DR CLARE BAILEY: Why being diagnosed with ADHD in middle age, like I was, explains so much about your life – as Sheridan Smith will discover now she’s been told she has it at 42

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A few years ago, I had one of those, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ moments. My husband, Dr Michael Mosley, and I had been staying with friends and I had volunteered to make a supper of chicken tagine as a thank you for their hospitality.

It was a lovely summer’s day, so we decided to go for a pre-dinner drink. In an attempt to be organised, I commandeered their brand-new open-plan kitchen, did the prep and put the rice on beforehand.

We were out for only about an hour but on our return, I felt a surge of utter panic. From the downstairs windows billowed threatening clouds of white smoke. The pan of rice! I hadn’t turned off the gas hob.

We dashed inside, the smell of burning hitting our nostrils. The blackened pan was calmly taken out into the back garden while we opened every window and door we could. Then we set about wafting towels in all directions to chase out the smoke.

Afterwards we sat down in the garden, had another drink and they never mentioned it again. But I was mortified, and the next day filled the place with diffusers to try to cloak the dreadful smell. I shudder to think what could have happened if we had stayed out longer.

There are approximately 2.6 million people in the UK diagnosed with ADHD, of whom 700,000 are children and 1.9 million are adults

There are approximately 2.6 million people in the UK diagnosed with ADHD, of whom 700,000 are children and 1.9 million are adults

Dr Clare Bailey has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which means she is more easily distracted

Dr Clare Bailey has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which means she is more easily distracted

Sheridan Smith, 42, says her ADHD diagnosis has ‘helped her make sense of a lot of things’

Sheridan Smith, 42, says her ADHD diagnosis has ‘helped her make sense of a lot of things’

Considering my career as a GP, you might be surprised by my apparent carelessness. Particularly when cooking in someone else’s house.

But there is an underlying reason for this accident? I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which means I am more easily distracted. Like actress Sheridan Smith, who revealed this week that she too has ADHD, I didn’t realise I had it until I reached mid-life.

Ms Smith, who’s 42, made her ADHD revelation during an interview with Vogue, saying it has ‘helped her make sense of a lot of things’. Comedian Johnny Vegas said something similar last year on his diagnosis at the age of 52. Others who have joined the dots in adulthood include Sue Perkins, Rory Bremner, Ant McPartlin and model Erin O’Connor.

One of the markers of ADHD is that your attention is easily diverted elsewhere – hence, on more than one occasion, I have left the kitchen, become immersed in something, and entirely forgotten the casserole in the oven.

Another is that you tend to look quickly at something and gather most of the evidence but not necessarily all. So, at our friends’ house, I’d taken only a cursory glance at the hob before going out, not noticing the flame was still alight.

Many cases of ADHD are diagnosed in children between three and seven years old, but delayed diagnoses are increasingly common.

There are approximately 2.6 million people in the UK diagnosed with ADHD, of whom 700,000 are children and 1.9 million are adults. Since 2020, there has been a 400 per cent increase in the number of adults contacting the ADHD Foundation to arrange an assessment.

People with this condition often feel restless, may have trouble concentrating and can act impulsively. The exact cause is unknown, but it has been shown to run in families.

Research also suggests there are differences in the brains of people with ADHD when compared with those without. Interestingly, these brain anomalies have been found to revert to normal with medication.

I first realised I had some symptoms of ADHD about ten years ago. While, as Sheridan Smith suggests, there is relief as everything slots into place – ah, so that’s why, at school, I was forever in detention for being late and had to resit my A-levels – for many people with ADHD, the emotional fallout of a largely misunderstood childhood can extend into adulthood.

Teachers forever wrote in my reports, ‘Clare could do better if she would only pull her finger out’. If only it were that easy! Another comment was that I should ‘keep my high party spirit out of the classroom’. But no one ever joined the dots.

I was always the last to get my pencils out and rarely heard instructions. If a topic interested me, I could demonstrate laser-like focus, but then I’d be too engaged to hear the homework instructions at the end of the lesson.

According to the experts, ADHD is significantly under-diagnosed in girls. The stereotypical image of ADHD is a boy bouncing around a classroom, but that’s not the whole picture. Girls don’t tend to be as hyperactive as boys and largely suffer in silence. Without a diagnosis, they go without the understanding and treatment that could change their lives.

COULD YOU HAVE ADHD TOO? TAKE OUR QUIZ

How often do you feel restless or fidgety?

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Do you make careless mistakes when a task is boring, repetitive or challenging?

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If most of your answers are ‘often’ or ‘always’, you may be on the ADHD spectrum. Visit adhdfoundation.org.uk or adhduk.co.uk for more details and see your GP

When I was a child, teachers lacked understanding of the disorder. Looking back, my mother, herself a child psychiatrist, probably had it too. Not that we discussed this during her life. She was either full-on or very laid back, and had a reputation for being late. To the extent that friends would invite her an hour before she was due and my father, also a doctor, was forever sat waiting, tapping his foot.

So-called ‘time blindness’ is common with ADHD. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about keeping people waiting, but she would try to cram in other tasks en route, not seeming to realise that this would make us late.

It was in my A-level year that my undiagnosed ADHD threatened to derail me. Finding it hard to concentrate academically, my attention hooked on to my social life instead. I ended up with unimpressive science A-levels, including a couple of Ds.

Unsurprisingly, I had to retake my A-levels to get into medical school. At this point one of my teachers suggested that instead of repeatedly reading textbooks, which failed to engage me, I should answer questions against the clock. This transition from passive to more active learning ignited my concentration in a new way.

What is often misunderstood is that an ADHD brain is under rather than over-stimulated. You get into the zone only when you’re up against it. That’s why people like me are drawn to careers such as medicine, law and journalism – looming deadlines force us to step up. Without the stimulation of being under pressure, you are prone to procrastination.

It was at the Royal Free Hospital, London, that I met Michael, where we were both studying medicine. Looking back, my ADHD didn’t exactly help the course of true love. In the early days, my lateness didn’t go down well. For one of our early dates, I turned up an hour and a half late, to find he had long gone. He wasn’t exactly angry, but I took note!

From then on, Michael would just up and leave after waiting what he thought an appropriate amount of time, prompting me to do my utmost to be at least very nearly on time.

Thankfully, Michael is good-natured.

Quite apart from burnt suppers and tardiness, he has endured plenty of delayed cups of tea and the fact I’m always losing my handbag or keys at home.

I also had a David Cameron moment when I left our youngest child, then only a few months old, on the pavement outside our house in a car seat (easy to do with four children). It was only when I sat down that I realised I’d forgotten something.

On the flipside, however, ADHD meant I could empathise with a child’s fascination with small, everyday things. Novelty appeals to the ADHD brain. When something does pique our interest, we become immersed. On one occasion, the children and I became so enthralled with some butterflies that had just emerged, we were 20 minutes late for school.

Now 62, I have learned to notice when my impulsiveness threatens to get the better of me, but I can still behave eccentrically.

Once, I spotted a colourful chair in a shop window, slammed on the brakes and hastily parked so I could go and take a proper look. It was only as I was crossing the road that I thought, ‘What on earth am I doing?’ I got back in the car, feeling somewhat idiotic.

When I announced I had ADHD, none of my friends or family was surprised. By this point, the disorder was far better known and I think they had all suspected as much.

Although adults can be prescribed stimulant medication, I haven’t had the urge to take anything. I have found it easier to manage as I’ve got older. And to be honest, I appreciate the creativity, fun and curiosity that comes with ADHD. Let’s just say, there is never a dull moment.

If you would like to find out more about ADHD and in particular have a child who might have it or has difficulties settling and focusing, visit parentingmatters.co.uk/blogs/dpp-page 

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