Today, I’m going to address something I rarely talk about online that most certainly (and often unknowingly) impacts the everyday lives of countless women, myself included. To give you an idea of how something like a 24-year misdiagnosis happens, I’ll start with some personal history.
If you don’t care about any of that, skip to the “Why Women Are Left Behind” section.
For 24 years of my life, I was misdiagnosed with major depression and bipolar type-II. This started clinically when I was 11 years old, but, as a young child, I remember a darkness coming over me and taking root, like the difficult kudzu you must fight to keep from swallowing a town.
I remember writing in an attempt to make sense of my reality, to carve out a world I could call home, a place where I had permission to feel both adequate and happy.
There were situational events that made me feel wretched, but they weren’t at the heart of the chronic rain cloud that followed me around. However, these experiences gave me an excuse to grab onto other emotions like anger which, temporarily, made me feel in control of my life and my feelings.
I think that we can all agree that these are childish coping mechanisms most of us grow out of eventually. For me, this process has been difficult, and the journey isn’t over yet. It is not enough to merely admit the problem or the cause. Changing our behavior and way of thinking is the hardest part.
In my case, I didn’t understand the problem until I was 24 years old.
There’s Your Sign
When I was a child, I spent a lot of time being punished in the classroom. My teachers were always shouting my name as though an acrid taste had just entered their mouths; their words like newly slung arrows lodged in my chest.
Despite the fact that this happened constantly throughout the day, every day, I found myself blindsided and demoralized each time. I still couldn’t control myself.
Whenever something jumped into my brain, I had to do or say something about it right then and there. And this impulse has been the bane of my existence my entire life.
Somewhere along the way, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of shame all of the time. My personality did a 180, and I went from extrovert to extremely shy, anxious, and wary of all people. Most disturbing of all, I became quiet.
I even learned how to feign listening when, in reality, I was completely checked out. I remember the urge to hit myself in head to pay attention. Why can’t I just focus?! Needless to say, I did not perform well in school and, at home, my parents worked tirelessly with me on homework with very little reward.
I also began to believe at this age that I was inherently inadequate, stupid, lazy, ugly, rude, and that everything about me was just…wrong. Everyone in my life reinforced this whenever I could not easily adjust to new situations or information.
By now, you have probably guessed my real (and painfully obvious) diagnosis. Hint: it’s not depression.
Why Women Are Left Behind
It’s no secret that ADHD can manifest as other disorders, such as depression and OCD, in an effort to control the original problem. However, women are disproportionately affected by this misdiagnoses.
I am no longer surprised when someone I’ve just told my diagnosis to responds with, “I think ADHD is overdiagnosed,” or “I think ADHD is made up.”
If you’re one of these people, keep in mind that the criteria has evolved substantially since the 80s, and we are just now recognizing the gap in previous studies that built this criteria.
For instance, over 99% of studies conducted on ADHD have centered exclusively around boys/men exhibiting hyperactivity, which means the number of undiagnosed and misdiagnosed women is still grossly underrepresented, and the consequences of this are deadly.
Another reason why women are able to “hide” ADHD for so long is that we are not permitted the same behavioral freedoms as boys and men. In other words, we are working twice as hard to fit ourselves into societal roles and norms. Women, especially, are held accountable when they fail at emotional labor, organization, caretaking, housework, let alone balancing these things with a full-time job.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we write these behaviors off in boys, or we get them treated immediately. Girls, on the other hand, are shamed into masking symptoms.
Thus, changing their physical appearance, and performing restrictive behaviors that cause them to distrust their own bodies, language, and autonomy from the time they are born. This results in self-loathing, depression, OCD, anxiety, and more.
This exercise of control over women in public and private spaces is so normalized that it’s invisible. And this sort of medical erasure happens to women all of the time and not just for psychological issues. Women, and women of color in particular, with legitimate medical concerns are often patronized, ignored, and misdiagnosed by doctors.
I am reminded of the fact that both my male cousin and I had the same behavioral issues and learning difficulties in school. I was told to control myself; he was sent to a psychiatrist and given tools to deal with his disorder.
In 2016, Quartz published an article addressing just this:
“ADHD materializes dramatically differently in girls. ‘Anxiety and depression turn into low self-esteem and self-loathing, and the risk for self-harm and suicide attempts is four-to-five times that of girls without ADHD,’ 2012 research shows…
“Unlike boys, many of whom show hyperactivity, girls’ symptoms veer more toward inattentiveness and disorganization. Girls tend to develop ADHD later than boys. They frequently mask it in an attempt to conform to society’s expectation that they be on the ball and organized.
And while some ADHD symptoms can become less intense for boys after they pass through puberty, for many girls, it gets worse .”
I had just been diagnosed for the first time at 24 years old when I read another life-changing article by Broadly called: “‘I Thought I Was Stupid’: The Hidden Struggle for Women with ADHD” , which left me feeling a mix of things, mainly that I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t depressed. I wasn’t alone. And, for the first time in my life, I felt understood and validated in my experience.
At that time, I had already completed half of my graduate degree in Colorado with a year-and-a-half left to go. Between grad school, a 100-year flood 3 months into living there, my boyfriend at the time moving back to Kansas, and my own cross-country move, life had taken a huge toll.
I’d never felt more alone.
This feeling progressed until I became scared enough to seek professional help. Every 2-3 years my ptsd (from Hurricane Katrina) was triggered like this. Major upheavals, lack of control over my environment and relationships, worrying about my grades—it all brought up too much. Inevitably, my entire life and mental health status imploded shortly thereafter without fail.
This cycle was normal for me from ages 15-24 and even expected.
Imagine my surprise when, after many sessions, my new psychiatrist in CO told me that I wasn’t depressed. I remember my mouth falling open. What do you mean I’m not depressed?!
He became more and more convinced that the root cause of my depression was a direct result of undiagnosed ADHD. As he went through several points with me using examples from my childhood and these bouts of depression, the direct link between my sense of self worth and my ability to complete things/lack of organization suddenly clicked. Holy hell!
Not once in all of my years of therapy had a medical professional suggested this to me.
Most of the advice I’d received up until then required a lot of that pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps blend of self-help. But I couldn’t fix that aspect of my life. That was, well…me.
So here I was at 24 years old finally putting the pieces together. And with that, I felt the beginning of many painful years unravelling.
My diagnosis was, in fact, the beginning of untangling a thick web of self-hatred I’d buried myself in for so long.
I’ll never forget the therapist who performed the test saying, “It’s a miracle you’ve made it this far,” in reference to graduate school.
The truth is, it isn’t a miracle. Not in the slightest. There is no such thing for people with ADHD. The only “miracle” here is that I did not give up.
The first year I applied to graduate programs, I didn’t receive a single acceptance letter. Yes, I was an above average writer, and I was passionate about it; but that could not account for years of poor grades, a disorganized portfolio, and an abysmal GRE score.
While my friends were off starting their programs the next year, I was working at a refinery to save money and busting my ass on those applications for the second time. I remember crying a lot at the application and testing fees, during the math portion of the GRE, at the overwhelming feeling that I was doing all of this for nothing, and at the realization that I’m not the only one who has to do this and omg why am I crying?
Even though my portfolio was amazing and my letters of recommendation were from well-established poets the second time around, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t good enough. And until I was finally diagnosed and treated, I had imposter syndrome throughout all of my classes and interactions at school.
It didn’t matter that I was 1 of the 12 chosen out of 400 applicants or that I was 1 of the 5 admitted for poetry. It didn’t matter if someone solicited me for poems or was moved by my work. Or that the students that dropped were first-time applicants who couldn’t handle the workload. I can state these facts all day long and still feel insecure, although less so now.
The truth is that therapy and medication cannot completely erase years of psychological damage, but it can help. And, because of those things, it is easier than ever before to not give up or break down at the slightest obstacle like I would have in the past.
I wish that more women had access to this knowledge because it can improve your quality of life exponentially. I have much more control over my impulses and emotions, or rather, they have stabilized. Tasks are easier to prioritize and don’t overwhelm me as often. I can see the big picture of my projects and my position and am less prone to quit on impulse or self-sabotage.
Basically, my life is 80% more manageable than before, and I have some great doctors to thank for that.
There are still people who tell me my disorder isn’t real or overdiagnosed, and people who let it mar their view of my capability and performance. Then there are people who see it as a window into you.
My Thoughts on Living with Diagnosed ADHD
Personally, I believe ADHD is behind all of my creative and professional success.
If you follow my blog for writing tips and some of what I’ve said sounds a little too familiar, take refuge in knowing that ADHD has been an asset more than anything else in this area of my life.
Whether we are capable of recognizing it or not, those of us with the disorder have a unique set of tools the average person does not have access to.
That puts our perspective and our possibilities at the cutting edge of creative writing. Scores of famous writers, artists, actors, and creatives in various professions, including entrepreneurs and CEOs, have learned to embrace this disorder and use it to their benefit.
Despite many of the negatives that come with ADHD, this endless, unstoppable creativity is something to be thankful for at the end of the day.