Busy Philipps Didn’t Find Out She Had ADHD Until She Was an Adult, and the Diagnosis Changed Her Life

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It took actress Busy Philipps decades to learn that she was neurodivergent. Her moment of clarity came when she took her daughter Birdie, then 10 years old, to get tested for attention-deficit / hyperactive disorder (ADHD). "We were sitting in the doctor's office and he was going through the checklist for ADHD, and I looked at my ex-husband and could tell we were both thinking, 'Wait, I have every single one of these at the highest level,'" she recalls. The experience motivated Philipps to "figure out what was going on with my own brain," and ultimately led to an ADHD diagnosis of her own.

Though the official label was technically new—Philipps says that she had been diagnosed as a child, but never knew about it and was never treated—the actress says the signs were always there. "I've always been a person that people can consider 'scattered' or 'ditzy'—those were words that were used a lot when I was a young woman," she says. "I had so many different ideas and projects and things I wanted to do, and I found myself again and again not being able to follow through in the ways that I wanted to be able to."

Her organizational skills, Philipps says, were also "terrible." "I would double- and triple-book events, I would constantly mix up dates, I would get the times wrong," she says. She recalls a time when she showed up at the wrong time for her daughters' gymnastics lesson and feeling terrible for it. "I remember internalizing it and thinking it was some sort of indictment about my ability and personality, as if I were completely deficient." But now, she realizes, those challenges were hallmarks of her ADHD.

This story felt so similar to my own experience, it nearly brought me to tears when I heard it. As a high-achieving kid whose neurodivergent brain never got in the way of her good grades, my ADHD symptoms—namely overwhelm, disorganization, and a debilitating lack of motivation to do anything I didn't want to do—went unnoticed until I was an adult who was old enough to realize that something wasn't right. The struggles Philipps mentioned—the triple-booked dates, the inability to follow through, the frustration with my own brain—were real.

Philipps's experience is reflective of many women and girls who struggle for years without realizing they have ADHD. According to recent research1 (and the lived experience of so many of us), ADHD tends to manifest differently in girls than it does in boys. Girls tend to exhibit more symptoms of inattention and mood and anxiety disorders, and fewer hyperactive and disruptive behaviors, which may explain why many women remain undiagnosed until adulthood. The latest data suggests2 that in childhood, the male-to-female ratio of ADHD is 3:1. In adulthood, it's 1:1.

"[ADHD medication] made me understand that I'm not an idiot. I'm actually a highly productive, creative person who has ADHD and also has two kids and was working multiple jobs." —Busy Philipps, actor

When I was finally diagnosed at age 27, I felt like I was putting on glasses and seeing the world clearly for the first time. For Philipps, that clarity came when she started ADHD medication (a non-stimulant drug called Qelbree). "It really felt like a fog lifted, and I was able to see a big picture in a way that I had never been able to see before," she says. "It made me understand that I'm not an idiot. I'm actually a highly productive, creative person who has ADHD and also has two kids and was working multiple jobs. I was trying to keep life straight, and I was allowing my inability to have any executive function in my brain to affect how I was feeling about myself, but the medication changed everything."

In addition to the medicine, Philipps has uncovered a few lifestyle hacks that help her better manage some of her ADHD symptoms. "For me, writing things down is key—I always have a notebook with me, because I find that the physical activity of it works so much better for me," she says. While she likes using a phone calendar for checking things on-the-go, she swears by a big monthly calendar she keeps at home to help her see her month at a glance. "And when I really need to focus on work, I listen to music loudly, which helps me drown out a bunch of chatter going on."

As a mom, the actor has taken what she's learned from her own experience with ADHD and used it to help her daughter thrive. "We want her to understand that what she should be learning right now is not just 'deadlines are important,'" she says. "Deadlines [on projects] can be important, but the ideas contained within them are the most important. And one thing Birdie is brilliant about is making sure she doesn't get frustrated and shut the whole thing down just because she didn't get it in on a Wednesday."

Philipps adds that advocating for your kids—especially girls, who remain under-diagnosed3—is key. "Making sure, whatever kind of school they're in, that they feel supported, and that they have the resources they need, is really important," she says. "Even if it takes you a little bit longer to figure out what that is, it lets them know that you're on their side."

Since the early days of my diagnosis, there's been a quiet fear at the back of my brain that my ADHD—and the constant overwhelm and disorganization hat come along with it—would keep me from being a good mom. But as Philipps demonstrates, it might just be my superpower.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Holthe, M. E. G., & Langvik, E. (2017). “The Strives, Struggles, and Successes of Women Diagnosed With ADHD as Adults.” Sage Open, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244017701799
  2. da Silva, A.G. et al. (2020). “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Women.” In: Rennó Jr., J., Valadares, G., Cantilino, A., Mendes-Ribeiro, J., Rocha, R., Geraldo da Silva, A. (eds) Women’s Mental Health. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-29081-8_15
  3. Quinn, Patricia O, and Manisha Madhoo. “A review of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in women and girls: uncovering this hidden diagnosis.” The primary care companion for CNS disorders vol. 16,3 (2014): PCC.13r01596. doi:10.4088/PCC.13r01596

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