'Finally, It Dawned on Me'

This accomplished entrepreneur didn't decipher his symptoms until age 63. Now, he's helping others manage their ADD.

Late ADHD Diagnosis ADDitude Magazine

I’ve always had trouble reading, and I had to work hard to do well in school. I get bored easily, and I constantly need new challenges.

Neil Peterson, father and successful entrepreneur with ADD

Neil Peterson accomplished a lot in his 40-year career. Actually, because he’s so energetic — some would say restless — he had two careers. As a serial entrepreneur, he launched several successful businesses, including Flexcar, a Seattle-based firm that rents cars by the hour to city dwellers who don’t want the costs or hassle of owning a car. And during a parallel career in the public sector, he ran the transportation systems of Seattle, Los Angeles, and Oakland, California, and the welfare agency of the state of Washington. He also served as the city manager of New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Now that he’s retired, 63-year-old Neil divides his time between Seattle and Indio, California, spending as much time as possible with his two children: Guy, 22, a senior at the University of Richmond in Virginia, and Kelsey, 20, a freshman at Parsons/The New School for Design in New York City.

But for all his good fortune, Neil has had his share of difficulties. His first marriage ended in divorce, in 1979. He remarried four years later, but in 2000, that union also buckled under the strain of missed appointments, chronic disorganization, and the stress that comes with a life of constant change.

Only recently did Neil discover the reason for some of his problems: Like his children, who were diagnosed in high school, he has ADHD.

Neil Peterson: For a long time, I wondered where my kids got their ADHD. Finally, it dawned on me that they got it from me. Though I’ve never been formally diagnosed, I show a lot of the telltale symptoms. I’ve always had trouble reading, and I had to work hard to do well in school. I get bored easily, and I constantly need new challenges.

Though my work life was successful, I was never careful about details that didn’t interest me. I used to tell my second wife that I would take care of the bills, but I would never sit down and write the checks. That’s one of the things that led to our divorce.

I sold my last business a year and a half ago. For the first time in my life, no one was making demands or imposing schedules on me. I knew what I wanted to do, but I couldn’t get off the dime. Then I thought about how coaching had helped Guy and Kelsey. It occurred to me that maybe I needed a coach, too.

Kelsey Peterson: I knew I had dyslexia ever since grade school. A few years ago, we found out that my brother has ADHD, and my father asked me to get tested, too. Sure enough, I had it. I didn’t think I needed coaching, but my father said to give it a chance — and it’s been very helpful.

Jodi Sleeper-Triplett (an ADHD coach in Herndon, Virginia): When I started coaching Kelsey, last spring, our initial focus was to help her get ready for college. Here was this 19-year-old going off to New York City to one of the best design schools in the nation. She worried that she wouldn’t be able to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities there and keep up with her classes, too.

I had her plan out her school days and send me her plan via e-mail. She would also create a plan for each weekend, taking into account social events, personal time, and school assignments. Planning is something many students with ADHD have trouble doing on their own.

Kelsey: Jodi helps me figure out how to do things. For example, I’ve learned to do my drawing homework right after class, when the subject is still fresh in my mind, and to do my reading in the library, where there are few distractions. And now that I break assignments into small chunks, big assignments don’t seem so daunting. Every morning, I go for a half-hour run before class. That helps me wake up and leaves me ready to focus in class. I call Jodi once a week. She asks what projects I’m working on, and what timelines I have set up. In addition to the phone calls, we keep in touch by e-mail every other day or so.

Neil: Unlike Kelsey and Guy, I don’t take medication for ADHD. I’m not a big fan of pills — I don’t even take vitamins. But I’ve found ways to cope with my ADHD. Exercise helps a lot. Most days, I spend two hours biking, swimming, stretching, and lifting weights. And Nancy’s been a godsend.

Nancy Ratey (an ADHD coach in Boston): When Neil and I first started working together, he told me he had two goals. He wanted to write his memoirs, and to start a foundation to help kids with ADHD and learning disabilities. It was clear to me that he had more than enough energy to achieve those goals. What he needed was a partner — someone to help him structure his days and cheer him on when he felt down, someone who could see things that he couldn’t see.

Neil: Nancy didn’t have to convince me to get organized. That’s never a problem when I’m engaged in a project. But she has helped me become more confident about my writing ability. Given all the trouble I had with compositions in school, I didn’t think I could produce something as long and as complicated as a book.

Nancy: I make sure Neil keeps to a consistent work schedule. Now he begins each day by writing for a couple of hours, and he’s made great progress on the book. In less than six months, he’s written 150 pages.

Neil: The idea for the foundation came from Kelsey. A few months after I retired, I was looking for an outlet for my energy, and she said, “The best gift you ever gave me was a coach. Why don’t you do for other kids what you did for me and my brother?” With the foundation, I want to raise awareness of ADHD, so kids can get diagnosed early. That didn’t happen with my kids, and I regret it.

I also want to make sure every young person who has ADHD has access to coaching. Nancy has been good at helping me think things through. With her help, I’ve drafted a business plan, developed a budget, put together an advisory board, and looked into fundraising options. Things have really taken off.

Jodi: One of the most powerful things the Petersons have going for them is their closeness as a family. Neil is always available to Kelsey and Guy. Whatever the difficulties, he’s always there.

By Neil and Kelsey Peterson, Jodi Sleeper-Triplett, and Nancy Ratey, as told to Carl Sherman, Ph.D.


This article comes from the April/May 2007 issue of ADDitude.

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