When Complex Trauma Meets ADHD

Here’s a more personal share: Last month, I was diagnosed with ADHD.

This diagnosis brought up more than I expected it to. Since I have suspected on and off for years that I might have ADHD, I thought that receiving the diagnosis would be anti-climactic. 

Instead, it has recontextualized my childhood and adolescent experiences in ways I did not expect. Traits and tendencies I’ve assumed for years were solely the result of complex trauma, I perceive now as expressions of ADHD, or they fall into a grey area influenced both by trauma and the inherent structure of my brain and nervous system. Because this has felt so raw, I’ve had a hard time deciding whether to write about it, but not writing about it feels disingenuous, because it is currently at the forefront of my thoughts, my inner experience, and my relationships. 

Hardest to discern while processing this new diagnosis is how it relates to my trauma. Was what I thought of as C-PTSD for decades actually my neurodivergence expressing itself? This might seem like a strange question, until we look at the immense overlap between the symptoms of posttraumatic stress and those of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Inattentiveness and poor spacial reasoning look and feel a lot like dissociation. Poor emotional regulation is a hallmark of both conditions. Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, which is an overly clinical way to describe being especially sensitive to criticism and rejection in relationships, is an experience shared by a vast number of people with ADHD and those with attachment wounds and relational trauma. 

For the first couple weeks of living with this diagnosis, I experienced a mini-identity crisis. How do I untangle the nebulous web of neurodivergence and trauma within myself? And regarding my work, how do I communicate with others and create accessible, relatable content when I don’t even know how to relate to myself right now? 

In life, we flow from student to teacher and back again to student innumerable times. And yet, especially in healing or helping professions, there is often pressure—conscious or unconscious—to remain the expert, or, at least, to consistently position ourselves as the expert. But I set up Hidden Moon Healing to be an outlet for raw—or, perhaps, kept below a certain temperature—vulnerability. So, do I share this new information with the world, knowing that if I do not, I will feel blocked and incongruent in my writing, but if I do, I’m sharing something half-digested and new and far more tender than even the most teary-eyed post I’ve shared so far? 

Looking inwardly and honestly, one of my biggest fears in this new calibration of my inner experience is that my position as one-who-is-traumatized will be called into question by this new diagnosis, and that I will come out of this process looking like I have no idea what I am talking about, or worse, that I have no idea who and what I AM. Questions arise: How can I work with others around their trauma, if what I thought was my own trauma was actually ADHD presenting itself all along? What if I was never actually traumatized? How would I even know the difference at this point?

In this line of interrogation, I feel as though much of my identity is called into question. And even in that, comes the self-aggression, the subtle (or, quite loud) self-judgment that I am being much too dramatic, AS USUAL, and making a big something out of a big nothing. 

The reality—as it typically does—encompasses all: My ADHD unfolded in the context of complex trauma. The complex trauma compounded the presentation of my ADHD, and the misattuned and often volatile response to the expression of my ADHD compounded the ongoing trauma. 

But perhaps, there is more to my discomfort and—yes—disappointment. Maybe I saw myself as a blank slate, a total innocent, that was marred and changed forever by the experiences I sustained as a young girl. But in this diagnosis, there appears a different truth: that there was already something fundamentally different about me, something already warped and therefore fated to an atypical existence. Maybe after years of trying to convince my nervous system that it is trauma, not something inherent within me, fucking relentlessly with its equilibrium, I have to come to terms with the fact that it is actually a little bit me after all. 

What does one do with this? If you’re me, you start by diving headlong into research. You do a lot of processing, whilst trying to be mindful of not dumping your thoughts and feelings and existential crises on every single person you come across, like, say, your dental hygienist or friends who are already at their own capacities emotionally. You sit and write, even when you feel as though you have nothing to say, because you know the words will come eventually, and that you really, really need them to. 

You search bookstores for the perfect books and scan Spotify for the perfect podcasts by way of finding something that will process your complex and somewhat unwelcome emotions for you, and then realize that this is folly, and that the only thing to do is what you’ve always done: Sit with this, and watch it reveal itself to you in pieces and layers over time, until the shine wears off and it dissolves back into you, not fully known, but at least familiar.

In that familiarity, I begin to find small, shining truths that I incorporate into my mosaic of self. There is the truth that neurodivergence is not actually a “warping,” as I referred to it earlier, but simply a difference, and another way of trying to describe and categorize a complex and essentially ineffable inner experience. 

There is the truth that the often embarrassing and confusing things I would do because of my ADHD (lose entire backpacks; forget about food I’d put somewhere until it was a biological hazard; forget about assignments until hours or minutes before they were due; “space out” and daydream when I most wanted to appear competent; have an intensely difficult time following through with any endeavor; etc.) did not excuse the treatment I received from adults I loved and trusted and needed care and guidance from. 

In reality, of course, there is no test that can conclusively delineate which aspects of my experience are caused by trauma and which by ADHD. I must accept the fact that both of these—along with many other factors—influence who and how I am in the world. 

While labels and narratives can be immensely helpful in describing and contextualizing our experiences, it is also important to find ways to rest beyond them, in the space of what is rather than in the stories we tell about it. While processing this new diagnosis, I have returned to this space of what is again and again, like a wave lapping at land and then receding back into the ocean. I am sure I will write more about this process, but for now, it is time to go back out to sea.

In the meantime, click to learn more about doing Complex Trauma Coaching or Therapy with me, or reach out here to book a free consultation.