Each year many New Zealanders grapple with being diagnosed with ADHD. Katie Harris speaks to three women about life after finding out they have ADHD as an adult and how their lives changed for the better.
Anna Notton thought she was a failure growing up.
"Naughty, bad, lazy, incapable. I was just given labels and told that's what I was rather than being asked what I needed."
Notton grew up near Wellington, attending a traditional church school at a time where neurological conditions weren't openly discussed, let alone diagnosed.
"You're the odd one out, you're the kid that can't understand what's being said and needs things to be repeated. There was very little grace [at school]."
No one thought to question whether her constant daydreaming could be a sign of an attention disorder. Instead, Notton says she was shamed for her poor academic performance.
"My whole childhood was a complete s**t show. I dropped out of school at 15 to clean toilets, I didn't think I had any more potential."
Twenty years later, Notton holds a masters degree, has run businesses, is an accomplished social worker and has been accepted into a professional Doctorate programme.
And, she has ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Notton describes being diagnosed at 36 as a "feeling of freedom" because she finally discovered why she needed clearer instructions, and had the confidence to explain this to others.
"I could tell people, I actually need to have structure, it's not a want, it's a need. And it was legitimate, and they wouldn't think I was demanding it just for the sake of it."
Before her diagnosis, she had difficulties in workplaces that lacked clear guidance.
"It feels like you're in the middle of the ocean and you're swimming towards [nowhere]. Who's in charge here and what is the goal?'."
What's striking about Notton's experience is not necessarily her struggles and triumphs, but just how similar her ADHD journey is to other women in Aotearoa.
Victoria University of Wellington lecturer Kelly Carrasco says as children, boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls.
One reason is that boys typically present with more hyperactive symptoms like jumping out of their seats in class, running around or constantly interrupting others, which is more obvious for a lay person to identify.
Whereas it's more common for girls to present with inattentive symptoms for ADHD, like making mistakes and being distracted, which can be less identifiable.
"They're more likely to talk about difficulties with following multi-step instructions or losing things, being forgetful, having a hard time organising their lives or organising materials, having a hard time sustaining attention."
Carrasco says this can lead clinicians to think that there might be something else at play like anxiety or depression.
She told the Herald these disorders often share some of the same symptoms as ADHD so when women go to the doctor with issues like distraction and making mistakes at work the doctor may diagnose them incorrectly.
Had she been diagnosed as a child, Notton thinks she would have grown up to be a lawyer - and a good one too.
"If I'd had the support to get there I would have done it. Being a social worker you advocate for people all the time, I've consistently advocated for people and kept them out of prison. I think that being a lawyer definitely would have been my first choice."
Notton believes workplaces need to view ADHD from a strength-based angle, and see what talents people with ADHD can bring to the table.
"We need to start looking at ways we can help people and support them, rather than labelling them, judging them, criticising them and putting burdens on them that they can't possibly bear the weight of."
Data from the New Zealand Health Survey shows that in 2020 4.2 per cent of boys aged between 2-14 had been diagnosed with ADHD, whereas only 0.5 per cent of girls in the same age group were diagnosed.
Overall, ADHD New Zealand say it's estimated one in every 20 Kiwis have ADHD.
Becky Stone, 25, was a "gifted" child, and says adults around her characterised her as a "genius" when she was growing up.
But beneath the facade of good grades and confidence was a young girl feeling overwhelmed by labels pushed upon her like "bossy" and "strong-willed".
Because she had been identified as talented, any negative messages Stone heard would cut deeper, she thought she wasn't meeting her "potential".
"I had this really high IQ, I wanted to be a doctor, so those messages are kind of amplified because it's not like you're just trying to meet this normal level and you've got undiagnosed ADHD, and you've got this huge level [to meet]."
Helen, her mother, says that growing up Stone's academic ability was well ahead of other children her age and she was incredibly capable of focusing.
Even when Stone was looking for answers the idea she could have ADHD "never crossed" Helen's mind as she says her daughter was very high functioning.
The perfect image Stone thought she had to live up to started to disintegrate when she was a teenager, people around her thought she "stopped trying" and was suffering from depression.
This depression, she says, would often manifest in her not being able to look after household matters like doing the dishes and cleaning up.
After years of knowing something wasn't right - and believing she may have bipolar or autism - Stone was diagnosed with ADHD in lockdown last year.
"There's been a lot of, 'oh no it won't be that', so I've really learned that I have to advocate for myself."
Helen says the diagnosis helped her understand her daughter more and see the world from her shoes.
"Even simple things like why she struggled as a child was the noises, you know she'd complain about noise, she complained about smell, and that kind of thing and now I give it like, ah, that just makes sense."
She said parents with children being diagnosed should be being willing to stick by them regardless of the outcome.
While her diagnosis was a relief, Stone says there also was some anxiety over what else may have been missed when she was growing up.
"I would go constantly to the doctors, but after a while I just felt like a hypochondriac and when it's just you pushing and trying to find out what's going on eventually you just stop."
A common thread among many who are diagnosed later in life is a feeling of regret for what life could have been their condition was picked up earlier.
Carrasco says for some it can feel like relief because finally there is somebody that is putting a name to something people had been experiencing their whole life.
"[There's a feeling of] 'it's not my fault, there's a reason why I am the way that I am'. And then there's the grief of, 'gosh, I really wish somebody had told me that this was what was going on. And I would have probably not had my self-esteem so negatively impacted'," Carrasco says.
While there is a lack of data about Kiwis being diagnosed with ADHD later in life, research shows the number of adults in America with ADHD grew at four times the rate of children with the condition between 2007 and 2016.
Balancing full-time work and managing a house was too much for Stone, who is now focusing on a university degree while also holding down a part-time job.
At times, she says her husband will make lunch for her so she has something to eat, and will even help make sure she showers.
"It affects my marriage hugely, like the sensory stuff is a really huge struggle. Because if we're in a small house and we're trying to study, my husband feels like he can't make any noise around the house, or has to change the light bulbs to be a bit dimmer."
After being diagnosed, Stone began a master's degree on the long-term effects of undiagnosed ADHD in women, and how it affects self-esteem.
"There's been things with my ADHD that have just been like these dirty little secrets, like not staying on top of your washing and having to wear togs or go out and buy more underwear because I hadn't washed mine. I thought it was 'oh my depression's bad', but actually it was ADHD."
Another reason why women are more likely to be diagnosed later is that the symptoms might be present but won't necessarily impact their ability to do schoolwork.
"It's not until there are multiple demands on their attention, like maintaining friendships an intimate relationship, trying to study at university and maintain a job or, you know, manage a household and a job and children's activities," Carrasco says.
She says this can be a huge barrier at work.
"Sometimes there are only so many mistakes that your employer is willing to tolerate before they say, 'okay, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to let you go'. Because for many jobs, there are lots of little details that you need to be paying attention to."
Nicole Grey was 25 when reading an article on mental health led her down the rabbit hole of realising she has ADHD.
"Everything just changed about how I see myself and speak to myself and understand how I interact with the world."
Prior to diagnosis Grey wasn't coping as a single parent.
"I was really, really struggling just to do the dishes. That was kind of one of my life goals, like when I'm recovered and when I'm doing better I'll be able to do my dishes before I go to bed."
Things she needed to do around the house would remind her of what she wasn't handling, but all other people would notice was feats in the workplace or her social life.
This, she says. created a deep insecurity that no one really sees or understands.
"You don't know who you are because on one day you can do everything and another you can't do the most basic things."
As a child she recalls fidgeting, interrupting and talking "all the time", as well as having significant difficulty trying to focus.
When Grey was diagnosed, she says she cried a lot over how long she'd lived without knowing.
One major result of getting diagnosed was that her internal voice shifted, it became kinder, more understanding.
Managing her emotions at the time was rough, especially after learning regulating them can be an issue for people with ADHD, but now Grey says she has multiple "superpowers" because of it.
"With ADHD, whatever you're interested in and passionate about you are generally really good at."
A lot of adults that speak to Carrasco tell her how they can think creatively about solving problems and starting new things.
"It doesn't have to be thought of as a detriment, it's just like anything else, these are the things that I'm good at and these are the things that I need support with in order to be successful. And all of us have those things."
Getting medication felt like being given a "toolbox" Grey had never had before - one which the rest of adults her age already had.
Notton says if she hadn't had supportive professors, bosses and people who saw potential in her, she wouldn't be where she is today.
"I have skills and abilities that other people don't have because I've had deficits to make up for."
What is ADHD?
• Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that can cause hyperactive and impulsive behaviour, as well as attention difficulties.
• Both adults and children can be diagnosed with ADHD.
•Not everyone with ADHD has the same symptoms and there many are benefits to having it, which include some people being more creative, energetic and spontaneous.
• ADHD affects 2 per cent to 5 per cent of all children. A third of children outgrow it by the time they're a teenager.