7 Things Women With ADHD Really Want You To Know

We talk to host Grace Timothy, host of a new podcast about ADHD, about the facts they don't tell us at school.
With roughly 2 million women living undiagnosed in the UK, it's time we talked up about adult ADHD.
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With roughly 2 million women living undiagnosed in the UK, it's time we talked up about adult ADHD.

What’s the first image that comes to mind when someone says ‘ADHD’ to you? Let’s be honest, it’s probably not an emotional and disorganised woman, but the kind of feral five-year-old boy you’d expect to find wreaking havoc in his family home on an episode of Supernanny, while a shattered parent cries in the corner.

With so much of the diagnostic criteria and research into ADHD centred around the male experience, that’s not surprising. In fact, NICE guidelines were only amended to recognise the ways in which girls and women with ADHD might present differently to boys and men in 2018.

More likely to be daydreamers than disruptive students, so many girls – like me – slip under the radar at school.

Grace Timothy is one of many adult women trying to get her head around what diagnosis means, having only received hers aged 37. In her new podcast, Is It My ADHD?, she seeks valuable insight from experts in the area, and chats to a range of different guests each week including journalist Anita Bhagwandas, skincare expert Caroline Hirons, and author Dr Pragya Agarwal.

“When I was diagnosed with ADHD I was really confused,” Timothy tells me. “The first thing that I thought of was a little boy, running up the walls, totally unable to contain his energy – and I was most definitely not that child.

“Now it’s really clear to me that even as children, women are more likely to internalise their impulses than men. As young girls at school, we were less overtly hyperactive, and would present as more distracted, daydreaming, and inattentive.”

Grace Timothy: "Even as children, women are more likely to internalise their impulses than men."
Grace Timothy: "Even as children, women are more likely to internalise their impulses than men."

Dr Tony Lloyd, chief executive of The ADHD Foundation, says Timothy’s experience isn’t uncommon. “Because of this lack of understanding and knowledge, girls with ADHD are often wrongly labelled as ditsy and chatterboxes throughout their adolescent years, and are therefore overlooked at a critical juncture in their lives,” he tells HuffPost UK.

Unsurprisingly, this has a big impact on living with ADHD as an adult. Here are seven common experiences Timothy and I talked through around our ADHD.

Filtering out distractions is a big challenge

ADHD can feel a bit like having no filter. I struggle not to slip into daydreaming when I’m working as my mind is my biggest distraction. But also, as I write this, I’ve got noise cancelling headphones on (though I’m playing no music) because even the faint sound of traffic can be the only thing I focus on. Also, all the bulbs in my house are amber-hued because I find bright white light really unsettling.

The filter issue crops up in other ways, too, such as me not properly filtering my thoughts. I’m forever sharing too much personal information in workplaces, swearing at inappropriate times, and not correctly gauging my audience before I open my mouth. To be honest, I spend most journeys back from social engagements cringing at my own social awkwardness!

Depression and anxiety are common co-morbidities

Frequently overwhelmed, hyper emotional, and often in a world of my own, I spent my adolescent years clocking up a range of psychiatric diagnoses, and sampling the majority of antidepressants the NHS had on offer.

Even since I got my diagnosis, I’ve had to receive help at times for other mental health conditions. Similar struggles comes up in the conversations Timothy has on the podcast.

“The range of co-morbidities with ADHD is massive,” she says. “Depression and anxiety are huge across the board, and it’s partly not just the chemical issues, but also feeling like you don’t fit in with ADHD, and having to battle against your natural impulses.

“A lot of people I’d spoken to had reached some kind of crisis point – whether in education, or as an adult in terms of marriage breakdown.”

Friendships and relationships can be hard to maintain

Fearing failure and rejection, being forgetful of special occasions, and being inconsistent with effort levels means women with ADHD often struggle with interpersonal relationships. Timothy has found friendships a particular feat.

“Probably my main resentment towards ADHD is that I’ve let a lot of women down who I care about deeply,” she says. “I’ve put everything into a relationship and then backed out without meaning to, or forgotten to check in with them because they weren’t right in front of me.” This is definitely something I relate to. I can quite honestly count my friends on one hand.

Clinical psychologist Dr Jo Steer, the author of Understanding ADHD in Girls and Women, is well versed in the impact ADHD can have on a woman’s relationships. “Typically presenting with emotional hypersensitivity and mood instability, it’s not uncommon for women with ADHD to struggle with retaining friendships and relationships. In fact, individuals with ADHD face double the risk of marital separation and divorce than the average person,” she adds.

Managing time can be a real problem

At school, I always found it annoying that no one seemed to realise quite how hard I was working. Yes, I’d shown up 10 minutes late and forgotten my exercise book, but what my teachers didn’t know was that it was taking me twice as long as my friends to do any homework assignments. Often I had to read a page of any textbook three times just to get it to go into my head.

‘Time blindness’ is common, and means that no matter how hard we try, many women with ADHD will struggle to correctly estimate how long a task or journey will take them. This leads to lateness and, understandably, resentment.

However, Dr Jo Steer adds that “women with ADHD often work well when there is the pressure of a deadline, as they don’t have the scope to be such perfectionists.”

Attention levels are inconsistent, rather than absent

You’d be wrong to assume that women with ADHD can’t ever focus. In fact, sometimes we focus too much! When something interests us, we can be almost obsessively productive. But mundane admin tasks and things that don’t excite our brains can be a real struggle. As Timothy puts it: “I just have a lower tolerance for things that bore me.”

Dr Jo Steer adds: “Women with ADHD mainly struggle with inconsistency when it comes to their attention levels, and are more likely to change jobs if they feel bogged down by admin. There are times when they are very engaged and focused, but at other times they just can’t get started. This kind of inconsistency means they often miss deadlines, and get unfairly labelled as lazy or scatty.”

Not knowing you have ADHD is the problem, not ADHD

“The majority of women with ADHD are being left behind,” says Dr Tony Lloyd, speaking on behalf of The ADHD Foundation. “The scientific evidence relating to the impact of undiagnosed, untreated ADHD on physical health, psychological health, employment, and economic independence is unequivocal.”

The results of a new study, due to be released in May, confirm this, he says. They showed that 90% of females awaiting a diagnosis had pervasive levels of anxiety, and 66% of those were experiencing depression.

But there are also quite a few positives

As with all things, it’s not all bad. With an ADHD brain comes surprising benefits. Typically creative thinkers, willing to take risks, conversational, and mentally resilient, we’re just like neurotypical people – but better! Not sure if you agree?

Tell that to Simone Biles and her four Olympic gold medals …

Help and support:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
  • CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org
Grace Timothy's podcast is all about hearing the experiences of women with ADHD
Grace Timothy's podcast is all about hearing the experiences of women with ADHD