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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.

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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.

Originally published: June 9, 2016
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