ADHD: The diagnosis which saved my life

Gareth Gregan describes how his ADHD diagnosis brought him relief at college

Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images


Last September I sat alone in my room, staring at the results of another set of botched college exams. At this stage it was getting ridiculous. I was 22, watching my peers lay the foundations for nascent careers while I reconciled myself to the reality that attaining a degree was something I would not be capable of doing.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not for me anyways. In school I was “the academic one”. I sat my Leaving Certificate at 16, and started studying Economics and Politics at TCD at 17. Academia was my safe-space, where my guaranteed strong performance would justify my seemingly reckless and carefree exterior. Admittedly, I was a teacher’s worst nightmare: disruptive to the end, forgetful, and guaranteed to show up daily without homework and the materials necessary for class. But in the end, it wouldn’t matter, because I would “come good” in exams.

University was different. When studying for a degree, work is essential, and natural curiosity cannot overcome the need to “put in the hours”. The shock of having failed first year was surely enough to drag me to my senses and realise that I had to apply myself? Yet, no matter how hard I tried, the ability to focus was like a smoke which continuously eluded my grasp, meaning my summer plans would repeatedly be cut short by the need to spend August “in study mode” for Supplementals.

In our success-driven society, the effects of failing exams on one’s mental health are very real. All of a sudden, you’re absent from the classes of the peers you started with. You dread talking to your now former classmates. It’s the elephant in the room in every gathering. It lingers behind every conversation.  When this is a repeated process, it becomes your identity. “I failed those exams” very quickly becomes “I am a failure”.

In the midst of this repeated cycle, my parents convinced me to see my [great] doctor, who prescribed me anti-depressants. They served to stop the bleed, but like a jumper which does not fit correctly, I never felt comfortable in my diagnosis of depression.  I was falling deeper and deeper into a rut. My poor mental state had begun to permeate into other aspects of my life. Part-time jobs would be quit on a whim. Social-gatherings would be avoided for fear of bumping into somebody who might mention my failure. When people would ask me about college, I would grunt inconspicuously, and allude vaguely to having “finished”.

When things reached crisis point last September, my mother reached out to a friend of hers who worked as a psychiatrist. It was in my first meeting with her that she floated that word to me:  Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Admittedly, the thought had entered my mind, but I was sceptical because that “was a condition the pharma industry made up to sell a pill”, or it was “an avenue for American housewives to subdue their boisterous children”. She persisted, and arranged for me to undergo the tests necessary to see if I met the criteria for diagnosis.  I did.  Finally, I had an explanation.

However, I would not be confident that I was on the road to recovery until I faced down my arch-nemesis: exams.

I arranged to resit my third year exams in May of this year. This would be my litmus test. Over 9 days I sat six, three-hour exams. I remember vomiting with nerves on the walk to the RDS. It didn’t matter though, I had come too far to not go in. Nerves returned in June when I went to open my results. On top of a list of failures stretching back years: Gareth Gregan: 2.1 – proceed to Senior Sophister (4th year in TCD parlance).

The point of me writing this piece is not to blow my own trumpet, although its cathartic to set the record straight over my somewhat erratic behaviour in recent years. It’s to dispel myths surrounding ADHD, and maybe convince the parents of somebody struggling with concentration-related issues to have themselves assessed. It’s disappointing that in 2016, baseless stigma can trump scientific consensus and we still have to justify the existence of this condition.

Finally, I think of the thousands out there who have not experienced the relief of a diagnosis and question every aspect of themselves at each-repeated failure. Although my experience revolves around academia, there are many who struggle with tasks in the workplace, unsure as to the reasons why. I implore of the teachers in our society too, to think a little bit deeper: maybe that disruptive child in your class isn’t inherently evil.