When I Was a 'Smart Girl' With Undiagnosed ADHD
I have ADHD. Surprise! Who would have guessed, right? Actually, to most of my friends, it’s pretty obvious. My train of thought is more of a streetcar on detour rather than a train, and my stories have virtually no end. But why did it take 24 years for a doctor to actually diagnose me?
When I was a kid, my teachers told me I was “gifted” and “above average.” I finished all my work before everyone else, and often got bored in class. Instead of acting out, I would zone out or work on something different. Sometimes it was writing stories, or reading a book under my desk. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was running a gum and candy business from inside my desk. I never really got in trouble, because my actual school work was finished and I was always the first to hand in my exams and class assignments. My parents thought I was just bored because the content was too easy.
In reality, I struggled with focusing. I struggled with doing one task for an extended period of time, and would rush through tasks before my attention span ran out. There was constantly an attention hour glass that ran out just a bit too soon.When I was young, it was cute – I had messy writing, didn’t color in the lines, and couldn’t cut a piece of paper in a straight line. Everything was a race, and quality slipped through the cracks. As I got older, it became less cute and more annoying. School got harder, and I didn’t magically know all the answers anymore.
I tried to explain to my parents that I thought I had ADHD when I was about 12 or 13. When they took me to a doctor, I didn’t fit the usual ADHD bill. I wasn’t disruptive, I didn’t act out, I didn’t have bad grades. I wasn’t necessarily hyperactive. I just wasn’t disciplined enough because I had always had it so easy.
In university, I skipped a lot of class, because I barely got anything out of lectures, and when I was in class, I would be doing a million other things. I struggled with studying, and could only accomplish anything if I was having a “power hour.” I didn’t realize my “power hours” were actually a part of ADHD. In the ADHD world, it’s called “hyper focus,” which means you have these bursts where you put so much focus into one thing that the rest of the world is basically shut out. It was brilliant for writing papers and studying when it happened, but the problem was that it never really happened when I needed it to. Sometimes it would happen when I was trying to work, but my focus was directed at something completely irrelevant. I always finished exams early because I could barely pay attention in a 45 minute lecture, let alone a three hour exam.
ADHD impacts every little bit of my life – from getting restless at work and needing to walk around every hour or so, to losing my keys, wallet, shoes etc. to forgetting important dates like birthdays and social obligations. I lose track of more things than I can count, and find it difficult to follow through on a lot of things I commit to. It’s like being scatter brained on steroids. It’s also incredibly stressful.
This past year, my doctor asked if I ever had issues with attention and focus. I was seeing her because I had gone into a deep depression and my anxiety was out of control. Her question seemed irrelevant and surprised me, but when I did some of the diagnostic tests and realized I actually experienced a ton of ADHD symptoms, something clicked. It turns out that it’s really common for undiagnosed ADHD to manifest itself as anxiety and depression. We learned that part of the reason I was “treatment resistant” was because some of my anxiety and depression came from my ADHD. The stress of not being able to stay organized or the anxiety that comes with having a messy apartment (and let’s be honest, kind of a messy life), actually heightened my anxiety and depression.
I was actually quite relieved to get my diagnosis, but a big part of me was sad too. Why did it take so long to get diagnosed? What could have been different had I not struggled with my ADHD for so long without knowing? Could I have done more? Achieved more? Could I have avoided my depression and anxiety getting so severe? I’m not sure, and I guess I’ll never really know.
I do know that we talk a lot about people being misdiagnosed with ADHD, and stimulants being over-prescribed, but we don’t talk nearly enough about how women and girls are often looked over and not diagnosed. The way ADHD manifests itself can be quite different for young girls and boys – girls are more likely to retreat and disconnect, while boys are more likely to act out. Therefore, the boys get diagnosed because it’s a lot easier to see. Girls are more likely to be “inattentive” (like me), while boys are more likely to be “hyperactive.” We also think of hyperactivity as being a physical thing – like running around or being disruptive, but “hyperactivity” (in girls especially) can be more emotional – like having outbursts or emotions that don’t quite make sense or fit. This leads to the inattentive girls being labelled as lazy or stupid, and the emotionally hyperactive girls being labelled as drama queens or “crazy.”
Stimulants (medication for ADHD) can be dangerous and very easy to abuse, so it’s important that we are not over-prescribing these medications. It’s also important that we don’t under-prescribe to those who need it, especially girls who are already under-diagnosed.
Now that I’ve bounced around enough, I should probably get to my main point, which is this: a proper diagnosis can be absolutely life-changing. And getting it sooner rather than later is really important, not just for medication, but because it can explain a lot. I struggle with my self-esteem and always felt foolish or forgetful, but it was really just a part of my ADHD. It’s a lot easier now that I know what’s going on, but it was a long road to get here. When we let our knowledge of a condition be guided by misinformed stereotypes, we miss some important warning signs. When that happens, we let people slip through the cracks or misdiagnose them and treat problems with the wrong medications, which is dangerous and expensive.
This story originally appeared on Surviving by Living.
Getty image by Kitz Corner.