Finding Unexpected Answers to Lifelong Issues
On Friday, I finally made the time (and summoned up the courage) to see my primary care doctor and discuss a recent realization I had.
A while back I was on the phone with my sister-in-law, who happens to be a special education teacher. We’re very similar in a lot of ways, and she was the first person to propose a potential answer for things I’ve experienced my entire life but couldn’t quite quantify — ADHD.
Even though I have a minor in psychology, I wasn’t aware of the differences in how ADHD can present in adults — and more specifically, women. I’ve always thought of ADD/ADHD as a disorder that primarily affects boys and causes them to be hyperactive and to not pay attention.
I was wrong.
As it turns out, the things my sister-and-law and I talked about — an all-or-nothing tendency, periods of tremendous drive that alternate with complete absences of motivation, projects and interests that go unfinished and abandoned — are all characteristics of ADHD.
After having similar discussions with other women online who dealt with the same things, I felt both relieved and wrought.
On one hand, it was refreshing to realize that a lot of the things I’ve always thought of as personal or even character flaws could be neurobiologically-based: struggling with disorganization, impulsiveness, focus bordering on obsession (which can be useful but ultimately isn’t healthy), and procrastination, to name a few.
On the other I also recognized all of the issues it has caused me, and the knowledge that some of those could have been prevented left me feeling regretful at not making these connections sooner — hindsight and all.
One thing that likely hindered me in reaching this conclusion is that overachieving girls who are quiet and shy and do well in school often fall through the cracks because they don’t fit the popular perception of what ADHD looks like.
They don’t have a hard time remaining seated (at least not those who have the inattentive type, which is often characterized by hypoactivity); they don’t typically cause disturbances in the classroom or in work environments; they’re more likely to be labeled as “chatty” for their talkativeness rather than it being identified as evidence of an underlying issue.
Girls are more likely to internalize their ADHD symptoms rather than externalizing them like is more typical of boys, and as a result are also more likely to have co-occurring disorders like depression and/or anxiety — which can either be primary conditions or can stem from the ADHD-associated difficulties themselves.
In other words, for some depression leads to disorganization, while others (like me) are anxious or depressed because of their disorganization.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a hard time with organization.
It seems like things just collect around me through the day, and even when I make a conscious effort to get and stay organized, I either (a) become hyper-focused on it and end up spending my waking existence for weeks on end maintaining it, or (b) end up giving up on it entirely as disorder seems to form out of thin air and takes up residence on every surface in the house.
Meanwhile, I’m overwhelmed, either because I’m doing nothing but cleaning and organizing or because I cannot seem to gain — and keep — control of it.
Of course having kids adds another layer of complication, because every time I finish cleaning one space and move on to the next they’re following behind me, taking over the area I’ve just cleaned.
It feels like a never-ending battle, and a lot of times it’s hard to motivate myself to organize anything because I know my effort is ultimately futile.
I’ve also always been a procrastinator when it comes to things I don’t want to do or that seem like they’ll require more energy than I have to complete.
Even when it came to things like writing papers (though I’ve always enjoyed writing) or studying for tests (which I’ve never really had an issue with), I would wait until the last minute — I often felt like I did my best work when the clock counting down to a due date was running out of time.
The funny thing is, most of the time these tasks take up way more time and space in my head than it actually takes to complete them.
Similarly, no matter how hard I try to be on time for regularly-occurring things (like picking up my son from PreK), I always end up rolling in right on time or slightly after. It doesn’t seem to matter if I start getting ready for these things sooner, because I somehow end up using that additional time too — either by having to find my keys, shoes, or phone or by thinking I have time to do just one more thing before I leave.
I’ve read different explanations for lateness over the years — that people who are late are just overly optimistic and believe they can fit more tasks into a limited amount of time and that they are typically more intelligent/successful/live longer — but regardless of the greater implications for it, it has been a source of frustration for those around me.
These things have been particularly difficult in that regard — while I struggle to do things that seem to come relatively easy for most people and am overwhelmed as a result, those struggles and their results are often seen as laziness or as evidence of my not caring or trying.
It’s so hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share those challenges that despite putting a tremendous amount of effort into things you can still end up with little to nothing to show for it.
That is how I spend entire days — going from one thing to the next and feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing in the end.
For example, if I notice something in the floor that needs to be swept up, I might go to the cleaning closet to get the broom and dustpan. On the way there I might see something that needs to be put away, so I’ll pick it up and go put it where it belongs. While in that room, I might remember that I need to wash towels and put away the baskets of laundry that have been waiting to be folded, so I’ll take a load of towels to the washer. On the way back to my bedroom to fold the aforementioned laundry, I might remember that I needed to sweep the floor, or I might come across something else that needs to be done — it can go either way at any given point in time. Every task seems equally important in the moment and worthy of doing, and yet every task can also be relegated to be done later. This process repeats over and over and over, until the day is over and no one thing that I’ve started doing is really complete.
I’ve spent the entire day feeling overwhelmed, overloaded, and overworked, both because of everything I’ve spent the day doing and because of the lack of corresponding results.
You see, ADHD is not about a deficit in attention as much as it is a misdirection of attention.
It’s incredibly easy for me to hyper-focus on things I want to do in the moment (like writing) at the expense of everything else (like cooking supper), but when it comes to tasks I find boring I cannot get motivated to focus on getting them done.
In a similar manner, it’s incredibly hard to shift that focus once it’s centered on something, regardless of if it’s something I wanted to do or not. I hate being interrupted because it’s so hard to get back on track, especially when it comes to the things I didn’t want to be doing in the first place.
All of this adds up to an overall lack of achievement or underachievement that is very difficult for someone like me, as an incredibly achievement-oriented person, to deal with.
Particularly since having kids, I’ve been burdened by feeling like I’m capable of so much more than I’m doing but not knowing why I can’t focus on the tangible and attainable goals I have.
These challenges, according to Sari Solden, author of Women With Attention Deficit Disorder: Embrace Your Differences and Transform Your Life, along with “being non-assertive, engaging in negative self-talk ,and being highly reactive with quickly changing moods” can all leave women “locked in a state of depression.”
Guilt prevents them from enjoying life until their work is done. Since their work is never done, this also often prevents them from enjoying life. When they must fight to hold it all together and hide their struggle from others, they find themselves with an inner sense of chaos that makes them feel very vulnerable. Even when they feel “all right” for the moment, they never experience a sense of peace and relaxation because they have such a tenuous hold on organizational balance.
This reminds me of people who say they are “one paycheck away from being homeless.” They know that if something goes wrong with their car or if a child gets sick, they’ll lose their fragile grip on life. It’s the same sense of insecurity with the same anticipation of disaster that people with AD/HD often approach everyday life. Even when things are okay for the moment, they know it would take very little to upset their delicate balance.”
That is my entire adult life in a nutshell.
The guilt and shame that come from not having it all together (like it seems everyone else does) are constantly looming, and I didn’t realize how much it affects me until I was able to identify those feelings and the source of them.
While I don’t yet have a formal diagnosis, my doctor thought the things I’ve been experiencing were definitely consistent with the inattentive type of ADHD.
She put me on a low starter dose of a long-acting stimulant called Vyvanse, which helps people with ADHD by increasing the levels of dopamine (which helps decrease signals from the external stimuli that might be distracting to you) and norepinephrine (which helps increase the signal you’re trying to pay attention to), both of which are neurotransmitters essential for something called executive functioning (the mental skills necessary to set goals, prioritize tasks, organize projects, and manage our time) and that are dysfunctional in people with ADHD.
The goal is for the medication to remain effective through the day when I need to get things done and wear off by bedtime so I can sleep. Other than the possibility of an increased heartrate, a reduced appetite is fairly common with Vyvanse. Since I’ve struggled getting back to my healthier eating and exercise routines after having COVID (twice now), that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; however, I’ll have to keep an eye on my blood sugar levels since I also have type 1 diabetes and a brain devoid of necessary sugar cannot function either.
My first dose was this morning and I noticed a subtle difference a couple of hours after taking it. It was like the usual spinning, tangled web of thoughts and ideas that I’ve gotten so used to slowed just enough for me to actually process them instead of not being able to focus completely on any one thing at any given point in time.
My brain always feels like it’s ten steps ahead of whatever I’m doing in the moment, and today I was able to (mostly) remain in the present and work on the things I needed to get done.
I work as a CAD drawing tech for my parents’ business that manufactures tanks that go on firetrucks, and this morning and afternoon I actually got caught up on the drawing specs that have been in my inbox since last week while I was working on previous ones.
Usually when I start working on a drawing I get distracted by Facebook or my phone or random thoughts (like things I remember I need to Google or order on Amazon), but today I was better able to filter those things out and focus on my work. I still found myself drifting occasionally, but I could more easily shut out those thoughts or satisfy my curiosity and get back to what I was doing before. And on top of that, I found the energy and focus to write this.
While I don’t expect miracles from the medication, I’m cautiously optimistic that with it and being more aware of my symptoms and how to deal with them that there’s a possibility that I might just be able to become unstoppable…but in a good and healthy way.
Symptoms of ADHD in Women — Verywell Mind
With ADHD, it may feel like each day is spent responding to requests and limiting disasters rather than moving forward with your goals. You may feel crushing sadness and frustration that you haven’t met your potential. Other daily struggles may include:
- Paper clutter: It often feels like you’re drowning in paper. At work, home, in your car, and even in your purse. You have an uneasy feeling that unpaid bills and forgotten projects are hiding under all the paper. You don’t feel organized with money and are usually behind with bills.
- Overspending: You often overspend to compensate for other problems. For example, when you don’t have a clean outfit to wear for an office party, you buy a new one. Or when you forget someone’s birthday, you buy an expensive present to make up for it. Shopping trips make you feel better in the moment, but you feel regretful later when the credit card bill arrives.
- Disorganization: You may spend a lot of time, money, and research on products to help you be more organized, but then you don’t use them. You may feel embarrassed to have guests visit your home because it’s so cluttered and disorganized.
- Indecision: Grocery stores overwhelm you, and you may find it hard to make decisions about what to buy. You often forget a key ingredient for a meal even though you take longer in the store than most people do.
Relaxing is often difficult for people with ADHD. Little things can push you over the top and you may become emotional.
Many women are relieved to learn that behaviors they have been struggling with for as long as they can remember are because of ADHD.
Other conditions can also be present along with ADHD. When you have more than one condition, they are called comorbid conditions or coexisting conditions. Here are some conditions that women often have in addition to their ADHD:1
- Substance use disorders, such as addiction to alcohol or drugs
- Anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder (SAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia
- Mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder
Children and adults who are inattentive have difficulty staying focused and attending to tasks that they perceive as mundane. Because of this, they may procrastinate doing work that requires a great deal of mental energy. Other symptoms of inattention include:
- Easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds
- Shift from one activity to another and get bored easily
- Appear forgetful and even spacey or confused
- Makes careless mistakes
- Struggles to stay on task and pay attention
- Difficulty following instructions, finishing projects, and staying on-task
- Trouble organizing tasks.
- Loses belongings frequently
Other ADHD Symptoms
In addition to the official symptoms, there are additional ADHD symptoms that many children and adults experience. While these symptoms are not taken into account during the diagnosis process, they frequently affect the quality of people’s lives.
- Tasks, homework, a project at work, or a household chore seem to take them longer than other people. While they have a low tolerance for boredom, they may hyper-focus on tasks that interest them, to the detriment of essential activities like sleep and social interaction.
- They are often accused of not trying or not appearing to care. They seem to underachieve in areas of life where they have a lot of potential and talent, such as academics, their profession, athletics, or managing finances.
- They can be very forgetful of things ranging from important people’s birthdays, taking out the trash, or handing in homework (even when it has been completed).
- They face financial problems, even if they earn an above-average wage. Impulsive spending and forgetting to pay bills can cause problems.
- They love caffeine. It might be a standing joke among friends how much coffee or energy drinks they consume.
- They have significant problems with sleep. Getting to sleep, staying asleep, and waking up on time does not happen quickly.
- They do not trust themselves to do what they say they will. They worry about many things, including things they might have forgotten to do. Because of this, they often have low self-esteem after years of not meeting their own and other people’s expectations.
When people with ADHD realize that these behaviors are connected with ADHD, they can experience a sense of relief or have ‘aha’ moments. It helps explain why they are the way they are and why they feel different from others.