Up to three-quarters of women with ADHD will go through life without receiving a diagnosis, many tormented by anxiety or depression. Robyn Wilder spent 41 years knowing exactly how this feels...
Eighteen months ago, at the grand old age of 42, I was diagnosed with ADHD. At the time I was struggling to cope with the challenges of running my own freelance career and parenting two children under three years old. Overwhelmed by dirty laundry, unmet deadlines, my kids’ missed medical appointments and even unpaid tax bills, I ticked all the boxes for ADHD.
My diagnosis made sense of all the problems my habitual lateness, forgetfulness and ‘childishness’ brought – from academic expulsions to losing jobs, friendships and relationships – even though I myself was a people-pleaser and conscientious.
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a developmental disorder of the brain. It comes in three flavours: inattentive (forgetfulness, poor organisation skills, and distractibility); hyperactive (a compulsion to keep moving, interrupt people, and fidget); or a combination of both. Of course, everyone is inattentive, forgetful or fidgety to a degree, but for people with ADHD that degree can be catastrophic.
Being diagnosed was like being handed the missing piece to a jigsaw puzzle I’d been trying to complete all my life. I’ve been able to take the first steps on the long road to self acceptance – thanks partly to medication and therapy – and life is slowly improving.
I’ve also learned two major lessons.
Firstly, up to three-quarters of women with ADHD will go through life without receiving a diagnosis, and potentially not even knowing they have it. Like me, they may just assume they are wrong, bad, stupid, or lazy.
‘ADHD is connected with higher rates of suicide, depression and other mental health needs,’ the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Dr Louise Theodosiou told the BBC. ‘People can be in a very serious condition while they wait for treatment.’
Even up to 18% of women in prison may have ADHD. This is largely because girls and women with ADHD can appear introverted and dreamy; scattered and easily distracted, which – because it doesn’t adhere to the ‘hyperactive schoolboy’ diagnostic stereotype – can often be misdiagnosed (if it’s diagnosed at all).
In 41 years, no one ever suggested I had ADHD. However, I have been diagnosed with various types of depression and anxiety – yet the only medicines that have ever treated my mood or ‘constant brain chatter’ are the stimulants I’m prescribed for ADHD. My psychiatrist now believes any depression and anxiety I may have is secondary to having lived so long with untreated ADHD.
Secondly, ‘attention deficit’ is a misnomer. People with ADHD can experience ‘laser-beam’ focus for some things (to the point where they’re so focused they may not hear you) and ‘scatter-shot’ focus for others. This is all down to how ADHD brains regulate attention rather than how much there is of it, and it’s not just attention that suffers.
Although when you’re diagnosed, the ADHD sorting hat dumps you in ‘inattentive’, ‘hyperactive’ or ‘combined’ houses, then sort of leaves you to it, you may experience other symptoms, just as I have – for instance:
- Rejection-sensitive dysphoria: dramatic emotional reactions to criticism, real or imagined, which I’d always written off as ‘mood swings’. Sometimes a tiny unpleasant social interaction can write off my entire working day.
- Compulsive spending: Confessions of a Shopaholic spoke to me on a spiritual level (or it would have done if it had had a sequel entitled Immediate Lack of Interest In My Purchases), and it turns out it’s all dopamine-generating activity of the ADHD brain.
- Oppositional defiance disorder: I have spent months in therapy trying to get to the psychological root of why I sometimes sabotage my own desires; turns out it’s just a thing related to ADHD – there’s no real ‘why’.
- Sensory overwhelm: I hate crowds; feeling too hot; very bright sunshiney days – I thought I was a goth, even though I don’t like that sort of music and I’m not really that into black. Turns out my ADHD brain gets shorted out by too much sensory input.
If any of these sound familiar to you, I’m not saying you have ADHD – I’m just saying it’s a wider and deeper thing than just ‘being hyperactive’ or ‘being forgetful’. And, with so many women living with the condition undiagnosed, perhaps it’s no terrible thing if you read this and think twice about whether any of this sounds like you.