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Adult ADHD in Women: How I finally found out why I am how I am

For ADHD Awareness Month, a McPin team member shares her experience of being diagnosed with ADHD in her thirties, writing about adult ADHD in women, and her top tips for thriving with ADHD.

“You have so much potential. Think what you could achieve if you could just apply yourself.” 

“Why are you upset? You need to become more resilient and grow a thicker skin.”

“You could be anything you want to be, but you’re wasting your time on XYZ.”

Does the above sound familiar? You might be part of the ADHD extended family. For ADHD Awareness Month, let’s talk about adult ADHD in women. 

I’m one of the many thousands of women who have been diagnosed as an adult in the last couple of years. It feels strange to finally realise that multiple aspects of my personality are determined by a neurodevelopmental condition. But I’m so happy I have the diagnosis – my life suddenly makes sense!

Never quite understanding myself 

For my first 29 rotations around the sun, I spent a lot of time wondering why I was the way I was. I’m sensitive and empathetic, to the point that I find myself crying in the workplace on a monthly basis for seemingly minor triggers (“Who me? Crying? No, this is hayfever.”). 

I’ve always had a string of hobbies and fixations that are short-lived (“But of course, making mushroom hats! This is the career for me!”). And I pathologically avoid anything that disinterests me. A school friend once said all they needed to do was say ‘football’ if they wanted a private conversation in front of me, as I would instantly zone out.

In my pre-pandemic office job, I went for a pint with a colleague and her boyfriend, who was fresh from the psychiatrist, beaming with his shiny new ADHD diagnosis. He spent about an hour with me before asking, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about getting tested?’. 

Once I got home, I started googling the symptoms. It was like this huge jigsaw piece thunked down in the middle of my life story, and all the other little pieces suddenly made sense.

I couldn’t possibly have ADHD because…

Of course, I’ve known about ADHD since childhood, but it was always presented as something that young hyperactive boys have, who can’t sit still in classrooms. 

Sure, I can’t sit still in my chair at the cinema, and my left foot is always waggling, but everyone feels like that, right?

Adult ADHD in women and girls

ADHD in girls can often be missed by teachers at school, which is when the predominantly ‘hyperactive’ type gets noticed. This may be because they have higher rates of inattentive type ADHD. This means they’re more likely to be ‘daydreamers’ rather than class disruptors, which means it doesn’t get picked up by teachers as often. 

People with inattentive ADHD often get described as having their ‘head in the clouds’ (something people have said about me throughout my life) or a bit ‘spacey’ or ‘scatty’ but it’s not picked up on as a neurodevelopmental issue. 

I find the conversation around ADHD and gender fascinating. For young boys, there ‘must be something going on’ to explain their behaviour, but for young girls, it’s just often shrugged off as a personality trait.

Smashing stereotypes

As mentioned above, generally when people think of ADHD they think of forgetful people who just can’t get their act together. This is a misunderstanding. 

We are motivated and can focus plenty on things that interest us, but we struggle with doing things just because society says they are important. We seek novelty, interest and passion. Failing that, we often need a big dose of urgency to get important things done.

The lazy stereotypes are just the tip of the iceberg of the ADHD experience. The reality is also waves of burnout, emotional dysregulation, and so much sensitivity – to touch, smells, light and sounds, and of course rejection – that’s a real stinger! 

It’s fixations on hobbies and people. It’s people-pleasing as you’re terrified of rejection. It’s finding it challenging to make friends and relationships, as neurotypical people find you frustrating.

I used to think I didn’t fit the criteria for ADHD because I managed to get a degree, and generally get positive feedback in the workplace – it’s lucky my career is something I’m passionate about. But thinking back, I realised nobody else started their university essays at 9am for a 5pm deadline.

Emotional dysregulation – the highs and the lows

For me, the largest challenge is the lack of emotional regulation. My highs are glorious. But when I feel low I can barely get out of bed. Now I’m diagnosed, I can remind myself that my lows could just be under-stimulation – and a quick call from a friend could give me the dopamine boost I need to improve my day. 

I’m also kinder to myself, knowing that ADHD and mental health are non-linear journeys, and I will have ups and downs throughout life.

One thing I’ve always found mortifying about myself is how upset I can be when I lose games. Apparently, as a toddler, I knocked the snakes and ladders board over and threw a tantrum because I didn’t roll six to start. I wish I could say I’ve become better as an adult…

A few years ago I was badly losing at Scrabble with my partner in a pub. I was appalled about how competitive I was becoming. I was so upset, that hot tears of rage rolled down my face, and people were staring at me. I kept accusing my boyfriend of cheating. He wasn’t. 

I was bitter. I was livid with myself for becoming competitive, which made it worse. When two nearby men left, one said ‘Have a good game!’ at me and winked. I was humiliated! I couldn’t understand why I felt like that at the time, but now I know it’s because ADHDers can struggle with emotional regulation.

Diagnosis and ADHD in the workplace

I was excruciatingly nervous the night before my diagnosis. I had stress dreams that the psychiatrist would laugh me out of the Zoom call for wasting their time. That wasn’t the case. 

After 20 minutes of talking to me and reviewing my referral form, he gave me the diagnosis I was seeking. It was validating to confirm my suspicions, but also frustrating that I’ve lived in ignorance for so long. I try not to dwell on how different my life could be if I was diagnosed as a child.

I’m so grateful that I work for the McPin Foundation, as they are very understanding of neurodiversity. When I was diagnosed, they were kind and supportive. They helped me apply for  Access To Work – a government scheme that helps remove barriers to work for people with disabilities.

There’s still so much stigma and misunderstanding around ADHD, especially ADHD in women. I am grateful I can bring my full self to work, in a supportive and understanding environment. Not everybody has that. I know I’m lucky.

Why we need more research about ADHD

I can’t wait to find out more about ADHD. There’s still so much we don’t know about neurodiversity, and research is essential.  We need research so we can better understand how ADHDers can move through a neurotypical world with fewer bumps along the journey. 

Moreover, it’s vital that researchers listen to and learn from people with ADHD, as personal expertise makes research more effective and impactful.

I’m especially keen for researchers to find more answers about ADHD and autism. A few years ago people couldn’t be diagnosed with both, and now we know there is a substantial overlap. Will we eventually find out that they are two sides of the same coin? I want to know more.

My top tips for ADHDers and might-be ADHDers

  • Try to get diagnosed, if you want to. The NHS waiting lists are long, but there’s a scheme called the Right To Choose, where you can get referred by your GP for a private diagnosis paid for by the NHS. There’s still a waiting list, but it’s more like 6 months rather than 18 months to three years. Private assessments are expensive, and titration (finding the right medication dose) can be even more pricey. For me, getting diagnosed was validating, but it isn’t for everyone and that’s ok. Also, try not to worry too much before your appointment. If you really feel like you have ADHD it probably is that, but trauma can look like ADHD and so can autism, among other things. Either way, speaking to a psychiatrist will help you get closer to your truth.
  • Use online study buddy tools like FocusMate to help you do the tasks you need to do but struggle to get done. This platform has revolutionised how I work from home, but you can also use it for life admin, morning stretches or sorting through those dreaded ‘doom piles’ on your bedroom floor. If you know, you know.
  • Find your fellow neurodivergent folk. Have you ever met another ADHDer or autistic person and the two of you have just clicked? It’s challenging living in a world where people don’t really understand you, so finding other neurodivergent folks is essential for a happier life. Two of my best friends in the world are (undiagnosed) ADHD, and I’m so much happier having friends who really ‘get’ me.
  • Avoid games of scrabble, or think about steering clear of situations that bring out the worst in you. You don’t have to put yourself in situations that make you feel rubbish. For me, that’s avoiding competitive games and scary movies.
  • And finally, and most importantly, know that your mental health will go up and down, but be kind to yourself when you’re feeling low. When I’m at my lowest I often feel like I may never be happy again. But our moods can and will change, and better times will roll around sooner than you think.

Final thoughts

I hope this insight into my life has been informative, helpful, or at the very least entertaining. If a lot of what I have said resonates with you, I’d encourage you to seek a diagnosis. If my story sounds like a friend of yours or someone you care about, send this to them – with love and care.

So many of us struggle with not knowing why we are how we are. We might feel like we are broken; like something is wrong with us. Finding out that there is a reason for all of our ‘quirks’, and why we find adulting so hard, is liberating.

If you know you have ADHD and you want to make the world a better place for your fellow ‘Brains’, as Jessica McCabe from How to ADHD calls us, use your personal experience to shape research. You’re likely to be paid for your time, which is a winner,  but most importantly you’ll help so many other ADHDers.

McPin shares opportunities to get involved in research on its website, and the Mental Health Research Matters campaign, which is launching this month, can give you some more insight into why it’s such an important and worthwhile thing to do.

Find out more about the campaign at mentalhealthresearchmatters.org.uk, and sign up to our newsletter for all the latest from McPin

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