Early last year, I visited a girlfriend that I have known for quite some time. For the purpose of anonymity, we will call her "L." At the time we met, I was a legal assistant studying for my master’s degree and she was attending law school. “L” and I both graduated from our respective schools around the same time. She started her career as an insurance defense lawyer and I was so happy for her. But “L'"s journey to becoming a lawyer wasn’t an easy one. Like most law school graduates, passing the bar exam is one of the biggest challenges.
One summer morning, “L” texted me and said, “Hey Cam, I just wanted to let you know I didn’t pass the bar.” I replied, “It’s OK. You’ll pass on the next try.” And she did pass on her third try. Coming from similar Caribbean backgrounds, I know the pressure of meeting expectations, being an overachiever, and being placed on a pedestal. I understood because at one point in my life I had wanted to be a lawyer too.
That afternoon we met for lunch. Our conversations are always filled with transparency, love, charisma, and laughter. This particular afternoon, there came a point in the conversation where “L” wholeheartedly revealed to me her daily struggles with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). And I wanted to know more. It was the first time I heard of a woman with ADHD. Let alone a Black woman.
“L” had hidden her struggle so well. I had no idea how it affected her life.
As a friend, I thought, what could I have done to help or be more supportive. The saying is true – you never know what someone is going through. And today, I am proud of how “L” prioritized herself, took control of her life, and not be defeated by her condition.
Oftentimes, the diagnosis of ADHD in Black women is misdiagnosed and overlooked. According to The Washington Post, “Black girls with ADHD often remain undiagnosed because their symptoms are mischaracterized. Signs of inattentiveness or impulsivity, the two main features of the disorder, could be mistaken for laziness or defiance. And the longer these girls aren’t diagnosed and treated, the more their problems are likely to worsen as they grow into adults.” The article also states that ADHD in girls leads to increased rates of anxiety, depression, drug use, and self-harm.
From a cultural perspective, it is even harder for Black parents to accept that their child has a learning disability with having to protect their child from gender and racial biases not only in the classroom but in life too. In a review of published U.S. studies that included 155,000 Black children, the CDC (Center For Disease Control) found 14.5% of African-Americans had ADHD. This statistic is much higher compared to the estimated 9.4% of all children in the U.S.
In an article by Verywell Mind, the most common symptoms of ADHD in women are paper clutter, overspending, disorganization, indecision, problems listening, and difficulty focusing. Treatment for ADHD includes prescribed medication and/or behavioral therapy. Drugs like Ritalin or Adderall are commonly used to help ADHD patients stay focused and control their behavior. But it doesn’t come without side effects. Some downfalls of ADHD medication are trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, high blood pressure, weight loss, moodiness, and headaches.
There is hope to manage ADHD. Celebrities such as Solange Knowles or SZA have struggled and are successfully navigating life with ADHD. Even Simone Biles has publicly discussed her own battle with ADHD while balancing a demanding career as a professional athlete.
Here is what it is like for “L," a young Black woman, to live with ADHD, balance a demanding career as a lawyer, and succeed in everyday life.
How old were you when you were diagnosed with ADHD?
I was officially diagnosed at about 15 years old. It went undiagnosed due to prior trauma. However, my parents had me in therapy here and there when they could afford it. I was always a hyperactive child who would always get in trouble because I couldn't sit still or keep my mouth shut. I got a lot of "feedback" for being random in my actions and through my words.
What were some of the signs that you were struggling with ADHD and how did it make you feel?
The obvious sign for me was the fact that I was behind in my academics and kids used to always refer to me as "crazy" because of how random I was. I could not focus like my peers. I was always in and out of therapy for other reasons. It was always suggested I should be on medication. I didn't even know what ADHD was until I was about 16 years old as my parents did not believe in medication or this new-age diagnosis.
My parents had me in every tutoring program imaginable in order for me to keep up with my fellow classmates. I got my ears and eyes tested before I went to a psychiatrist to get a test for ADHD.
Ritalin or Adderall is usually prescribed for many ADHD patients. Is prescribed medication something you have used to treat your ADHD? If not, what are some natural remedies you have tried?
Yes, I've tried Ritalin (when I was a teenager) and as I got older, I graduated to Adderall, as well as Concerta. I've also tried hypnotherapy and talk therapy. The thing about prescription medicine they won't tell you is that it works, but you have to gradually increase the dosage as your body becomes used to it. I would sometimes come off the medication because I hate being dependent on a drug to function. I would feel really depressed and tired.
How did you get through law school and what were some of the challenges?
By the grace of God and really great friends. I had to learn early on in life to make friends with people smarter than me in order to stay motivated and just to keep up. I would also cycle on and off medication in law school in order to cope. I went a semester without any prescription drugs, just to see if I could do it on my own. Yes, I could do it on my own, but it was very difficult. I had constant anxiety, could not sleep, mild depression, and spiraled.
Now that you are a career lawyer, what are some challenges you face at work?
Every day is a new challenge. My biggest challenge is working. Literally sitting my ass down to work, especially after the pandemic. I had to learn quickly to create a new routine. Having a high caseload as a civil litigation attorney helps as I am always busy so I have no time to procrastinate as much. The organized chaos of heading to court in the morning, working on drafting motions and pleadings for cases in the afternoon, responding to emails, and settling cases throughout the day were no longer serving me. Organization and structure are my biggest challenges. I get distracted easily and fall into these "wormholes" and never finish my assignments. So, I'm always having to work late to play catch up. I had to create realistic structures that worked for me.
For example, time blocking or working on alternating weekends and/or late nights to stay ahead of my tasks to not overwhelm me. Working for a solid law firm that has systems and teams in place to complement my own systems is imperative. I've cycled through many firms (big and small). So, I know what works and what doesn't. Working with the right people matters and is often overlooked. Having a good case management system along with excellent support staff (paralegals or assistants) is how I am able to succeed.
"Organization and structure are my biggest challenges. I get distracted easily and fall into these 'wormholes' and never finish my assignments. So, I'm always having to work late to play catch up. I had to create realistic structures that worked for me."
How have you adjusted your routine because of your ADHD? What does your morning and nighttime routine look like?
Yes, having a routine is imperative. I've had to shift my mindset through many therapy sessions. Having been a burnt-out lawyer, my mornings look a bit different now. I'm no longer competing to be the best and striving for perfection. I'm not trying to prove myself anymore because I know what I bring to the table. I show up, do my best on that particular day, and don't dwell on my mistakes.
8:00 a.m.: I start my mornings with a prayer, then I check my phone for any work emergencies or changes to my schedule. I will communicate with my assistant on what's important and what needs to be done.
8:10 a.m.: I lay in bed, contemplate life, and make my intentions for the day.
8:20 a.m.: I literally jump out of bed, (work is supposed to start at 8:30 am.) and make my bed. I love making my bed because it feels like such an accomplishment to me. I always say that if I don't accomplish anything for the day, at least I made my bed.
8:25 a.m.: I log on to my computer for work to test the waters. Thereafter, I brush my teeth, wash my face, shower, brush my hair, and put clothes on. I do all this while arguing with Alexa about music selection. Pro Tip: I set timers while I'm in the bathroom with Alexa (5 min. - snooze; 10 min. - snooze; 15 min. - snooze) to stay on track.
8:45-9:00 a.m.: I'm logged in to work for real-for real with my first cup of coffee of the day.
I immediately check the deadlines on my calendar, prioritize tasks and/or cases then attack them in segments with multiple breaks in between. I like to do the same tasks during blocks of time (reviewing case files and drafting a case plan, emails, client conference calls, etc.). Through trial and error, I have learned that I work more efficiently when I'm doing the same tasks over and over again.
On days where I have court hearings, depositions, mediations, client calls, or any event, my days look very different. I wake up earlier to hand-write a script of what I plan on saying. I do this to calm my nerves and to stay focused on the task at hand as to not go off on tangents. No matter how many times I've made the same speech or argument - this is what works for me.
6:30 - 7:00 p.m.: I'm logged out and head to the gym for a Zoom training session with my trainer. I try to work out at least 3-4 times a week with a trainer. Even if I do 10 haphazard jumping jacks, any sort of physical activity helps to maintain my routine and makes me feel good. I have coworkers who work out during lunchtime.
Personally, I can't do that because it's hard for my brain to switch gears after a workout and get back into work mode. I highly recommend doing physical activity early in the morning prior to work. It really sets the tone for the workday.
Does ADHD affect your mental health? If so, how?
Yes, in many ways and often. There are many internal battles of self-doubt, not doing enough work, being slower at a task than others, or lingering feelings of unworthiness. I have days where my head is so cloudy that it takes me hours to do a task which usually takes me about 15 minutes. On days like that, I have to mindfully give myself grace for my own sanity because beating myself up won't make a difference.
I remember times where my ADHD got so bad that I was feeling defeated, depressed, and became physically sick from the stress which also caused crippling anxiety. As a child, I remember I used to breathe at a rapid rate which they thought was asthma-related. Come to find out later to find out it was anxiety. I was given an inhaler to help. I still have days where I'm literally spinning in circles from task A to B then to A again, only to start a new task, D, then remember task C, only to realize A, B, C, and D are all incomplete and unnecessary tasks.
"I have days where my head is so cloudy that it takes me hours to do a task which usually takes me about 15 minutes. On days like that, I have to mindfully give myself grace for my own sanity because beating myself up won't make a difference."
What would you tell other women who are struggling with ADHD, mental health issues, and a demanding career?
Give yourself grace, lots and lots of grace, and seek professional help. Find what works for you. I'm still trying to figure it out, but therapy has transformed my way of thinking and my life. It has helped me to re-evaluate my life, career, and plan a more sustainable life/work balance. Life first, work second.
If you’re a Black woman struggling with ADHD, you are not alone and it doesn’t have to be just your secret anymore. It’s nothing to be ashamed of either. There are many women of color with ADHD and other learning difficulties and/or disabilities. And it doesn’t mean you are less of a person because of it. It means your journey looks different than most women of color. There is just an extra layer you’ll have to manage. And that is OK.
You have to give yourself grace and permission to accept your diagnosis and find ways to cope. Unfortunately, we live in a society with so many stigmas that we constantly neglect root causes. If you are looking for support, check out Black Girl, Lost Keys, or Unicorn Squad, For Black people of Marginalized Gender with ADHD, a blog, and a private Facebook group by Rene Brooks. Having ADHD herself, Rene Brooks helps educate and empower other Black women who have ADHD.
You can start your healing now.
Featured image by Getty Images