Undiagnosed ADHD in Adulthood - Next Step Counseling

When my therapist gently suggested the diagnosis of ADHD, my first thought was that he was crazy. How could I–a 28-year-old woman who made it through undergrad and into grad school—have ADHD? I was smart! I was getting decent grades! ADHD was for little boys who are too hyperactive to sit still in their 2nd grade classrooms. Yet even as I was fighting against the idea, something in my bones immediately felt it to be true. I didn’t want to accept it because of what it would represent. If this was true, it would mean that my entire academic background would have had an explanation all along. It would mean that all those years I spent in school daydreaming, or hyperfixating, or tuning out…all those hours I put into trying to stay organized, trying not to forget/lose important items, all that time being ashamed and feeling like a mess…maybe some of that could’ve been helped. It was too painful to realize I didn’t have to be playing on “hard mode” my whole life while everybody else seemed to be cruising on the “easy” setting. I began to mourn for the life I could have had. The support I could’ve utilized if someone had realized sooner. Being a grad school student when making this realization, I was learning about all of the accommodations that could’ve been afforded to me and made my life so much easier, and so much less shameful. Then I began to ask the question: how? How was this missed for so long? And then I began to learn…

ADHD in Girls and Women

What I quickly learned is that this experience wasn’t unique to me. In fact, this is very common experience for lots of girls growing up with ADHD. No, really…LOTS of girls. “Some studies estimate that as many as 50% to 75% of girls with ADHD are missed. Worse, girls with ADHD are diagnosed on average five years later than boys.” It kills me that there are so many girls who are missing out on all of the benefits that come with a formal diagnosis.

Why Women are Underdiagnosed

I started to explore reasons behind this extreme underdiagnosing. For one thing, girls are more likely to have the ‘inattentive’ type of ADHD vs. boys, who are more likely to have ‘hyperactive’ type. Hyperactive type is generally easier to spot, and educators are more likely to know what to look for. Apart from just that, girls tend to spend lots of energy finding ways to overcompensate for their symptoms. In Neurodivergent Speak, we call this “masking”. Girls tend to be more effective maskers. Girls are socialized from a young age to modify their behavior in order to meet the expectations of those around them, especially teachers and parents. In other words, they are more likely to be people-pleasers, even early on. Unfortunately, the more they modify their behavior and compensate to fit the norm, the more difficult they are making it on themselves to get the help they so desperately need. But don’t be fooled– the more successful she seems on the outside, the more likely it is that she is battling daily internal struggles. People may refer to her as ditzy, aloof or even lazy, but she is likely exerting twice as much effort as her neurotypical counterparts, just to find equal footing. In short, she is exhausted.

Signs You may be Living with Undiagnosed ADHD

Since my diagnosis, I’ve been stuck on the idea of all these other women living in the dark the way I was. Fumbling around in the pitch black, without even realizing those around them are moving around comfortably with the lights on. Most of us are not even made aware of this possibility as an explanation for our hardships. If you think you may fall into this category, here are some signs you should get an assessment to rule out ADHD:

  • Constantly losing or misplacing things. Even important items that are necessary for daily life (i.e. keys, wallet, purse, etc.)
  • Memory problems and forgetfulness. This is an often overlooked symptom of ADHD, especially in adults.
  • Disorganization. You may have developed a system that works for you some of the time, but it often fails you. What works flawlessly one day, may be completely ineffective the next.
  • Difficulty planning ahead. You may be great at being in the moment and going with the flow, but sometimes lack the foresight to plan for events in the future.
  • Difficulty getting back to people. Life’s many distractions seem to grab hold of you and make keeping in touch with people feel like a constant whack-a-mole that you never win.
  • Overlooking details. You’re a big-picture kind of person (which is great!) but the details can tend to get missed.
  • Time Blindness. Over or under estimating how long a task will take you. Then, once you get going, forgetting time is passing altogether. This unpredictability may cause chronic lateness.
  • Hyperfocus. My personal favorite. When something grabs your attention, it really GRABS it. It can be extremely difficult to tear yourself away once you’re in the thick of it. This can feel like a blessing and a curse.

Benefits of a Diagnosis

The good news is ADHD is widely considered one of the most treatable conditions. Which makes it even more frustrating that people are not being diagnosed early! Treatment can make life much feel so more bearable and more under control. So while I missed out on the benefits for all those years, I’m now making up for lost time. For me, this diagnosis opened up a whole new world to me.

Here are some of the ways my life improved just by learning this crucial piece of information about myself:

  • Understanding. Understanding myself and my brain on a whole new level. Suddenly things that had puzzled me for years about myself finally made sense. It truly felt like a light switch clicking on, and being able to see myself clearly for the first time.
  • Self-compassion. I began feeling less frustrated with myself for mistakes I used to beat myself up over. I have more compassion for my experience being neurodivergent in a world completely structured around neurotypical people.
  • Adjustment of expectations. I began to accept that certain things will just never “click” for me. I can stop waiting for the “aha” moment and set more realistic expectations for myself.
  • The ability to ask for support. Now that things make sense, and I’ve figured out where the gaps are in my mind, I am more able to utilize those around me to fill those gaps in. I began to lean on my neurotypical husband for tasks that seem to come incredibly easily to him. I don’t need to struggle for hours over something he can easily accomplish in minutes. I can pick up the slack in other ways that are more suited to my cognition.
  • Community! I found other women. SO many other women whose stories sounded like they could’ve come out of my mouth word-for-word. I listen to their frustrations and share my own; I take advice from the methods that have worked for them, and offer mine in return; we share tools and resources and podcast episodes and movie characters that remind us of ourselves. We laugh about our forgetfulness and share memes about the struggles. This alone has been life-altering.
  • Resources. I’ve found so many useful resources that aid me in my daily life. My favorite has been a lovely podcast called “ADHD for Smart Ass Women”, which highlights all of the best parts of having a brain that works in this way. Link included under resources if you’d like to give it a listen! I’ve also included a YouTube channel “How to ADHD” that has been very informative.
  • Medication. Let me be clear–this is a very personal choice for each person to make on their own with their therapist and/or doctor. Medication is not the solution for everyone. For me, medication has single-handedly made the biggest effect on my ability to function in the world on a daily basis. Talk therapy has helped me to find acceptance of myself, daily strategies have helped keep me on track, but medicine is what brings me to a level that feels remotely on par with the rest of the world.

ADHD and Superpowers

Don’t live in the dark! Having ADHD has been hard. But learning I have ADHD has been enlightening, rewarding, and altogether life-altering. If not for this knowledge, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate all of the superpowers that come with having my unique brain. My ability to roll with the punches, to live in the moment, to use my imagination, to dream and innovate, to be creative, to be endlessly fascinated and entertained by my hobbies…the list is just as long as my difficulties. There are so many women missing out on this eye-opening information. If anything in this writing resonated with you, or reminds you of someone you care about, please consider making an appointment with us or psychiatrist to discuss the likelihood of ADHD. Who knows what world of possibilities could be waiting for you if you do.


Podcast: ADHD for Smart Ass Women

YouTube: How to ADHD

Blog: Why ADHD is Underdiagnosed in Girls

Article: ADHD Looks Different in Women. Here’s How – and Why