Trigger warning: Mention of severe depression and suicidal thoughts. Please skip this one if you need to.
And if you are dealing with severe depression or thoughts of suicide, please, please get help right away. Head to the ER. Call 911. Please.
My favorite way to describe my ADHD to people is comparing my brain to the mouse in Laura Numeroff’s “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” a book in which a cartoon mouse starts out by requesting a cookie, and ends up giving himself a haircut and having a child make him a bed he doesn’t even sleep in and demanding office supplies and eventually coming around to ask for another cookie.
They were my some of my daughter’s favorites when she was younger …
And I have to wonder now if she was intuitively drawn to the characters because last year we found out we both have ADHD.
ADHD in Girls and Women – Let’s do this.
I want to tell you a little bit about how it feels to have ADHD as a 46-year-old lady, because that’s the only perspective I truly have.
But, I also just want to share a few things before we jump in, because statistically, girls and women are more likely to go undiagnosed and/or be misdiagnosed when it comes to ADHD.
We often wait years or decades to learn that we aren’t just BAD AT LIFE.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Often, the way ADHD presents in girls is NOTHING like the bouncy little boy we knew in 2nd grade, who was always getting in trouble and couldn’t sit still
- Therefore, we aren’t seen as a “behavior problem,” so everybody thinks we are “focused and good,” because we hold still, although we may be daydreaming all the time, or thinking about something entirely different than whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing or learning.
- This could be because of that troublesome H in ADHD, which stands for hyperactivity. I break down here the long, messy history of trying to name ADHD and classify it, and why you don’t have to be hyperactive AT ALL to have ADHD.
- In fact of the 3 flavors, it’s more common for girls to have Inattentive ADHD.
- Girls and women are also often diagnosed with anxiety/depression while their ADHD gets missed (more on that below)
- Girls seem to be better as something called “masking,” probably due to social conditioning. In essence, the theory is that ladies are better at pretending their brains aren’t full of fireworks.
- As girls age, they seem to be better at developing “coping strategies,” to keep them on track. Think of the lists and binders, and baskets and color-coding and all the other stuff that Pinterest and Instagram tends to feed ladies.
- Finally – during perimenopause, ADHD symptoms get turned up, which is why I thought maybe I had something really wrong with my brain.
Now – of course these are generalizations, and don’t even get me started on how complicated this all is, especially when it comes to gender …
Definitely do your own research and talk to a doctor.
I am not a doctor.
I’m just a lady, and here is my ADHD story:
If You Have ADHD and Want to Shower
So here’s what I mean about my brain being like an adorable, distractible cartoon rodent:
If I’m going to take a shower, I’m going to need a towel.
So I open the towel drawer in the linen cabinet, and realize we don’t have a lot of towels left.
So I go upstairs to collect towels from the upstairs bathroom, and notice the hall really needs to be swept.
On the way down the stairs, I Swiffer those too, and notice there is a spot on the wall.
So I put the Swiffer down at the base of the stairs (surprisingly not its home, but it will potentially stay right there for days or weeks), and go grab a Magic Eraser.
(I don’t know of a “natural option,” for Magic Erasers, although I have heard to just buy these in bulk to save money. But if someone figures out how to make a Magic Eraser type product out of recycled wool sweaters, I’ll be first in line to try them.)*
OK, So Now I’m Ambush Cleaning
After thinking about wool sweaters and cleaning the spot, it occurs to me that I have this handy device in my little paw, so I might as well look all over the place for little spots on walls.
I go back up the stairs and into my bedroom, my husband’s office, my daughter’s room, and … the bathroom!
Ack! The bathroom!
So I collect towels, take them downstairs and put them in the wash immediately so I don’t forget AGAIN.
Now I can’t take a shower because 1926 plumbing means I could be scalded to death unexpectedly if two “water things” run simultaneously.
And so I pause in the laundry room, temporarily paralyzed.
(This type of ADHD paralysis can last a while, especially if you are sitting on a couch or curled up in bed. But, IT’S A REAL THING, and it’s not just you, OK?)
Stuck, Stuck, Stuck, Squirrel!
There’s always a 50/50 shot that I will either walk into a room and just stand there wondering what I was going to do, OR, I’ll be immediately distracted by something neither urgent nor important, but that feels at the moment vital to keeping the Earth orbiting the sun.
So standing in my laundry room, my eyes land upon Bag Land.
We used to not get plastic bags at stores, but then Covid, and now sometimes we get plastic bags.*
But that’s OK! Because our neighbor uses plastic bags because he walks his adorable dog Maggie 26 times per day. He LOVES when we bring him poo-poo bags.
And so, I shove all the bags inside a bag, and head over to his house, where I put the bags and a dog treat on his porch, and then run away because I am loving and kind, but not good at small talk and this is called “knowing who you are.”
Now I’m Buying Stuff?
The fresh air and change of scenery has refreshed my brain, and I remember that I want to shower!
So I decide to get my toiletries ready for as soon as the washer is done.
I also set an alarm for 30 minutes on my phone that says “SHOWER!” and then add this emoji: 🛀 because having a brain like mine is FUN!
(And annoying and was slowly ruining my life until I got diagnosed, but now – 🚿! Wahoo. I have new tools like setting 36 alarms a day! More soon on that.)
A bunch of you said you liked my notecards and stamp on Instagram, so I wanted to let you know that you can get the notecards here, and the stamp here, and then pens are just Papermates, and the chipmunk stickers were a gift. (Also, I like a gray stamp pad, especially first thing in the morning.)
ADHD Organization Schmorganization
As I am collecting my toiletries, I am reminded for the 907th time that I need a shower caddy that is just for my stuff.
And that means I need to make it a habit** to return my toiletries to the shower caddy after I use them EVERY TIME, or else it becomes a Wild West situation with my caring family just guessing where things go.
Do I put Washi tape on everything to identify it as mine, I stop and ask myself? Is Washi tape waterproof? Do I put it on my shampoo, conditioner, body wash … Crap, I need to order body wash. And a caddy. And maybe Washi tape … after thoroughly researching which brand is most water-resistant.
Now I’m Off and Running – I Can Totally Fix This!
Except I am not.
I am off and sitting, forgetting why I picked up my phone, and maybe trying to make a list, or maybe just mentally chastising myself for being:
- cranky + stanky (because I still haven’t showered)
- bad at being a person
The ADHD Feels
For me, the worst part of undiagnosed ADHD wasn’t the distractibility.
Although it was inconvenient, I worked for about 40 years to try to create systems and adhere to them and adapt them, and crack the forking code.
BUT that was nothing compared to how undiagnosed ADHD made me feel.
You Just Need a System (i.e. Bite me, Linda)
Systems aren’t easy to create. They take time and trial and error, and a lot of the advice out there for “creating a perfect morning routine,” is not meant for someone with bonkers ADHD.
That was my formal diagnosis based on scientific testing – Bonkers/Severe.
And again, peri-menopause heightens ADHD symptoms!
**So here’s a fun little habit truth nugget: When you tell someone with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD to “just make something a habit,” you are most likely just reinforcing their concerns and fears that their problem is lack of willpower, disorganization, zero motivation, and just general suckage.
How Am I This Tired?
All the creating systems and trying to adhere to systems and trying to find my keys and trying to homeschool my kids and have a schedule meant I was tired all the time.
I know a lot of us are tired for a lot of reasons. This isn’t my submission for the Tired Olympics.
I’m just saying, ADHD brains are working hard.
In my case, my ADHD brain was working ESPECIALLY HARD when it looked like I was “doing nothing.”
You are NOT Lazy
After three of us here were diagnosed and I started to learn more about ADHD, I kept saying that ADHD is like a duck floating peacefully on the water (what people see), but underneath, their little legs are pumping like a Peloton coach.
Just because people can’t see an ADHD brain working hard, doesn’t mean it isn’t.
And just because you don’t see a person with ADHD “trying,” doesn’t mean they aren’t.
Every single time I take a shower, I am NEWLY amazed that it really isn’t something you need to set aside a half-day for.
I also have this cute thing where if someone says a date, like Oct. 14, my brain can’t figure out if that is a long way away, or what day it might be when it arrives no matter how long I try to think it out. It’s kind of like if you said to me, “this project is due when Venus aligns with Saturn.”
This could be time blindness, a quirk or both.
But DON’T WORRY!
I figured this one out a long time ago.
Are you ready for the secret? You just let anxiety drive your mental car ALL the time.
Anxiety will just assume you are already late, and that on the way to your appointment you will get a flat tire, run into a train with 800 cars, and while waiting, your gas light will pop on.
Anxiety won’t let you forget, especially if you turn it up high enough.
(I’m not serious, of course. This is an example of not coping well.)
So Yeah. Anxiety.
I resisted anxiety and depression meds for a long time, but during a few really bad periods of depression, I would take meds with the goal of getting off of them as soon as possible.
Then at 35, I started regularly taking medication for my anxiety, and it was life-changing.
What I’ve learned during the past year is that women and girls with ADHD are often diagnosed with anxiety, depression or both, given medication and maybe referred to a therapist.
Meanwhile what they are actually dealing with is :
- a combo platter of anxiety/depression and ADHD
- or just undiagnosed ADHD
- or anxiety and depression because they have undiagnosed ADHD and they can’t figure out why everything feels so damn hard, even though they take meds and do what they are told
Feelings of failure
Which leads to … feeling like a failure.
One of the things that I talked to my therapist about the most for YEARS was feeling like I was letting everyone down, all the time.
No matter how hard I worked; no matter how many lists I made; no matter what time I got up in the morning, I felt like I was letting everyone down and failing at pretty much everything.
This could lead to/rope itself in with actual clinical depression that one May, tried to murder me.
I’m not making a joke about suicide.
I’m trying to explain that if you have never experienced severe depression, it isn’t like you are making a choice – it’s bigger than that and it’s in your brain …
It’s as real as anything, and Dear God, if you ever find yourself dealing with severe depression, please, please get help right away. Call 911 or head to the ER.
‘Just Quit Caffeine’
There really isn’t a way to to transition after that, but believe it or not, caffeine – or rather lack of caffeine – was seriously detrimental to my system and contributed to depressive feelings.
But again, as someone who was diagnosed with anxiety, I tried going off caffeine at least a dozen times to see if I could finally feel better!
And something weird would always happen.
I would feel … worse.
I would lose any motivation at all.
Like I would feel stuck – glued down – trapped.
When I went to see a doctor to find out if I had ADHD or if something else cognitive was brewing because I could no longer remember how my house keys worked, one of the things she asked was how I felt when I gave up caffeine.
I wanted to cry.
Not this again.
“I feel like I can’t function,” I said, “please don’t tell me I have to give up caffeine.”
She told me then that she wanted me to include moderate/healthy levels of caffeine in my diet except for on the day of my ADHD testing.
Then she told me to bring caffeine with me for right after the test, and then I did cry because I felt like maybe we were getting somewhere.
I’m Just The Worst
All of this stuff – these emotions – these worries …
All of the trying and feeling like I was failing and being exhausted, it all turned into GUILT.
*You may have noticed above that I mention occasionally using Magic Erasers and plastic bags, and I sound like I’m talking about single-handedly sinking an oil tanker and cutting down all the forests.
I am a naturally stressed, worried, concerned person who tends to feel A LOT.
And I’m really good at taking in information, which means I read an article years ago about an island of plastic garbage in the ocean and for a long time, I would choose to carry all my produce home under my armpits if I had to rather than use a plastic bag.
(This could also be an example of black and white thinking – another common ADHD symptom).
How To Keep House While Drowning
So I need to say right now, that this book rescued me from the cycle of
trying ➡️ failing ➡️ feeling guilty ➡️ feeling bad at life ➡️ feeling like I just needed to try harder … and, repeat … ➡️
If I met KC today, I would ugly cry so hard, you guys.
And don’t be confused by the book’s name.
This book is not just about cleaning. It’s about caring for our bodies and minds and souls and yes, our space.
It’s about finally learning that not being good at “care tasks,” like washing the dishes or brushing your teeth, is not a reflection of your worth as a human.
Life is a lie
Because, finally, living with undiagnosed ADHD, especially as a woman or girl, is about faking it A LOT.
This is technically called “masking,” and is far more common in the female population, which often means it takes SO MUCH LONGER to get diagnosed with ADHD.
Masking is a bit like wearing a mask – because especially if you are my age, you have been told to smile through everything from active labor to root canals to ongoing sexual harassment at work.
But masking doesn’t just feel like having to put on a mask for the world …
Taking Off the Mask Feels Terrifying
Honestly, it feels like at any moment, someone could pull off the mask Scooby-style and you will be revealed as a complete disaster of a human. And so …
- It feels like thinking about what everyone else is thinking
- It feels like trying to read facial cues and tone of voice and if this 🙂 means “Good job!” or “You’re getting fired tomorrow.”
- It feels like trying to appear organized and working so hard at it, that by 4 p.m., you’re crying while making ANOTHER DAMN SPREADSHEET
- It feels like getting straight As in school, but not learning anything or getting Ds and not knowing why
- It feels like getting a raise, but still shaking every time you sit down at your desk
- It feels like wondering if your partner hates you for not taking out the trash
- It feels like pretending to be interested when someone is talking, meanwhile your your brain can’t stop thinking about something else and making lists
- It feels like making lists. So many lists.
- It feels like wanting someone to SEE you, and yet being terrified of what would happen if anyone knew just how scattered you feel all the time
- It feels like getting everywhere early to prove yourself
- It feels like giving your son tampons for his camping trip because there are people who menstruate going on the trip, and you want to be sure you thought of EVERYTHING.
- It feels like sleep is just horizontal processing in the dark
- It feels like you can’t explain yourself but you always need to
- It feels like justifying everything
- It feels fake
- It feels phoney
- It feels like most people who think they know you don’t know you at all
- And on the very worst days, it feels like no one gives a shit, because if they did, they would HELP.
But no one is going to help, because you are the capable one. You are the glue and the staples, baby.
You are reliable, dependable.
You are loyal to a fault.
You are funny.
You say you’re fine.
You say it to other people, and you say it to yourself.
You know that your can hard-work your way through anything. The world has taught you that.
It has taught you exactly how to be.
And that’s why it can take 45 years to learn that it never had to be this hard.
It’s Fine. No Really.
OK. That was sort of a bummer.
But it’s also real, and I’ve been holding all this in for a year/46 years.
So I’m going to say this so you don’t feel like you have to call my mom or something:
Getting diagnosed has helped me a lot. Getting medication has helped me a lot.
But you know what’s helped the very most?
Knowing that I’m not just a lazy, broken fuck-up.
I’m actually pretty amazing.
I bet you are too, but you might need some support and resources.
We’ll talk about that soon.