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“My ADHD Was Hidden Beneath Layers of Success — Until It Wasn’t.”

I’d like for our young generation of vehicles to catch flat tires and other problems, long before — like me — a blow-out does the revealing.

I don’t twiddle my pencil. I’m not hyper. I don’t engage in reckless behaviors. I am a full-grown woman. And, yes, I have ADHD.

It took me three years to figure out I had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Actually, 35, if you start from the very beginning. And then six more (and counting) to know what to do with it.

It started when my mind, generally a pretty likable place, where you might find birds chirping and lots of plants in brightly painted pots, became unrecognizable. It became a place I wanted to avoid.

I became perpetually nervous. I was struggling to get through my workdays, uncertain of how much longer I’d be able to fake it. I wasn’t getting much sleep, and since my body was constantly worked up, my appetite waned; eating became forced.

[Self Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women and Girls]

Everything was hard. Even figuring out how to spend my time became this big goliath of a task. I was wilting and scared — paranoid that I was getting further away from the life I once knew.

Now that you have a handle on what led to my ADHD diagnosis, I’m going to start at the beginning.

The Hidden Signs of ADHD

I was fortunate enough to thrive in the classic, straightforward classroom as a child. There was never a moment for me when school felt dreadful. My report cards revealed my school ease; I was an Honor Roll sort of gal.

It was more of the same in college, except that I became an epic procrastinator, pulling 11th hour victories. I’d almost always abandon my work at first opportunity to socialize in whispers with fellow distractors. As a result, I relied almost entirely on charged bolts of inspiration to file assignments within hours of deadlines. And I almost always struck gold.

[Self Test: Do I Have Inattentive ADHD?]

After graduation, I was still rocking through life, except now with a demanding job, I started feeling like I had half a brain. It was taking me way longer to do stuff compared to my coworkers. I couldn’t help but feel wildly inefficient, even though I was paddling underwater twice as fast.

Then came the speeding tickets. I got ticketed however many times it takes to be within an inch of having your license revoked, and earned a seat in a tutorial driving class. I watched an instructional DVD and passed the test, but had to pay for a replacement DVD because I lost the copy.

My life is filled with these moments that I know now scream ADHD. Despite a degree in math, for example, my checkbook-balancing deficiencies had me pleading regularly with bank representatives to waive overdraft fees. In a short-lived job as a waitress, I’d forget the day’s specials. I’d forget about clothes souring in the washing machine, and would be forced to repeat the wash. I also once towed my car to a mechanic because it wouldn’t start, only to find out that I had simply run out of gas.

But while these realities were going on in the background, the foreground of my life had been very affirming: I was a woman who was educated, employed, married, and even keeping a small child alive.

So what happened to me? Why was life suddenly so hard and unrecognizable?

Driving with Flat Tires

In retrospect, I would say the trigger was the second kid and then definitely the third kid (and then most definitely the fourth). Doing the wife thing and the house management thing and the working thing and the one kid thing was what my neurological makeup could handle.

After layering in additional kiddos, my “engine– despite its strength – couldn’t pull the weight of life any longer with all those flat tires.” (The words of the specialist who diagnosed me.)

And for me, it wasn’t just that my vehicle’s speed slowed. And it wasn’t just that it was protesting with grunts, sputters, and grumbles.

It fully blew out.

My interior world went with it… to that overwhelmed, panicky, scary place. There was a growing disparity between what was required of me and what I was capable of, and fear was more than eager to fill the space. Not surprisingly, my feelings of competency, confidence, and self-reliance hit the road, too. I doubted myself, resorted to hiding, and became smaller and smaller.

But I had no knowledge then that this breakdown was all due to undiagnosed ADHD, anxiety, and other issues.

Breakdowns can have several sources, however. I know because I explored every possible contributor factor with therapists. We poked around for trauma, dabbled with the possibility of post-partum symptoms, or of grief from some losses in my life. We even tried to make Acute Adjustment Disorder fit due to several cross-country moves in a short period of time.

But one therapist at last heard the quiet whispers of ADHD through all my squabbling. Though I stubbornly resisted her suggestion for an ADHD screening (“No way! I did great in school! I was never out of control!), She nudged me away from denial and imprinted upon me that my neurological deficits might be exactly what was painting the dark picture of my days.

Moving Forward with ADHD

Since I was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD (the kind without the hyperactivity – more nuanced and difficult to uncover), I’ve committed to learning about it like a PhD student. I have books and articles all around my house (and I’d show you, if only I could find them). My brain and I have become incredibly well-acquainted. I’ve devised, executed, and abandoned at different times innumerable systems and strategies for organization, time management, managing distractions … you name it.

I’ve tried, stopped, and went back on ADHD medications. I’ve sharpened the fine art of self-care, waxing and waning the frequency of my massages, naps, meditations, outsourced house cleanings, journaling, babysitters, and exercise based on how my engine is handling my tires. I’ve seen therapists and ADHD life coaches and attended local CHADD chapter meetings. And I’ve definitely prayed.

And I’m happy to say that, though new, I recognize my life again.

It’s also certainly not perfect. But knowing that these feelings – whenever they show up again – are byproducts of my cognitive challenges has helped tremendously.

I’m still in disbelief that it took me this long to truly learn about myself. How could I have had the same brain my whole life and with only major complications until recently?

It certainly makes me want to be what that therapist who correctly reasoned that I had ADHD was for me. It makes me want to crack open every youngster’s head and expose any invisible learning disabilities lingering in there. It makes me want to educate all teachers, parents, coaches, and relatives about all the ways ADHD can look like.

I’d like for our young generation of vehicles to catch flat tires and other problems, long before — like me — a blow-out does the revealing.

[Free Download: Your In-Depth Guide to Inattentive ADHD]

20 Comments & Reviews

  1. I’ve been reading, enjoying, following, benefiting-greatly-from ADDitude for about two years. I never officially registered or jumped in to a forum or watched a webinar when it was ACTUALLY streaming (“was that today??”). But THIS article sold me. Such great writing. Vulnerable, honest, strong, hilarious, helpful. Thank you, Tricia, for sharing a bit of your experience. It made me feel seen, validated, and encouraged. I also LOL’d. Quietly, Because my kids are still sleeping and I’m not caffeinated enough to deal with them yet. Keep up the great work!

  2. That first part about doing really well in school and then squeaking through university with last minute rushes to meet deadlines was like I’d written it myself, that is EXACTLY my experience.
    I’m in the totally burnt out phase right now and waiting for my assessment (two months to go -.-) but knowing that there’s maybe a light at the end of this tunnel is really reassuring
    Thank you!

  3. This is a well written article. Thanks for sharing your story! I don’t have add or adhd (my 10 year old daughter does); I am supposedly cognitively “normal”. But I have to say that I would never in a million years be able to handle a full time job, household responsibilities, a husband and 4 children. I think it’s a rare person, in fact, who could do all of that well. My point is that it might be a good strategy for people to lower their expectations a bit about what’s humanly possible, and about what’s really going to bring them happiness. I want my daughter, who is smart and creative and eager to succeed, to have a fulfilling and meaningful life, but I hope to help her make choices that are realistic for her. I feel like the meaning of “success” in American society needs to be reconsidered with an emphasis on the following question: “What feels good and right for you personally, independent of what society tells us that successful people look like”. That goes for both the cognitively normal and those with adhd.

  4. Wow, this is the first article I’ve read the fit my symptoms like a glove. I was diagnosed at 37, after my son was diagnosed – which I had to battle with everyone in my family to accept. My brother has ADHD, he was diagnosed at 9 in 1984. I was in high school. My brother was a severe case and would never have made it out of high school without Ritalin. My son, my daughter, and myself all have inattentive ADHD, and I missed my daughter’s until her freshman year in college. I still can’t believe it took us that long for my daughter considering my son, my brother, and myself. She, of coarse, was a straight A student graduating from high school with a 4.0. It wasn’t until I walked into her dormroom at the end of her freshman year, I felt like I had gone back in time 30 years to my dorm room. It was bad, and that’s when I had her tested. She was still getting A’s, but was depressed – as I had been depressed for 20 years before I was diagnosed. With females, ADHD is hard to diagnose, no small part being our American Society’s expectations of women. Thank you for your article! I feel validated!

  5. Thank you very much for sharing this – and maybe today this was the exactly right thing to read first thing in the day at work! Cannot tell you how much I can relate and yes I am still flogging myself for the time I feel I wasted in the early years of my family and career — I know I cannot get that time back and that I have to make the best of things moving forward but man!knowing what I know now…! Thank you again

  6. I have two questions – what was your best resource for finding an “ADHD specialist” and by evaluation do you mean Neuropsychological testing? (The blocks, pictures, listening, etc?) A lot of docs list ADD as something they treat, but I have yet to find a true “specialist”. I first came across this page in researching some info re: one of my (almost adult) children. I frequently read stories on here and think “OMG that is exaclty me”. And then I push it to the back burner in my mind (I’m 52). This article is effectively my life. Throw in a slew of other difficult life events and I can’t seem to come up for air. This is motivating me to do something. I, like you, have seen various doctors and therapists. I am hesitant to mention Inattentive ADD and they are hesitant to consider it an issue. Because, as you said, I have always managed to get along (externally) and with other life events such as divorce, ailing parents and breast cancer – it all gets lost under “life stress”. And I agree with the comment that perhaps our expectations as a society and of ourselves are just way too high. I would greatly appreciate a starting point to finding a good ADHD doc. Thanks.

  7. Wow! Thank you for that incredible article! I can totally relate.
    I went all of the way through law school and an additional degree beyond, got married and had a child. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed and I sat listening to my excellent pediatrician describe ADHD that I realized I had it. I was just starting my own practice and didn’t want to screw it up, so I started taking medicine for it. The medicine helped until I got to that same point that you did, where I started cratering that I needed further help. By then I was on my second husband, had started a new business and was trying to keep it all going plus save his “cratering” alcoholic, druggie ass (I didn’t know this at the time).
    Many years later (fast forward to present), I am trying to keep it all together while dealing with the fallout of his drinking himself to death by the age of 55. My son is grown and still having difficulties and has left college and living at home trying to get himself together as well as dealing with the child’s side of the fallout from the same. It may not fix our situation or make it better, but just knowing that very intelligent others are dealing with similar issues is helpful. Hang in there and Good luck. Thank you for sharing your struggles.

  8. My entire life has been a pretty eventful string of 11th hour victories. All I have to say is that it feels so damn good knowing I’m not alone. Thanks for sharing your breakdown point. It takes a lot.

  9. Have loved this site and was diagnosed after my kids as well, and still generally try to convince myself that I can’t really have it given how “successful” I have been. I reached a point where I kept internally saying I’ve risen to the level of my incompetence and what am I going to do now? I’m still trying to work that out myself, but I see myself so much in what you’ve written, I wish I could be in a support group for people like us!

  10. Wow. I’m not sure I’ve ever commented (or even finished an article here) but I really could have written (most of) this. I’m still floundering, still trying to blame it on other things, still afraid “I’m going crazy.” Sadly I did land myself in the hospital last year before we really knew what was happening. What I would love to hear from you, Trisha, is what has helped you. What tools, groups, sites, interventions, jedi mind tricks, do you use? Being someone who resonates SO much with YOUR story, I’d really appreciate hearing more. Because it’s hard. Life is hard. And I have dark moments that I don’t enjoy returning to. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Your ADD experience, this description, sounds almost like mine. I didn’t struggle in school, plenty of success etc etc. But then… under all the pressure I developed unbelievable anxiety and I thought I was. My fiance made me sell my tiny fiat because I was driving like a maniac in it, and yes some speeding tickets too. Thanks for writing this article…

  12. Oh my. Are you in my head?? I am in a coffee shop trying not to sob. I was diagnosed at 44 – 4 yrs ago now. I had a very successful career (star employee – the go-to person) before permanently becoming a stay-at-home mom at 39 after my second child. And then things started to unravel. So hard to get dinner on the table. So hard to stay on top of everything. But things really started coming apart at the seams when, at the same time, my one daughter was being tested/diagnosed with ADD (inattentive) and my younger daughter suddenly started struggling with generalized anxiety disorder on a daily basis. Life got immensely complicated. Fast. Through the course of getting my younger daughter help, I was tested. Was shocked to be diagnosed with ADD. My friends didn’t believe it – in fact I have a couple that get mad at the doctors and think they’re crazy. But I am now on medication and life seems somewhat normal. Its not perfect (re: speeding tickets, messy house, etc) but at least my brain doesn’t feel like a computer with too many apps open and its going to crash.

  13. Wow! Well said! I have lived most of the same life! Thanks for writing this for all the Inattentive’s living out here in the shadows of the H’s and the Neurotyps. Here’s my hope that the world we live and work in will catch on and catch up to us! We need a different strategy to work and study and succeed than others! For all those who wonder IF they might have ADD, or doubt they do, but know it is truth, I have found after 10 years of living it and fighting it, that accepting it and making it work FOR me is the only path forward. Find the right combination of medications and cognitive behavioral strategies to change yourself and change your life! Good luck to all!

  14. Hi All! WOW, I hadn’t checked in to view comments until this morning and, thanks to all your amazing voices and story-sharing, my daughter looked like a homeless person for preschool 🙂 I was so entranced reading your heartfelt words that I derailed (SHOCKER!) from my morning jobs. THANK YOU THANK YOU for being so open and vulnerable!

    I wanted to pop on to respond to a couple specific comments/inquiries:

    1) YES to the comments about how at least a quarter of the battle is lowering our own expectations – as women, as Americans, as house/calendar/activity managers (if that fits). I think ALL women in our society, neurotypical included, would raise their hands in agreement here. It’s just that we ADHDers have to double down on the lesson of lowering our personal standards, since meeting “expectation” is twice as hard for us. SO, YES YES YES!

    2) There was a question about finding the right person to conduct the neuropsych eval. I came by my recommendation via my therapist, who – as I mention in the essay – was convinced way before I was that I had ADHD. She had a psychologist she liked who did neuropsych evals, so I didn’t shop around. What I will say – coming off of recently finding the right person to do a neuropsych for my son – is this: these folks are accustomed to being “interviewed” and I’ve found respond really well to direct lines of questioning. I would shop and interview a few, asking about their experience with ADHD and, specifically Inattentive ADHD, if that’s what you suspect of yourself.

    3) Roberts6604 asked about my specific tips and tricks. I have two very broadstroke rules of thumb: First, I’ve learned to do everything within my control to avoid entering into an ADHD fog / anxiety spiral. Basically, this means maintaining a high level of support (offloading and outsourcing stuff that’s hard for me) and self care (babysitting, massage, meditation, exercise, free time, hobbies, etc) LIKE IT’S MY JOB. Secondly, I’ve learned how to get OUT of an ADHD fog/ anxiety spiral once in one. I’ve actually written a piece on this very subject to be featured on ADDitude’s guest blog page in days to come. Spoiler: Sharing with trusted peeps, reading ADHD resources so I don’t feel alone, dropping all hard work by not adding organizational strategies, headphones and a mantra, doubling down on support/self-care, and smiling (SENSE OF HUMOR IS CLUTCH!) as often as I can. Oh, and medication adjustments… definitely important, if you are on an ADHD and/or anxiety medication regiment, to check in with your psychiatrist about that area.

    While I’m on a roll, I’ll say that I was introduced to mindfulness years ago through the book “The Mindful Way Through Depression” and daily mindful meditation has been CLUTCH as my primary self-care activity. It’s wildly helpful for anyone and especially for those of us with such active/busy minds.

    Mucho good wishes. I’m so very pleased to get to connect!

  15. Thank you, Tricia, for sharing how you went from normal to losing it. I explain my adult-diagnosed ADD the same way. I did not find out I had ADD until one day I couldn’t handle everything on my own anymore. Life got too demanding and my brain could no longer keep up. I am also a “piddler,” and I agree those seemingly wasted times/days could be very guilt ridden, but instead they are just necessary for survival. I get so tired of feeling like I need an excuse for being late or not getting something done for work that someone else decided needed doing and which I have no interest in or time to do. Sometimes I just was to scream at everyone that I’m one person and I’m doing the best I can. Which only results in making me seem crazier. Lol. So, again, thank you for writing a story many of us share but few others understand.

  16. I was diagnosed Inattentive ADD in my childhood and I checked again (just to be sure) at age… over 30. This article explains what it felt like to be me in every way.

  17. This article could have been about my life except without the epic blow up. I too was diagnosed in my mid-30s, and ADD wasn’t even on my radar for why I went to see a therapist. I had some notion that I might have a mild form of OCD (and she did diagnose me with that as well), but ADD was not even something I’d considered for myself. I LOVED school, did extremely well, because I love learning new information. Revision of already learned information? Pass. New stuff? Sign me up! The procrastination, the sleepless nights finishing research papers the night before they were due. Walking into my biology class to find out that there was an exam I didn’t remember about and hadn’t studied for, and still getting a B+ on it. The speeding tickets, the trouble focusing on boring tasks at work and flying through the fun stuff, doing the interesting new projects I volunteered for but neglecting the routine stuff, forgetting to pay bills, overdrafting my account, spending weeks researching things I never follow through on, it’s exhausting to even think about.

  18. I’m loving having a diagnosis as suddenly all the “I’m just hopeless” thoughts have an explanation. I clearly never actually knew why ADHD was and am so glad I stumbled across something on Facebook one day (wish I could remember what it was). No instant fixes but it does allow me to take some of the pressure off myself and realise that it’s not just character flaws and being useless. Suddenly there’s an explanation for why I work hard all day and have nothing to show for it – certainly not the important things I should be doing. My falling apart moment was starting a more senior job where there was a large office component to it and being worried that my boss was going to realise I hadn’t done anything whereas the person who started at the same time as me had done all this extra stuff.

    Took a while to get appointments due to normal wait lists becoming way worse with coronavirus. But happily finally saw someone and started on meds. Not yet at the magic dose/medication but definitely has helped with some things.

    Good luck to everyone pursuing a diagnosis and treatment. It’s worth putting yourself out there. Plus talking to someone makes you realise how much of what’s normal for you isn’t actually normal for others. That actually was really informative for me and helped me to understand myself better

  19. I know this is an older article, but I wanted to reiterate again just how helpful this was to read. This article pretty much sums up my life. I was an honor graduate from high school, I currently have 3 advanced degrees. I always got high marks at work and I’m often seen as a leader. Yet my home is a wreck (always has been) and I often feel like I’m losing it. Even though I’ve been through countless challenges, especially after the 2008 recession (layoffs, moving to a new city, foreclosure) I have always been the comeback kid and got through.

    I was holding it together pretty well until my fiance got sick and ultimately passed away after a 2 year-long battle with an illness. That was about 4 years ago and my brain just doesn’t function the way it did. I’m even more forgetful and I felt so guilty about dropping so many balls and letting people down since that time. I sought help because I thought I had anxiety and depression. Even though I was sad and heartbroken, neither of those quite fit.

    I had no idea that I had ADD until my daughter was recently diagnosed and I took some of the tests for myself. It was such a lightbulb moment. Reading sites like this help me feel less alone and help me feel less guilty.

  20. This is me, without the kids. 3 degrees including an MBA, work at a Nuclear Power Plant, felt like for most of my life I had my stuff together. Then BOOM! At 27, how I had felt for most of my life became my reality. I’ve done the same, researched it and read everything I got my hands on. The only thing that’s missing is what clicked to help you rise up and address what you perceived as shortcomings. I’m still on the search for coping mechanisms, structure, and systems!

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