“I Could Have Been Myself for So Much Longer.”
“Shame caused me to write off my symptoms for many years. The realities of being a Black woman also held back my diagnosis, as did grappling with strongly ingrained attitudes about medication and mental health. While I can still be tough on myself, my diagnosis has ultimately led me down a path of liberation and self-acceptance.”
I was diagnosed with ADD late in life. At 34 years old, my diagnosis came as I was approaching my last year of graduate school, working full-time as an elementary school teacher, and raising my son, who was 7 years old at the time. Four years have passed since that life-altering moment — a point when I felt like I was losing it and couldn’t do it anymore.
Before my diagnosis, I spent my whole life thinking I was simply a bad person. I couldn’t understand why time management was so elusive to me, why I’d get so easily distracted, and why I couldn’t keep my things in order. My forgetfulness had also cost me true connections over the years. Anxiety about all of the above only made things worse – I worked hard to come off as “normal,” but constantly feared that I would be called out by somebody who clearly saw me for what I thought I was: a failure who was stumbling her way through life.
Shame caused me to write off my symptoms for many years. The realities of being a Black woman also held back my diagnosis, as did grappling with strongly ingrained attitudes about medication and mental health. While I can still be tough on myself, my diagnosis has ultimately led me down a path of liberation and self-acceptance.
Finding Yourself: A Lifetime of ADD Symptoms
I first noticed there was something different about me in grade school. I was always “good” in school, but I preferred to talk or help my classmates rather than do my own work. I was a likable kid, so teachers weren’t really bothered by it. Homework was also an issue, as was studying and planning. I might put something in my planner, but I’d never remember to look back at it.
I was often called a social butterfly growing up, but that changed drastically when I got to college. First came the culture shock – I was attending a predominantly white institution with groups of people with whom I had never interacted before. My social insecurities and anxieties also suddenly came forth, which made friendships extremely difficult. I would get nervous around people and worry that I’d overshare, or not say enough, or interrupt. I doubted my ability to carry a conversation. I was also prone to forgetting important details about friends, like their birthdays.
Like most college students, I also struggled with time management. Ironically, I tried Adderall – the medication my doctor would prescribe me many years later – when I needed to wrap up one particular assignment. I didn’t think too much about its effects on me, even though I stayed up for two days and accomplished three weeks’ worth of assignments in that time. I finished my project but didn’t get to present it in time – I crashed and slept right through the deadline.
My symptoms followed me into my first teaching job out of college. I was always running late to work and would feel miserable and anxious about it for the rest of the workday. My students’ paperwork would also pile up on my desk, prompting embarrassing comments from colleagues and students about how much of a mess my classroom was. Anxiety about others noting my flaws made it difficult to build professional relationships in this environment, too.
Still, even though I constantly felt like a failure, it seemed like no one around me really saw me for that. “But you’re so put together!” I’d hear. If only they knew the excruciating effort it took for me to appear normal.
Finding Yourself: ADHD in Girls
I went back to school to get my Masters in education, where I also received some of my first lessons about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). By that point in my teaching career, I had already seen many boys with ADHD, but never recognized the symptoms in any girls. I asked my professors about the disparities, but they only noted that there wasn’t much research out there on ADHD in girls. This stirred something in me – I just had to find out more.
When I read about the inattentiveness, forgetfulness, problems with social skills and friendships, and other characteristics of ADHD in girls, I cried. This is me, I thought. This is my whole experience. Despite how memorable this moment was, I still wouldn’t allow myself to do anything about it. In fact, I thought I was making excuses for myself. If I only procrastinated less, got over my laziness, organized myself, and cared more, then I could pull it together, I thought.
And yet, my newfound knowledge about ADD stayed with me until I went to my doctor years later, tears in my eyes about everything seemingly crumbling around me and my inability to cope.
Finding Yourself: The Turning Point
“My husband has ADHD, and you sound very similar to him,” my doctor told me. “Really smart, high-functioning, and super hard on yourself.” I wanted to believe her, but I still felt like I was just incompetent – my problems just happened to align with the condition. She brought up medication. I don’t need it. It’s not going to help.
Partly at play there was something that had been drilled in me, through conversations and other cues, since I was a child – that medicine is mainly for white people. Any medical problems, physical or mental, were up to the individual to fix. If you couldn’t fix it, you’d take it to the Lord.
I was also unwilling to consider that I could have ADHD because, let’s face it, you can’t be Black in America and have something else wrong with you. I already have so many obstacles to vault because of my race. What would happen, then, if I did have ADHD? Would others think I’m not qualified for my career or anything else anymore?
As hesitant as I was, I trusted my doctor, and agreed to try ADHD medication for just one month.
That same night, I found myself crying again. Only hours into the medication, I realized that I felt like myself for the first time in my life.
I was a new person in the days that followed. I could focus. I could talk without stuttering. I easily got through phone calls at work. I didn’t worry about getting “caught” forgetting something or messing up in front of others. I could pour a cup of coffee and not spill it. I could get my son to the bus stop without rushing and stressing him out. I could have conversations without my mind racing, playing out scenarios about what they’d say and what I’d say. I could check my purse the night before and know that everything I needed would be in there.
Finding Yourself: A Second Chance
Medication freed me, and the more I learned about ADD, the more normal I felt. But as excited as I was, I also had moments where I was absolutely pissed. Wow, I thought. I could have been myself for so much longer.
I thought about all the opportunities that I had missed – everything from the friendships I messed up and even how well I could have done on my SATs decades ago. Nowadays, when these moments creep up, I think: You can either get stuck on what you could have been, or you can focus on how much you’ve accomplished in spite of it all.
My diagnosis has given me permission to be kinder to myself. Every day, I work to “uncondition” myself from all I thought I was and everything I was taught about mental health. How do I know it’s working? Because I was able to tell when my own son needed help. He was diagnosed with ADHD two years ago after experiencing some problems in school and with social skills. At 11, he’s positively thriving, and I can’t wait to see the person he blossoms into.
Finding Yourself: Next Steps
- Self-Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women
- Download: The Truth About ADHD in Women
- Read: ADHD Looks Different in Women. Here’s How — and Why.