In the second semester of my freshman year of college, I failed two philosophy classes. These classes were not difficult, but for reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I couldn’t bring myself to finish my reading and keep up with the course expectations. I found myself reading the same paragraph over and over again and concluded that it was because I wasn’t intelligent enough or cut out for academia. My self-esteem plummeted, and I began to experience increased anxiety and depression.
During the summer after my freshman year, I started seeing a psychiatrist for depression. After breaking down in her office one day, I confessed that I was having trouble concentrating on my class readings and that I was very anxious about the upcoming semester. She handed me a tissue and had me take a short quiz. Afterwards I was diagnosed with ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
I sat in my car after the appointment and cried—partly out of relief that my lack of concentration wasn’t a reflection of my intelligence, and also because I would finally get the help I needed to succeed. But I was crying, too, because a big question still remained unanswered: Why did it take so long for the adults in my life to see that there was something unusual going on?
I’d spent so many nights in high school overworking myself to get my assignments done, usually studying late into the night. I would come to school the next day tired, and would often fall asleep in class. I felt ashamed of myself, even though I couldn’t help it, and I figured my teachers just assumed I was lazy and uninterested.
“None of them questioned whether or not I had any mental health concerns that would have contributed to my lack of concentration.”
Part of the problem with recognizing ADHD in women is that the condition manifests itself differently in women than in men, largely because we’re socialized differently. From a young age, men are taught to be more aggressive, while women taught to be more docile.
According to Dr. Ada Ifesinachukwu, an Austin-based psychiatrist, women tend to have what’s referred to as “inattentive” ADHD, as opposed to “hyperactive” ADHD.
“Most girls have the inattentive type, and they’re usually more quiet and shy, because they’re trying to figure out what’s going on in their minds…[whereas] boys tend to have externalizing behavior, so that tends to be why they come in focus,” she explains.
But using a framework for hyperactive ADHD as a parameter for all individuals with the condition erases those who are struggling with symptoms that may manifest differently. The result is often misdiagnosis; women with ADHD are often told they have mood disorders, anxiety, and or depression. Some experts suggest that a better parameter, then, would be to use the three defining characteristics of ADHD—an interest-based nervous system, emotional hyperarousal, and rejection sensitivity dysphoria—which casts a wider net.
But it’s more complicated even still: Sexist and racist stereotypes also contribute to misdiagnosis in women, especially women of color. According to Dr. Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in gender role development and racial stereotyping, children learn via gendered language, which in turn encourages them to put people in categories in order to process information.
These categories—aka stereotypes—are also applied when diagnosing mental illness. “When people—including teachers—have stereotypes about what ADHD and gender are like, their assumption is that boys are more likely than girls to have ADHD…and then they look at a boy and see a particular behavior and go, ‘Oh! He probably has ADHD.’ They look at a girl who maybe does the exact same behavior, and they make a different assumption,” she explains.
It’s complicated even further by the fact that ADHD is recognized more often in white children than in children of color. Black and Latino people are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and most women of color do not get diagnosed with ADHD until later in life, if they get diagnosed at all.
Dealing with ADHD is nuanced issue that can be incredibly difficult, even with the assistance of medication. After my diagnosis, I found that organizing my space, listening to classical music, reaching out to friends for help, and dividing up work, helped me manage my ADHD in that they help me avoid distractions and procrastination.
Here are some insights as to how I cultivated those habits that have helped me deal with my diagnosis.
Time management and organization
Breaking down tasks into smaller steps and allocating time for each step is an excellent way to manage your time when completing tasks and staying organized. Dedicate ten minutes each day to organizing your desk space.
Avoiding distractions and procrastination
Working in quiet spaces, doing most of your work at home, or working after or before most people have left the office can help a person with ADHD avoid distractions.
Listening to classical music or white noise, and putting your phone away and setting a times to answer calls or emails periodically (rather than at random, all day long) is a great way to stay on top of your work while staying focused.
When it comes to getting motivated, starting an assignment or a project can be the hardest part. Have a friend, trustworthy co-worker, or family member encourage you to begin your work, or create a reward system for yourself to get motivated.
Using a timer to help you divide your work into increments will help keep you motivated through the working process as well. Be sure to giving yourself breaks periodically, and remember that taking time for self-care is necessary to your well-being.