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6 Unhelpful, Unhealthy Labels People Affix to Women with ADHD

I am a therapist. I know mental health. But, still, I didn’t recognize my own ADHD for almost three decades. During that time, family, friends, and professionals came up with a lot ways to describe my symptoms — none of which was correct or helpful.

I don’t need to tell you that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) is very often misunderstood. By friends, classmates, and relatives, yes — but also by some medical professionals who still believe myths about the condition or how it affects the people who have it. As a result, they sometimes don’t recognize ADHD when they see it.

I know this because I’m a therapist, and I was one of those clinicians who didn’t fully get ADHD. Sure, I knew the criteria for diagnosing it. But beyond that, my knowledge was seriously limited. And it wasn’t just me… I had seen therapists myself — and those professionals didn’t get it either. After 10 years, 5 counselors, and 2 doctors, I was finally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at the age of 28.

Until then, my symptoms had been called something else. Well, a few somethings else…

1. Generalized Anxiety

ADHD makes it really difficult to regulate your thoughts and behavior. Anyone with ADHD is familiar with the forgetting important things, missing necessary information, and that constant state of vague overwhelm that accompanies ADHD. I always sensed that something was falling through the cracks, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what it was.

I was “anxious,” but rarely over anything specific. Rather, I felt an ongoing restlessness that I couldn’t shake. They called it anxiety. But it was actually ADHD.

[Self-Test: ADHD in Women and Girls]

2. Depression

Like most people with ADHD, I was notorious for procrastinating. I remember talking to a therapist about my struggle to get around to the dishes because I hate them so much and how overwhelming it felt to try.

She called it depression. But it was actually ADHD…

3. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Like most women with ADHD, I developed some decent coping skills to mask my symptoms from other people. They fixed some problems but created others.

[Free Resource for Women and Girls: Is It ADHD?]

Several times I’d forgotten to turn off the stove overnight or after leaving for work. When I’d find it hours later, it scared me. To change that, I started repeatedly checking the stove.

Sometimes I’d check but not actually be paying attention. So I’d have to re-check. Other times, I swore I already checked it but couldn’t trust myself to know for sure because I’d been wrong too many times. So just to be on the safe side….

One counselor thought it might be OCD. But it was actually ADHD…

4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)/

Like many with ADHD, rejection sensitive dysphoria can really drag me down. I remember telling a counselor how criticism and confrontation, at times, was so overwhelming that I couldn’t even watch it on television. When a tense confrontational scene came on, I’d have to leave the room or plug my ears to reduce the physical overwhelm that it created.

I lost count of how many times she asked me if something scary or life threatening had ever happened to cause such a reaction. She thought it could be PTSD. But it was actually ADHD…

5. Laziness

I’ve always been known by those closest to me as surprisingly messy. Most people don’t notice it until they need a ride in my car or visit my house without enough notice for me to hastily shove everything out of site.

Mess gets away from us quickly, due to procrastination, feeling overwhelmed at all there is to do, struggling to plan and organize cleaning efforts, forgetting that it needs to happen, and not noticing how bad it actually is. I remember my mom being so confused how I could step over the boxes she’d put at my door for a full week and never register that they were there.

Parents and teachers thought I was lazy. But it was actually ADHD…

6. Ditziness

“Ditzy” is one of those unfortunate labels that no one should be given, but somehow women with ADHD seem to bear it all too often.

ADHD often means zoning out in the middle of the conversation, which tends to make me look spacey. Pair that with forgetting things, not paying attention to where I’m going, the propensity for zoning out and getting lost or running into things, and I sometimes appear less intelligent than I am.

People have called me ditzy. But, like this was a sign of my mistaken, misdiagnosed, untreated ADHD.

[“That Explains Everything!” Discovering My ADHD in Adulthood]

Updated on September 3, 2019

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  1. I had no idea for the majority of my life I had ADHD. What you describe above sounds like it was written about my life. I was also diagnosed with GAD and depression. Constantly feeling scared I forgot to do something, double – checking and re – checking things, feeling overwhelmed by cleaning and sorting tasks, all of the above. Even though I finally have the correct diagnosis, I’m still lifetimes away from finding a solution to make life easier. Thank you for clarifying what I’ve been wondering about.

  2. Add “selfishness” to the list. People assume I’m selfish because I cannot recall details of conversations; they assume I’m not really interested in what they have to say when, in reality, I cannot focus long enough to remember the details and am too embarrassed to ask them to repeat what they just said. I’m not self-absorbed, I’m struggling with all the racing thoughts and disorganization inside my head.

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