Why Women With ADHD Are More At Risk Of Gaslighting & Coercive Control

Photographed by Jessica Garcia
Tracey thought that she’d met the perfect man. He’d been married before, but the marriage was over. They fell in love quickly and she moved to LA to be with him.
Then everything fell apart: "I discovered a letter from my husband’s ex-wife showing me that they had slept together when my husband-to-be and I were a couple." Tracey’s then husband denied all knowledge of the letter. "When I went to find it, it was gone. He then said I was making things up and imagining it." As this escalated, he started isolating Tracey, falling out with neighbours, being rude to people in restaurants and picking apart her behaviour. "When he got to know my friends, he would tell me, one at a time, how each of them had something wrong with them. Over time, I lost contact with most of my friends."
Tracey’s husband took advantage of the fact she has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), accusing her of losing things and making her question herself. "I would scrabble for words [and] he’d say that he had to 'hurry me', putting more pressure on me." This gradual psychological manipulation to make someone doubt themselves is known as gaslighting and women with ADHD are more at risk than neurotypical women. 
Dr Stephanie Sarkis, a therapist and author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free, says: "I’ve specialised in ADHD for over 20 years, and [have seen] more and more people with ADHD in relationships or working in a place where gaslighting is happening." Laws against coercive control were passed in 2015, meaning that abusive, controlling, threatening behaviour that has a "serious effect" is not only mentally damaging, it's now also recognised as a crime.
Gaslighting is often very gradual, as Dr Sarkis explains. "It feels like someone is accepting them for them, and slowly turns into abuse. People with ADHD can be very vulnerable and have low self-esteem, they feel like they have to change to be accepted. They may unconsciously seek out someone that seems very pulled together, [but] the flip side of that is that those people can be very controlling. It’s part of coercive control."
ADHD is a neurobehavioural disorder which is commonly characterised by impulsivity, inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Despite the disruptive schoolboy stereotype, prevalence is equal among women and men. There are two types of the disorder: hyperactive (what most people think of as ADHD) and inattentive, which manifests as more distractibility or daydreaming and forgetfulness. Because behaviours such as hyperactivity, interrupting conversations and messiness carry a heavier social burden for girls, women with either type of the disorder can often go undiagnosed until their 30s, 40s or even 50s.  

Research shows that by the age of 12, a child with ADHD has heard 20,000 more corrective or critical messages than their neurotypical counterparts.

Research shows that by the age of 12, a child with ADHD has heard 20,000 more corrective or critical messages than their neurotypical counterparts. Likely one of the reasons people with ADHD suffer from low self-esteem, this is also one of the factors that makes them vulnerable to gaslighters. Victoria felt unworthy even before she was ready to get into a relationship: "Teachers would say I was lazy, or didn’t pay attention in class. I believed I was unlovable. I got blamed for a lot, even if I said I hadn’t done it, I wasn’t believed. When I went to my ADHD assessment my biggest fear was that I would be dismissed."
A common aspect of ADHD is executive dysfunction – an inability to prioritise, plan and organise, which also includes problems with memory. Dr Sarkis explains how having ADHD means you are often already at capacity: "You have so many other things going on, you’re being pulled in so many different directions so it’s hard to see that a relationship is taking a turn toward abuse." This plays a significant part in making someone vulnerable, as Victoria says. "Having a bad memory due to ADHD made me question myself even more. My boyfriends would say, 'You’re really scatty, you don’t remember, you forget everything anyway'. I’d think, Did that really happen?"
The impulsivity of ADHD is also a risk factor, as gaslighters will often employ 'lovebombing', a period of intense affection and attention designed to manipulate which can mean throwing caution to the wind. "Gaslighters are very good at making people feel like they belong," says Dr Sarkis. "You’ve been told your whole life you’re not good enough and suddenly someone is telling you you’re amazing." ADHD also makes you more likely to be open and overshare, which can be dangerous with someone who is manipulative.
Tracey found the attention of lovebombing hard to refuse. "He told me how pretty I was, my hair was nice. The minute I was with him, that stopped and the control started. I didn’t even know him, I just wanted to be loved," she says. Dr Sarkis also points out the links with child abuse in people with ADHD. Tracey’s childhood meant that she’d already learned to doubt herself: "My mother would hit me and when I would cry she would ask me what on earth I was crying for, making me question my own sanity. She’d then follow with dinner and cake like nothing had happened." 

Victoria felt unworthy even before she was ready to get into a relationship: 'Teachers would say I was lazy, or didn’t pay attention in class. I believed I was unlovable.'

Emily, 31, married her husband after seven weeks. "I know it sounds stupid – it is stupid – but at the time, it felt romantic and fun. Looking back on it now, I can see my ADHD brain just getting caught up in all the excitement. I’m an oversharer, so my husband very quickly knew all my hopes, dreams, desires and fears." Dr Sarkis says this is a deliberate tactic used by gaslighters. "They start asking very personal questions, they’re not asking you about family difficulties or fears because they care, it’s to collect information." 
Emotional regulation is one aspect of executive dysfunction that an abuser can use to manipulate: "It’s fairly easy to wind us up into a hysterical state where we really do feel out of control. It’s easy to convince us that we are the ones being unreasonable," Emily says. 
For Emily, memory problems added to her lack of confidence. "My memory is pretty bad, so when I’m put on the spot and I need to recall specific examples of something, I sometimes need a minute or two to think about it," she says. "Someone abusive will use that against you. If someone I care about says I’m lying, I worry my brain might be letting me down because after all it has in the past."
After Emily’s husband was physically violent towards her, she went to the police. It was only when writing a witness statement that she realised the extent of the abuse. "As I was writing the statement, I went through all of our chat logs. It took me two days to go through everything, I couldn’t believe how many incidents I’d just forgotten about," she says. Emily lists a series of events, including being violent towards their cat, punching himself in the head repeatedly, and driving home dangerously after a drunken argument. "He told me it was my fault if someone got hurt," she says. "When I saw it all written out in this statement, I was shocked. My brain doesn’t have enough space to remember all the bad things he did to me." 
A hallmark of gaslighting is the abused person feeling like they’re unable to function outside of the relationship. "When I left the relationship in 2016 I was a broken person who was scared of life," Tracey says. "I did not know if I could make it as I had become co-dependent. I would question my own sanity and cry myself to sleep night after night. I now see it was abuse and I was being manipulated."
Victoria’s experiences of being gaslit have made it harder for her to trust people. "I’m less inclined to go out into the world and build new friendships or relationships. I’m scared of confrontation, I put a lot more thought into conversations." She also relies on written communication and having a record of what’s been said: "I do chat a lot more on Messenger, or text, I’ll put thoughts down on there first."

It's easy to convince us that we are the ones being unreasonable.

Dr Sarkis says that knowing about the dangers of gaslighting is essential. "Education is key, to know what these behaviours are. They might take you to counselling because they want you to get fixed. Forgiving yourself is really important, because this abuse starts really slowly – even therapists have had this."
Self-care is a way to mitigate some of the symptoms, and treatment through medication and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) also helps. "Break-ups tend to hit people with ADHD harder, you’re having to deal with crises all the time so you might not take time for yourself," Dr Sarkis says. "Try to get on a good sleep schedule; exercise is the most effective non-medication treatment apart from counselling."  
Building self-esteem and starting to establish boundaries is crucial. "A lot of people aren’t going to understand but you have to limit your contact with those people. ADHD is a genetic issue, you didn’t do anything wrong to have ADHD, you’re born with it." 
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. It's free and completely confidential.

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