The word “focus” has haunted me for my whole life. Just as I write this article, I have had to refocus my thoughts at least 10 times. Every distraction poses a new challenge. “Focus!” I tell myself in these moments, echoing what so many have told me before. But shouting at my own brain when it cannot deliver what I want it to only fills me with more anxiety. I feel my brain starting to shut down and reaching for yet another distraction. The cycle continues.
Moments like these are typical for someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Even before I had a name for what I was feeling, I had always been unable to concentrate in school. I would daydream in class instead of paying attention to the lesson. I dreaded anything with instructions. I struggled with every single test. I forgot books and assignments at school. Most of all, I despised doing homework. What should have taken me half an hour required two to three hours to complete.
I could not understand why I was struggling so much to concentrate and do my work. Neither could my parents or teachers. I looked around me and saw well-behaved girls who were focusing attentively on the lesson. “Why can’t I be like them?” I wondered. “What is wrong with me?”
And within the same classroom, I saw boys shouting and disrupting the class with no consequences from my teachers. “Boys will be boys,” my teachers would say. I knew my behavior would never be excused as a female.
So, I coped. I tried breathing exercises to combat my anxiety. I would make up stories about material on tests to make them more interesting to me. I mastered the art of appearing engaged in class. I knew that in order to survive in a neurotypical gendered world, I had to trick people into thinking I could focus.
I was officially diagnosed with ADHD as a sophomore in high school. I shrugged when the psychologist went over the information with me. I shrugged because I had always known, I had always felt ADHD tugging at my focus. I shrugged because everyone around me ignored my struggles since I was not hyperactive or impulsive. I shrugged because everyone had dismissed the feeling that I was drowning in school because my report cards were good.
You might wonder why the diagnosis took so long. Even though I exhibited clear signs of ADHD from a young age, most people and teachers dismissed my inattention as “daydreaming” rather than acknowledging that it might be caused by a mental health disorder. Most people did not recognize the validity and severity of my condition.
Still, having a doctor-approved label was comforting. My doctor started me on medications, smelly pills I had to take with food every morning. My life improved dramatically. For the first time ever, I felt like I had control over my life. School became simpler and more enjoyable. I no longer felt like I was drowning in assignments and responsibilities.
But there was a dark underside to the medication. I started becoming focused only on completing tasks, morphing into a robotic shell of my old self. My humor and joy were disintegrating every day. And although the medicine initially seemed to alleviate my anxiety, it only exacerbated the problem as I continued using it.
By my senior year in high school, the medicine started unmasking parts of myself I had never been able to concentrate on before. I slipped into a deep depression. I started isolating myself from my friends. Even worse, I had no motivation to do anything and felt paralyzed for months. I eventually had to stop taking medications and had to cope with ADHD in other ways. My life is still a constant struggle.
But my story is not unique. Unfortunately, because our popular idea of ADHD is so male-centric, significantly less ADHD research has been done on the disorder in females. These misconceptions are part of the reason why boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls are.
Being a woman with ADHD also comes with a host of other problems. About one-third, like me, struggle with anxiety disorders. And since inattention might impair a person’s ability to read social cues and norms, girls with ADHD struggle with the gender role expectation of being attuned to social cues.
I do not want the countless other girls with ADHD to face years of misunderstanding and abuse. We need to have more equitable research that puts socially constructed gender norms and binaries aside. For the sake of people of all genders and sexualities, we need to be more conscious of how our research and biases affect people’s lives.
Elizabeth Neoman is an assistant opinion editor. Contact her at [email protected] .