There is no easy answer to this question, for many reasons.
ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADD) is on
a continuum, meaning it can be mild, moderate or severe. The less extreme the symptoms, the easier it is to compensate, making it less difficult to live with ADHD. The reverse also applies.
Millions of adults have the symptoms associated with ADHD, but not the diagnosis, possibly because their symptoms, although enough to qualify for a diagnosis, are on the milder end of the spectrum. Or they may have learned to cope, or just accepted the way they are, perhaps (unfairly) attributing some of neurobiological symptoms to moral failings (lazy, inconsiderate, careless, foolish, etc.).
ADHD is a diagnosis based on having checked off a sufficient number
of symptoms from a laundry list of age-related options. Each of those symptoms can vary in terms of how problematic they can be, and under what conditions (at home, school, work, leisure). That’s a lot of variability. There is even variation within the ADHD diagnosis, as you can be primarily impulsive/hyperactive, primarily inattentive or combination type.
For some, having ADHD is a strength. Their ADHD-related characteristics (or some of them) are essential to their personal and professional success. Consider the high percentage of ADDers in certain careers, such as entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, first-responders, comedians, sales, etc. While the manifestations of ADHD may not be as helpful for all aspects of their jobs, nor in all areas of their lives, they would find life more difficult without it.
Unfortunately, for most people, ADHD also leads to certain struggles. The degree to which those struggles make life difficult will vary. If you struggle with time management but aren’t in a job or life situation where following the clock is critical, then that becomes less of a problem.
If you struggle with organization, but have assistants at work and help at home, that challenge is less problematic. If you need to be ‘on the go’ and are a student confined to sitting in a classroom, you might be considered hyperactive, from a negative perspective. But if you have a career where you aren’t confined to your office and you also enjoy an active leisure life, your drive to move shifts to a non-issue, and even an asset.
ADHD symptoms vary – one person could be physically hyperactive,
and another hypoactive. High energy, low energy. Some people do well
in a chaotic environment (many police, firefighters, EMT’s, ER docs, floor traders, teachers, etc. have ADHD) while others would be totally overwhelmed by the noise and activity. Many people with ADHD thrive
in the bustle of a big city, while others seek the peace of a countryside or seashore. So, finding an environment and career that suits you makes a difference in how you’ll view life, and how difficult it is, or isn’t, to have ADHD.
ADHD is inconsistent. Not just from person to person or from child to adult, but from day to day. Sometimes it can feel debilitating or dysfunctional; other times you are on a roll and exceptionally productive. Understanding, and accepting yourself (instead of letting your inner Judgmental Critic be in charge) makes those unproductive times less frustrating.
Other factors contribute. If you are surrounded by critical people, whether at work, socially or at home, you’ll obviously find life more challenging than if you have support and understanding. The more you
are juggling (work, school, home, partner, children, aging parents, etc.),
the harder it is – for anyone. The hormonal changes of aging or the stress
of illness will also exacerbate the ADHD symptoms.
Having ADHD can be really frustrating. It’s tough when you struggle with things that ‘should’ be simple (although you may excel when tackling more difficult challenges). It’s sad when you aren’t achieving your potential, even when you might be considered successful (but you know you could be doing much more). It can be extremely stressful when you know you need/want to do something but can’t activate (an executive function),
or you are doing something you need to stop, but can’t find the brakes.
Strategies are critical for managing your ADHD symptoms.
- There is often a reduction in ADHD-related difficulties when you take time for self-care and stress-reducing activities (exercise, sufficient sleep, outdoor time, mindfulness, journaling, eating well, hobbies, creative, sports and social activities, pets, family fun time and time to nurture relationships, etc.)
- Some people benefit from medication, but if you couldn’t play the piano before meds, you can’t play it after – you’re just more available to learning how, which can make a difference.
- Some ADHD tendencies are best avoided (or require professional intervention). People with ADHD often have impulsivity control issues and addictive personalities, acting without thinking, whether it’s reckless driving, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shopping, gambling, internet, etc. They also tend to get caught up in thinking without acting, making it difficult to get things done. Obsessive thinking and perfectionism often come into play, getting in the way of productivity.
- When the ADHD brain feels overwhelmed, instead of tackling the issues, it is more likely to shift into the fight, flight or freeze mode – major avoidance. This is an automatic, brain-based reaction to fear, confusion or stress. So, it’s critical to find strategies that will keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
- Tools and strategies help to manage ADHD-related challenges.
If you struggle to get places on time, meet deadlines, begin or finish tasks and projects, get and stay organized, manage schedules and lists, create and follow routines, prioritize, self-advocate, make decisions, communicate effectively, etc., it isn’t enough to want things to change. You need specific compensatory strategies that work with the way you think – not the way you wish you thought. The right tools make living with your ADHD a lot less difficult. (That’s what Coaching is about!)
ADHD is only part of the mix – we have different personalities, interests, strengths, intellectual and emotional gifts, co-existing diagnoses, etc. Some people with ADHD will excel in school, while many others find it a total challenge. Some will be artistic or creative; others might be athletic or musical, all of the above or none of them. Some will thrive in the limelight; others will avoid it. It isn’t just the ADHD we need to manage; it’s finding a life that supports us on many levels. It’s easier to cope with the difficulties that come from ADHD when we are engaged in activities that play to our strengths.
There are so many aspects of life that are impacted by ADHD, from relationships to finances, from career to self-care. You can find ways to compensate, and even excel, but it takes effort and self-awareness. The answer to, “How difficult is it to live with ADHD?” largely depends on whether you’ve been able to create a personally ADHD-friendly life!
This is an edited and expanded version of my requested response
to a question posted on Quora.