The first thing that often comes to mind when we think of ADHD is loud young boys, being disruptive and fidgeting constantly. But what we don’t realise is that women with ADHD experience it so differently to men, it often goes undiagnosed. Noelle Woon discusses her experience, and why we need to start a conversation about women and ADHD…
A little boy who never sits still – that’s probably the first image that comes to anyone’s mind when we talk about ADHD. Although that could be true, it’s not always the case. ADHD isn’t just a quick and dirty way to describe those who have problems sitting still, there’s actually a whole lot more to the disorder than what most people understand. Misconceptions, stereotypes, and the way media depicts individuals with it mean that most of us have a pretty narrow idea of what someone with ADHD looks like. It’s also the reason why I never knew I had ADHD until much later on in my life. For women, symptoms tend to arise or be noticed much later – often the disorder is overlooked, and cast away as a character trait instead of being treated appropriately, causing havoc in a woman’s personal and professional lives. It’s estimated that there are four million undiagnosed women, which may be as high as half of all the women who have ADHD.
As a child, I was quiet, shy, and extremely introverted – all the qualities most would never associate with someone who has ADHD. I was never rowdy and had no problems sitting still. In general, most people thought I was a well-behaved child who never made a ruckus. How can such a well-mannered child have ADHD? What they didn’t know was that ADHD comes in a spectrum; the majority of the defining ‘symptoms’ are based on outdated studies from the 1970’s, conducted mainly on young boys. What most of us identify as ADHD is just one of the many different types.
All along, I had ADHD inattentive. This meant that although I had no qualms with sitting still, my mind never stopped wandering and I was constantly making up all kinds of stories in my mind. Sometimes, my imagination felt so real it’s almost as though the images were playing like a movie before my eyes.
Perhaps every child had a wandering mind, but this wasn’t just a phase for me. My mind continued to wander and fade in and out of reality throughout my life. For most of my school days, my mother and teachers noticed that I had difficulty paying attention but often wrote it off as a lack of effort on my part. I can’t remember how many times I’ve been told to “try and stay focused”. I do try and then, ironically, get distracted by thinking about what it means to stay focused.
Unlike those with predominantly hyperactive ADHD, I didn’t feel fidgety or have any impulses to move about. Being an introvert, I didn’t gain energy from interacting with others and preferred to be alone which really didn’t fit the mold of the loud, talkative ADHD stereotypes. But in reality, I wasn’t the odd one out; women with AHDH are more likely to be disorganised, scattered and, like me, introverted. All I knew was that it took a tremendous amount of effort to keep my mind from straying and daydreaming. My inner world was just so much more evocative and interesting than reality and keeping the reins on my imagination was almost impossible at times.
Since no one around me knew that a person with ADHD does not always have to look like a fidgety kid with hyperactive tendencies, I lived all my life (until recently) believing that if I couldn’t focus, it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. The pressure was mounting, but the lure of my own mind was overwhelming at times. I tried my best to focus in my late teens, especially when I got into university; when tuition fees cost thousands of dollars, it’s best not waste it away on my daydreams. I’m probably not alone in feeling this; a large percentage of women with ADHD won’t develop or realise symptoms until they’re in college when estrogen levels increase, and they’re forced to organise their own lives away from home. It’s easy to see how not knowing that organisational and focussing struggles are a matter of your own neurobiology might make the pressure feel insurmountable, especially on women with high-IQ’s who are used to performing well in school; it can lead to anxiety, depression and exhaustion constantly battling an unknown force.
The harder I tried to stay focused in lectures, the more tired and strained my mind felt. I recall having strong urges to fiddle around with the internet and google anything and everything I could think of every time we had a five-minute break. While ADD Hyperactive individuals have physical impulses, I felt as though I had strong internal impulses. I just had to let my mind loose once the opportunity came.
Staying focused wasn’t just a challenge in classes, sometimes I struggle to even focus on the conversations going on around me, especially in large groups. Someone can be speaking to me directly and all I register is the movement of their mouths and some incomprehensible sound they’re making. It’s almost as though their voice is blocked out by the chaos that is going on in my head. Although I am not detached from what’s happening around me, I do catch myself blanking out for two or three seconds, not getting anything that’s being said to me. When this happens, I usually have to get people to repeat themselves or nod appropriately in acknowledgement even though I have no idea what they’re saying. It leads to some awkward interactions, but more than that, it’s alienating to feel like your present in a conversation but entirely unaware of what is being said.
All my life, staying focused will be a huge challenge. “Staying focused is just so hard!’ I used to explain to my mother who, despite my diagnosis, still thinks it has to do with the discipline of the mind. With so many misconceptions of ADHD out there, It’s hard to blame her. It was tough growing up thinking there was something wrong with me, but I’m kind of thankful that I went through it anyway. Struggles are, after all, what make us stronger. Since I never knew I had ADHD, I never allowed myself to make excuses, and I never felt like there was some barrier stopping me from achieving the things I want. I pushed myself, albeit sometimes too hard, and when I could have had professional and medical support.
I still struggle to be attentive today, although it has gotten better with age. With so much more information available today, I’m glad that I have a better idea of what ADHD entails and it doesn’t always equate to a fidgety, hyperactive kid. It’s great to know that my inattentiveness wasn’t just all my fault, like how I used to think it was. Knowing that I have ADHD has allowed me to instil some much needed self-love instead of being ashamed of my inability to concentrate. But the awareness around female experiences with ADHD needs to be improved. The unhappiness it can cause and the pressure it can force young women to place on themselves is too much to ignore; for some people, medication and support is the difference between an insurmountable struggle, and living their everyday life with normality.
Find out more about women and ADHD here. Contact your GP if you think you may have ADHD.
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Illustration: Sara Stefanini