Women with ADHD: A whole different animal entirely


I had not intended to need a separate post to address being an adult woman with ADHD, but as it turns out – I do. Being an adult woman with ADHD is a whole different animal entirely. Not an animal that is better or worse, mind you – just different.

In January, the CDC released a report stating that between 2003 and 2013  prescriptions for stimulant medication to treat ADHD increased 560% for women between the ages of 30 to 34. In women ages 20 to 29 the increase was more like 700%. As recently as 2016, just 1% of ADHD research was focused on girls. In fact, almost all the research has been exclusively conducted on elementary aged white boys. Why are boys, and white boys at that, being diagnosed more frequently than all other populations? Because they are the stereotypical population, many parents and doctors don’t even consider this diagnosis for the others. Studies, although few, seem to tell us that the symptoms for females may present differently. Because we are not as likely to be hyperactive as boys, many girls who later in life are diagnosed with ADHD recall being referred to as “daydreaming” or “uninterested in what was going on in the classroom.” We study just as hard or harder than everyone else, but it is likely that we will have worse grades. This leads teachers to describe us as “not living up to potential” if we would just “try harder” then we would be able to do better in school. It is also thought that as we grow in to teens and young adults, we learn to do a better job of hiding our symptoms by learning to compensate in different ways.

When I was a college freshman, my poor roommate – the avid Duran Duran fan, learned to put up with a pretty constant stream of Metallica while I was studying. Thankfully, she was also a darn nice person and very adaptable. Even she came to describe it as good study music, because “it gave your ears something to do but you didn’t really have to LISTEN to it.” The other thing I used to compensate was to learn some hard core study tricks. Did you know that if you make sure to really read the first and last sentence of a paragraph, you can get the gist of the information? I read very quickly because of this coping strategy, but I often miss out on the details. When the details matter, I have to read the material at least twice. Once to get the gist, and then again to fill in the blanks. Sometimes I have to read a paragraph many times before I can really retain the information. In between that first and last sentence, my eyes may be readling, and on the surface my brain is as well. In the background though, I’m thinking about 50 different things, making connections between the words on the page and something that happened in my life 7 years ago, which makes another connection, then another, and then I end up with something like, “What to I want to eat today?” So I read it again.

The research community is finding that many women are diagnosed only after their children are. They recognize the symptoms in themselves and a light bulb turns on. Suddenly everything make so much more sense! The unfortunate reality is that until a diagnosis is made, many women feel so bad about themselves that they develop what are called comorbid conditions. That means that not only is she suffering the symptoms of her ADHD, she feels so bad about herself because she is disorganized, overwhelmed, and unable to “get it together” that she will often also suffer from anxiety or depression, or a myriad of other different conditions that will have to be treated at the same time. Without a great doctor with a good understanding of how ADHD can manifest in women, the conditions all together are very difficult to treat. It may take months to find an antidepressant that she responds to, and then months to find an ADHD medication that helps alleviate her more frustrating symptoms. Some women can manage symptoms with caffeine, but most need an outside medication.

For me it seems to have to be a prescription stimulant medication. At the moment, we are trying what is essentially Dexedrine. (They don’t call it that anymore.) My family also has a history of substance abuse and addiction, so I have to pay close attention to when and why I use it. Remember when they used to put Dexedrine in diet pills? Yeah, it doesn’t work that way for me. I only use it when my symptoms have me all discombobulated because it makes me REALLY REALLY hungry, and sometimes even a little sleepy. If I can get past the sleepy part, then I find that I actually function very well!

This becomes important in the context of what I do because what I found out was this: I’m not broken. I’m not a space-cadet. I’m not a ding-bat. I simply have so much going on in my brain at any given time that if I set my phone down somewhere on the way to do something else, I can plan to spend 5 minutes trying to find it again! I have started to develop strategies that I use to make sure that my household runs like it should and everyone gets where they are supposed to be. You can be sure that my strategies are not the same ones that a neurotypical mom of two would use. Writing something down MIGHT work, but I have reminders on my phone that ping me as much as 24 hours in advance so I can make adjustments if I have forgotten something.

If you are an adult with ADHD, and you are struggling, please – let me help you come up with your own strategies. I’m not broken! And neither are you!

Until next time, take care of yourself. Really.


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