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When I think about the “ideal woman,” I default to an image of a toned, well-dressed, tidy-homed, meal-planning woman who manages to juggle work, home, and family without dropping any of the balls, without constant overwhelm.
She’s a fantastic cook, her emotions rarely get the best of her, and she remembers that Sawyer’s birthday is this weekend and Allie’s science project is due on Tuesday. Basically, she’s Donna Reed with a career.
I know logically that this is irrational bullsh*t. I know the standards women are held to are impossible and damaging and the result of living in a patriarchal society.
I also know that many of us suffer from these idealized versions of women that we’re sold.
For women with ADHD—and likely those with other invisible brain differences or illnesses—this standard is crushing.
Because we often feel we’re the opposite of that idealized version. We’re disorganized, messy, forgetful, daydreamy. We’re bright but underemployed. We might be haunted by stacks of discarded dreams. We may leave trails of abandoned careers, plans, and relationships in our wake.
We’re not usually physically hyperactive—although if you could peer into our brains, you’d say otherwise. Our thoughts pinball around, though our bodies don’t fit the gendered stereotype ADHD brings to mind—a disruptive elementary school-aged boy in constant, chaotic motion.
Instead of acting out, we tend to act in, internalizing our struggles. We’re handed messages our entire lives, by parents, teachers, lovers, friends: You’re undisciplined. You’re not living up to your potential. You’re spacey, fickle, chatty. You lack follow-through.
When we hear this enough times, we become convinced that it’s true. We come to believe we’re broken, wrong, lazy, stupid, unmotivated.
We swallow these phrases, and they become our inner voice: You’re just not trying hard enough, the Greek chorus in our minds chant. You’re just not good enough.
If we’re not vigilant, if we don’t get help, if we don’t channel our wild enthusiasm into learning new ways of being, this remains our inner voice. It becomes a well-worn groove in our minds, a needle that drags across an old record: You’re behind. You’re a crappy parent. You should be able to handle this. It’s 5 p.m. and you have no idea what’s for dinner—again. You’re. Not. Good. Enough.
I first suspected I had ADHD when I was 20 and suffering from depression. Like many things in my life, it slid to the back burner for a few more decades. My healthcare providers and I focused on triaging the depression and anxiety.
But even with medication, therapy, exercise, and meditation, my life continued to feel unmanageable: I was chronically disorganized, leaving a tangled trail of papers, books, and clothes behind me. When I was younger, I told myself I didn’t mind the mess, but in truth, the chaos of my surroundings both paralyzed and cocooned me. It symbolized what it felt like in my brain: jumbled, sluggish, cacophonous.
Rather than understanding that my brain had structural and chemical variances that caused me to struggle with organization, I simply believed that I was, both literally and metaphorically, a mess.
My emotions were chaotic, too. I experienced feelings as storms that flooded my brain, overwhelming me. Our emotions are important sources of information, but they probably shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat.
Still, I functioned in the world. The difficulties I experienced went largely unseen. In retrospect, I’m awed by how hard I must’ve worked to appear like I was keeping up. No wonder I’ve felt tired for as long as I can remember. Sure, I flitted from job to job and my goals changed often. But I was smart, and I often excelled at jobs I was overqualified for, at least until I got bored or made careless mistakes.
It was only in midlife, as I tried to balance motherhood, work, marriage, and a household, that I realized my constant overwhelm was a symptom of ADHD. That life didn’t need to be as hard as it’d always felt.
This is the heartbreak for women with undiagnosed ADHD: we come to believe that we are deeply, severely flawed.
But having ADHD does not mean we’re broken. It’s not even a mental illness.
ADHD is an impairment of the executive functioning systems of the brain that affects skills like organization, working memory, decision-making, prioritizing, and sequencing.
It’s a developmental disorder that affects our ability to regulate our emotions and attention. If a topic doesn’t interest us, our attention drifts. When our interest is sparked, though, watch out! We become hyper-focused, unable to think of anything but our current obsession. We might lose hours down a rabbit hole research project on tiny houses or minimalism, yet we struggle to find the momentum to tackle the bills piling up on the kitchen counter.
When we do muster up the courage to seek help, we’re often told we have anxiety or depression, or bipolar disorder. When treatment for those things doesn’t help, or it helps a little but not enough, we again question ourselves.
This occurs partly because it’s hard to tease out the differences between anxiety, depression, and ADHD, and co-morbidity is common. Symptoms can overlap. To complicate things, we may have picked up addictions as coping mechanisms along the way. We work hard, yet we often continue to struggle, because the root issue—our struggle to regulate our attention, thinking, and emotions— has never been addressed.
With the help of medication and therapy, I’m gradually learning to prioritize, organize and motivate myself.
But lately, I’ve been wondering how things might’ve been different if I’d been diagnosed with ADHD as a child, or even in my 20s or 30s. What might’ve I accomplished? How many books would I have written? How much calmer a parent might I have been?
What might I have been capable of if I hadn’t believed I was broken?
These are uncomfortable questions to sit with, but this pondering seems necessary. I’m grieving this alternate version of myself, while also making space for what is. For what might come next.
In addition to our struggles, women with ADHD tend to also be creative. Hilarious. Imaginative. Empathetic, enthusiastic, innovative.
I’m slowly deconstructing that internalized version of the ideal woman that I’ve been holding onto all these years. To be honest, that woman? She’s a bit boring.
Instead, I’m working to revise the image I hold in my mind, the woman I strive to be:
She’s messy and brimming with love. She’s not sure what’s for dinner, but she’ll come up with something. She’s a loving mother, friend, wife, daughter. She’s a hard worker. She radiates warmth and possibility and connection. She’s not afraid to forge her own path, even if it looks different than most. She knows what it’s like to struggle, and she harnesses her challenging experiences to help others.
And slowly, she’s learning to take all that love and grace that she beams to those she loves, and shine it back on herself.