“I feel like the worst mother ever. How did I not see it when you were younger? I had no idea you struggled like this!”
That was my mother’s reaction when I told her that at the age of 26, her daughter had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Of course, she can’t very well be held responsible for not seeing it – nobody did. When I was a kid going to school back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, girls didn’t get ADHD.
Technically, ADHD wasn’t even a diagnosis. Back then, we called it attention deficit disorder, or ADD, and that term was saved for kids like my cousin, Michael. You know the type. Couldn’t follow through on even the most basic tasks, never did his homework, never paid attention in school, and couldn’t sit still if you paid him to. It was for the disruptive boys causing trouble in the back of the classroom who never paid attention and interrupted the teacher in the middle of a lesson. It wasn’t for the quiet girl with the voracious appetite for reading any and every book she could get her hands on, who played sports and got good grades. Nope. I was a model student. Why would anyone believe I had ADHD??
My story isn’t uncommon, either. Up until recently, it was widely accepted that ADHD was a condition primarily found in boys and men. According to Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD), girls are diagnosed at just under half the rate at which boys are diagnosed. Unless they present with the hyperactive symptoms described above (trouble sitting still, interrupting, struggles beginning or finishing tasks, impulsivity), girls and women with ADHD are often overlooked – even if they’re struggling.
The thing a lot of people don’t understand about ADHD is that it looks vastly different for different people. Today, research has identified three common presentations of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and combined. Symptoms like fidgeting, impulsivity, and inability to sit still are all associated with the hyperactive-impulsive presentation and are what people most commonly associate with an ADHD diagnosis. However, difficulty with organization, challenges with distractibility, task avoidance, and forgetfulness are all symptoms that are much more difficult to spot and are all associated with the inattentive presentation of the condition, which is more commonly found in women and girls. I personally have been diagnosed with a combined presentation, meaning that I exhibit symptoms from both categories.
At its core, ADHD is a neurological and behavioral condition that affects the brain’s production and uptake of dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical in your brain that gives you that feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment you get from doing an activity you like. Since my brain doesn’t produce this chemical the same way a neurotypical brain does, it has to get creative with how I engage with “boring” or “under stimulating” activities. One of these ways is through a behavior called “stimming,” or repetitive actions meant to provide stimulation to an under-stimulated brain (this is where the fidgeting or fingernail picking comes from). It’s a way to trick our brains into being stimulated enough to take an interest in something we wouldn’t be interested in otherwise.
Looking back, the signs were definitely there…we just didn’t know what to look for at the time. Now that I’ve done more research on my diagnosis, I finally understand why I always had to be listening to music when I worked on homework, or how it was possible for me to sing along to song lyrics while I read a book (one of my ADHD “superpowers,” I guess you could call it). Or why I was always doodling or picking at my fingernails during class. Or why I preferred to do my homework on the floor rather than at a desk or a table. Overall, my symptoms didn’t have much of a negative impact on my performance in school. I was just kind of a quirky kid.
It wasn’t until I graduated from college and went out into the “real” world that I thought something might be significantly different for me. When you’re in school, your days are all laid out for you. Someone tells you when you need to go to class, parents tell you when it’s time to eat, coaches let you know when you should exercise and what you should do. But after you graduate and move out of the house, you have to decide most of that for yourself. Without that structure to my days, I often found myself in a state of “ADHD paralysis.” I would be so overwhelmed by the infinite possibility of things to accomplish that I was completely unable to decide which course of action to take and would therefore end up accomplishing nothing.
That’s when I started noticing that it was more difficult for me to “adult” than it was for a lot of my peers.
You see, adults with ADHD are stuck in a catch-22: we need structure and routine to help us combat some of the challenges we face with executive function, which affects an individual’s ability to organize and prioritize tasks, and can make time management a huge struggle. The problem is, we also need things to be unpredictable and exciting to get our brains to engage. So, while setting routines and following a consistent schedule are key tools many individuals with ADHD use to manage their symptoms, we also usually hate doing the same thing day after day (aka routine) and balk against being told what to do (like following a set schedule).
As you can imagine, this can cause some trouble in the workplace. For me, it most often looks like difficulty organizing and prioritizing tasks, issues with time management, and trouble planning and following through on long projects. In school, this showed up as always cramming for tests and leaving papers to be written mere hours before they were due. Although that strategy may have gotten me through undergrad well enough, we all know it’s significantly less successful in the professional world.
So, how do I manage my ADHD so that I can balance work and graduate school while simultaneously getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, keeping up with household chores, finding time to play with my dog, and not burning out…? The truth is, I don’t. At least not all the time. But I do make sure to prioritize educating myself and incorporating strategies from resources I find online. Much to my surprise, I’ve found a way to harness the power of social media for good! Remarkably, the majority of my knowledge about ADHD symptoms and methods for managing them come from ADHD content creators on Tiktok and Instagram.
If you have questions about ADHD or need some tips/strategies here are some of my favorites: