I ended up finishing that book – it became a best-seller – and I managed to steady my career, to the point I still pinch myself that I’ve made my way to a respected place like Bankwest.

I took action before allowing my condition to break apart my marriage, and my wife and I now have two beautiful kids.

I have no idea how close I came to losing all of that, but I know it was very close.

So, why tell this story now, when my inner-critic insists I’m a narcissist attempting to make ADHD sound like it’s on the level of cancer? Or that people are going to read this and it'll jeopardise current and/or future employment opportunities?

I had a blood condition when I was younger that required treatment in the cancer ward of PMH and I was fortunate enough to cover the London Paralympics, at which every athlete I interviewed had some ultra-inspiring, life-changing story of overcoming the world’s toughest challenges of adversity.

The experiences in my own life have been plenty enough to encourage that inner-critic to ask, “You seriously think you’ve got problems that warrant speaking about?”.

And they’ve been enough to keep me relatively silent on the issue of mental illness, despite it impacting one in five Australians (according to the Black Dog Institute).

But sometimes that inner-critic needs to shut the hell up.

You are you and the challenges you face are in no other context than that of your own life; it’s unfair to compare who you are today, to who someone else is or was yesterday.

That inner-critic has its place, but sometimes it stops you – it was certainly stopping me – from recognising true problems and making changes that need to be made.

And, if I had of listened to it and accepted all the excuses – many of them seemingly valid – as to why I should do nothing, I know I wouldn’t be here today. That scares me.

This is in no way a victory speech, either; I've still got the challenges I have to work through on a daily, weekly and ongoing basis.

We all have our cross to bear; the important part is acknowledging it and bearing it to the best of our abilities - that includes asking for support when needed.

Today is World Mental Health Day and what better time to ask yourself if there’s something that needs to change.

Maybe the answer is too overwhelming to tackle all at once, so here’s an exercise from psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson on how to break down the big dragon into smaller, manageable dragons.

When you wake up in the morning, take a moment to sit on the end of your bed and ask yourself, “What could I do today to make life better for myself and those around me?”.

You’ll likely be surprised that it was so easy to come up with a page full of options, but also overwhelmed into inaction for the same reason, so – and this is the crucial part – ask yourself, “What am I willing to do?”.

The list will dwindle.

Be true to yourself – don’t pretend to be willing to do something just because you think that’s what you’re expected to do. No-one’s in your head except you, so be honest.

And then keep your word and take action.

What you’re “willing to do” might on the first day simply be Googling symptoms. The next day, it might be printing a page out. The day after, it might be visiting your GP.

Then, who knows: five years later, you might be able to look back and laugh at the fact that you’re not quite normal.

Just like the rest of us.

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