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Homecna_insider singapore women cna_lifestyleThese women never knew they had ADHD. A diagnosis changed their lives

These women never knew they had ADHD. A diagnosis changed their lives

SINGAPORE: Growing up, Cheyenne Seah always felt she had to work twice, even three times as hard as the people around her to get things done. 

“I felt like I was the stupid one,” she said. 

Seah, now 39, would forget even the simplest of things. Organisation and administrative tasks stressed her out to no end. She could never motivate herself to get her homework done until the last minute – and would end up copying from friends. 

At the age of 10, she realised that her brain “worked” when she drank coffee, so she picked up the habit to “give herself a hit”. By the time she was in her early 20s, she was downing eight cups to get through the day. 

After the caffeine overload, she would drink alcohol – 500ml or so – in the evenings to sleep. When she won a scholarship and began pursuing a PhD in biology and research, however, the demands became too much to bear. 

THE UNLIKELY CANDIDATES 

As an adult woman by then, she was an unlikely candidate. 

There are no local studies on the prevalence of ADHD in Singapore, but international data suggests that about 5 per cent of children have ADHD, according to Dr Bhanu Gupta of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). 

Traditionally, ADHD has been known as a childhood disorder associated with, in Gupta’s words, “young boys bouncing around and creating a lot of trouble in the classroom”.

Despite the association with hyperactivity, there are elements that may be harder to pick up, said the senior consultant at IMH’s department of mood and anxiety. For example, some people with ADHD are simply inattentive. “They can be easily distracted, have difficulty in focusing or sustaining attention on tasks, and can be quite disorganised,” he said. There are also those who are impulsive and may act or speak without thinking. 

A review published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal noted that ADHD is more common in boys than girls, with a ratio of 2 to 3:1 reported in community prevalence studies. “This may represent the fact that ADHD in girls and women is not recognised very well,” said Gupta. 

In primary school, her mother had structured and organised her schedule, making sure she completed her homework. Thanks to this, she excelled, doing well enough to get into the Integrated Programme at one of the top secondary schools in Singapore. 

“That was when my mum decided I was old enough to manage my own schoolwork, and that’s when everything came crashing down,” she said. Jnanee would attempt to do school assignments but get distracted by video games within a few minutes. She rarely handed in assignments, and would be extremely late if she did. 

She tried her best to get her life organised, getting a diary and making to-do lists. But within days, she would lose or forget about them. 

When her grades started slipping, no one thought much about it, she recalled. “People thought it was a combination of laziness, because we had no O-Levels, or that I didn’t have the natural aptitude to begin with.”  

Curious about psychology, she remembers coming across ADHD in a book and was startled to realise that the description matched what she was feeling. She told her mother about it and asked to see a doctor.

After graduating with a nursing diploma in 2016, Chang reckoned she tried out more than 20 different jobs, from nursing roles to part-time positions like waiting tables. She estimates that 95 per cent of the time, she did not manage to pass probation. Twice, she was fired after only three days.

“They said I was slow. Couldn’t focus,” she said.  

She often found it difficult to explain her employment history to prospective employers. “I always said I’d rather work (at the company I was interviewing at), or maybe that (the previous) place wasn’t my ideal, or I wanted a change,” she said. “But it was just to cover the weakness.” 

Moonlake Lee, 52, meanwhile, is happily married to her husband of 29 years. But it was only at the end of 2019, when she was diagnosed with ADHD, that she realised her condition had caused tension in her marriage. 

“Sometimes, it’s the small things you do that get on people’s nerves,” she said. She remembers always being late, interrupting her husband during serious conversations and being very disorganised. 

Time blindness, which in Lee’s case meant she could be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour late for appointments, can have a negative impact on work, family and social relationships, she said. This is compounded by the struggles people with ADHD tend to face with executive functioning skills like planning and organisation.

SEEING CLEARLY WITH A DIAGNOSIS 

Lee’s daughter was diagnosed with ADHD in 2018, and it was then that she realised she also had the condition.

“They never realise that the problem was not them – they have always been blaming themselves,” said Lim. “So they heave a sigh of relief and say: ‘It’s not me, it’s just a condition’.” 

“It’s really akin to short-sightedness,” he added. “Imagine a person who has been seeing with blurred vision suddenly wearing glasses – it can really be life changing.” 

After diagnosis, treatment can make a remarkable difference.  

Medication can help those with ADHD sustain their concentration and perform better at work, said Lim. 

There are also other forms of treatment. Life coaches can help with strategies on time management and overcoming some of the symptoms of ADHD, said Lim. Individuals can also see a psychologist or counsellor to address any other emotional difficulties arising from their condition, such as anxiety or depression. 

While she still enjoys a cup of coffee in the morning, it’s nowhere near the amount she used to drink to get through the day. 

“(The diagnosis) gave me the peace to know that I’m all about the new stuff – so it’s okay to achieve a certain level, hand it over well and then go on my next adventure,” she said. 

She has done this with panache. In recent years, she has tried her hand at business and industry development, human resource strategy and psychology. She now does business advisory and career coaching, and is studying cybersecurity and blockchain.  

She also coaches girls with ADHD, teaching them life skills and some executive functions like managing priorities, handling people, and dealing with emotional trauma.  “I want to buy these girls an opportunity for a better life than the one I had,” she said. 

These days, she works out of the bedroom of her simply decorated flat. With the air-conditioner running and soft music playing on her laptop, it is a conducive spot. Small squeeze toys and gummy bears are within close reach as outlets for stress and to “help her brain work”.

So is her medication – she is prescribed two different types of medication, one for days she needs to focus and “be an adult”, and another to help with her disrupted sleep patterns. 

Chang, too, decided to play to her strengths after being diagnosed in 2020. A colleague had urged her to get herself checked – and it was, in her words, an “aha” moment, especially when she did online searches on the condition. 

Through word-of-mouth and the recruitment of volunteers, she has also managed to meet more people with ADHD and build a support network. 

This sense of community was particularly helpful for Jnanee. “It gives me a sense of comfort to know that you’re not alone,” she said.

The group often shares jokes or memes about ADHD, and she has also learnt coping strategies like setting multiple reminders for meetings and carrying a clipboard with all her tasks for the day. 

The aim is for Unlocking ADHD to share real stories: Of living with the condition, the struggles, treatment options and, ultimately, the triumph of transformed lives. To Lee, this is the most powerful way to reach people. 

Jnanee concurs. She “found her tribe” only after meeting Lee and reading about adults with ADHD in a 2020 news article. She now wants others to do the same. 

“I also want to shatter the stereotype that ADHD is only found in hyperactive little boys,” she declared.

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