Barrister Mairéad Deevy has a shape sorter toy on her computer desk at home in Waterford, a gift to remind her that there is room in this world for different shapes.
It was only at age 28, when she got a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that she saw how she fitted in and how some of her struggles in early adulthood made perfect sense. “I had been given a diagnosis of anxiety, and a diagnosis of depression at an earlier stage as well.”
Yet, “I always had this sense that there was something missing, that those were symptoms of something broader”.
After she read an article about ADHD in the media, her suspicions crystallised. “I just remember nearly falling out of my chair – ‘Oh my God that’s me’.” It prompted her to read more and seek a possible diagnosis.
Now in her early 30s, she explains: “You are a round peg in a world of square holes and the square holes want you to conform, which is fair enough as 90 per cent of the population is neurotypical, but you also have the right to take up space on your own terms.
“If you’re living with undiagnosed ADHD you have this sense that you don’t quite fit and not understanding why. That’s a moral diagnosis, ‘I am wrong, I am bad, I am lazy, I am selfish’. So of course you are going to be suffering with your mental health.
“Anxiety and depression are not part of who I am now,” she says. The diagnosis and subsequent psycho-education were transformative.
“It’s not a label, it’s a lens,” she says. No coping strategy or medication can substitute for “being able to be kind to yourself when you have been getting negative messages your whole life and you have been internalising those”.
Knowing she has ADHD has given her the ability to stand up for herself. Because you are living in a world that is not built for you, she says, you must be able to advocate for your needs and not feel bad about that.
Nobody ever suggested she had ADHD growing up but, looking back, all her school reports said the same thing: bright but distracted; daydreaming; chatting; could do better; has lots of potential, probably not living up to it.
“Knowing what we know now about ADHD, the writing was on the wall,” she says. But it is still more likely to go undiagnosed in females.
‘Feel good’ chemicals
Deevy also sees a link between her success as a junior sprinter and ADHD. The condition is related to dysfunction with the neurochemical dopamine. Intense exercise not only increases the production of dopamine in the brain, but it also produces endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals.
“When I look back on my teenage years I, unbeknownst to myself, was kind of self-medicating. I ran at international level and trained five or six days a week. I look back on those years as fairly structured and steady; I was very happy. Now I know what I know, that makes perfect sense.”
Despite representing Ireland in 400m events at juvenile and junior level, her athletics career fizzled out after she started studying law and business in UCD in 2007. She failed to get one of the two sports scholarships that were available for athletics at the time and, while the financial support would have been welcome, it was not being able to train in the college’s high-performance centre that was the biggest blow.
She wonders that if she had known she had ADHD, would she have made a case for herself? “But I didn’t. So it just kind of fell apart.”
She had to get two buses across the city to train in Santry. “It was taking me an hour and a half to get there twice a week; I had to get up at 6am to do my weight training.”
Despite her best efforts, this training regime lasted only a few months. At the time she thought it was because she was lazy and just couldn’t cut it. “Now I look back [and see] the odds were so stacked against me; how could it have been any different?” She was already struggling with the transition to university, living away from home for the first time. “With ADHD, college is one of the places where it tends to come to the fore. If you have had a very structured childhood, supportive parents and you’re smart, it can kind of go unnoticed.”
She had to organise herself to attend lectures and complete assignments “and I just couldn’t. The moment I needed my sport the most, as it was obviously my anchor, my dopamine, it fell away.”
Going from top of the class at school to failing exams at university was highly damaging for her self-esteem. In third and fourth year of college, “I really, really applied myself, but this is where knowing about ADHD would have helped.” She would study in the library but “go down the rabbit hole” of topics she was interested in and run out of time for others. “The essence of the ADHD brain is it is not motivated by reward, it is motivated by interest.”
People look at her now and say that as she got to study law in UCD and then become a barrister, it can’t have been that bad. But this was achieved “at enormous cost”, she says.
Another dimension that is common in women and not really discussed, she suggests, is the effect of emotional dysregulation. “The impulsivity can affect you in going out to the party when you should be studying but it also impacts women in term of their relationships.” This, she admits, was the “most devastating” aspect when looking back after she realised she had ADHD.
“For example, on a night out I could impulsively end up spilling a confidence that somebody else said and I would have no idea why I did that and the next morning I would be full of remorse.” As that is not a nice thing to do, people naturally and understandably assume, she says, that you are not a decent person “and, if you don’t have a better answer, you kind of agree”.
Having attended an ADHD coach “who absolutely changed my life”, she has since trained to be one herself. She describes it as work in which “you are holding the hope for somebody until they are able to hold it themselves”.
During the training, “what really blew me away is that a huge amount of the learning is around identifying your needs and boundaries and healthy relationships.” People who don’t know they have ADHD have received so much criticism, they tend to have a low opinion of themselves and accept what other people think.
Deevy struggled in her first couple of jobs after graduation and before the diagnosis. “Open-plan offices are like nails on a blackboard for me.” She remembers a big issue being made over her taking her laptop to a vacant meeting room whenever she wanted to focus on a complex task.
It was made clear that “it’s not what is done around here”. Looking back, “that is what I needed to get my work done and I didn’t know how to explain it or ask for it, so I just conformed”.
She’s now self-employed, splitting her time between coaching and work as a barrister, mainly in criminal cases where a significantly above-average rate of ADHD among clients is apparent, “sadly a lot of it undiagnosed”.
When first diagnosed she reckons she would have been considered moderate, or at least mild to moderate, but now it’s definitely mild. “That’s not just to do with strategies, it’s to do with how I speak to myself and how I treat myself. You’re trying to rewire your brain.”
What are her coping strategies?
They’re “so boring”, she replies. “I would say sleep is the most important thing but routine, exercise, diet, connection – all of those basic things.” She is also on a low dose of stimulant medication, known most widely as one brand name, Ritalin.
People might wonder why a stimulant medication is prescribed when the common perception of ADHD is hyperactivity. It is “stimulating the brakes”, she explains, “giving your brain a breather. It allows you to focus and get the stuff done that you need to do.”
She used to be reluctant to talk about having ADHD because she felt it would damage her standing as a barrister. But then she realised she “couldn’t not speak out” because so many of the clients who come to her for ADHD coaching are in professions, like hers, where vulnerabilities are seen as weakness.
“You just get on with it, [in] quite patriarchal kinds of culture. The point of speaking out is so that other people will feel that they can talk about it and try to reduce that stigma. I think in women the stigma is potentially more.”