I Was Diagnosed with ADHD at 21 — Here’s How I Gamified My Life to Suit My Brain

I had always been aware that I saw the world a little differently to those around me. However, it wasn’t until I saw a doctor that I learned of my ADHD and things truly came into focus. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

I Was Diagnosed with ADHD at 21 — Here’s How I Gamified My Life to Suit My Brain cover

In the middle of a busy restaurant scene, we could have been any happy, young couple, save for one crucial difference. My physical body was present, seated there at the dinner table. But my mind? It was wandering into uncharted waters, my eyes fixed on the wall.

“Hey, Danielle, did you hear me?”

The sound of my partner's voice snapped me back to reality. Back in the room, I had no idea how long he’d been speaking or even what he’d been talking about. It was as though I’d just woken from a dream. I’d been lost in the maze of my own consciousness and he’d pulled me out. I glanced at his face. It wasn't irritated, as I’d imagined. It was concerned.

Knowing my history—I’d previously had a bunch of concussions; six at last count—my partner then said the words I needed to hear. “Go get it checked out.” I took his advice.

I was 21, at this point, and had always been aware that I saw the world a little differently to those around me. However, it wasn’t until I saw a doctor, and then a specialist, that things truly came into focus and it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

The questions seemed innocuous. Did I watch movies? Well, no, they’re kind of long. How did I do in school? Really well, although I talked a lot during classes and was drawn toward the arts. I had trouble focusing on one thing at a time. I was referred to a specialist and, after a going through score sheet, she began painting a picture of my life.

Me, travelling in Bali

For the first time, everything made sense. It was as though the specialist peered into my brain and told me exactly how it worked. She even gave me the manual.

You see, the thing that many don’t understand about ADHD is that, in a lot of people, it’s so subtle. The clinical definition of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder highlights three areas it affects: inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Symptoms range from forgetfulness and having problems organizing things, to being fidgety and talking non-stop. However, as I’ve now learned firsthand, the way it manifests in an individual can be as unique as their personality.

An ADHD Brain is Not Broken, Simply Different

Photographer: Jessica Ruscello | Source: Unsplash

How an ADHD brain approaches things isn’t necessarily wrong. But it is different. One way I can illustrate this is through my turbulent relationship with math.

Math was my enemy at school. The way it was taught to me simply didn’t work and I found it challenging. I remember spending the classes making jokes, talking, and distracting others. What I didn’t know back then was that my reaction wasn’t down to me being a typical teen. It was because I was unstimulated by the lessons.

After my diagnosis, I was able to reframe math and it’s not so mysterious now. Taking a different approach to the conundrum allowed me to understand it in a new context. It was liberating.

Of course, my ADHD doesn’t solely affect my numerical skills. It runs deeper. For me, another way it manifests is through my inability to cope with change. Previously, when plans changed unexpectedly, it would send me into an episode. While a neurotypical person can usually adapt, I found last-minute setbacks a real challenge.

Thanks to this, my childhood is littered with memories of me feeling entirely out of control. Even if I logically understood why something couldn’t happen, it was hard for me to accept. Making decisions was laborious, and so when I had made a plan, I wanted to stick to it. Essentially, it had taken me so long to get to that point that a sudden ‘no’ would shatter everything. I’d be back to square one, having to start over. It was infuriating.

Worse still, it was hard to articulate this problem to those around me. My mood swings looked bratty and I found it difficult to dispel that notion. My diagnosis changed that. Like having a horoscope for my brain, I was suddenly able to connect the dots and understand why I reacted that way to certain things. It found it completely empowering.

When you’re diagnosed with ADHD, you have two choices. Some people see it as a negative or a label. Ultimately, this perspective means they become a victim of it. Or you can choose the other route. I saw the diagnosis as a superpower. My initial thought process was simple: “Okay, this is what I’m predisposed to and now I can adapt to suit it.”

The Emotional Paradox of Prescribed Medication

Okay, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: medication.

Shortly after my diagnosis, I did start taking prescribed medication. In fact, I was off and on it for a couple of years back then. While this approach may work for some ADHD individuals—and I by no means want to speak on their behalf—it simply wasn’t for me.

There was one bonus to being on medication, and that was empathy. Experts have previously linked callous-unemotional traits to ADHD. Like others with the disorder, I struggled with showing empathy toward others, which was a huge challenge. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, but that I didn’t have the mental space to show it.

In a crowded room, I’d be keenly aware of everything going on around me. I’d notice the small creaks of chairs, the murmured bickering of a couple in the corner, or the mirco-reactions of my partner. My hypersensitivity ran wild. I had to block out the overwhelming stimuli to cope which, unfortunately, made me appear uncaring.

Me, travelling Japan

Medication changed that. It allowed me to focus one thing at a time which, in turn, brought out my empathetic side. I cared desperately about the well-being of those around me. I showed up for people. You could say that it made me a better person and I certainly felt that way. But it took a toll on me and the price was too high. I found myself drained by the constant, unfaltering emotions to the point that I was almost paralysed by them.

So, I stopped. I haven’t been on medication for a long time now, and I’m glad. However, I have had to come up with new strategies to manage my ADHD.

How I Gamified My Lifestyle to Suit My Brain

From a younger age, I’d been gamifying my life without even realizing it. I was really good at it. So good, in fact, that you wouldn’t even notice I was doing it. After school, I might get home and allow myself to watch TV for 20 minutes but then I’d have to do my homework. Or vice versa. It was a reward-based system that worked for me.

As an adult, I’m lucky enough to run my own business and I’ve created a lifestyle that works for me. I’ve created my own dream job, which can be stressful at times, but it’s also pretty sweet. A major part of that has been utilizing the strategies I unknowingly tapped into as a child.

At a base level, that could mean setting myself a two-week period and committing to do the same thing every day. This type of challenge has worked for simply lifestyle changes, such as boosting my meditation practice or mindfulness. Each day that I succeed in my task is added to an ongoing streak, and so the pattern becomes a habit.

That’s the lo-fi version of gamification I use. Technology has transformed the way we live. We now have more information at our fingertips than ever. Using apps and my Apple Watch, I’ve been able to gather data on myself and use it to my advantage. For instance, I no longer take calls before 1PM as that’s when I’m most productive. I’ve used software such as RescueTime to understand my productivity and supercharge it.

‘Cause and effect’ is my mantra. Using the data I gathered on myself, I was able to understand how I worked from an analytical perspective. So much of what happens to us—our moods, productivity, or energy levels—is down to things we don’t acknowledge.

Me, at a coworking space in Bali

One example of this was the effect weekend drinking had on my subsequent productivity. Toward the start of the week, I always felt unproductive and suffered with low moods. Naturally, this problem affected my work-life dramatically. So, when I looked at the data, I found that it all stemmed from my choices on a Friday night.

Whenever I chose to drink, I’d tag ‘sad’ on my mood journal app in the following days. It didn’t end there. According to my health stats, I’d fail to get a good night’s sleep for the next three nights. Armed with this information, it hardly takes Sherlock Holmes to deduce what was happening. Unsurprisingly, when I cut out drinking, my productivity soared.

The Only Constant in Life is Change

Change is a constant in the life of an ADHD individual. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that no strategy works forever. It might work for a week, two weeks, even a few months. But eventually, there will come a point when you need something new.

While gamification works for me in general, I’m constantly having to use different approaches to keep things new. I flit between software, apps, and paper strategies. Each serves its purpose for a time and then expires. And that’s okay. It works.

The list of tools I’ve used grows longer and longer. For a short time, I relied on Habitica, a role-playing game to build healthy habits. It worked. I reached goals and ticked off tasks swiftly but its effect didn’t last forever. I’ve bought into the theory of Mise-En-Place and devoured Dan Charnas’ book on the topic, using it in my daily life. I’ve used Coffitivity to simulate the sounds of a busy coffee shop to help me to get into the flow of projects.

Me, traveling through Vietnam

For all these things, I’m thankful. However, abandoning these strategies as I go doesn’t feel like failure. Each one has moved me forward somewhat in my journey. I know that my worst days were my best days, at some point. Progress is not linear but it is exponential.

My brain is beautiful and, as I’ve mentioned, my ADHD is a superpower. Those two beliefs have kept me progressing and learning. While I have to manage it, the disorder has given me countless gifts when it comes to focus and my dedication to work. Rather than being a victim of it, I’ve found these talents and let them shine. I invite you to do the same.

Consider what it is about your brain that’s special. What’s your superpower? What is unconsciously easy for you but difficult for others? It could be something small like the ability to do a Rubix Cube, or something large like speaking another language. You might want to write a list. Whatever it is, believing that there’s something good in there changes the narrative and frames you as the superhero of the story. Because, frankly, you are.

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