ADHD: 'I have a million things in my head at a time'

At 37, Steve Riley was told he had ADHD. It's the best thing that has happened to him, he tells Kate Hilpern

Mention ADHD and most people think of (a) children and (b) trouble. But Steve Riley is one of a growing number of adults being diagnosed, and what's more, he believes the behavioural condition actually enhances his life.

People who know Riley have long been used to the 38-year-old interrupting conversations to go off on weird tangents. But last October, his wife had finally had enough when, in a serious conversation about them moving home, he completely ignored her and wondered aloud if there was some poo on his shoe. Why, she despaired, couldn't he focus, just for once.

For Steve, it was a light-bulb moment. "Perhaps, I suddenly thought, it's not normal to joke about unrelated things in the middle of a conversation. And perhaps, it also occurred to me, it's not normal to constantly lose my keys, forget things and bring the wrong things home from every shopping expedition – all things that I seemed to be doing more than ever."

Riley explains that at any one time, he'll be thinking of countless things at once, with his attention flitting from one to another involuntarily. "It's a bit like sitting in front of a bank of TV screens all tuned to different channels. Conversely, sometimes the TVs all tune into the same channel and I become completely absorbed. So paradoxically, not only is it difficult to pay attention to one thing, but it can also often be difficult to shift your attention from one thing to another. This, I would learn, is what leads to the forgetfulness, lack of concentration, poor grasp of time passing and difficulties with prioritising tasks."

It's also what leads Riley to obsess about a particular thing such as a writer or film director, reading or watching their every piece of work for weeks on end, unable to think about much else. Another outcome is Riley's love of loud rock music and cheesy action and horror films, packed with explosions and screaming.

No wonder that, within seconds of Googling his traits, the letters "ADHD" appeared on Riley's computer screen. "Like most people, I'd always associated ADHD with children, but reading the list of symptoms was like reading a description of me. Tentatively, I put it to my wife, who is a speech and language therapist working with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Rather than saying, 'Don't be silly!', she looked at me for a moment and said, 'Yes, I think it would be a good idea for you to get checked out.'"

Less than six months later, Steve had a diagnosis. "The first health professional I saw, a locum GP, wasn't convinced. He said I wouldn't have been able to sit still for more than 30 seconds as a child if I had the condition. But that's an outdated and incorrect view and thankfully not one that my own GP had. Instead, she went through a process whereby she eliminated other things that might cause the same symptoms, notably depression and an overactive thyroid gland, and then referred me to a psychiatrist, who focused on whether my symptoms affected me in all my environments and had done throughout childhood."

Luckily, Riley still had his school reports. They all said the same thing – Steve is a clever kid, but forgets his work, doesn't finish his homework and doesn't concentrate.

The psychiatrist confirmed that this, along with his extreme disorganisation in childhood, is typical of ADHD sufferers. "One time, my primary school teacher upended my desk because he was cross about me sneaking something into it. I can still remember his face changing from anger to shock as he watched more and more stuff topple out – rubbish, work, bits of paper, you name it. It was like a comedy sketch."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Riley failed his A levels and then got kicked off a college HND course. But after retaking A levels in subjects he really enjoyed, he passed and got an office job in the civil service. "But I got bored and so at 28, I did a degree in English literature to further my career. I passed and for the last seven years, I've been enjoying working as web editor for Relate."

Not that Riley has been off the hook from his chaotic traits in this role. "In fact, as work has become busier, it's got worse. I was increasingly going into meetings with my boss, realising there have been things on my to-do list for months."

The diagnosis, which finally came last summer, has been a saviour, says Riley. "I now have confirmation that I'm not a lazy failure – I just have a brain that works in a different way. This has been very emotional and I've needed some counselling, but even that's been positive because it's helped me reassess the world as I've seen it for the past 38 years."

The diagnosis also led to Riley gaining government-funded help to find strategies to deal with the more problematic areas – new ways of planning and preparing, wearing headphones to stop distraction, breaking down large tasks and so on.

But, and he doesn't say this lightly, he wouldn't be any other way. "The way my brain darts from one thing to another means I can make huge creative leaps. I come up with good ideas that other people don't think of. For example, in a meeting, I might make a connection between something someone said 20 minutes ago. You could say I have a way of looking at the world that leads to me coming up with interesting, often unique, solutions."

The way his attention and thoughts shift and jump can take him by surprise, too – often cracking him up. "Some of the best jokes come from making odd connections between things that shouldn't connect and that comes so naturally to me that when I once did a comedy workshop that taught methods of writing comedy, I found I already made the kind of juxtapositions they were teaching."

Riley adds that he is rarely bored. "A million things in my head keep me occupied at any one time."

Andrea Bilbow, chief executive of the charity ADDISS (the National Attention Deficit Disorder Information & Support Service), isn't surprised by Riley's attitude. "There are lots of people who tell you it's a gift and there's some interesting research going on at the moment into ADHD's links with creativity," she says, pointing out that the comedian Rory Bremner believes he may have ADHD.

But, she adds, this can be a double-edged sword because ADHD can stop you from being successful with that creativity. "ADHD dramatically increases your likelihood of being out of work and even in trouble with the police, being on drugs and going to prison. It's these negative factors that make it so essential that people get a diagnosis, whatever their age. After all, ADHD is a recognised disability for which you are entitled to get support. But sadly, diagnosis in adulthood remains uncommon because it's expensive and unlikely if you don't seek it out."

Riley agrees that having ADHD has been anything but plain sailing. "But in my case, if I had a magic wand, I honestly wouldn't get rid of it."

The way my brain darts from one thing to another means I can make huge creative leaps. I come up with good ideas that other people don't think of

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm that there was a 'minor disturbance'

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Primary Teacher Cornwall

    £21500 - £40000 per annum: Randstad Education Plymouth: ***KS1 & KS2 Teachers ...

    Year 5 Teacher

    £80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

    Software Developer

    £35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

    Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

    £35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album