Diagnosis can provide a sense of relief and a new approach to life

Therapy intervention is key to treating chronic conditions, as it can help to manage daily activities

For those of us unburdened with a debilitating lifelong illness, the misconception can often be that receiving a diagnosis for a chronic disease is akin to a death sentence. However, there are certain diagnoses that provide a sense of relief to the recipient, and in many ways, a clinical diagnosis can help reframe how people approach life.

Kate O’Dwyer was recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurological condition that affects about 5 per cent of the Irish population.

While she spent years wondering about the condition, it was only when she embarked on a journey of motherhood that she decided to take a screening test through her psychologist. “I suspected it only really in the last two years with the help of social media,” explains the 39-year-old. “And because I’ve just become a new mum in the last year, I decided that it was important for me to find out if I had ADHD, and if I was putting the pieces together correctly. So I went in [last] December, I took the test, and passed it with flying colours.”

I was so low at times and I just wasn’t sure about why I wasn’t able to keep things together

The visibility and business coach who says “it’s not a lack of attention, but scattered attention” also says her diagnosis helped her show compassion to her younger self because she struggled to maintain a routine as an adult. “At first, I was feeling totally relieved, like everything finally made sense. Then, when I sat with it, underneath the relief, I felt upset as well for younger Katie who didn’t realise that it didn’t have to be that hard. And especially for me because I did well in school. I did really well in my Leaving Cert, it was after school that the wheels fell off a little bit.


“The upset was thinking back on that younger part of me, like my 18- or 19-year-old self who actually went through a lot emotionally and psychologically, because I really found it hard in those years. I was so low at times and I just wasn’t sure about why I wasn’t able to keep things together.”

According to Odhrán Allen, chief executive officer of the Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland, occupational therapy intervention is essential for treating chronic conditions because it can help with managing everyday activities.

“Occupational therapy is beneficial for adults with ADHD because we can help with so many aspects. One would be with executive function because that is something that adults with ADHD often struggle with. So helping someone look at key areas, like time management, breaking down tasks so they’re manageable, and helping the person just get to the point where they have a routine that works for them.”

Allen says ADHD is not a chronic illness, but rather, part of neurodiversity, and also says that a clinical diagnosis can open people up to mental health support services. “I think the mental wellbeing aspect is key,” he says. “And while getting your head around a diagnosis like ADHD is really important, it is the gateway to support. The HSE has a new National Clinical Programme for adults with ADHD since 2021, and they’re putting in place specialist teams to cover the whole country. A few of the teams are already established and they’re due to set up additional ones this year, and that’s a really positive development.”

Karen Dwyer, founder of MS to Success, a health and wellbeing programme for people with multiple sclerosis, says that psychosocial support is still missing in chronic illness treatment in Ireland. “When I was diagnosed first, it’s like you go into this autopilot emergency mode. You want to do everything and anything that you can to prevent any further progression, and I found it really frustrating because all that I was getting from my neurologist was ‘try not to stress and maybe take some extra vitamin D’. And then at home, I’ve got all these gorgeous family members around me going, ‘what can I do? What can I help with’? And, internally, I feel like I’m imploding.

You also don’t want to be perceived as weak or that you’re not handling it, so you’ve got this tumultuous experience of putting a smile on for everyone

“It’s like you’re dealing with the fear internally of what it’s going to turn out like, then you don’t want to have anybody worry about you,” says the Malahide woman. “You also don’t want to be perceived as weak or that you’re not handling it, so you’ve got this tumultuous experience of putting a smile on for everyone outside and saying, ‘don’t worry about me, this is going to be fine’. But then when you lie down at night time, the thoughts and the worry — that’s when it becomes very loud and clear.”

More than 9,000 people are living with MS in Ireland. [It is] The autoimmune condition that affects motor skills, cognitive ability and sensory functioning presented as optic neuritis for almost a decade, says Karen Dwyer. “I had what I now know to be optic neuritis for about 10 years before my diagnosis, and I didn’t know what it was because it came and then it went away. But the thing that I can correlate it around is that it was always around stressful times or when I was really tired. So I can directly correlate it to stressful periods.”

The businesswoman was forced to take matters into her own hands after an adverse reaction to medication led to her collapsing while driving on the M50. She undertook vigorous brain research and read extensively on what she could do on a daily level based on scientific studies. “I started doing everything from looking at my mental and emotional wellbeing [to] my mindset. I started checking in on the triggers that stressed me and how I can find new ways to deactivate them.

“My neurologist started seeing all of my lesions shrink, and that’s when I knew I was on to something really great with my research and the practices that I’ve started putting into daily life.”

Filomena Kaguako

Filomena Kaguako is a contributor to The Irish Times