What It Feels Like to Be a Woman With ADHD

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) begins in childhood, which is when a lot of individuals are diagnosed. However, the number of adults being diagnosed with ADHD is growing — in particular women that seemed to slip through the cracks earlier in their lives due to an atypical presentation of the disease.

I am one of those women. I did not exhibit bad behavior in the classroom and generally I did well in school growing up. But what most people didn’t know is that I secretly struggled to stay afloat both academically and personally. I was so ashamed, so convinced my symptoms were some personal defects that needed changing, that I buried them deep and did what I could to cope with it. This is something that followed me into adulthood. By the time I was in my 20s, my life was a mess, much like the chaos inside my head. My methods of coping got me through the first part of my life, but it wasn’t working so well anymore.

It would take another 10 years before I would be diagnosed.

A lot of people wonder what ADHD feels like. After all, many think they have it, or claim to, even if in a joking manner, but those who actually struggle with it know how severe some of the symptoms can be. Before I was treated, ADHD affected every area of my life — personally, professionally and academically. It isn’t just a lack of concentration. It looks different in everyone. This is what it looks like in me.

It is hyperfocus — zooming in on a topic to the point that you lose yourself, lose time, lose relationships, because you are consumed by an idea, a project, a book, a television show.

It is me, feeling like everyone knows things I don’t because I miss out on parts of conversations, on lessons and lectures, on life because I’m constantly fighting to catch up. It is me overextending myself to try to be like everyone else.

It is feeling as though someone is pressing their hands against my ears, blocking out parts of what others say. I have to strain to grasp every word.

It is reading, only not really, because I start to skim and skip over parts due to an inability to pay attention to each word; that, and a burning impatience that wants me to reach the end immediately.

It is going to the movies, and then not knowing what your friends are talking about when they mention certain parts of it. It is feeling left out.

It is fighting an uphill battle to stay organized, to find your belongings, to keep track of them. It is getting locked out of your house because you forgot your keys. Again.

It is trying to listen, only feeling like the words bounce off of you instead of processing through your mind. It is thoughts, racing so fast you can’t capture them. You only see fragments, and sometimes they don’t make sense.

It is trying to write, to finish something, only to abandon everything halfway through because you’ve lost interest or focus. It is being unable to explain to others it was not your desire to do so, but rather your brain refusing to cooperate. It is feeling shame when they tell you try harder, to grow up, to accomplish something with your life.

It is wanting desperately to manage your disease, but being hindered by the same illness you are trying to treat because you are forgetful, scattered and disorganized.

It is seeing the world in pieces, and trying to do your best to assemble the puzzle.

For me, ADHD is complicated by my bipolar diagnosis. Even though the two illnesses have symptoms that overlap, the treatment for both diseases is different. I periodically have to cope with a lowered dose of my ADHD medication because it can trigger mania in some individuals. When a manic episode starts to manifest in my life, treating my ADHD sort of becomes secondary to controlling my mood — which of course has the potential to wreck my life if left unchecked. I understand this. I get it. It’s not fair and I want to kick and scream when it happens, because I hate feeling the way I do when my symptoms are out of control, but I comply because I know it is important. Bipolar is the monster that must be reckoned with. That is not to say my ADHD diagnosis is less important, only that in my life it is less damaging on a long-term basis if I temporarily take a lower dose of medication.

Bipolar disorder and ADHD have a lot in common — such as impulsivity — so in a way they can overlap and exacerbate one another in some individuals. For instance, I have to deal with some level of impulsivity all the time, though it is much worse in mania. I wish I could untangle the two diseases, separate them so that they are independent of one another and thus able to be treated accordingly, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. That’ll never happen. I have to rely on my inner strength to get through those times when ADHD treatment has to fall by the wayside until my bipolar disorder is under control.

Overall, things are better now that I have an ADHD diagnosis, even when my medication gets decreased. I’ve had more success with my ADHD medication than my bipolar meds thus far. Medication has done wonders for me. Learning some skills in therapy has also helped. It is still difficult, but these days my head is clearer, my thoughts less scattered and my life more manageable.

I didn’t get here overnight. It won’t all be better tomorrow. It’s a journey, one I am discovering each day. One I am not ashamed of, because I did not choose this life, but nothing is going to stop me from living it.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When I Finally Told My Professor About My ADHD

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Dear Professor,

For the first two classes of the semester, I arrived to your class 30 minutes late because I forgot the class started at 6 p.m., not 6:30.

Every week I left something in your classroom, and when I went back to retrieve what I left behind you just smiled and said, “This seems to be a tradition for you.”

Then I completely forgot about a presentation I had to do, and when I asked you if I could switch presentation dates with someone else, you said nothing. You just grabbed your laptop and motioned for me to come outside with you. You informed me I was currently failing the class and showed me I how I’d lost track of the writing prompt for two writing assignments and gone off-topic, so you’d given me no credit for one and partial credit for the other.

But you said it in a way that wasn’t discouraging or belittling.

Despite this, you agreed to let me have an extension for my project. You had no idea I was dealing with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and that this was an extremely embarrassing moment forme. You also didn’t see me fighting back tears with all my might as I began beating myself up for these things. My disability isn’t something I like anyone to see, especially my teachers. That embarrassment was enough to make sure I worked to my highest level. I earned 100 percent on every assignment after that.

When I stayed with you after class one night and admitted I have ADHD, you just smiled and said, “Don’t let it define you.”

I look back at that and laugh because you were right.

Not once did you see me as my disability. You saw a passionate student with a lot of potential (I know now no one else sees me as my weaknesses either, so why should I?)

Thank you for not judging me.

Thank you for showing me kindness when I wasn’t being kind to myself.

Thank you for reminding me once more that I own my weaknesses, not the other way around.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share a conversation you’ve had that changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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The 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Episode That Called Me a Parenting Failure

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mom and son taking a selfie I’ve felt like a failure many times during my life as a parent. My greatest sense of inadequacy came when I medicated my child for his attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). At the time, I felt like I was not being the mother my child needed nor providing him with the structure and discipline he needed. Luckily for me, my feelings of failure subsided as my son flourished.

They do return, however, when I encounter some of the stigmas associated with medicating a child. This feeling returned tenfold during a recent episode of Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

During an episode in season two, Jacqueline (played by Jane Krakowski) took her son to the doctor because he was acting out and not listening to her. The doctor suggested Buckley was hyperactive and should be placed on “Dyziplen.” Throughout the episode, parents calm their children with this drug, putting them into a “zombie”-like state so they could be more easily controlled. For instance, once Buckley’s medication kicked in, Jacqueline decided he could be easily wrangled to the shoe store so she could shop without disruption.

To me, this is the outsider’s view of what I do when I medicate my child.

As the mother of a child with ADHD, I resent this caricature. 

For years my family struggled to help my son with various aspects of his disorder. We sought different types of therapies, used different discipline methods, changed our diets, created schedules and so on to avoid putting him on medication. In our eyes, medication meant we were failures. We were drawn into the stigma of the disorder and the treatment options often associated with it.

This stigma is enforced when shows like this suggest the challenges of ADHD can always be fixed with more family time and more discipline.

Five years after our many failed attempts, we decided to try something new. We took our son and our “failures” to the doctor in search of a treatment option we had once refused to try and left with a new perspective. Today, our son is doing well.

By the end of the episode, Buckley was also doing well. This was after his mother decided he did not need medication. Instead, Buckley needed more discipline and familial attention. For years, people told me my son needed just these two things to thrive, despite his diagnosis. I eventually learned this belief can be part of the stigma towards ADHD and treatment of it.

Every child is different, and our child needed a little more to thrive. Rather than adding to the stigma, I wish “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” had presented these differences instead of painting the image that hyperactive children are reared by inattentive parents who do not provide structure or discipline. Then, and only then, could I have continued to watch this show without feeling like society was, once again, calling me a parenting failure.

Because that, I am not.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a scene or line from a movie, show, or song that’s stuck with you through your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Explaining ADHD to Children With 'Frozen'

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If you have a young child with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, a great way to explain ADHD to them is to relate it to Elsa’s powers from “Frozen.” In case you’ve been living under a rock the past three years, Elsa is a queen who was born with ice powers. As a child, Elsa had a difficult time keeping her powers under control. (In case you haven’t caught on yet, the “powers” in our case are ADHD.) Elsa once hurt her younger sister by accidentally blasting her in the head with her powers, leaving her sister with a “scar” (a white streak in her hair). My daughter is impulsive and can say and do hurtful things to people she loves without even realizing she is hurting their feelings. And no, she is not a “brat,” and it is not because of bad parenting . ADHD is a neurological condition that, simply put, allows people to use their brains differently than most.

Elsa’s parents were scared for their daughter and didn’t know what else to do, so they did the only thing they felt they could: contain her power by giving Elsa gloves to wear. “Conceal. Don’t feel,” they advised Elsa. To me, the gloves in the story represent society. Society would love for all children to behave the same, wouldn’t they? At school, they want children to sit nicely and quietly in their seats, listen attentively to lessons and work diligently and seamlessly on their assignments. How nice it would be for teachers if every child in their classroom behaved like this, right? Well, I beg to differ. I’m not arguing that it wouldn’t make teachers’ lives easier, but I think it would definitely make them boring. If a rainbow were only one color (let’s say grey), it would not only be boring, it would be ugly. I may be a little biased here, but people with ADHD make the world more fun and more beautiful. Walt Disney, Adam Levine and Albert Einstein are just a few famous ADHDers who have made the world a better place.

During Elsa’s entire childhood, she isolated herself from everyone, including her younger sister. Elsa knew she was different, so she hid away in her room until she was old enough to become the queen and required to come out. At her coronation, Elsa wore gloves to conceal her power but was instructed to remove them for a part of the ceremony. Reluctantly, she did and then put them back on as quickly as she could.

A lot of times, young children with ADHD feel insecure and have a difficult time in social situations. What they think is hilarious may not be to their peers, which makes for some embarrassing moments at recess. As a result, children with ADHD may feel like they are awkward and that nobody wants to be their friend, so they shy away in fear of their peers rejecting them. It truly is heartbreaking to see my own daughter sitting on a bench at recess while the other kids from her class are playing a game of kickball together.

As a grown woman, Elsa decides to throw her gloves away and finally be free to be her true self. She uses her powers to build a gorgeous gigantic ice castle and a lovable walking talking snowman named Olaf. “I never knew what I was capable of,” Elsa confesses to her sister.

If we can teach our children with ADHD to not worry about what other people think of them and to simply embrace and love being themselves, they will accomplish so many amazing things in their lives. Not only does Elsa learn to embrace and love her powers, she learns to control it with the power of love. Now, this “love” could be a number of things when it comes to ADHD, behavioral therapy and medication being a couple. What our children with ADHD really need and want is the love, support, understanding and guidance of their family and friends.

Elsa
I’m not naive. Life is no fairytale, and I know ADHD can feel like a curse sometimes, but trust me, it’s not. ADHD is a gift. It truly is a power. Elsa’s parents were wrong when they gave her the gloves and told her to conceal her powers, but I can understand why they did. They were scared. When my daughter was initially diagnosed with ADHD, I was scared too. I am sure I have made mistakes with my daughter’s ADHD as well. I’m not perfect. Along the way though, I have learned and am still learning ways to help my daughter with her ADHD. She may not build an enormous ice castle, but there is no doubt in my mind she will accomplish things in her life of the same magnitude.

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? If you’ve done this before, tell us about that moment and the child’s reaction. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To Myself When Accepting My ADD Diagnosis Felt Like Defeat

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You’re stubborn. You’ve been hurt in the past. You’ve tried traditional treatment for ADD before, and you were treated like anything but a human being. You feel like you’re at your limit. Like nobody gets you. You didn’t feel respected or heard by the people who gave the doctors the go-ahead to start treating you. You were young. You didn’t know any better. You were bullied. I can’t say for sure, but you might have seen your therapists more than you saw your parents.

I can understand why you flat-out refused to accept help from Student Support Services when you went away to college. After all, you thought you had dealt with everything before college was even on your radar. You didn’t need help. You would be fine.

I’m sorry to kick you off your high horse, but you did need help.

You needed help because you were struggling. You didn’t want to admit it, though. You didn’t want to admit it because you equated it with getting the biggest bullhorn in the world, climbing to the top of the academic buildings, and yelling, “I’m disabled!” at the top of your lungs. Dramatic? Maybe, but back then, that’s what you thought it was. Accepting your ADD diagnosis felt like defeat. Weakness. And you weren’t supposed to be weak.

I’m not going to say that the heavens opened up when you finally went to Student Support Services (after a very long summer where you saw more doctor’s offices than sunlight) and handed them your diagnosis (which was seven years old by that point). The truth is that they didn’t. Things didn’t magically fall into place. You didn’t just breeze through the rest of your time there. You still had to work hard. But what I’m trying to tell you is that help doesn’t always hurt you. Yes, your experience taught you otherwise. But you also had another experience, one that was the complete opposite.

Your friends supported you when your mentor died; a member of staff even left a note of condolence in your campus mailbox. You were able to look at a classmate’s notes and realize, “That’s what the professor was saying!” instead of stressing yourself out over details. And eventually, you found techniques that worked for you. Techniques that helped you show that yes, you really did belong in that environment.

You discovered that you had incredible professors who (for the most part) went out of their way to help you succeed. They helped you understand concepts you couldn’t quite wrap your head around while you poured over your textbooks. They agreed to let you set your own deadlines for assignments so you could be sure to turn in a quality assignment on time that you could be proud of.

My point isn’t that everything gets to a point where everything is hunky dory and you just breeze through. My point is that help doesn’t always have to hurt. And sometimes all you need to do is look at the parts of your experience that you might consider insignificant to figure out why.

Follow this journey on Alisa Tanaka.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to your teenaged self when you were struggling to accept your differences. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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When My Daughter Told Me She Thought ADHD Meant Her 'Brain Is Broken'

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We sat on a bench under a cherry tree outside the doctor’s office. “Do you understand what the doctor told us?” I asked my 7-year-old daughter.

“Sort of,” she said with a shy smile, an indication she knows more than she’s letting on but wants me to fill in the blanks.

“Do you know what ADHD means?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered with that same smile. “It means… your brain is broken or something.”

I cringed. Because of her dad’s diagnosis several years ago, ADHD is a frequent topic in our house. I was devastated to find we had passed on an unhappy message.

But then she continued with a laugh. “Well, no. Not like that. But, you know — it means your brain is… I don’t know!” She threw her hands up and shrugged with that same grin on her face.

I had practically floated out of the doctor’s office after her diagnosis moments before. Finally, an explanation for the frustrations we’ve been having since she was 3. But now, hearing her misunderstanding of ADHD, I just wanted to pretend she didn’t have it. I didn’t ever want her to feel that her brain — or any part of her — is broken.

I began to explain ADHD. While I talked, her body struggled to stay on the bench as her foot reached out and stomped each and every fallen cherry she could see.

“ADHD doesn’t mean your brain is broken,” I told her. Cherry crunch.

“It does mean your brain works differently.” Cherry squish.

“It makes it so you see things in different ways from me,” I continued. Cherry smoosh.

“Like, you know how you always like to make old things new?”

Pause. She looked in my eyes. She loves to hear about her talents.

“You have a very creative brain, and it helps you to make beautiful things.”

She grinned. Cherry smash.

“And do you remember that you taught yourself to read?” Pause. Eye contact. “Your brain works so fast, you’re able to learn things really quickly.”

Grin. Smash.

“ADHD also makes it a little harder for you to focus,” I began, smiling to myself. She had one hand on the bench and was stretching her body as far as she could to get a faraway cherry.

But suddenly, I was overcome with sadness as I watched her inability to listen. “ADHD is going to be a challenge throughout her life,” I thought to myself.

Then, just as suddenly, I realized I wasn’t listening to myself either. I was focusing on stomping the cherries instead of hearing how wonderful it is that her brain thinks in different ways. This doesn’t have to be “terrible.” She’s 7. We’ll figure it out before long.

We stood, and she grabbed my hand. While I walked back to normal life, she skipped alongside me, leaving tiny dabs of cherry guts in her wake with her signature happy skip.

Follow this journey on Thrilled by the Thought.

The Mighty is asking the following: How would you describe your disability, disease or mental illness to a child? If you’ve done this before, tell us about that moment and the child’s reaction. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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