I’ve always felt different. Growing up, I experienced the world in technicolour. While I was hardworking and hyperattentive at school, presenting as having lots of different, intense interests, internally I struggled. I was infamous for emotional outbursts and heightened reactions, and I often felt as though I couldn’t switch my brain off. I used to chatter to my parents for hours on end and I enjoyed talking so much that I would beg to read my book aloud in the car. My brain has always been different.
Critically, ADHD manifests differently in women and girls. Suffering with mental hyperactivity and inattentiveness rather than physical hyperactivity, the ratio of male to female diagnosis is unbalanced: one girl is diagnosed for every three boys. Female-specific symptoms include difficulty maintaining focus, daydreaming, appearing withdrawn, being disorganised, messy and forgetful, being verbally impulsive and hypertalkative, or sensitive to noise and fabrics. Emotional responses disproportionately impact women and girls with ADHD and can present as being hyperreactive or hypersensitive (termed rejection sensitive dysphoria).
As a result, many are lost in the system. I first visited my GP with symptoms of ADHD when I was 18. Dismissed as a combination of anxiety and depression, my symptoms were missed completely. Flitting between a cocktail of beta blockers, citalopram and sertraline, nothing seemed to work. This year I finally received answers. Diagnosed with combined ADHD at the age of 23, the years of confusion instantaneously fell away. However, the journey towards diagnosis was anything but smooth.
In 2020 a family member was diagnosed with ADHD. Immediately I felt unsettled. Upon researching the condition, I realised that I resonated with every single symptom. I shut my laptop, blinded by the stigma attached to it. This couldn’t be me; I didn’t want it to be me.
After months of shutting it out, I realised it was time to seek a diagnosis. I couldn’t bury my head in the sand. During the second lockdown, my symptoms were heightened: confined to the house, I struggled with the upheaval of routine, desperately craving the light that human contact gave me. My brain was running on a dopamine deficit and lockdown had removed a critical source of it from my life. I became even more messy and disorganised but couldn’t get on top of it. Spending so much time in my own head, I started to understand my brain.
Referring myself to my doctor through the Psychiatry-UK Right To Choose programme, I dodged the lengthy NHS waiting lists. The health services are increasingly overwhelmed and it can take up to two years to receive a diagnosis under adult care. With private treatment costing anywhere between £300 and £500, it is unaffordable for many. An administrative-financial loophole, under the Right To Choose programme the NHS will fund the cost of a private assessment, allowing patients who cannot afford it to proceed at a quicker pace.
From the day the penny dropped to the day I finally received my diagnosis, I was open with my mum about my ADHD journey. We’ve always had a very close relationship and I’ve never hidden anything from her. Sitting her down with a cup of tea one evening, I opened up to her. Expecting to be met with a wall of questions and confusion, instead she revealed that she’d been embarking on her own ADHD journey. It’s no surprise: ADHD can be genetic and between one third and one half of parents with ADHD will pass it on to their children.
Each journey towards a diagnosis is unique and my mum and I have different stories. My immediate reaction to recognising the symptoms in myself was to seek a diagnosis; my mum has a different perspective on the matter. At 51 she’s concerned that a diagnosis would open up a can of worms: she too has experienced symptoms of ADHD for her entire life so seeking help now almost feels like too little, too late. A lifetime of debt, emotional outbursts and chaotic instability feels too much for her to bear. I’ve experienced similar emotions of regret: if I’d sought answers sooner, would I have performed better at school? Would I have embarked on that toxic relationship or gained some savings rather than maxing out my overdraft?
There’s no cure for ADHD, only understanding. Treatment can be offered in the form of medication or psychotherapy but there’s no one way to conquer it. People with ADHD learn to adapt and thrive. My mum has accepted that her brain is colourful and has learned to understand her characteristics without a diagnosis. She is the way she is and always has been; as am I. The only difference is that I have the paperwork.
Differing outlooks aside, this journey has transformed my relationship with my mum. As a teenager raging with hormones, our relationship floundered – as many between mothers and daughters do at this age. I was experiencing emotional outbursts so intense that I struggled to stay calm. My mum was much the same and we frequently clashed heads. I couldn’t keep my room clean for the life of me and I was often up late doing homework that I’d left to the last minute. My symptoms were undoubtedly the worst they’ve ever been at this point.
Now, what were previously sources of tension are sources of joy. If I’m ever messy, my mum laughs it off with a simple: "That ADHD, eh?" If she’s ever short, I understand why. Now we have an explanation, we no longer take things personally. It’s prevented so much conflict.
Mum and I aren’t the only ones going through this journey together. Bev works as an education development officer with Psychiatry-UK. Diagnosed with ADHD as an adult after both her son and daughter were diagnosed, she too refrained from seeking help. "After my daughter was diagnosed, quite a few people had mentioned that they thought I showed traits but I wasn’t prepared for a positive diagnosis. I was worried that my employers would think I was a liability." Eventually, after a mountain of paperwork and months of waiting, Bev received the diagnosis she had previously been so reluctant to seek. "It made sense. I could understand why I had made such impulsive, reckless decisions as a young woman. I did wonder what my life would have been like if I had received a diagnosis as a child but I realised that I am where I am because of ADHD. I have still achieved."
Bev’s diagnosis has also brought her closer to her daughter, who was diagnosed at the age of 22. "As I learned about ADHD, I was able to understand her better. I felt as though I could see where certain situations or problems could arise and try to coach her through them."
ADHD lifestyle, wellbeing and EFT coach and host of The ADHD Women’s Wellbeing Podcast, Kate Moryoussef, has had a similar experience. A mother of four, she was first exposed to ADHD after observing her 9-year-old daughter’s learning behaviours. "It was while I was home-schooling her that I realised how hard it was for her to sit and focus and concentrate. She literally couldn’t sit on a chair and work. It was when we saw her with our own eyes that I started to research more about ADHD in girls." Kate realised that she related to much of the diagnostic criteria. "This is what I was, too." Eventually, she and her daughter received their diagnoses within a week of each other. It was a watershed moment. "It’s definitely brought us closer. I try to focus on all her strengths and emphasise the positives of her ADHD. It’s allowed me to observe the ADHD traits in my extended family too – now, I understand my mum a lot more!"
The discourse surrounding ADHD tends to focus on the negatives. The narrative is directed towards what ADHD brains struggle with, rather than where they thrive. Now that I’ve received my diagnosis, I understand that my brain wields the potential to do wonderful things. I can hyperfocus on an activity I enjoy for hours and spend days enthusiastically researching a new topic of interest. I experience a spectrum of emotion so profound that I love wildly, and so deeply.
Better still, my relationship with my mum has grown stronger and our emotional bond more intense. We’ve connected with the respective parts of ourselves that we previously failed to navigate and now that we’ve pieced the puzzle together, we understand each other’s responses. We can listen to each other prattle on about our interests for hours, and fuel each other’s goals. I always knew that our relationship was close but now it’s even closer. Our emotions are one and the same. That’s a beautiful thing.