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Behind Closed Doors: Growing up ADHD in NZ

Georgie Hanafin
Liv Cochrane
Liv Cochrane  Supplied

Not too long ago, ADHD was often dismissed as an excuse for misbehaving kids or attributed to bad parenting. Now, one in twenty Kiwis have been diagnosed with the disorder.

Thanks to extensive research and destigmatisation efforts both by individuals and organizations like ADHD NZ, there has been a significant shift in how ADHD is perceived.

Despite being the most common neurodevelopmental disorder in children and adolescents, adult ADHD is often misdiagnosed as more common anxiety or mood disorders.

Common symptoms in adults include poor concentration, hyper-focus on stimulating tasks, issues with time management, difficulties with listening and organization, procrastination, restlessness, emotional control challenges, and relationship issues.

In women like The Hits radio presenter Liv Cochrane, symptoms may be subtler and include daydreaming and forgetfulness, often leading to late diagnosis.

Liv's story of growing up undiagnosed ADHD in Aotearoa

As a little girl, Liv's creativity often led her into trouble.

Once, at the age of eight and feeling hungry in the middle of the night, she brought a blender to her bedroom, blending bananas and yogurt for a midnight smoothie.

Despite being a “good and respectful” kid, Liv says she found trouble not in intentional mischief, but well-intentioned, yet poorly thought-out ideas.

Recalling another incident at seven or eight, Liv's experimentation with a craft knife on her dad's freshly painted bathroom door showcases her lack of impulse control. 

"I had a brand new art case that came with a tiny craft knife. In my little undiagnosed brain, I thought 'well, this can't be that sharp.' I turned around and the first thing I saw was my dad's freshly painted door. I didn't even think about it, just swiped two huge crosses through the paint."

Her dad inevitably found out, and confronted Liv with the damning evidence. 

"I denied it. It was obviously me - I was the only one staying with him at the time - but I swore didn't do it."

Liv says the fear of getting into trouble often caused her to compulsively lie. 

"It was a form of self preservation, and something else I never meant to do. It was never malicious or vindictive, it was purely to save my ass, but it always made things infinitely worse."

"The funniest thing was, I've never been any good at lying," she laughs. "It's something I really had to work on going into adulthood because as far as self-preservation goes, it doesn't work."

A younger Liv Cochrane
A younger Liv Cochrane Supplied

Reflecting on her childhood, Liv wonders if an earlier diagnosis and management tools might have lessened her challenges, preventing the frequent class disruptions and the anxiety that came with getting into trouble.

She grappled with talking excessively, a trait she later identified as hyperverbal autism, talking fast and about everything out loud.

Liv explains, "Noise sensitivity was a challenge. I couldn't go to Santa Parades because the bagpipes were too loud. Clicking sounds irritated me. The sound of the flutie thing at the start of X-Files had me starting a petition to remove it from existence. I was easily triggered." 

Messiness was another aspect: "Doom piling, pigsty rooms, messy desks – that's a hundred percent me. I still struggle with it now."

Almost anything from the DSM-5 seemed to resonate with Liv – struggles with sleep, proper eating, time blindness, and object permanence.

Diagnosis brought with it a raft of emotions.

Liv recalls, "When I finally got diagnosed, I went through a lot of grieving. Sometimes it looked like anger towards old teachers, my family, doctors – for never thinking ADHD could be a possibility for me when I clearly ticked all the boxes."

The unrealized potential also weighs on Liv's mind.

"The amount of potential that I'll never know. I wonder if better management tools and understanding my brain could have led me to a different career path, a different level of achievement."

According to Liv, maintaining relationships and friendships has always been challenging.

“Seeing missed calls or messages starts as an internal promise to reply as soon as I can, which then turns into something my brain categorises as an overwhelming task,” she explains. “That’ll often lead to months of me procrastinating before finally building up the courage to message back, and apologising profusely for being a shitty friend.”  

This unintentional avoidance made Liv appear distant or uncaring, understandably impacting friendships over time.

Now surrounded by fellow ADHDers, there's a shared understanding and humour about forgetting to reach out.

Despite the camaraderie, the undiagnosed years left a lasting impact.

In high school, oblivious to social cues and “unable to read the room”, Liv often missed signs of friend groups turning against her, an experience that still affects her today.

“I’d miss conversations. I'd miss facial expressions that were those people trying to tell me that they were annoyed by me, or they just didn't appreciate my company anymore,” she says. “I had no idea until someone spelled it out for me though. I’m still working on that.”

Liv further explains the impact.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow knowing that actually observing people and the mechanics of how community works is very different to reading facial expressions and actually having the ability to know when to stop talking because somebody's had enough or they’re zoning out,” she laments.

Liv didn't realise she might have ADHD until February 2021, when a friend mentioned her own ADHD diagnosis. Initially patronising about adult ADHD, Liv’s curiosity got the better of her and she took the online test her friend had done. She ticked all the boxes.

Paranoia followed, prompting her to consult an old friend who wasn’t only a psychiatrist, but one who was knowledgeable about ADHD in adults.

“She responded with ‘yeah, I’ve thought you’ve had ADHD for at least the last 10 years.’” Liv laughs. “I had no idea.”

The Brown Scale test further confirmed it, leading Liv down a hyper fixation rabbit hole to understand adult ADHD and seek assessment, a journey that Liv says was exciting and validating. “My life suddenly made sense.”

Fortunately, Liv's diagnosis came swiftly, in less than three months. Around the same time, a neurodivergent awakening exploded on social media, with many discovering ADHD and how it looked in everyday life.

She took two of her three kids for assessment simultaneously, with both kids and Liv getting diagnosed on the same day.

Liv believes with the right support her ADHD is an asset in any workplace, and she thrives in creative roles working in a team.

“I'm a lateral thinker, especially with creative solutions to things. I have no problems being a chameleon. ‘Oh, you need somebody to stuff a thousand envelopes. Yeah, I'll do that. No worries.’ ‘You need someone to run up 72 flights of stairs singing, she'll be coming around the mountain. Yeah, it's me.’”

Liv says while she’s lucky her workplace is not only aware of, but also accommodates her diagnoses, even that can come with its own set of challenges.

“They’re so incredibly supportive and believe in me and my abilities, which is amazing and makes me feel seen and accepted. There's a strong internal struggle though. My brain will do everything to convince me I can't do something, or I don't deserve the praise and support. You know you’re going to let them down eventually because you know you’re not capable of meeting their expectations. It can be a hard thought process to overcome."

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Liv's found love in her work in radio Supplied

While addiction and undiagnosed ADHD can often go hand-in-hand, Liv says her own mother’s struggle with alcoholism played a part in her decision to stay away from drugs and alcohol. “I’m pretty sure my neurodivergence comes from my mum’s side,” she laughs. “My mum is coming up 10-years-sober now, but her journey with alcohol has always made me cautious.”

While she may not have suffered substance abuse problems herself, Liv acknowledges addiction is still something she struggles with.  “I’m addicted to sugar. I’m addicted to my phone. I can be addicted to certain people, or to the company of people overall which has led me to some dangerous situations in the past. I ultimately crave dopamine, so I’m aware that if it gives me dopamine, there’s a chance I’ll get addicted.”

The topic of addiction brought up another danger of living with undiagnosed neurological conditions – crime and it's consequences.

“It’s well reported that undiagnosed and untreated ADHD could be the reason a lot of people are sitting in jail right now. When you look at the things we struggle with like emotional regulation, impulsivity, or intrusive thoughts, you can start to see how people could end up in situations with serious consequences.”

Liv has an idea she believes could assist in the rehabilitation of prisoners. Additionally, this solution has the potential to benefit our tamariki as they start school, giving them a higher chance of avoiding the prison system altogether.

It involves implementing a screening process for ADHD and other neurodivergencies, similar to the screenings routinely conducted for hearing and vision in every primary school across New Zealand.

“We're not just talking ADHD or autism, we're talking about dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, all of the things. You’re going to catch so many kids young enough that they're not going to grow up with the same problems, and the same hang-ups, and the same trauma that a lot of us undiagnosed adults have been through.”

Liv says raising the next generation of “neurospicy babies” can make life “kinder” when you’re able to empathise with what they’re experiencing.

“It was so damaging growing up believing you’re lazy, disruptive, naughty, a liar, or any of the other things adults like to label kids who don’t conform to society’s rules,” she says. “I get the privilege of being able to tell my three children who are 17, 14, and five, about their own brains. I can say, hey, you're doing this stuff and getting these results or consequences and that's because of ADHD.”

She elaborates. 

"They’ve got a dopamine deficiency, or they've got executive dysfunction, which I understand intrinsically. I have these terms that I can use to not only see their actions, but understand it as an action, and not as a behaviour."

Liv says if she could go back and speak with her 10-year-old self, she’d want her to be her own biggest advocate, and for her to know she does find her tribe.

“Learn what it is to be neurodivergent and never let anyone tell you that you are too much of something. Find the people and the places that accept people like you, because that's where you’ll begin to learn how to love yourself.”

She reflects on how far she’s come, and what life looks like for her now.

“My friends are mainly neurodivergent. My workplace is one that embraces neurodivergence. The life I have is supportive of my neurodivergence, and it’s sad that it's taken me so long to find that. But man, it's a beautiful thing once you get to know your own brain and start crafting your world around it.”  

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Liv's found a supportive and understanding friend group Supplied

While living with ADHD has it's struggles, ADHD NZ say there are many benefits to having a brain that works differently. 

Many successful adults with ADHD are using their boundless energy and creativity to make extraordinary contributions to society.

Researchers now emphasise the strengths of ADHD, recognising the immense capabilities of individuals facing challenges.

Positive attributes associated with ADHD include the ability to hyper-focus on activities, excelling in arts, acting, music, and problem-solving.

These individuals often possess qualities such as warmth, high energy, leadership, loyalty, and a good sense of humour.

Researchers also acknowledge that ADHD can be associated with higher levels of intuition, super focus, lateral thinking, and creativity.

Success for those with ADHD involves loving what they do, leveraging hyper-focus as a strength, prioritizing exercise for stress relief, and learning and growing from experiences.

In essence, having ADHD is not a barrier to success but rather a unique set of qualities that, when harnessed effectively, can lead to significant accomplishments and fulfillment.