Robin Black, 53
In a gripping novel, the heroine must overcome great challenges before achieving her victory. For Philadelphia novelist Robin Black, life itself presented huge obstacles, and she overcame them.
Undiagnosed until 42, Black faced challenges on all fronts: at home and school, in marriage and career. Her diagnosis at an ADHD clinic at the University of Pennsylvania led to her finding the success that had eluded her. Black is a highly acclaimed novelist, short-story writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications.
“As I look back now over my life, [ADHD] was a source of tremendous pain for many years, though I didn’t have a name for it,” says Black. “It was hard when people teased me as a child. ‘Oh, Robin’s room is always so messy, it’s so disgusting.’ I felt like I was being teased about something I didn’t understand or have control over.”
Black says she was “one of the weird kids” who felt socially clueless. Hyperactivity and verbal impulsivity plagued her until well into adulthood. Even at writing workshops as an adult, Black couldn’t stop herself from dominating conversations. She learned to use a watch to time herself: “Once I had spoken, I made myself wait six minutes to speak again.”
After high school, Black applied to several colleges and was accepted by Sarah Lawrence in 1980. Although the tutorial format helped her study, it took her six years to graduate. During college, she married after dating her husband for five months. At 25, she became pregnant with her first child. As a mom, Black finally felt competent, but her marriage dissolved after several years.
Life turned around after she married her second husband and the youngest of their four children was diagnosed with ADHD. “I had that classic experience of saying, ‘Wait a minute! This is my life,’” as she recognized her daughter’s behaviors. She felt liberated.
Black takes Ritalin and deals with the grief of a late diagnosis in therapy. With her psychiatrist, Black strategized about how she could tackle a novel. She learned to write a long story in pieces, 50 pages at a time.
Her emotional hypersensitivity became a plus for her writing. “The people who like my work like it because of the emotional observations and nuance. The downside of my hypersensitivity is that I am hypervigilant about whether I’ve hurt someone’s feelings, or said the wrong thing.”
Black’s disorganization still leads to lost files and lost time. “I must have been writing for 10 years before it occurred to me to numerically sequence revisions.” It was her husband who suggested this might be more helpful than titling a document, “Clara’s story the day I forgot to eat lunch.”
Black still struggles with the challenges of ADHD, but now, when she misplaces something, “I realize that’s part of a condition I have and I can’t beat myself up about it.” Black advises ADHDers to “get whatever help you need. It’s not something you can deal with on your own.”
Psychologist Shane Perrault didn’t know it at the time, but his education in ADHD started in childhood. At school, Perrault either got A’s or did poorly. “History class was a blur to me because I had to contend with all those facts. I soon got overwhelmed,” he says. Perrault had loving, supportive parents who were frustrated by their son’s performance in school. They knew their son was smart, so they didn’t know why he was struggling.
The turning point came in the eleventh grade, in a non-Western religion class. The teacher used films and role-play in class, which played to Perrault’s kinesthetic learning style. “He made it come to life,” says Perrault. “I realized I liked learning, but that I learned differently. I started taking subjects that I enjoyed, like speech and debate.”
Until graduate school, Perrault got by with his higher IQ and taking subjects that interested him. In graduate school, the volume of work was so much higher, this approach no longer worked. That’s when Perrault devised some ADHD-friendly study strategies. He studied in 40- to 50-minute stretches, followed by 10-minute breaks. Perrault discovered that movement helped him learn, so he’d study for his board exams by listening to recorded study material while skating. “I found that whenever I studied that way, I’d have total recall.”
Perrault’s ADHD affected his social skills, too. “I grew up in a college town and everybody followed the local sports team. But I was in my own world,” he says. “If the other guys are talking about sports and you’re clueless, you won’t win them over.”
When a grad school professor suggested Perrault might have ADHD, he was, at first, in denial. “I didn’t realize he was trying to help me. I thought he was trying to get rid of me.” A paper-and-pencil screening test at the campus counseling center confirmed his diagnosis. “[The diagnosis] was a relief, because I had been trying to figure out why I was wired differently than my classmates. I didn’t do well at memorizing things, unlike my classmates, who were like sponges.”
Perrault had trouble learning things by rote, but he did have a creative spark. “When we had critical reviews, I came up with alternative explanations that no one [else] considered.”
These days Perrault uses physical activity, including skating and cycling, to treat his ADHD. Instead of medication, “I try to ride 100 to 150 miles a week. I’m hooked on endorphins.” Perrault uses this time to expand his learning on topics of interest, from Carl Jung to Abraham Maslow.
In his professional life, he combats boredom and inattention with the same strategies he used in grad school, doing his marketing in a stimulating environment like a coffee shop, rather than at a desk.
Learning how to manage his ADHD was key to overcoming his former social awkwardness. “As I learned to master my ADHD and I got more confident, I started to hang out with people who were really good at [social situations]. I noticed that they had social rules that they followed, and the more I started to follow them, the more success I had socially.”
Today, Perrault not only manages a successful ADHD clinic, but he’s a sought-after speaker, having been invited to speak at the Congressional Black Caucus on the Black Family. Perrault also speaks to church and parenting groups, like CHADD, about ADHD.
“As a businessman and an entrepreneur, I think [ADHD] serves me really well,” says Perrault. “I would no more give up ADHD than Superman would give up his cape. I think it gives me a special ability to deal with people, to empathize with them, to see the strengths in them. That is very important for a psychologist to be able to do.”