When most people think of ADHD, they conjure up an image of a hyperactive little boy with so much energy he can’t sit still. It seems like a harmless enough stereotype,but the lack of education on the many faces of ADHD has real life consequences, especially for women like me.
For me, ADHD feels like being underwater. It’s daydreaming, zoning out and doodling in class because I’m overwhelmed by restlessness. It’s not being able to follow simple instructions without having them repeated four or five times. It’s constantly struggling with deadlines, being chronically late and losing nearly everything I touch. It’s swinging between focus so intense I forget to eat and being so distracted that it takes me hours to accomplish a task that could be completed in minutes.
These symptoms have always been a source of anxiety, but until I was diagnosed this summer, I looked at them as nothing more than character flaws. I may have been a little “spacey” or “in my own world,” but I was still quiet in class and got good grades,which allowed me to slip through the cracks for nearly 20 years.
According to increasing amounts of research, I’m far from the only one. Dr. Ellen Littman, author of “Understanding Girls with ADHD,” has studied the disorder for 25 years. Her findings suggest that somewhere between half and three-quarters of all women with ADHD are never diagnosed.
“[Early] studies of ADHD were based on really hyperactive young white boys who were taken to clinics,” Littman says. “The diagnostic criteria were developed based on those studies. As a result, those criteria over-represent the symptoms you see in young boys, making it difficult for girls to be diagnosed.”
Though some girls with ADHD display symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, they’re much more likely to have inattentive ADHD. Many symptoms of inattentive ADHD are far less visible, like difficulty concentrating, disorganization and poor working memory. Often, girls with ADHD are burdened by shame and labeled as lazy, ditzy or irresponsible.
Because of this, many women with the disorder go unnoticed by teachers and parents, quietly struggling but never getting the help they need. This can lead to poor grades, lack of sleep and struggles with mental health, self-esteem and addiction.
According to Litman, “[Undiagnosed women] have alternately been anxious and depressed for years...it’s this sense of not being able to hold everything together.”
Today, most conversations about ADHD tend to revolve around children being over-diagnosed and medication being over-prescribed. These are important discussions that need to be had,but it’s also critical to remember that many women and girls don’t have the luxury of a diagnosis because their symptoms are not widely understood.
Getting diagnosed hasn’t magically made managing my symptoms any easier, but it has given me insight on the way my mind works. It’s also enabled me to forgive myself when I make mistakes and to appreciate some of the strengths that come with ADHD, like creativity and hyperfocus.
Now, even on my most difficult days, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Many women with the disorder spend their entire lives wondering what’s “wrong” with them, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The more we work to break down stereotypes about what a “typical” person with ADHD looks like, the more women like me will be able to seek treatment. Living with ADHD will always be a challenge, but for the thousands of women whose struggles are overlooked, a diagnosis could make it just a little bit easier.