Mental Health

The torment of growing up as a woman with undiagnosed ADHD

Attempting this article took far more energy and patience than I expected. When I set aside time to write, I would manically clean, cook, nap, spend time with my girlfriend, and so on. Everything in me wanted to get this article done, yet procrastination almost always won. As I sit here editing, I thought to include this first paragraph to put into perspective just how frustrating it can be to live with ADHD. I love to write, I am extremely excited to be writing for Rock and Art – and yet my brain often fails to meet my needs and desires. Let’s delve into this.

As a woman, I have always been advised to display less emotion, to not present myself as an emotional being, for fear that society would label me as unstable or too sensitive for professional settings.

As a consequence of limited research and studies on young and adult women with ADHD, many women receive a diagnosis later on in their adult lives. Whereas boys and men are diagnosed at a much younger age, giving them the advantage of support a lot earlier on. Symptoms of ADHD and ADD vary for men and women and that is because symptoms in men tend to be more visible to the eye rather than the psychological symptoms that present more in women.


ADHD and how my diagnosis came about: being honest in therapy

If you have the privilege of access to therapy, the best advice I can give is to persist even though progress may not be made in initial sessions.

I have been in and out of therapy since I was 15 years old, but I don’t believe I was my true authentic self until August 2021. Although I really felt like I was talking a lot about my past traumas and other general mental health issues, I don’t think I was giving myself time in the sessions to process what I was reciting to my therapist. But my attitude changed when my mum did extensive research into different methods of therapy for me and suggested that I look into EMDR therapy.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) therapy focuses on adjusting a person’s ‘emotions, thoughts, or behaviours [which] arise from the distressing issue, allowing the brain to resume its natural healing process’. When people experience trauma or moments in their lives where they feel in a flight or fight mode, their life still continues. As much as it can be reassuring that time may eventually heal wounds, it often isn’t enough for someone to be able to continue from the moment after the trauma. With this treatment, I became more comfortable with my therapist, which led me to naturally share more about parts of myself I felt ashamed of.

I remember in most of my therapy sessions, I would sit and repeatedly talk about my frustrations with my lack of organisation and routine. A routine is something I have desired for as long as I can remember, which seems a little strange to admit. No matter how much I have tried, I have never in my life been able to keep up even the smallest of routines.

The only rigid routine I have is my skincare – and that still gets frequently forgotten about. During my EMDR therapy treatment, in October 2021, my therapist brought up the fact that lately I have been showing signs of ADHD and she’d like me to get assessed by a psychiatrist. The combination of anxiety and relief I felt was instant; for the first time, I really felt listened to and understood. She was seeing symptoms in me I had been unknowingly fighting for as long as I can remember.

During my teenage years, I struggled immensely with organisation and I was constantly in trouble with teachers with homework being late or missing. I just about scraped through my years at school, with a great expectation of myself to be as smart and attentive as my school friends. In my last years of school, I hit a breaking point with school work and exams. I felt utterly defeated, and as much as I wanted to lock myself in my room and revise for hours on end, my brain would simply not cooperate.

I started to internalise words that were often used to describe me, both at home and school, such as lazy, slow, and disorganised. The problem was that despite loving the subjects I was studying at the time; I had implemented the idea of myself that I would never achieve the academic goals I wished to accomplish. I then unintentionally began to ‘mask’ these symptoms, which is far more common in women with ADHD; as they suppress the unraveling torment of the lack of control they have with their own behaviour and discipline. 

After leaving school, I took a gap year and then went to university in Amsterdam to study Media. I had a lot of fear going into my bachelor’s and after a year’s break, I adamantly didn’t want to retreat into the dark hole of self-doubt, frustration, and anxiety that came with studying. The most poignant feeling I often had before my diagnosis was of the never-ending torture of my brain inefficacious with tasks and assignments that I needed to do.

Due to the late diagnosis, a lot of typical coping mechanisms developed, and the struggle became a lot worse due to my lack of awareness that this was a learning and behaviour disability. I made it through my bachelor’s undiagnosed and I am incredibly proud of my achievements. However, speaking to friends who also got a late ADHD diagnosis, we all agree that we wish we had known sooner. Because ADHD treatment (such as medication and therapy) could have helped with dealing with the exhausting, isolating torture.

It has only been two months since my diagnosis, yet the fact that I am more aware of the way my brain behaves now is incredibly reassuring. Although I have a lot of bad coping mechanisms to work on to improve my wellbeing, I feel far more confident that I am not lazy, and my lack of ability to establish routine and consistency will become easier once I take the right medication, and get the right help. I am still learning and finding out this missing part about myself, that is so bound to my core essence, has definitely been a setback in my self-awareness and how well I know myself.

For anyone – especially women who receive a late diagnosis – don’t see a diagnosis as a huge weight that has suddenly fallen onto your shoulders. You have had this disability your whole life, which has made it a lot more challenging. However, now that you have the diagnosis, you have the awareness and therefore the opportunity to try out different treatments and medications which can benefit your mental health (which is what I have already discovered).

My final advice is to be patient with yourself and ask your closest friends and family around you to have patience with you. It is not the easiest adjustment, but you will eventually become more in sync with what works best for your new diagnosis and how you can better manage your life with this new awareness.