Understanding Myself with ADHD

I walked into my school’s student health center on a Thursday afternoon with sweaty fingers wrapped around my insurance card, and my heart racing. I gave my name to the receptionist and sat in the waiting room, surrounded by students sniffling and coughing thinking, "I shouldn’t be here, I’m not sick." Before I settled into my chair, I heard my name called by a nurse in blue and stood up. 

My first semester of college, similar to the experience of many others, was a complete whirlwind. My parents saying goodbye, new classes, new people, meeting friends, parties and events, and many other facets of this new college experience. As I began to acclimate to my new environment and the new expectations that came with being a college student, I quickly found an increasing difficulty in managing my time and my relationships with my peers, while also keeping up with my schoolwork and extracurriculars. I felt lazy when I couldn’t focus on my homework, I felt incompetent when I couldn’t keep up in my introductory-level classes, and I felt plain stupid when I wasn’t keeping my focus and succeeding in all aspects of my college life.

I had always had a fairly difficult time with focus and organization. If my mom told me to unload the dishwasher at 9 a.m., I forgot by 2 p.m., if my teacher mentioned a quiz next class, I would forget by the end of the class period, if I didn’t write it down, put it in my calendar, and color-code it, I would forget it. But in high school and beforehand, I had always managed my stress and social experiences. I procrastinated assignments until I felt so incredibly stressed out that I could write an 8-page paper in 2 hours, I took good-enough notes in class to pass the quiz I had forgotten about, I forgot plans and meetings and was lucky enough to always be surrounded by people to constantly remind me. And I floated through high school, focusing for brief seconds on all the material being stuffed into my brain, trying to maintain my relationships with friends and teachers and graduate on time.

But the one thing I kept hearing over and over again when I struggled to keep up with my type-A peers was that I was lazy, addicted to my phone, or that I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I heard these things from my mom, my dad, my teachers, my advisors, and my closest friends. I internalized all these ideas and began to think of myself in this way and in the harshest manner possible. My high school experience was a continual balancing act of hating myself for not being able to focus and trying to remember everything I needed to keep up. I looked to college as my opportunity, my fresh start, to finally get my life together and be an organized and put-together adult. But that was not what happened. What I formerly thought of as my “bad habits” were debilitating obstacles in completing my schoolwork. When I wasn’t doing well in school and involved in my extracurriculars, I began to spiral and think of myself in the same negative way I had for years all over again. And I didn’t have the resources (or a good enough understanding of myself) to be able to explain that my brain felt like it had 50 tabs open all at once, and I couldn’t stay on one page long enough, ever.

I had previously gone to a psychiatrist and after years of diagnoses that did not align with how I felt inside and medication that did not work, I stopped treatment. However, I was still struggling with the same issues. When I finally told my mom my fears of issues resurfacing, she was very supportive in my efforts to reach out for help. Upon making an appointment with a psychiatrist through my college, I went to my first appointment, anxious and doubtful that this doctor would be able to finally explain how I felt. Throughout the appointment, the psychiatrist asked me seemingly random and disjointed questions. “Are you forgetful? Were you a forgetful child?” “Have you struggled with depression and a negative self-image?” “Do seemingly easy and menial, organized tasks, like packing or writing a paper, seem daunting?” While I didn’t understand the nature of these questions, it felt amazing to finally have someone ask me questions where I could whole-heartedly say yes, yes, that is exactly how I feel. 

I was diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) before the appointment ended, and began treatment the next day.

But then I wondered how nobody, including myself, had ever noticed this beforehand. How had I gone through all of middle and high school and slipped through the cracks, how had none of my teachers or peers noticed the struggle I felt was so incredibly debilitating that I hated myself for it? How had I ever managed before getting treatment?

Apparently, this issue is very common for women and girls diagnosed with ADHD. In most cases, children with ADHD are noticed by a teacher or parent and the diagnosis comes afterward. However, the children being noticed as potentially having ADHD are usually boys, because symptoms of ADHD present themselves differently in boys than in girls. Boys are typically more energetic and openly disorganized and scattered, where as young girls tend to internalize their feelings of being disorganized and scattered and develop a negative self-image because of this. According to the CDC, 9.5% of children are diagnosed with ADHD, but only 5.6% of girls are diagnosed, in contrast to 13.3% of boys. More women go undiagnosed than men who have the same disorder, despite the fact that symptoms of ADHD for men decrease as they get older, but symptoms for women only increase with age. 

Despite now having a deeper understanding of my diagnosis and being treated, my disorder still holds me back at times. I still take on more responsibility and do more extracurriculars than I can focus on, even with medication. I still forget to make my bed or do laundry for a couple weeks at a time. I still forget homework assignments on occasion. I still am loud and scattered in conversations. But most of all, I’m still me. I’m just a me who can finally focus on some of the things I want to do now.