The Emotional Side

“What It Feels Like Living with Undiagnosed ADHD”

“It took every ounce of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength to live my life — until I finally met someone who listened to my story.” Do you recognize your story here? ADDitude readers share their everyday experiences living with undiagnosed ADHD.

A sad woman has undiagnosed ADHD.
A sad woman has undiagnosed ADHD.
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Can ADHD Show Up Later In Life?

There's been much debate as to whether adult-onset attention deficit disorder is real. What is real, however, is that ADHD — particularly in women — is frequently overlooked, sometimes for decades at a time. The most noticeable symptoms, like hyperactivity, manifest differently in boys and are too often disregarded as "ditzy" behavior in girls. Plus, the inattentive symptoms more commonly seen in girls are regularly mistaken for something else.

Living with an unrecognized condition can lead to years of low self-esteem and shame until a diagnosis shines a light on why everything has been so hard for so long. ADDitude readers and experts share what it felt like living with undiagnosed ADHD. Can you relate?

A woman with ADHD sleeps on a sofa with a book over her face.
A woman with ADHD sleeps on a sofa with a book over her face.
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1. Running on Empty

"All my life, I had struggled with a vague sense that something was different about me. I felt inferior, inadequate, undisciplined, and hopelessly disorganized — all feelings that have been, at one time or another, reinforced by others in my life... I had gotten used to feeling tired before I even got out of bed, of dreading the new day and its various obligations. I was exhausted, struggling at work and at home with my kids. It took every ounce of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength to live my life — until I finally met someone who listened to my story and gave me a chance to do something about it." — Donna Surgenor Reames

A woman with ADHD in an astronaut suit, covering her face. The condition can make you feel like you're from Mars.
A woman with ADHD in an astronaut suit, covering her face. The condition can make you feel like you’re from Mars.
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2. Like You Belong on Mars

"You feel 'different.' You are told you're lazy, not trying hard enough, a space cadet, and that you aren't living up to your potential. You'd lose your head if it wasn't attached. For 30 years. Good times." – Sarah C.

[Free Download: Step Up and Speak Out About ADHD]

A man with ADHD watches his colleagues gossiping about him.
A man with ADHD watches his colleagues gossiping about him.
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3. Everyone is Laughing Behind Your Back

"Living with undiagnosed ADHD trained me to feel inept. In grown-up situations, I never expected to be taken seriously. I was always afraid that everyone was sniggering at me behind my back. The fear was all in my head." – Zoë Kessler

A woman with ADHD reads a book, oblivious to any other obligations.
A woman with ADHD reads a book, oblivious to any other obligations.
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4. Like You're Wearing Blinders

"Some people with undiagnosed ADHD think they are living a normal life. Then you find out there is nothing normal about reading 350 romance novels in three years while your finances, house, and life fall down around you." – An ADDitude blogger

An illustration of a person with ADHD climbing towards success after being diagnosed.
An illustration of a person with ADHD climbing towards success after being diagnosed.
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5. Always Stumbling

"I was one of those people with ADHD who fall through the cracks. I didn't have trouble in school, and the problems that showed up later in life weren't obvious to others. I never felt lazy or stupid. I always knew I was talented, but I would stumble over all sorts of things. I couldn't seem to get stuff done. I felt thwarted. Being diagnosed with ADHD changed my life. I call the diagnosis my 'Rosetta Stone,' because behavior that I had never been able to understand suddenly made sense." – Sally Harris

A little girl with ADHD sits in the grass looking sad.
A little girl with ADHD sits in the grass looking sad.
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6. Quieter than the Rest

"I grew up in a large Cuban extended family. Like most kids with inattentive ADHD, I was not a happy-go-lucky, gregarious child. I was introverted, anxious, finicky, uncoordinated, and distracted, but the fact that I was quiet was a blessing in my home. I was often the only person in our crowded house who was not talking." – Tess Messer

[Free Guide: Yes! There Are People Like You]

A mother with ADHD feels overwhelmed by all of her responsibilities.
A mother with ADHD feels overwhelmed by all of her responsibilities.
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7. Winging it All the Time

"At 35 years old, I worked it out myself. Motherhood was my undoing. I couldn't 'wing it' any longer. The official diagnosis was a massive relief. Finally I had an explanation! Meds have changed my life; now I can cope! Yes, my house may feel disorganized, but at least I can keep on top of all the basics and not feel completely overwhelmed ALL the time, just some of it." – Jodi H.

An illustration of a person with ADHD trying to put two puzzle pieces together the wrong way.
An illustration of a person with ADHD trying to put two puzzle pieces together the wrong way.
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8. Like a Puzzle That Doesn't Fit Together

"As early as grade school, I wrote an essay titled 'The Different Child.' I've spent my life wondering, Why aren't the pieces fitting together? I'm always getting lost in conversations. When something's important, like directions, or something that has to do with a sequence, I can't follow it. I can't hear the information and store it." – Debbie Young

A woman with ADHD is bored and looks at her phone.
A woman with ADHD is bored and looks at her phone.
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9. Always Bored

"I was hired, promoted, and then fired, or I quit out of frustration or boredom. I understand now that I am easily bored, and I stopped blaming everyone else for being boring. I learned to stay engaged in conversations by pretending it's a first date." – Eva Pettinato

A women with ADHD is ashamed and hides her face.
A women with ADHD is ashamed and hides her face.
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10. Like You Want to Run and Hide

"My classes were so overwhelming, I remember staring at the classroom doorknob, wanting to run away. So I did. I just left school and walked home one day." – Joanne Griffin

A woman with ADHD is ashamed and puts a bag over her head.
A woman with ADHD is ashamed and puts a bag over her head.
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11. Ashamed

"Like most moms, I had always believed I should be able to manage the household, take care of the kids, keep food on hand, and so on. But I couldn't, and I felt ashamed."  –Terry Matlen

A piggy bank that was broken by an impulsive spender with ADHD.
A piggy bank that was broken by an impulsive spender with ADHD.
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12. Like a Fliberdegibbit

"I have never been able to save enough money. I would spend impulsively, and pay my bills whenever I could remember. I felt like I would never by able to have a decent credit rating or buy a house. It's tough for anyone these days, let alone a fliberdegibbit (as my mom used to call me) like me!" – Cindy H.

[Read: How to Manage Your Money with ADHD]

13 Related Links

  1. My life has been a nightmare. I was just diagnosed with ADHD at 60 years old.
    I’ve been misdiagnosed and treated with drugs that turned me into a weeping, suicidal mess. I was given vyvanse for “treatment resistant depression”. It was a miracle drug for me. It allowed me to continue researching and discover vyvanse works on undiagnosed ADHD. From there I weaned off all the other drugs. Then I saw a Cognitive and Behavioral Neurologist who diagnosed me with ADHD.
    Now I am rebuilding my life. Knowledge is a powerful thing.

    1. My husband is 60 and has many regrets, however we dwell on what we have, a diagnosis and medication and coaching…we also are beginning to tell whoever will listen what is going on.
      In the beginning it was embarrassing to admit the issue and the needs for med. then we got to thinking those who criticize are ignorant. If I needed insulin for diabetes I wouldn’t hesitate to admit it. Right?
      Good luck on this journey!

  2. I was in the hospital because the doctors had me on so many depression meds they felt it was dangerous. My TEAM left for vacation! That was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met a doctor who spoke with me twice and asked me if I had ever been tested for ADHD I was 48. The best year of my life! ❤️

  3. I was diagnosed in my 40s. It was a positive moment when I could put a name to this anchor in my life. The H is missing. There is nothing hyperactive about me, except the haywire activity in the brain. Now I am in my 60s. Daily stress only amplifies the loss of my center. I cannot think clearly. I feel that I have lost a lot in my life, that I could have gone farther, accomplished more if ADD never became part of me. I see the funny memes on the Facebook sites, and they do bring a smile or two. But there has been little to laugh about, really. Maybe I should not take myself so seriously, someone might say. Maybe some truth there. But at the end of the day, I can only wonder if it will get worse. Why is concentration so difficult? Can my self-esteem emerge from this deep hole? Do I really need the shame that goes with all this? Will I forget my name one day? Is dementia a signpost up ahead?

    Writing all this down has proved helpful. Reading “Driven to Distraction” is also shedding light. Better days may come, but I believe that I will have to work for them.

    1. I was diagnosed in August of 2018, at age 58. Everything in your message resonates with me. I am now 59, will be 60 in November this year. What might I have been able to do with my life if I had known about this a few decades ago. I also worry about dementia. My father had it, so my concern is double. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and concerns. It’s nice to connect to others who get it.

  4. Well, I’m 69. I was diagnosed with ADHD last week. I started meds today.

    Life has been a wild, strange ride. Like a surfer who sometimes gets to slide down a big wave all the way to the shore, but, more often is crushed under tons of water.

    3 marriages and some failed relationships, so many jobs that I can’t count them, and 3 bankruptcies and currently on the edge of the financial abyss again. Impulsive, no good a finishing projects (I’ve got a room full of undone ideas).

    I can trace symptoms back to childhood (“You are so smart on the IQ tests, you just need to concentrate”), but ADHD wasn’t “a thing” back in the 50’s and 60’s.

    So, there is regret for those that I’ve inadvertently “run over” and hope for a more peaceful and productive future.

    1. You are not alone! There are tons of people like you. Bravo for hanging in there. So many people still don’t get it about ADHD?ADD in adults….I now speak up when I hear criticism about it. I am 60 and a late bloomer!

      1. I am 80 years old. I was diagnosed 3 months ago. My life has been one of going crazy feelings,depression,anxiety,feeling overwhelmed, feeling stupid, shame, embarrassed by my impulsiveness,disorganized and more.My therapist
        diagnosed after my husband’s passing. Unable to cope doing what he always did. Getting dosage of Adderall adjusted.

    2. You are a great encouragement to me and everyone else who has suffered, possibly needlessly, because of undiagnosed ADHD/ADD. I am reminded of the many times I was told how smart I was, but that I wasn’t living up to my potential. I dismissed those words as typical “teacher talk.” My sisters were smarter than I, and they also studied! Why wasn’t I motivated to study? I could do other things—like dance well enough to be admitted into two different dance companies—and I would swing my legs or tap my feet while the classroom teacher lectured. One teacher in high school said I had the attention span of a kindergartner; the math teacher said she wanted to hand me out the window by my toes! The biology teacher said my brain was as slick as the day I was born—not a compliment since that teacher believed you got a winkle in your brain every time you learned something new.
      Under my senior picture in the high school yearbook it says “Dreamer of Dreams,” and that comment was chosen by the yearbook staff. (Guess they knew me better than I knew myself.) A boy I met my freshman year in college nicknamed me “Lunch,” because I was always “out to lunch,” metaphorically speaking. So true.
      I decided to walk away from college in 11th grade, but “forgot” to tell the administration, so when I returned a year later I had a series of “F”s to make up. I married as a college student, but my new husband became abusive so we divorced. As a single mom, I knew I could get my act together because nothing and nobody is more important than my child. So finally my third husband and I adopted a newborn infant son! Hallalejah!
      Now my husband has left me and our then teenaged adopted son, so once again, I am getting my life together so I can keep food on the table. However, since my son was diagnosed with ADHD, I have read enough to convince me that I too have ADD. This time I will look for a doctor who will prescribe some ADD medication for me. (My son took Vyvanse, but now he says he doesn’t need it.) I am grateful for all the older adults who share their experiences.

      1. Guess there’s no way to edit a comment here, but typing on my cell is always problematic. The sentence (above) that reads “I decided to walk away from college in 11th grade” should say “I decided to walk away from college in my junior year…” so that is the third year of university studies.

  5. I was diagnosed when I was 59. In retrospect I have been very lucky, but the first 40 years of my life were rough. Failing out of university after doing brilliantly in high school, heavy drinking, self-hatred, terrible relationships, never knowing why on earth I didn’t seem to be able to follow through on the things I wanted to do, needed to do, said I would do … Both of my children also have ADHD, diagnosed after I was in their late teens. It was helpful to have a diagnosis myself, because that’s when it occurred to us that they should get tested, so they are getting treatment a lot sooner than I did. Meds help for me but are not enough, and I wish there were more coaching help – well, ANY coaching help – in my area, and that what there is online weren’t so expensiven($240 US per hour? That’s $320 Canadian. Wish I were rich enough to afford that …)

  6. I was just diagnosed last year at 56 years old. My life has been less than stellar, I’m going through my second divorce right now which is a real self esteem issue. After being diagnosed my doctor said I should subscribe to this magazine, after reading all the articles and posts I have been able to see that I’m not alone. For the last ten years I have been alone in my marriage and life, I just wanted to quit ,not being able to get things right always questioning myself why can’t I be like everyone else and be happy . Always forgetting to pay the bills impulse spending my wife shutting me out it was hard. But after being on medication what a miracle drug a true life changing experience. In just one week my mood changed I had such a positive outlook, I was able to focus and get and stay organized. My self esteem jumped to all time high. I have so many regrets but I’m ok with that I know I will be so much better in the future. I want thank everyone that has told their stories it has been so much encouragement to read them.

  7. Yes, but HOW? How do you get diagnosed as an adult? It takes me months to remember to even schedule doctors appts (even for my kids, which is just very problematic), and then when you do get there and mention ADHD, the doctor immediate shuts you down and labels you a “drug seeker.” Then you don’t even have a doctor any more, and the vicious cycle continues. We don’t even have enough ADHD doctors for kids in this small town, let alone any doctor who would label themselves as ADHD doctors for adults. I was so excited when I first realized that I could have it too, after I kept running into these adults ADHD articles while looking for stuff for my son. But after three years, it’s just depressing because the couple of times I’ve tried for myself I got shut down. And the mental work that it took just to get to those appointments is overwhelming. I’m 48 and losing hope that I’ll ever get a diagnosis or help, and I’m running on empty. Now I’m just hoping it will happen serendipitously because I’ve worked for it and it’s not happened.

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