“My ADHD Was Misdiagnosed for Decades:” Stories of Misread Symptoms, Advocacy & Epiphany
ADHD misdiagnosis stories are all too common. Particularly among adults, symptoms like rejection sensitivity, poor focus, and stress are diagnosed as depression, anxiety, and even bipolar disorder. Even when those comorbidities exist, they are rarely the full picture. Hear from adults who persisted for years to pursue an accurate ADHD diagnosis.
One in five mental-health patients likely has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). Still, most doctors and mental health professionals receive little, if any, training in ADHD and how to recognize its symptoms in girls, in older patients, and alongside comorbid conditions. ADHD symptoms do often resemble and overlap with those of other conditions like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, leading to misdiagnosis but also incomplete diagnosis when unrecognized comorbidities exist.
ADDitude recently asked readers to share their ADHD misdiagnosis stories, and what motivated them to keep pursuing a proper evaluation and diagnosis. For some, proper help came only after their child was diagnosed with ADHD, they changed health care professionals, or they discussed their symptoms with other adults with ADHD. Read their misdiagnosis stories and share your experience in the Comments section below.
ADHD Misdiagnosis Stories
“After having postpartum depression for eight months, I was prescribed medications, yet I was still having problems staying organized with work and the new responsibilities of being a mother. It took me days to do basic things at home and work. I was always suspicions that I had ADHD, though I never had a formal diagnosis. Watching people on TikTok talk about their ADHD struggles gave me the knowledge and motivation to talk to my providers about the real issues I was having.” – Anonymous
“I always blamed my weak focus, procrastination, and lack of follow-through on my depression. When those issues didn’t resolve as the depression lifted, I figured they were due to my defective character. It wasn’t until six months ago, when a friend told me about her ADHD diagnosis, that I learned how ADHD presents differently in women and girls. After a psychiatric consultation, I have a diagnosis, medication, and am doing a course on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I am 54 years old. I have many years of dysfunctional copying strategies to unlearn and replace.” – Katie
“I graduated college and floundered at my first white-collar job until HR hosted a workshop on multitasking. I learned the Eisenhower decision-making matrix and the GTD system, which I discovered were helpful tools for those with ADHD. The more I researched, the more I found that ADHD-specific tools helped me thrive at work. It took another 15 years after that, and a lot of relationship strife around my inability to maintain home organizational systems, to seek out a diagnosis. By that point, I had a lot of the functional and organizational tools, but I’m still working on the emotional skills to unlearn the shame and frustration (which looks like depression), the worry about forgetting something (which looks like anxiety), and management of high energy and emotions (which looks like bipolar.)” – Katherine
“I wouldn’t call it a misdiagnosis so much as uneducated ignorance. When my parents asked for an ADHD test when I was in Grade 4, I was given an IQ test instead and was told I’m ‘too smart’ for ADHD. I was eventually diagnosed with depression. What made me keep pressing for an ADHD diagnosis is my son. I had given up on myself and resigned to live my life as it was, but I noticed a lot of the same behaviors in him that I saw in me at that age. I came across a post from ADDitude about ADHD in kids, which led me to seek a proper diagnosis for myself. It has changed my life.” – Andrew
“I felt like I kept treating the symptoms, but the underlying cause of my depression and anxiety was not getting better. I ended up suicidal and finally received an ADHD diagnosis. As soon as my medication was adjusted, I had no more depression or overwhelming anxiety. I attended an ADHD skills group with my psychiatrist; it was really helpful to be given daily coping strategies and to know that I was not alone.” – Glenda
“My anxiety got much worse after I had kids. What had been manageable ‘stress’ became perseveration, hypervigilance, and never feeling like I was good enough. Doctors prescribed antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, and mindfulness, but nothing ever worked. When my daughter was diagnosed and treated for ADD and anxiety, the research I was doing for her led me to think maybe ADD was my problem, too, but no one believed me. More than one clinician outright accused me of drug seeking (‘of course speed makes you feel productive – it’s speed!’) Finally, I got a referral via my daughter’s doctor. Within an hour of taking Adderall, the years of anxiety and stress evaporated. I wrote to every single one of those doctors and told them about my actual diagnosis in the hope that they won’t be so dismissive to the next adult that walks in the door.” – Anonymous
“Both of my children got diagnosed with ADHD and, during that journey, a doctor asked if I also had it. I argued against it (I was in my late 40s, had earned a degree, and was in law school!). But learning about inattentive ADHD and realizing the ways I’d learned to compensate for my issues made me seek a diagnosis at age 52. The first doctor saw my depression and anxiety diagnoses and, after 10 minutes, told me I ‘could never have made it through undergrad and two years of law school’ with ADHD. A few months later I asked my PCP for another referral. That doctor had me fill out a questionnaire before our appointment, spent more than two hours with me, then asked questions about my childhood and how I had managed as a single mother while in school, etc. She diagnosed me with ADHD, prescribed medication, and I finally understood myself better.” – Christina
“Regardless of the prescriptions and counseling, I just never felt my diagnosis made sense. I knew I had anxiety and depression symptoms, but I never felt that they were the main problem. As a 28-year-old woman, I never would have guessed it was ADHD because of my slim understanding of the condition. Thankfully, new mental health providers were able to help me connect the dots.” – Andrea
“As a child, I didn’t think or function like others and this contributed to anxiety and social problems. I was an extremely high achiever academically — until I hit college and couldn’t maintain any sense of order. This was when I began being labeled with depression, bipolar, anxiety, etc. 15 years later, someone mentioned that I seemed ‘the ADHD type’ and it all fell into place. Here’s hoping an ADHD diagnosis, therapy, and/or medication can finally help me regain some of my early self-confidence, from before I lost the helpful external structures and pre-packaged executive functioning strategies of high school.” – Anonymous
“When I was finally diagnosed with ADHD, the psychiatrist said to me ‘Wow, how did I miss this before?’ I previously saw him for postpartum depression, and he never asked questions related to ADHD, like why I was overwhelmed and struggling to cope. They just assumed I was an anxious 30-year-old woman and a stressed new mom.” – Anonymous
“Girls and women helped me identify my own ADHD and my child’s. Unfortunately, it has been much more difficult to find competent ADHD practitioners who also understand the differences in treating female patients who do not present with the expected hyperactivity. I still have insomnia and do not take medication because stimulants made all of my symptoms worse. It’s terribly frustrating to understand a problem yet lack the tools to manage it because there is such a lack of understanding regarding how executive dysfunction manifests in women.” – Anonymous
ADHD Misdiagnosis: Next Steps
- Read: Was ADHD to Blame All Along?
- Download: Is It ADHD or a Misdiagnosis?
- Read: “My Misdiagnosis Nightmare Came True”
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Updated on February 24, 2021