How To Tell If You Have Adult ADD Or If Life Is Just Really Hard

by Emily McCombs

Adulting, with or without Adult ADD, is pretty much the worst.

Being a grownup is some no-good, terrible sh*t. Going to the post office, paying bills, making a phone call -- these are my equivalent of those spider-in-a-box "Fear Factor" challenges. In fact, one of the greatest things about technology today IMO is how quickly it's eliminating the need to talk to anyone on the phone (shout-out to Seamless, ZocDoc, Uber, etc).

But things have always seemed to be just a little bit harder for me than they were for everyone else. And it wasn't until I was diagnosed with ADD at 31 that I realized why.

Not too long before I was diagnosed, I was on my way to a routine doctor's appointment for a prescription refill. I was running late, so I hurried out of the subway to where I believed my appointment to be. Except, oops, that address was actually my gynecologist's office.

Now REALLY late and a little frantic, I got back on the train and rode to the correct office, thinking about how this kind of thing always happens to me, and I'm such a screw-up, and what the hell was wrong with me anyway? 

“I'm sorry, I'm really late,” I told the receptionist. “I hope you can still fit me in.”

I signed in and sat down, figuring I'd probably have to wait awhile now that I'd missed my time slot. While I was waiting, I took the opportunity to say something weird and random to the dude next to me ("YOU LIVE IN APT 3C? I LIVE IN 3C TOO!”), which is also kind of ADD-related because sometimes I blurt things out impulsively. His non-response made me feel like that weird girl in grade school who was always chewing on her own hair.

Now, feeling like a weirdo and a f*ckup, I spent about 10 minutes of chilling in my own personal shame bubble, until the receptionist informed me that my appointment? The one I'd raced to get to and gone to wrong building for and shown up over half an hour late to? It was actually next week. WOMP WOMP, TWIST ENDING, M. NIGHT SHYAMALANED!

Of course, everyone, ADD or not, has days like that. We all have days when we f*ck up epically in like five different ways, when we make mistakes and get overwhelmed by basic tasks. But for me, EVERY day was sort of like that.

I had trouble not only showing up on time to the right place on the right day, but handling basic tasks like opening my mail and keeping track of my belongings. It felt like I was always making a mistake, always missing a crucial detail, always forgetting commitments and losing things and generally screwing everything up.

I began to internalize the idea of myself as someone who couldn't do anything right, no matter how hard she tried. I must be stupid or careless or lazy; what other explanation could there be?

This is pretty common for women. Because ADHD is thought of as a “little boy's disease,” and because the disorder presents itself differently in women, we often slip through the cracks of childhood diagnosis. Although there are exceptions, boys and men with ADHD tend to present more on the “hyperactive” side, while women are generally more “inattentive.” Teachers and parents are a lot more likely to notice and diagnose a little boy who can't sit still at his desk than a little girl who just seems a little dreamy and absentminded.

And if, like I was, you're smart enough to be high-achieving in school and at work, you're even less likely to get diagnosed before adulthood.

Many people with high IQs and ADD manage to come up with coping mechanisms that help us scrape by despite our disorder. I worked very hard to make up for my natural disorganization. Then I got older and my responsibilities multiplied and all of a sudden my systems stopped working. Hard work and talent wasn't enough to hold it together anymore.

Like many women, I internalized the belief that I was inherently defective. How else could I explain that my best efforts didn't seem to make a dent in my inability to manage my responsibilities?

I would write down appointments in both a paper planner and my Google calendar, and then set an alarm on my iPhone to remind me in decreasing increments to go to an appointment or complete a task, and I would still forget to do whatever I was supposed to do. I lived in a state of perma-cringe, always wondering when I was about to realize I had forgotten something important again. I got used to the queasy drop-bottom feeling in my stomach that always accompanied the words “I forgot.”

Depression and anxiety goes hand-in-hand with ADD in women for just that reason. How can you not feel anxious when you're constantly worried you're forgetting something or making a mistake? And how can you not feel depressed when things that seem to come naturally to other people feel impossible for you?

My symptoms reached the level of unendurable after becoming a mom. This is pretty typical: Women with Adult ADD are often finally diagnosed after a major life change like getting married or having children, when they are suddenly forced to juggle even more responsibilities than before.

In addition to missing appointments, I legitimately couldn't manage my email or voicemails. To be honest, I still have trouble with the latter. My therapist has learned she has to text me with cancellations and such due to my extreme voicemail phobia. My emails used to pile up while I stared at the unread messages, paralyzed. I think it was the realization that each opened email would likely lead to some sort of action item or task that would surely be too overwhelming for me to complete.

My domestic life was a mess. Kind of literally. I couldn't seem to notice spills and messes the same way other people could. I'd get red lipstick on my hand and smear it all over the light switch and never even notice. I'd leave the freezer open and melt all my sugar-free popsicles. I couldn't cook or clean without leaving the job unfinished or getting distracted by something extraneous like color-coding my bookshelf when the rest of the room was in shambles.

A lot of people with ADD actually hyper-focus on things that are interesting to them, which helps explain why I could perform at my job that I was passionate about. But when it came to household duties, which are pretty boring to everyone, my brain somehow just couldn't latch on.

I felt so absent-minded and forgetful that I legitimately started to wonder if I might have a brain tumor.

When I brought this up, several people actually mentioned that what I was experiencing sounded like pretty classic ADD symptoms, but I ultimately chalked it all up to being a new mom. Who wouldn't be a little scattered with a new baby and the lack of sleep that came with him?

But by the time my son was four, it hadn't really gotten any better. And it started to negatively affect my relationships. People in my life assumed that I was just being careless, and I didn't know how to convince them that I was desperately trying to improve. I tried to pay attention. I tried to focus. But I never really made any progress. Honestly, how do you MAKE YOURSELF remember stuff?

I kept making a zillion small daily errors and walking around in a state of perma-anxiety, waiting to find out what I'd screwed up this time. It's a big part of why my last relationship ended.

That's another big difference between Adult ADD/ADHD and typical life struggles. A regular person might have trouble paying attention to boring things or forget things sometimes, but those of us with ADD find ourselves having negative life consequences as a result, like the inability to hold down a job or function in relationships with friends and partners.

Once I finally started seriously considering that I might have ADHD and started Googling, I found stories from other women that mirrored my experience exactly. Other women who had slipped through the cracks because their disease didn't look the same way it does in most boys.

I found out that women with ADD are also “likely to suffer from eating disorders, obesity, low self-esteem, depression and anxiety,” as well as substance abuse, all of which I'd experienced. I found that men's symptoms are more often a problem at work, while women often have more trouble at home. I found out that other women also internalized their symptoms, seeing themselves as inherently defective, just like I had.

So I found a doctor who specialized in Adult ADHD, got evaluated, and was diagnosed almost immediately with inattentive type ADD.

After so many years of defining myself as f*ck-up girl, it was such a relief I could have cried. I finally had an explanation that wasn't just that I was stupid or careless. (One of the classic books about adult ADD sums it up in the title: "You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!: The Classic Self-Help Book for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder.")

I take medication now, which has changed my life, and integrate organizational strategies into my routine, like the giant dry erase calendar that lives on my front door so I can see exactly what my day's tasks are as I leave the house.

The last thing I see on my way out the door.

Progress is not perfection. Some days I measure my progress in half-victories -- I remembered to take the garbage out of my apartment, but then I left it outside my apartment door. Or I made a sign for my door reminding me to take my lunch, noticed it, photographed it for Instagram and forgot to take the actual lunch. On one not-so-great day recently, I absentmindedly sprayed bleach all over a stain on my tank top instead of Resolve.

But in the weeks after I started treatment, other people started to notice a change.

“You don't interrupt me anymore,” my boyfriend said one day, something I had no idea I'd been doing. “You used to get so excited you'd just talk over me and sometimes you'd remember and go back to what I was saying but not always.”

“You seem like a totally different parent,” said one of my mom friends on the playground, as I yelled to my kid to stay in my sightline. “You're making me think maybe I need medication.”

Indeed, I felt present in a new way, especially as a parent. I could sit and play with my son comfortably without needing the stimulation of constantly looking at my phone. I could sit comfortably in general or stand in a line without feeling like I was about to jump out of my skin.

I could even follow the plots of movies better. I actually never realized how little I understood complicated movie plots until I started taking medication -- kind of like the way you don't know you can't see until you get glasses. Before medication, I would sometimes "tune in" somewhere in the middle of a movie and realize I forgotten to pay attention for long enough that I no longer knew what was happening.

But best of all, I'm slowly starting to let go of the painful self-image I developed as "f*ck-up girl." I do make fewer mistakes now, but even when I do make them, just knowing the reason behind it makes me feel a million times better. I'm sometimes disorganized, sometimes scattered, sometimes forgetful or impulsive, but I'm not a bad person. I never was.