Back

The Hidden Struggle: Discovering My ADHD in Adulthood and Thriving in the WorkplaceFeatured

As a successful marketing professional and mother of three, I never suspected I had ADHD until my early 40s – a realization that changed my life. Now, years later, I still sometimes struggle with the diagnosis and understanding that I, too, am neurodivergent — and have been my entire life. It explained so much, and yet it also dredged up so many questions, in particular: How did I get this far in life without a diagnosis, and why have the symptoms suddenly become such a prevalent part of my life?

Growing up, I struggled with inattentiveness. In elementary school, I'd daydream, staring out the window and losing track of time - adults typically blamed my “vivid imagination.” I somehow still managed to be a moderately successful student. When I went back to college in my mid-30s as a single mom to three teenagers, I was a straight-A student and an award-winning employee, masking what I didn’t know were ADHD symptoms through perfectionism and people-pleasing.

From the outside, it looked like I sailed through life easily, but on the inside, my brain often felt like it was attending the Mad Hatter's un-birthday party. I struggled with executive dysfunction, which affects planning, organization, time management, and emotional regulation. This meant constantly feeling overwhelmed, forgetting important tasks, and struggling to manage my time effectively. Somehow, I managed to keep it all together at work; I was reliable, even perceived as organized, and a “go-to” resource who always knew where everything was.

It wasn't until perimenopause hit in my late 30s that I felt like everything began to unravel. I was overwhelmed, anxious, and incredibly forgetful. I'd regularly forget the most mundane things, from my keys when leaving the house to finding my lost phone in literally ALL of the following places:

  • A bathroom stall at the mall and one at the Chicago Theater
  • Under my bed
  • In my pocket
  • In the dishwasher (thankfully not run yet)
  • Between the couch cushions (at least weekly)
  • Exactly where I left it (hourly)

And depression? The depression, often common in adult women with ADHD, nearly broke me until I sought professional help. I felt like I was living in a fog, afraid that these changes would start impacting my work in more than just small, primarily unnoticeable ways that it already did.

I also largely believed my symptoms were from anxiety and depression, which is also quite common. Doctors, too, frequently blame neurodivergent traits on depression or anxiety, which is an entirely different article.

Ironically, my middle child had medication-resistant ADHD when he was young, but I didn't connect the dots to myself. As a male, his symptoms presented in the more commonly understood way; he would sit on the floor next to his desk in school, and I frequently found him under racks of clothes - or a different aisle - in a store (I’d have sworn that kid was disapparating between the ages of 7 and 10).

It wasn't until I read an article (or 20 - hyperfixation, yo) that I asked my psychiatrist if I should consider testing for ADHD. Her response was anticlimactic: "No need to do the testing. I've known you’ve had it for at least a year; I didn't want to bring it up until you were ready, though." Oh. Well, the mystery is solved, I guess.

Since females largely present ADHD symptoms differently than males - and most studies on ADHD had, until recently, been done on males - ADHD in females often goes undiagnosed until later in life (or entirely).

Did you know that some common traits and symptoms of ADHD in women include (Litman 2023):

  • Inattentiveness and distractibility (often in the form of daydreaming!)
  • Hyperfocus on tasks that interest them
  • Emotional dysregulation and sensitivity
  • Perfectionism and people-pleasing tendencies
  • Difficulty with organization and time management
  • Procrastination and task avoidance
  • Imposter syndrome and low self-esteem

Women with ADHD blame themselves for being too distracted to 'catch up' with daily responsibilities. They allow their lack of motivation, disorganization, or lateness to define them and anticipate criticism or rejection. Ashamed of their emotional reactivity, many censor themselves rather than risk inappropriate responses.- Ellen Litman

Coming to terms with being neurodivergent was a process for me, even though I was surrounded by neurodivergent individuals in my family and friends. I learned a lot more about ADHD and how it manifests in women. I discovered that hormonal fluctuations, particularly during perimenopause and menopause, can exacerbate ADHD symptoms (Littman, 2023). This knowledge was empowering and allowed me to understand my brain better and advocate for myself.

As I navigated my diagnosis, I found that sharing my experiences helped others who were struggling in silence. So many people suffer alone, and it's liberating to call out your neurodiversity and understand why you feel or do the things you do. By acknowledging my challenges and successes, I gave them permission to do the same.

Here are a few practical strategies I’ve tried to manage my symptoms with varying degrees of success:

  • Recording long meetings to combat auditory processing difficulties.
  • Setting alarms and using timers to manage time blindness (there are countless apps for this, too!).
  • Setting limits on (phone) screen time. 📵 For me, I limit time on social media and certain other apps.
  • Writing everything down in a planner, notebook or digital app to compensate for forgetfulness.
  • Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps to avoid being overwhelmed❗Bonus: make them tasks so you can check each one off and get that mini dopamine rush of finishing something
  • Using noise-canceling headphones or white noise to minimize distractions.
  • Accountability buddies! 🏁 My husband will often check in with me in the mornings if he notices I’ve been forgetting my meds lately.
  • Parallel working! Similar to parallel play in children, getting on Zoom (or in-person if that’s your jam) and just working alongside a co-worker or friend can help with accountability and distractions. 🗒️ Note: This person could also be a distraction, so use your best judgment there.
  • Scheduling regular breaks and prioritizing self-care to prevent burnout ⏰ When I'm hyper-focused on a task, I'll often forget to drink water, use the bathroom, or have lunch. Don’t just say you’re going to do it (best intentions and all that); put it on your calendar, set a phone reminder, etc. Block off 10 minutes to stretch and drink water or 30 minutes to eat lunch or take the dog out. I promise it’s worth it!

Some helpful resources and apps for women with ADHD include*:

There is also no shortage of advocates and thought leaders on various social media platforms! I’ve found some great advice and insights everywhere, from TikTok to LinkedIn.

* Many apps have both free and paid versions. Those with paid versions typically offer a free trial (just don’t forget to cancel it if it doesn’t work for you!).

Remember, there are endless tips, tricks, apps, and hacks to help you deal with ADHD. A few of them might work for you, while most won't. It's okay to experiment, but give yourself grace. Celebrate your brain! It may be frustrating at times, but it also comes with unique strengths like creativity, problem-solving skills, and the ability to hyperfocus on tasks that interest you (Hallowell, 2022).

My journey has taught me the importance of open communication, self-advocacy, and embracing the strengths of my neurodivergent brain. If you suspect you may have undiagnosed ADHD or are struggling with your diagnosis, know that you are not alone. Seek information, support, and accommodations. You can start with your primary care physician or seek a therapist or psychiatrist who can help. Start conversations about neurodiversity with your friends, family, and in your workplace, and celebrate your beautifully complex mind. With self-awareness and a supportive network, you can thrive both personally and professionally.

---

Littman, E. (2023). Women with ADHD: No More Suffering in Silence. ADDitude.

Hallowell, E. (2022). What Does ADHD Look Like in Women? Many Doctors Are Still Getting It Wrong. ADDitude.

Thanks for sharing! I was also diagnosed late and so I’ve slowly been finding ways of working that make me feel good. About your tip to record long meetings—I’ve thought of doing this myself but have found it tricky. Some co workers have mentioned that recording meetings may not lead to the most transparent discussions, and I don’t want it to seem like people are afraid to say something on camera. Thoughts on how to have this discussion when the culture of a team hasn’t quite gotten there yet?
Honestly? If I'm only going to use the recording for myself, I've used Otter.ai and just have it record the audio from my speakers, since I don't typically need to use headphones/AirPods. If there's any chance I'll be sharing with others, I'll definitely get consent first! (Or, I mention it with team members individually that I often record meetings to help me with notes, etc). Tools like Otter will also join calls as "note takers." I've found that they're typically well-received, especially when you say you'll share the notes post meeting! I think the key in general is to normalize it as much as possible!
Such great advice, thank you. I’ll try this angle.
Thank you so much @AmandaLeigh. This article gave me a big A-Ha moment, "masking what I didn’t know were ADHD symptoms through perfectionism and people-pleasing," and also got me "a little verklempt." Looking forward to checking out the excellent resources you provided. Parallel work/body doubling helps me a lot. I have been using Focusmate, which offers different ways to work simultaneously, including silently. You can use it for free for a certain number of sessions.
Yes! Body doubling FTW! I've had limited opportunities to use this method and need to do it more often, @kateyandohharris
What an incredible article! I'm neurodivergent too and find ai tools super helpful. ChatGPT to answer any questions I have (e.g. scripts to talk to coworkers about difficult situations) and Fathom AI to recap notes!
ChatGPT can be absolute life saver, I agree... especially if you also struggle with anxiety. IYKYK 🙃
Thank you so much for this post. I was diagnosed last September, and it's still a new experience for me, even though it explains many things. I'm currently grappling with my ADHD at work, particularly due to the dynamics of my new team, which is significantly affecting me.
I can absolutely relate, @astridcaballero, and I'm sorry you're struggling. If you need someone to talk or vent to, I'm always happy to lend an ear - and I mean that sincerely! I'm concerned about the dynamics in my next role as well... only time will tell, I suppose 😬
Thank you for this article! It's so enlightening seeing so many women discover this as they age, and I really think I'm also in this category (but haven't had the nerve to see a professional yet). One thing that helps me focus is moving spaces so the surroundings I am in changes, which has been fine as a freelancer but I'm currently interviewing for full time roles and I'm a little worried I'm going to get stuck in an office without flexibility to change up my environment now and then. Do you have any tips or thoughts on how I could suss out the potential for being able to move around or work out of the office in an interview without making it sound like a negative about my working style?
@LauraMphoto It's definitely trickier to navigate FT, in-office roles - and to suss out potential employers' acceptance of neurodivergent needs. I think I would stick with asking questions like "can you describe the working environment in office" which is fair since so many folks are RTO after years at home. You can elaborate with things like "are there any spaces available when I need a quiet place to do some heads-down focus work?" I don't realize it until you mentioned it, but when I was in-office, I frequently found different places other than my cubical to work. Some examples include: lunch/break room, meeting rooms, empty cubicles away from distractions, unused or empty offices, etc. Hope this helps - and best of luck!
So detailed and so appreciated! Thank you! I'll share since I know us ADHDers share self stories to show we understand the speaker/writer.... I was diagnosed late in life as well - should have known though... baby brother, my husband, most of our friends are all ADHD but I was the more "normal" one of the bunch, the straight A but day dreamy, arty girl. Was totally self medicating with nicotine & didn't know it until I had a near fatal bout of pneumonia and couldn't smoke any more. I went from totally organized & in charge of "all the things" to having a panic attack because I couldn't get on a pair of pants, wrought with anxiety, and super forgetful. Was also FULLY IN perimenopause and didn't know it. Thank you again for sharing!!
Thank you @AmandaLeigh for being vocal about this topic! I find so many things in this article to be relatable, especially the part about experiencing ADHD symptoms but thinking they are depression induced.Love the practical advice and resources - for me, discovering timers was a life saver; I even prefer to use Clock app on my Apple Watch as opposed to my phone, so that I minimize distractions.