ADHD: “The liberation of being diagnosed as a 30-year-old woman”

Posted by for People

Blogger Penny Jarrett didn’t find out she had ADHD until she was 30. Here, she explains the positive impact the diagnosis has had on her life, and why the condition is so often misdiagnosed – particularly in women. 

Billie Piper says:

I want to hear more about mental health in women, because we can be so good at hiding things and mental health issues often go under the radar in young girls. What is it really like to live with something that affects your daily life and progress? 

Penny Jarrett says:

I knew nothing about mental health, neurological differences or brain disorders. Then, two years ago, at the age of 30, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

Whenever I’d heard of ADHD, I associated it with hyperactive and disruptive schoolboys. On my journey to understanding the disorder and myself, I was actually told by more than one medical professional that ADHD is, in fact, something only young boys have and that they “grow out” of it by the time they hit puberty.

As I thought back to all of the ways in which ADHD had manifested itself in my life and practically crippled certain areas of it, I realised that unless a woman has their own understanding of the disorder before diagnosis, it is highly likely that she will be overlooked or misdiagnosed with anxiety, depression or both.

ADHD is complex and it manifests itself differently in girls and boys. Because an ADHD brain is always understimulated, those with the condition find it hard to hold focus on one thing at a time and often act on impulse.

While boys usually seek stimulation outwardly, appearing hyperactive, girls often experience this intense search for stimuli inwardly. Then, because negative thoughts and feelings are the most stimulating, they’re more likely to struggle with low self-esteem, eating disorders, addictions, emotional dysregulation, hyperreactivity, rejection-sensitive dysphoria and abusive relationships.

Before my diagnosis, I struggled with all of the above massively. They controlled and ruined a large portion of my life. And this explains why 50% of teenage girls with combined type ADHD (inattention and hyperactivity) self-harm, and 50% of diagnosed women have considered suicide.

When I found out I had ADHD, it was one of – if not the most – liberating times of my life. I didn’t realise how alone I felt until I realised I wasn’t. I finally ‘got’ myself and knew there were people out there who did, too. That gave me great relief and comfort. I started to peel away layers of self-hatred and guilt and focused my attention on learning how to manage my differences.

I have spoken to hundreds of women of all ages who, after reading my blog (pennyjarrett.wordpress.com), got in touch with me to express their shock and relief in hearing someone describe their daily battles and frustrations so accurately.

Like me, they were never able to understand or explain the things they went through internally and, if at any point in their lives they had been through a traumatic time, they assumed their odd thought patterns, overthinking and inability to manage their emotions were associated with a weakness in themselves derived from the effects of these traumas. This is a common assumption, and an understandable one seeing as the symptoms of trauma almost mirror some of the symptoms of ADHD. Over 50% of the women I spoke to were taking medication for anxiety, depression or both.

When I went to a psychologist for the first time, I understood why. The form given to patients in mental health clinics to assess their mental state has two boxes of questions on one side that, if scored highly for each, would tell the mental health professional that a patient has severe anxiety and depression.

The questions asked are personal and encourage the patient to think about how they feel and behave on a day-to-day basis. Most of the questions asked describe the symptoms or traits of a woman or girl with ADHD, and this is why the disorder is so often overlooked. It is simply misunderstood.

Knowledge is power, which is why I am dedicated to raising awareness of ADHD, particularly in women. So much of my life would have been a lot easier had I known I had ADHD earlier. My hyperactivity didn’t manifest itself in an obviously impulsive or disruptive way, but it did show up outwardly through nail-biting, fidgeting, chewing pen lids to death, twisting my hair into knots, doodling, talking too much, talking over people – the list goes on. 

Because ADHD can be quite hard to understand and cope with at times, we often focus on and talk about all of the negative traits and symptoms. But the ADHD brain is wildly wonderful, too. We are empathetic, compassionate, creative, funny and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We can hyperfocus on things we are interested in, work well under pressure, are most productive when multitasking, have great imaginations and are high-energy. We need to speak about all of these things and encourage people to keep an eye out for ADHD: early diagnosis can literally save a life. 

Don’t miss out: sign up to the Stylist Daily email for a curated edit of brilliant content every day

Photography: Cat couture

Images: Instagram

Share this article

Recommended by Penny Jarrett