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.
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Can ADHD Show Up Later In Life?

There's been much debate as to whether adult-onset ADHD 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 adult ADHD. Can you relate?

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

[How to Manage Your Money with ADHD]

4 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.

  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.

  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.

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