Like many women juggling work, raising children, and maintaining a home, I used to spend my days feeling totally overwhelmed — often before I’d even stepped outside my door. I’d wake up exhausted and slip into bed late at night even more exhausted. At the time — the mid-1980s — I had no idea that part of my struggle was due to undiagnosed ADHD.
What should I make for dinner? Where is that paper that the teacher needed me to sign? Why can’t I tame the clutter monster that invaded my house? The shame I felt over my lack of domestic skills paralyzed me. I felt like I just couldn’t get my act together.
Flash-forward to today: I run a successful consulting practice that helps women all over the world to better manage their ADHD. I’ve written two books. And, perhaps most important of all, I no longer feel like every day is a struggle. Instead, I’m thriving.
What changed? It’s been a long journey, with many ups and downs, but I’m here to share it with you.
My journey to an ADHD diagnosis
In 1989, my 16-month-old daughter Mackenzie fell dangerously ill with encephalitis. She was hospitalized and placed in a drug-induced coma to stop her seizures. Every minute was touch-and-go. With a preschooler at home and my baby hooked up to tubes and wires, life was bleak and frightening. Would she make it?
She did, but not without a lifelong disability that includes severe ADHD. In fact, ADHD was the least of her medical problems, but it was the most difficult one, as her mother, to manage. Once she was stabilized and began to relearn skills she’d lost — such as speech and motor skills — it became apparent that this was a child who was a roaring train on a zigzag track. She had to be tended by two adults just to keep her safe.
That’s when I learned what ADHD was. I certainly hadn’t learned about it while studying clinical social work in graduate school.
Mackenzie’s ADHD wasn’t the typical type of ADHD that someone is born with — hers is known as an “acquired” ADHD. It was a result of the encephalitis, which damaged her brain.
As she slowly recovered, her body became more and more hyperactive and impulsive. The family I had dreamed of — two lovely girls cuddling with me over a book — was not to be. Rather, I was on my feet all day and late into the night, trying to keep up with this little girl.
She was unable to stop moving long enough to sleep, let alone nap, so I consulted with doctors. Moms can’t survive on three hours of sleep. Moms with ADHD can barely function on eight hours of sleep when life is so out of whack. After trying many different medications, one finally helped. At age 4, Mackenzie was finally able to sit and play with blocks. I was in tears.
I read everything I could about how to help children with ADHD. In those days, there weren’t many books on the topic, but I read them all. I devoured them. I took parenting classes, went to workshops, and read the research. This was before anyone had a personal computer, so it was a time-consuming and challenging process.
Purely by accident, I came across a book about adults with ADHD. I’m not sure why I even picked it up, because back then, I thought my problems were due to a characterological issue. I thought that I was simply scattered and disorganized and, in my mind, incapable.
As I began reading, I started to recognize family members who seemed to fit the bill for adults with ADHD. The pieces of my childhood that I didn’t quite understand began to come together. It truly was an “Aha!” moment.
As I read on, something shifted internally. I read descriptions of adults who were disorganized, and who couldn’t finish projects or even start them. The words “clutter,” “overwhelmed,” and “poor short-term memory” flew off the page.
But I asked myself: How could I have ADHD when I was able to get two college degrees, marry, hold down a job, and raise children? It didn’t make sense. So I decided to push the thought away and focus on my child.
The information in that book stuck with me, though. I had always thought I might have a hearing problem because whenever I talked on the phone — which, by the way, I’ve always hated to do — I couldn’t hear the other person if there was any hint of background noise. Even the quiet whirring of my refrigerator makes it impossible for me to stay engaged in a conversation.
Finally, I made an appointment for a hearing test. And I passed with flying colors.
The book still haunted me. At that time, I believe there was only one other book on the topic of adults with ADHD, and I devoured it too. Finally, my curiosity led me to a psychologist who happened to specialize in adult ADHD. It just so happened that he worked in my hometown. I made an appointment, and he gave me a thorough workup. At the end, he told me that I did, indeed, have adult ADHD.
I had a hard time accepting the diagnosis for a number of reasons. First, I’d never heard of ADHD in adults. Second, there was still that little voice in my head that said my disorganization and procrastination was simply a bad trait, or worse, a symptom of laziness. Being the skeptic that I am, even after all my homework researching the topic, I didn’t believe him. Not for a minute. So I went for a second opinion. Then a third. And even a fourth. All of the experts I consulted came to the same conclusion: adult ADHD.
That’s when my professional journey started.
Learning, growing, sharing
After my diagnosis, all of the pieces fell into place. My hypersensitivities. The piles. The procrastination. The years of hiding my difficulties. Once I learned what my problems were, and received professional help understanding and working through them, I couldn’t believe how much my life started to change — for the better.
I was still hungry for more information! I attended local conferences and eventually discovered the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA). I flew to Indiana where they had their first official national conference on adult ADHD. My life changed at that gathering. I was no longer the only one losing things, dropping things, bumping into walls, and forgetting names within five seconds of meeting someone. I was no longer alone.
I began volunteering by helping my local chapter of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity-Disorder (CHADD), eventually becoming its coordinator. Since ADDA was such a life-changer, I began volunteering for them, too, joining the board of directors, and even serving as vice president for a few years.
But I wanted to do more. I saw how this diagnosis changed my life, and I wanted other people like me to have that same experience. In the mid-1990s, I opened up a private psychotherapy practice, but after a short while, I realized that parenting a child with special needs and balancing my work with clients was too difficult.
My work with ADHD nonprofit organizations meant that people heard about my experience and had a way to reach me. I began to receive calls and emails from people begging for help. That made me realize I could help more people by taking my work online. In 2000, after closing my private practice, I launched ADDconsults.com, and later, QueensOfDistraction.com. What a thrill to be able to help others —from South Africa to Canada!
I realized early on that there was little support for women with ADHD. I believe women face unique challenges that can be so overwhelming that many, if not most, risk developing significant depression, anxiety, and even substance abuse problems. That’s how difficult it is to live with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD.
The stories I heard — and continue to hear — broke my heart. I could relate so well. So I officially began to focus my work on women with ADHD: the struggles they face as moms, working women, single women, and professionals. It’s heartbreaking how many women are still hiding their ADHD for fear of losing their jobs and compromising their careers.
During this time, I also wrote two books: “Survival Tips for Women with ADHD” and the award-winning “The Queen of Distraction.” (And yes, I had help — I worked with a writing coach. Otherwise they would never have been finished!)
I love what I do. I love helping women with ADHD. I love seeing how they can succeed. The starting point is often just understanding that they don’t have a personality disorder. They aren’t broken. They just need a bit of help, guidance, support, and practical tips.
Now, some 25 years later, I no longer carry the shame of being different. I’m OK with having a house that’s cluttered. I don’t always have dinner on the table at 6 o’clock. I still don’t remember names of people I’ve just met. Knowing that I’ve helped many thousands of women is more important to me than a color-coded closet.
I am just one of a handful of professionals who are considered national/international experts in the field of women with ADHD. That needs to change. My hope, my dream is that many others will realize the specific needs of women with ADHD and step forward to close the gap so that more women can live the fulfilling lives they deserve.
I found my calling and it changed my life.
Terry Matlen is a psychotherapist, author, consultant, and coach specializing in adults with ADHD with a special interest in women with ADHD.
She is the author of the award-winning book “The Queen of Distraction,” and “Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD.” She also created ADD Consults, an online resource serving adults worldwide with ADHD, as well as Queens of Distraction, an online coaching program for women with ADHD. She has been interviewed and quoted widely in such media as NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, US News and World Report, Newsday, and more.
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