Delve into the topic of ADHD on the internet and you’ll be met with lists of tell-tale signs of the disorder, including not being able to sit still, interrupting conversations, being unable to focus on or complete tasks, and forgetfulness. However, it took me years to realise that ADHD was also the cause of my emotional regulation issues.
The symptoms had been apparent my whole life: a tendency to feel either too much or too little, being completely fixated or not being able to focus on a single thing, a history of self-harm, depression and mood swings (medicated by sertraline in my early 20s), hypersensitivity, and an astounding ability to perform well under pressure. It’s a continuous battle of extremes, where I appear outwardly calm while having a brain full of chaos.
Seven months into a new job in 2021, seeking professional help seemed like my only option. At first, I was working until 10 at night because it was new and stimulating. But an all-too familiar pattern began to rear its head, and I eventually burned out. Working from home had its perks – such as briefly going offline to cry – but I started to feel imprisoned, and chronically overwhelmed by my inbox.
The emotional side effects of ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, seem to be less widely known – a result of an educational gap that prevents the disorder from being detected in girls at a young age.
Dr J Russell Ramsay, associate professor of clinical psychology at University of Pennsylvania, says: “An all-too brief cliche about why ADHD is missed in girls is that ADHD causes problems for boys in the classroom, whereas it causes difficulties for girls on the playground – socially.”
Until speaking to a psychiatrist, I hadn’t considered the idea that, for me, hyperactivity meant trouble falling asleep, constant brain noise, impatient nature, or even my tendency to over-share. It had been the vague, underlying thing pervading different aspects of my life for years; the thing I could never quite place.
Some years ago, in a volatile relationship, I suspected that I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – unaware of the overlap of BPD and ADHD symptoms. “I explained to the patient that emotional dysregulation is a part of ADHD and borderline personality issues,” my diagnosis report read. Unpredictable highs and lows seem to be the foundation of my ADHD. I almost feel as if my inattention problems are secondary to them.
Mood problems had always spilled over into my education. In school, I remember my science teacher taking me out of class to check in with me because I looked spaced out. Soon after, I went on report because I was depressed, unmotivated, and my grades were suffering.
At university, I missed deadlines and had to retake my second year. All of this came with the preface that I was actually very smart and had lots of potential.
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Late diagnosis in women specifically lends itself to a cultural misunderstanding of the disorder – the consequence of which is that we spend years feeling inadequate, misunderstood and frustrated due to setbacks and our success not appearing linear compared to that of others.
Despite the closure it can bring, imposter syndrome after late diagnosis is real, and the irony of being diagnosed with ADHD is that it can actually feel underwhelming. We already have trouble with self-esteem and productivity, meaning diagnosis can almost seem like a cop out.
At the same time, after years of enduring debilitating mood swings and always feeling like there was something “off”, it is validating to have clarity. The reality of ADHD is that emotional and executive dysfunction symptoms are intrinsically linked. These things are not always obvious on the surface – especially in women, as we rationalise or get very good at “masking” our ADHD traits.
Research currently tells us that ADHD is more common in men and boys, but the increasing visibility of accounts from women like myself could suggest otherwise.
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