Mental Health

ADHD Looks Different In Women. If I’d Known That, I Wouldn’t Have Been Divorced Twice By 25.

I could have saved myself a lot of pain in life if I knew earlier that ADHD is a spectrum, not a single set of symptoms.

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When you’re 33, you’re supposed to be buying your first house, or having kids. You’re not supposed to be twice-divorced, and freshly diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). But these two things are integrally linked. I only wish I’d known what ADHD is, and what it’s not, years ago. If I had, I could have saved myself some pain. 

Immediately upon receiving my diagnosis, I researched my newly-discovered condition with laser-beam focus—it’s called hyperfocus, another ADHD symptom, it turns out—and I was shocked. I always thought of ADHD as a zero-spectrum type of disorder: pretty much the same for everyone. ADHD is a middle school aged boy disrupting a classroom: never did I think it was me. But now, understanding that ADHD presents itself in different ways, my entire life suddenly made sense. 

One area of my life I started examining under the lens of ADHD was my relationships. As a people pleaser with way too much empathy and a difficult time saying no, my relationships were unhealthy from the start. Looking back, there was one common denominator – impulsivity. I jumped into relationships, and when they ended—usually poorly—I jumped to the next. This cycle of relationships led me to marrying someone I didn’t know very well when I was way too young. 

At 19, overwhelmed by college, I was not doing well. I was impulsively racking up credit card debt for no logical reason—another red flag in hindsight. I was alone, confused, and extremely ashamed of myself, and I took “love” from where it seemed to appear the most. I had internalized that I was an incapable person, and so the people I attracted tended to be domineering and abusive. 

I wasn’t worthless, of course. Instead, I was impulsive: a symptom of ADHD I wouldn’t discover for another 20 years. But I thought something was wrong with me, and so I married an abusive, controlling man. 

By 21, I found myself leaving, picking up the pieces, and moving back home divorced. I wasn’t heartbroken over him. I was heartbroken over myself. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. 

I started to confide in a friend from before my marriage. He was everything my ex wasn’t and—because I was impulsive—it felt perfect, a match made in heaven. He was in the military, so we dated long distance, and two years later, we married for what I told myself were practical reasons. I was 23. 

Now that I know how many women are misdiagnosed and under-diagnosed with ADHD, I’m upset I didn’t know earlier. It could have saved me years of pain. 

I was right. My new husband was different from my ex, but where my ex-was controlling, my new husband was emotionally unavailable. In some ways, that was worse. My depression and anxiety started to spin out of control. I experienced paranoia and extreme emotional pain–something I’ve now come to realize as rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), a common trait for people with ADHD triggered by the perception that they are being rejected by the important people in their life. 

In my relationship, my RSD swung from suicidal depression to anger and accusations. It made it extremely hard for anyone not in touch with their emotions or empathic to be with me. Looking back, this one really did break my heart. My husband eventually had enough, and by 25, I was divorced and living back with my parents again.

Scarred and ashamed, I vowed to never marry again. I’ve stuck to that promise, but my impulsivity in relationships continued on. Even if I didn’t marry the men I dated, I went through the same old song and dance until I ended up in my worst relationship yet: four years spent with an abusive alcoholic that left me on the verge of a mental breakdown.

Ironically, that relationship finally put me on the path towards diagnosis. After looking for help with depression and anxiety, I found out that I had ADHD. Now that I know how many women are misdiagnosed and under-diagnosed with ADHD, I’m upset I didn’t know earlier. It could have saved me years of pain. 

The mainstream representation of ADHD is hyperactive, loud, and typically male. It obscures the reality of ADHD, which is a spectrum just like autism. It also lowers awareness in women that the unique challenges they face–the loneliness, the confusion, and the feeling of being misunderstood–could be a result of a treatable condition. Add on the societal pressures for women to “have it all together” and you add a recipe for disaster.

The mainstream representation of ADHD is hyperactive, loud, and typically male. It obscures the reality of ADHD, which is a spectrum just like autism.

Undiagnosed ADHD can destroy lives. It leads to other problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, substance abuse, and eating disorders—many of which I can myself attest to. But ADHD can also be brought under control, and since seeking treatment, I have experienced confidence for the first time in my life… and, in the process, found my first healthy relationship. 

I’ve always said I have no regrets because the things I’ve been through have made me who I am. But, honestly, if I could go back and get the help I clearly needed then, I would. Imagine the pain, confusion, and loneliness I could have saved myself. 

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