I had an appointment with a man from the charity ADHD UK. We arranged to meet at a pub next to a station at half past two, acknowledging that in our worlds this meant we would be there nearer three. I resolved, for the thousandth time in my life, to be there bang on time. I boarded a train that would arrive at said station at 14.24. I was going to be on time, which was an unfamiliar feeling, somewhere between exhilarating and unsettling. Then, in a classic ADHD passage of play, it all went a bit wrong. I got so absorbed in Philip Short’s biography of Putin – if Vladimir doesn’t have ADHD, I’m an oligarch – that I overshot my stop. The train back from the next station was delayed, obviously, so I was well late. Standard. I had reverted to my mean. It was nearly 3pm when I met my man, one Henry Shelford.
This meeting turned out to be the second exhilarating yet unsettling experience of the day. It was like meeting myself. Ideas, thoughts and half-thoughts tumbled out in both directions. A point would be made that would spark a response that would in itself remind one of us of another point we wanted to make which we’d better make straight away lest we forget it but when the time came to get back to the original point we’d have forgotten what it was so we would start making another different point before the other one interrupted to go off on various tangents. In this way, the baton in this zigzagging ADHD relay race would pass from one interlocutor to the other. All in all, paraphrasing the great Eric Morecambe, it was a conversation containing all the right notes, if not necessarily in the right order.
Actually, if you would like see the two of us ravelling and unravelling in this way, you can do so on the world wide web, because Shelford and I are in conversation as part of the online Global ADHD Conference, which runs for 24 hours from 1pm UK time on 6 October. We’re due on at 19.45 but, you know, we’ll see.
In our pub conversation, Shelford put me right on a few things. I had long been holding a couple of opinions that, thanks to him, I don’t hold any more. Firstly, I had developed a sense that, from being wildly under-diagnosed, ADHD had now gone the other way and was being diagnosed and treated left, right and centre. I was wrong – wrong because I had been seeing it through the prism of my own experience: essentially, that I had been able to pay to see a specialist. For everyone else, Shelford made clear, it’s a very long wait. And the stakes can be very high. The biggest single donor to his charity is the family of a teenager who took their own life as, in the absence of treatment for ADHD, their world overwhelmed them.
Unwelcome confirmation of all this came from an old schoolfriend of mine, a GP, at his surgery in the Midlands. He told me that the wait for a referral for adult ADHD on his patch stands at five years. Through the NHS Right to Choose system – which facilitates referrals to different health authorities – the wait can be significantly shorter, measured in months rather than years. In this way, my doctor friend had managed to sort something for a patient – only to find that by the time he had done so, his patient was (back) in prison. People with ADHD are greatly overrepresented in the prison population.
Shelford, like me, is squeamish about the idea of ADHD as some kind of superpower. Yes, if you can harness the chaotic torrents of thought, there is the potential for great things to be achieved. But for every Heston Blumenthal – who will be talking about his ADHD at this conference – there are probably hundreds of budding chefs with the condition who, unlike Heston, never managed to make it work in their favour. Also, let’s not forget this potential for high achievement cuts both ways. For every Albert Einstein, there will be a Vladimir Putin – and I’m serious about the latter; I know a good cognitive behavioural therapist who could help him out, if he’s interested. I digress; it’s in my nature to do so. The key point is that, as ever, it generally depends on which side of the tracks you are born. ADHD can be hell whichever side you hail from, but if it’s the wrong side, being unrecognised and untreated, your symptoms are more likely to lead you into the darkest places.
The other key point Shelford put me right on concerns my oft-ranted rant about the stigma around mental health problems being much less of aissue than it is made out to be – certainly less of an issue than access to care.
Why, I’ve banged on publicly about having ADHD, and my dependence on alcohol, and it has never done me any harm. But now I realise this is because of my line of work. As a freelance writer and broadcaster, my mental health doesn’t much matter (in a good way) to whomsoever engages my services. If they like what I write or broadcast, then I’m in. I suppose it’s the same with many trades; a plumber, electrician, footballer or rock star might be tormented by their condition but if they deliver, they deliver. Shelford points out how hard it can be getting employed in the corporate world, in places where you are often employed rather than contracted, in organisations with, ironically, human resources departments. Here, ADHD on your CV is rarely going to be to your advantage. How naive I was to think otherwise. And on this occasion, I’m not going to blame my own neurodiversity for such blinkered, selfish thinking.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist