Mental Health

I Thought I Was A Bad Mom. I Actually Had Undiagnosed ADHD.

The day I got the diagnosis, I cried tears of relief.

by Sarah Grunder Ruiz
A woman looking at her laptop concernedly, with her husband and daughter in the background talking
Maskot/Maskot/Getty Images

The funny thing about being a writer is that my fiction often knows things about me before I do. For example, one of the characters in my debut novel, Love, Lists, and Fancy Ships, is a thirteen-year-old girl with ADHD named Greyson. Her personality is heavily informed by my own teenage self, and yet it never occurred to me that perhaps Greyson and I were so much alike because I had ADHD too.

It started off when I became concerned about the degree to which I couldn’t stop thinking about writing. Most mornings, I woke up at five to snag a few hours of writing before my children got up. If they had preschool, I wrote all morning until I had to leave to teach English 101 at North Carolina State University, where I work as a lecturer in the First-Year Writing Program. If my kids didn’t have school, I took them to a playground so I could write while they played. Instead of lesson planning, I wrote during my office hours. I wrote in class while my students did group work. I wrote while giving my kids a bath or putting them to bed. Some nights I wrote through dinner instead of eating with my family.

And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. It was like I had a writing tab open in my brain all the time. I was stuck. I thought about my book while I put my children to bed, while my husband told me about his day, when I was out with my friends.


From the outside, it looked like I had my shit together. I was twenty-eight and had a graduate degree. I had a great job teaching at a university. I had a literary agent and two beautiful children and a doting spouse.

But in reality, my life was spinning out of control. I was so stuck in my head, it didn’t feel like I had a life at all. Sometimes I’d go a week without clean underwear because I was too busy writing to deal with dirty clothes. The kicker? I didn’t even have to do the laundry. I just had to put my hamper by the laundry room and tell my husband I needed my laundry done. (Yes, I know I’m lucky.)

I knew I needed to stop — I wanted to stop, I wanted to think about something, anything, other than writing — but I couldn’t. Every day I promised I’d be better. A better mom. A better spouse. A better teacher. But every night, I was overcome with anxiety and guilt because, once again, I’d failed.

I assumed I was just selfish and lazy. Why else would I continually devote more time to writing than to my family? I wasn’t even on a deadline. No one was waiting for this book. Why else was I unable to remember when my kid had wacky hair day at school? Why else did I let bills I actually had the money to pay go to collections?

On one of those anxious nights, I found myself on Google, desperate to figure out what was wrong with me. I didn’t see myself reflected in anything I read about anxiety disorders. I wasn’t anxious, except for this one thing. I wasn’t depressed. Sure, I was obsessed with writing, but not in the way people with OCD have obsessions.

And then I stumbled upon an article about women with ADHD. I read stories about women who were scattered but successful. Who managed to keep their head above water until the pressures of work and motherhood became too much. I learned that people with ADHD aren’t necessarily unable to focus. Often, they have a lot of focus, just not for the right thing at the right time. I found out that people with ADHD often have hyperfixations — hobbies or interests that become so engrossing they can interfere with daily life.

In short, I found myself.

I was still revising Love, Lists, and Fancy Ships at this time. As I worked with Greyson’s character, I wondered how I could have missed something so big about myself. ADHD shapes the way I think and behave and move through the world. Here was Greyson, who I knew had ADHD and had purposely based on myself. And yet, it took me months to put two and two together. My fiction diagnosed me months before ADHD was even on my radar.

Adult women ages 24-36 are the fastest growing demographic seeking treatment for ADHD. We tend to have better coping mechanisms, which makes it easier for us to mask our ADHD for longer. Additionally, when women with undiagnosed ADHD do seek help, they are often diagnosed with anxiety or depression. But treating the anxiety or depression doesn’t work well, because often the undiagnosed ADHD is the cause of the anxiety or depression.

Two weeks after that late-night Google search, I found myself in a psychiatrist’s office for the first time. I just want to be a good mom, I remember telling her. The moment she officially diagnosed me, I cried tears of relief. Finally, an answer. I wasn’t bad. I wasn’t selfish. I wasn’t lazy. I was fighting against my own brain every day and didn’t even know it.

The first time I took medication to treat my ADHD felt like taking off a backpack filled with rocks I didn’t know I’d been carrying all my life. Combined with therapy and other strategies to compensate for my deficits, life has slowly become more manageable. My life is far from perfect, but simply knowing why I face these challenges has allowed me to be kinder to myself.

Maybe it’s strange to be grateful for my own fictional character, but as C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I think the same can be said of writing, at least for myself. Writing Greyson gave me insight into myself I might not have had otherwise. In coming to understand her as a character, I came to a better understanding of myself. I’m not lazy or broken or defective. I’m exactly who I’m supposed to be.

Sarah Grunder Ruiz is a writer, educator, and karaoke enthusiast. Originally from South Florida, she now lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University, where she now teaches First-Year Writing. She is the author of two novels: Love, Lists, and Fancy Ships, and Luck and Last Resorts.