What do you know about attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Do you picture a hyperactive little boy, staring out the window and fidgeting in class?
That’s what I always pictured too. But by the time I was finally diagnosed, I was a 31-year-old woman with three degrees and an established career. I didn’t fit the mold at all, but that was precisely the problem. My preconceived notions about who has ADHD and what it looks like kept me from recognizing my own symptoms, but my diagnosis finally put everything into perspective.
The early signs
When I was in middle school, my backpack was always a complete mess. There were papers shoved haphazardly into textbooks, forgotten breath mints stuck in the corners of each pocket, and ink stains from pens I forgot to put the cap back on. My locker combination was constantly a mystery to me, even if I had just changed it the week before. I usually ended up doing my homework on the way to school. As an adult, I’ve never been able to start a habit and stick to it. I have a stack of planners I used for a week and then gave up on. I can’t arrive on time to save my life—at this point, all my friends just expect I’ll arrive 10-15 minutes late whenever they invite me somewhere.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these are all classic signs of ADHD. ADHD impacts the mental skills necessary for everyday life, like planning, focusing, remembering, multitasking, managing one’s time, and regulating one’s emotions and behaviors. My struggle to complete everyday tasks, like doing chores or practicing self-care, isn’t a character flaw, like I always assumed it was, but rather a difference in the way my brain works.
This difference was hard for others (and myself) to recognize because by all appearances, I was a regular teenage girl. Sure, I wasn’t the greatest at school, but I didn’t act out and I got along with my classmates. I was quiet in class and never caused any trouble. So even though I couldn’t always find my homework, I got A’s and B’s in my favorite subjects and was even a “joy to have in class.”
I didn’t realize that it wasn’t normal to struggle so much with keeping track of which assignments were due when and remembering to bring my gym clothes home. On my worst days, I felt like a failure, weighed down by the laundry list of traits I hated about myself. When I was 13, I started struggling with depression and anxiety. It felt like no matter how hard I tried, I was never good enough. These feelings ate away at me, and I was jealous of my brilliant friends who could always focus in class and seemed to breeze through school. I knew I was smart, but I couldn’t consistently apply myself to be as successful as I wanted to be academically.
Women with ADHD often go undiagnosed because society tells us to turn our struggles inward. We assume that if we can’t meet certain standards or perform certain tasks that we must be the problem, not the expectations that are placed on us. In reality, the world is not designed with neurodivergent people in mind, not to mention neurodivergent women. Because ADHD is viewed as something that primarily affects boys, girls with signs of ADHD are often given other labels for their battles with focusing and organization. More and more women are now getting diagnosed with ADHD in their 30s and 40s—the signs were always there; we just didn’t recognize them.
Learning to cope
It turns out that I have combined type ADHD, meaning I am both hyperactive and inattentive: I get restless throughout the day and need to move my body, but I also need to make sure that I’m getting enough stimulation to keep me motivated and focused. As a child, I quickly realized I loved reading and writing, so I excelled in these areas in school because they always kept my attention. But with math, I struggled. I couldn’t stick with a math problem long enough to figure out the solution, and I couldn’t pay attention in class long enough to figure out what I was doing wrong.
Once I got to college, I excelled because I was allowed to focus only on the topics that were intellectually stimulating and engaging to me, like my literature classes and writing workshops. To keep myself busy, I worked multiple jobs and took as many credits as I could in grad school. That way, there was always a deadline to keep me motivated.
In hindsight, I realize all the workarounds I developed to cope with my ADHD. When I finally did get diagnosed with ADHD, it was life-changing. Had I known that my brain worked a bit differently, I could have embraced all the aspects of myself that I had just written off as character flaws. Now, I’m learning to live with the fact that I’ll probably always be working last minute to meet a deadline or that there’s always a little bit of clutter at my house. While I don’t fit the mold of the 30-something career woman who has it all together, I thrive off a little bit of chaos in my messy and imperfect life
What about you?
So what if you are an adult who suspects you have ADHD?
First, it’s important to get an evaluation from a specialist, typically a psychiatrist. There are tests that evaluate whether you exhibit higher levels of hyperactivity and inattentiveness compared to neurotypical people. Typically, a psychiatrist can administer these tests and then go over your results with you.
If you are diagnosed with ADHD, you might be prescribed medication to help you focus. But you don’t have to go down this road if you don’t want to. Some psychiatrists will refer you to a therapist who can help you set goals and work on developing new habits to give you a sense of structure and routine, which can be a lifesaver for someone with ADHD. You can also join different support groups on various social media platforms to get connected with other likeminded people.
Now that I see how my life has been shaped by my ADHD, I’m better at understanding why and how I do things. I spent so many years thinking “if only I stopped procrastinating” or “if only I could be on time,” only to realize that these things don’t come naturally to me. And that’s okay. ADHD is a part of who I am.
There are many days when I wish my brain was neurotypical. It would just make everything so much easier. Sometimes, I look back on all that I’ve accomplished and wonder what else I could’ve done with the proper accommodations for my ADHD. Sometimes, I resent how no one noticed that something might be different about the way my brain works. For so long, I assumed that everyone struggled the way I did. But as a woman, I was really good at playing the part that people expected me to play while minimizing my own struggles.
My life might seem messy to someone on the outside looking in, but it’s real. I’m working on embracing the fact that I’m neurodivergent and always will be while letting go of all the standards I’ll never live up to. “Perfect” isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. I’d rather break the mold and see the beauty in difference while learning to love what makes me, well, me.
If any of this resonates with you, don’t be afraid to seek out professional resources to get the help that you need. It’s healthy to continue learning about yourself and your brain—nobody else can teach you what you need to know.