By Jeff Emmerson
A woman gave birth to me, and another woman saved me from a life of misery by being there for me during my darkest hour as a young man. Later on, a woman known as my wife was there to see me survive a suicide attempt, and she stood by me through my psych-ward stay, helping me get to where I am now — a freight train of determination to raise adult ADHD awareness worldwide. Women have played vital roles throughout my life, so it’s frustrating when they are overlooked. It’s particularly unfortunate that they are largely ignored when it comes to ADHD diagnoses.
I recently finished “100 Questions &Answers about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Women and Girls” by Dr. Patricia Quinn. It’s a moving book, full of stories, research stats, and insights on how differently women manifest ADHD symptoms and struggle as a result. Yes, I’m a man, so I can only understand the female battle with ADHD up to a point. But I hear stories from women who reach out to me online through my Twitter account, blogs, YouTube, and elsewhere. I regularly hear stories of tragedy, misdiagnoses, depression resulting from delayed diagnoses, and so on.
But why? Why do women tend to be more isolated when it comes to their ADHD symptoms and diagnoses? While research does suggest that ADHD affects more men and boys than women and girls, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a large group of females out there suffering from severe ADHD symptoms — often with very little (if any) support from others.
Gender roles play a huge role in girls and women going undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. In our society, women are under immense pressure to be quiet, gentle, pretty, and a whole host of other stereotypical, media-induced gender norms. It’s no wonder girls and women with ADHD often “cover up” their symptoms, trying to fit in. Talking excessively and being easily distracted are potential red flags for ADHD, but they also aren’t “ladylike,” so they are hidden. Other signs, such as obsessive studying to get great grades, secret battles with anxiety, depression and/or eating disorders, go unnoticed or are chalked up to other conditions. Those cues mesh with how women have been expected to behave for a very long time. So testing for ADHD is skewed to recognize behaviors more natural to boys.
“For women with ADHD, issues relating to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, social rejection and/or isolation, and struggles as a wife and mother to live up to society’s expectations, not to mention the impossible demands of single motherhood, may need to be addressed in individual psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),” writes Dr. Quinn.
There are three co-existing conditions that seem to disproportionately affect women with ADHD. All of us — women themselves as well as we men who couldn’t live without them — should be aware and willing to receive and/or give support when these problems are presented:
Eating Disorders and ADHD: Searching for Control
Eating disorders in girls and women with ADHD appear to be quite common, due to internalizing their symptoms instead of asking for help. “Some girls with ADHD and anxiety stop eating as a means of controlling a world that they see as being out of their control,” writes Dr. Quinn. They try to regain control by becoming obsessive with their eating patterns, and this can easily result in a number of disorders. Some women eat to feel better emotionally; others forget to eat because they are distracted, then overeat once they remember the meals they’ve missed.
Anxiety and ADHD: A Vicious Circle
I recently wrote a post about how fifty percent of adults with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder, so I wasn’t surprised to read that Dr. Quinn also observes a major connection between the two disorders. After all, our minds tend to be hyper, distracted, passionate, and busy! That certainly isn’t rocket science, but research offers much-needed credibility to these truths. The sheer stress of having a mind like ours leads to anxiety. What’s worse is that for women, anxiety is often written off due to a busy schedule or raising multiple children. They may not crumble as easily as men do under the pressure of anxiety, so a diagnosis is harder to find.
Depression and ADHD: One Can Hide the Other
When a doctor treats a woman for depression instead of ADHD, nothing improves. The underlying symptoms aren’t all being dealt with, so the woman will likely still have a very hard time in other areas of life, which no pill for depression will fix. She may develop coping skills to help carve out her niche in life to get by, but for many the band-aid depression diagnosis can be destructive, if not deadly. The woman is led to believe she’s “cured” of the depression only to have other ADHD symptoms creep up and sabotage everything she worked so hard to fix.
The fairer sex deserves so much more from society! They go on to be the mothers, the leaders, the healers, and the “rocks” of their families. But who’s there to be their rocks?
We have to keep this awareness building. Millions of lives literally depend on it. Girls and women are suffering in silence, and that just won’t do. ADHD affects all of us, and this is an all-for-one, one-for-all kind of battle. It’s time to say “We’re with you, ladies.”