Abu Dhabi-based artist Anna Thackray, the creator of the Shamal Comics series, didn’t find out she had ADHD until she was an adult.
“I come from a background where mental health wasn’t talked about,” explains the South African expat. “You just got on with it. But I have always been very aware that I don’t think like other people.”
The professional painter, sculptor and comic book artist never even considered that she might have ADHD until she started noticing people posting about it on social media.
“All the descriptions sounded exactly like me,” she said. “So, I decided to get tested in 2021 with Insight Psychology in Dubai. The results explained so much. I no longer question why I don’t like doing certain things. I can finally accept myself.”
Thackray finds spending time in large groups of people extremely stressful and she doesn’t drive, as she feels overstimulated behind the wheel.
“It’s also helped me explain my behavior to people around me,” she said. “I don’t act like I do because I’m antisocial, it’s because my brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s. It’s like I have five TVs playing inside my head at any one time.”
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, is one of the world’s most common neuro-developmental conditions. One in every 25 people has it in some form.
ADHD disrupts an individual’s ability to manage our emotions, thoughts and actions. Dr Asfar Afridi, consultant psychiatrist at Medcare Medical Centre Jumeirah, explains that although it is usually diagnosed in childhood, the condition persists throughout people’s lives.
He says: “ADHD is marked by inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Children who have ADHD may struggle to focus, sit still and organize things, and they get easily distracted. They tend to say and do things without thinking about the consequences.”
Vastly undiagnosed in adults
But of course, some children remain undiagnosed. Incredibly, studies suggest that less than 20 percent of adults with ADHD are aware that they have it.
Dr. Afridi, adds: “In adulthood, a person with ADHD may perform erratically at work, and have issues with anger management, relationships and managing finances. They might demonstrate addictive behaviours and have low self-esteem.”
Using art as a cure
Throughout her life, Thackray has used art to help her manage her ADHD.
“From the beginning, art has been my coping mechanism. I got my first set of oil paints when I was 11, and it all went from there. I feel good when I do art and it boosts my dopamine levels, she notes.
However, despite being well-known for her Bahrain-based comic book series, Chronicles of Shamal, Thackray doesn’t find drawing comics to be as therapeutic as sculpting.
“As drawing my comic books is a technical process done on a tablet, it doesn’t silence my mind effectively. When I’m painting my mind will also wander. But sculpting is perfect. As I’m working with sharp tools, I have to really focus. It’s a physical and mental act. Sport also helps. I try to do these things all the time.”
If Thackray ever takes a break from her art, she falls into depression.
“After I have attended a big and busy event, I have to take a break from work and decompress. However, if I don’t create anything for days on end, I start to feel depressed. I feel like I’m falling down a tunnel. I have to do painting or something with my hands to pull myself out of it.”
ADHD patients are often advised to seek help from therapists, and there are certain medications that can be taken, too. But Thackray prefers to steer away from taking any drugs.
“I’m worried they will dampen my creativity. For me, art is my treatment. There are actually a lot of successful people with ADHD working in the creative industries and making amazing films, music and art.”
Pop stars Justin Timberlake, Olympian Michel Phelps and actress Emma Watson are just some of the many celebrities who have ADHD.
The unspoken positive sides to ADHD
While the negative symptoms of ADHD are widely discussed, Dr Afridi notes that it can come with a number of benefits.
“Hyperfocus is a very common symptom of ADHD. Others find that they are able to perform well in a crisis, and people with ADHD often lack inner inhibition. This means that they are far more open to coming up with different or creative ideas.”
Thackray has turned her hyperfocus into a tool for her work.
“I’m a very quick worker and I don’t stop until my task is complete. But I struggle to take breaks. If I don’t have them written down as part of my schedule, I work all day and into the night without even stopping to go to the toilet,” she explains.
“I no longer think of my ADHD as a disability. Instead, it’s my superpower. Imagine if every kid who was diagnosed with it thought of it like that. That would be a wonderful thing.”