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All-or-Nothing: ADHD, Impulsivity & Hyperfocus

Content warning: eating disorders and substance abuse are discussed in this article. Please avoid reading if you might find these topics triggering.




As a child, I was told I was always hot or cold - either utterly obsessed, or firmly uninterested.


Then, throughout my teenage years, my friends labelled my personality as “addictive”. By this, they considered me to be predisposed to developing addictions. At 14, I picked up smoking (and drinking), got hooked on video games and started having risky sexual relationships.


Now, as a 24-year-old diagnosed with ADHD, I can pinpoint these labels as ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking/behaviours, impulsivity and hyperfocus:


  • All-or-nothing refers to thinking in extremes (i.e. black-or-white thinking). Everything is polarised: it’s either perfect or a disaster.

  • Impulsivity is about acting without thinking first.

  • Hyperfocus is an intense fixation, for an extended period of time.


Co-existing chemical or behavioural addiction is part of the picture, with ADHD. In some contexts, it has served me well (mainly in my career). But, in my personal life, it’s wreaked havoc. And I’m ready to raise awareness of the things that I keep tucked away - in the off chance that it might help someone else.


In this article, I’ll cover 4 areas of all-or-nothing thinking (that I’ve experienced): hobbies & spending, eating disorders, substances and work. I’ll also include a few tips I’ve found helpful, along the way. If any of these experiences resonate with you, I’d love to chat!


1. Hobbies & Spending


I clicked ‘order’ and my partner’s eyes rolled into his head. I’d just bought my third flute that year (after selling the others, because I got bored after two weeks). This one was blue, and I’d already named her Lucy. I’d spent my entire month’s wages from my part-time job on it, and I was adamant it was a great decision.


“This time, it’ll be different. I’ll actually learn it,” I tell him (myself). As well as the fancy flute in its fancy case, I ordered a few beginners’ books.


Of course, it didn’t last.


I’ve done this with countless hobbies - impulsively buying things I obsess over for mere days. Paints, cameras, gym memberships, fitness equipment, etc. Soon after, I regret it - and wish I’d listened to my partner’s precautious, “Are you sure?”.


Some hobbies, though, I lose myself in. Cooking is one of them. I had lived off ready meals and meal deals all of my life. Until, one week, I decided to go vegan. I then spent the next year hyperfixated - experimenting with new vegan recipes. I started an Instagram account, and, later, a business. Oh, and I wrote a whole recipe book.


ADHD brains love to seek excitement, especially from new things. If something sparks our interest, we tend to follow that dopamine hit wherever it takes us. I often see that as a good thing, because it means I’m creative and spontaneous. However, my bank account tells a different story (as does the growing pile of forgotten ‘TO BE RETURNED’ items, by my front door).


To combat the impulse buys and hobby-bouncing, I try to:

  • Stick to a budgeting spreadsheet. It’s boring as heck, but I schedule an hour each pay day to fill it in. It’s super simple, but lists my monthly outgoings (rent, council tax, bills, pet insurance, Spotify, charity giving, etc.) That way, I can keep on top of what “spare” money I have to spend

  • Wait a few days after thinking, “I want that”, to delay the impulse

  • Get better at returning unused items(!). To do that, I carve time into my calendar specifically for life-admin.


2. Eating Disorders


Women with ADHD are 4x more likely to have an eating disorder, compared to those without ADHD. In particular, ADHDers are at greater risk of developing binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.


My history of eating disorders began in my early teenage years, where I started being consumed by restrictive eating. However, it wasn’t until 2020, following my dad’s sudden passing, when I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Previously, I’d missed every appointment and been discharged from the system.


Some people believe that anorexia isn’t as common with ADHDers, since it’s more about restriction and compulsion, rather than impulsivity. Yet, as I look back and detect the traits that impelled my eating disorder (low self-esteem, perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking), I’m surprised I - and others - didn’t put the two together sooner.


The truth is - and there is a huge misconception around this - when I was anorexic, I was completely obsessed with food. I’d spend all of my free time watching cooking shows, and food was all I thought about.


Likewise, through CBT, I learned that I couldn’t identify my emotions, which is otherwise known as alexithymia. That meant that I was unable to tell people that I was struggling with my grief. So, because I couldn’t identify or share how I was feeling, I showed everyone I was struggling - by becoming severely underweight. A couple of years later, in my ADHD report, the psychiatrist noted that emotional regulation is one of my main issues.


Thankfully, therapy has helped me (almost) fully recover, and I’m healing my relationship with my body every day.


If you are in a complicated relationship with food/your body, I really recommend checking out Beat, the eating disorder charity. They’ve got a tonne of resources and support groups, and they really helped out my partner when I was ill.


I’d also recommend making an appointment with your GP. Never listen to the “I’m not sick enough” narrative. You are so loved and so worthy of support.


3. Substances


‘Impulsivity is associated with addiction, with about 25% of adults being treated for alcohol and substance abuse thought to have ADHD’ - ‘ADHD: An A-Z’ by Leanne Maskell.


This isn’t something I’m 100% comfortable in sharing, but I also know how important it is that I do.


The need for immediate gratification, alongside childhood trauma, meant that I had a relatively long struggle with substance abuse. I self-medicated for my depression and anxiety (also comorbidities of ADHD), through alcohol and weed. I’d binge drink on school nights, and fall asleep at sixth form because I was hungover a lot of the time. People found it funny - but there’s a part of me that wishes I could go back to 17-year-old Ellie and give her a helping hand.


I think my alcohol dependency was a big part of why I left university in my first year. I’d wake up, pour myself a drink, and spend my day alone (and miserable). I’d get attendance warnings, and I was referred to an alcohol and behaviour change service. I’m super grateful, though, because I conquered it with the help of my family.


Weed isn’t spoken about much, because it carries an awful stigma. However, people with ADHD are almost 8x more likely to use cannabis, compared to those who do not have ADHD. I know I felt a lot of shame, having been a daily smoker for around 3 years. It helped me to sleep and it slowed my thoughts down, a little bit.


I stopped smoking weed earlier this year, when it gave me dreadful anxiety attacks.

There’s a widely held perception that weed isn’t addictive. Yet, after countless sleepless nights, inundated with night sweats, I can confirm: it is.


Addictive behaviours offer a hit of dopamine that satisfies your brain’s reward circuitry. Then, even when that thrill wears off, the physical and emotional cravings remain. This makes it super hard to battle substance misuse. But, if you are struggling, please reach out to a family member, trusted friend, local charity or GP. There’s so much power in talking - and seeking support.


4. Work


Recently, I was asked, “Has ADHD hindered your career, or propelled it?”


I felt ambivalent, and didn’t quite know how to answer. In this section, I’ll relay the list of ‘pros and cons’ that sifted through my brain, when confronted with that question:


Cons

I quit jobs impulsively. A few of the (15) jobs I’ve had, I’ve lasted a day before immediately quitting

When I am hyperfocused on work, I prioritise it above everything: personal hygiene, my wellbeing, relationships, eating, etc.

I live in a perpetual state of burnout - saying “yes” to everything, taking too much on, and under-estimating how long tasks will take

I’m a huge perfectionist, so I’ll spend hours making sure my work is spot on. Then, due to my low self-esteem, I’ll refuse to charge my clients extra!

I take risks - and they don’t always pay off.


Pros

My impulsivity led me to starting a business off the back of a text message. (By the end of the weekend, I’d made my very first website, and started posting on social channels)

I overshare. This could be seen as a con, but it means I build authentic relationships with my clients - built on trust

I impulsively apply to jobs (like being a Social Media Assistant for (un)masked!), and I don’t hesitate to submit an early application

My perfectionism (and intense fear of rejection) means I deliver high-quality work

Hyperfocus means I get work done FAST

In fact, I hyperfocused on writing a vegan recipe book, back in 2020. (I stayed up all night, for three days, writing it.) It was a big success, with UNiDAYS buying a copy for all of their staff for Christmas

I’m not afraid to take risks - that sometimes pays off.


ADHDers all have unique strengths, and can find different things challenging. Being impulsive and having the ability to hyperfocus has (mostly) worked in my favour, in a ‘professional’ context. So, to answer the question, I said, “My ADHD has propelled my career. I don’t think my freelancing business would have grown this much, this fast, without it.”


I remember the first time I saw Ellie Middleton say that she works with her ADHD, rather than against it. And that is the crucial part of both self-compassion and “success” - whatever that means to you.


Because I now work to pinpoint the areas where I struggle, as well as identifying the areas where I thrive. I seek support for my shortcomings and spend more time in my element.


My hope is that, through this community, you’ll also learn to do the same!


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I completely relate to so much of this. Especially the notion of 'all-or-nothing'. I just reached 5-months sober milestone yesterday and was discussing with my sister how I have actually found not drinking at all really easy but whenever I have tried to limit drinking, I have found it really difficult because once I start, I can't stop. I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder but I did spend my teenage years binge eating and purging and really struggle with impulsive eating still. I am the same with my hobbies and have so many boxes of things that I convince myself that one day I will come back to and perfect. Funnily enough one of my hyper fixation phases…

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