Leading Ladies: Seven Successful Women with ADHD

Persevering amid attention deficit, these seven bold women do it their way.

Pieces of the Puzzle Come Together

Sarah Blyth, 39

Parks Board Commissioner, Vancouver, British Columbia

"Growing up, I felt so different, so weird," says Sarah Blyth. For Blyth, it's been a long road from her traumatic school years to success as Vancouver Parks Board Commissioner. In 2010, before being elected to her second term, Blyth went public with her ADHD. "I wanted to bring it forward," says Blyth. "Kids with ADHD, who are creative and talented, may not realize that they have special gifts. I can do something for [them], rather than just being afraid for them."

Blyth's ADHD showed up in elementary school. "I couldn't sit still or concentrate," she says. "They knew as soon as I got into school that something wasn't working." She suffered years of poor grades and low self-esteem. At age 16, she was diagnosed with ADHD by an adolescent psychiatrist.

The turning point came in her early twenties, when she was mentored by a youth worker at a community center. "She believed in me," says Blyth, "and I grew confident in my abilities." Blyth knew what it felt like to be an underdog. Her gift for helping others continued in her work as a mental health worker at the New Fountain Homeless Shelter, in Vancouver.

Now in her second term as the Parks Board commissioner, Blyth juggles her job with being a single mom raising an eight year-old son. "It's not easy," says Blyth. "I'm always losing things. Paying bills is hard, and my memory is bad — the whole thing is a bit of a Gong Show." To cope with her ADHD, Blyth goes for a long walk before meetings, to focus herself. Note-taking keeps her alert and tuned in to what is being said. To compensate for disorganization and a poor memory, she uses to-do lists.

Even with its challenges, Blyth says, "I wouldn't give up my ADHD. It's been hard, but, as with any difficult thing, you learn something, don't you?"

Martha Fenwick, 55

Adult educator, Kingston, Ontario

"My life is successful because I get to listen to my heart and open myself up to what makes me happy," says Martha Fenwick. Like others with ADD, Fenwick has found that what makes her happy changes as she seeks new challenges. After graduating with a degree in drama and art history from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Fenwick went on to receive a diploma in Early Childhood Education.

Fenwick owned and ran a successful day care center in Kingston, Ontario, for 11 years. Looking to shake up her routine, she jumped at an invitation to be a guest instructor in Nunavet, in northern Canada. Several years later, she sold her business. Fenwick had just turned 30, had been re-married for two years, and was living on her husband's farm. Without the structure of her business, Fenwick's ADD symptoms of distractibility and poor time management came back. Fenwick's husband served as a coach, reminding her to focus and encouraging her to see tasks through to the end.

"The author Stephen Covey calls it the 'law of the farm,' when we come to understand the rhythm of life," says Fenwick. "And for us ADD folk, the farm is a huge gift. You cannot escape routine or responsibility. The routine nourishes us and gives back so much."

Fenwick discovered an organizing website called FlyLady. Although the site was not designed for women with ADD, Fenwick says, "FlyLady describes an awful lot of things that ADD people do," from problems with meal planning to managing finances. Fenwick eventually joined the Professional Organizers in Canada (POC), a national association. "Women with ADD need to organize to keep ourselves sane," she says.

Today, in addition to working with her organizing clients, Fenwick periodically flies to communities in the far north, to teach adult ECE curriculum through Arctic College. The payoff? "If you stop trying to dance to everybody else's tune and listen to your heart, you can get on track a lot faster, and stay on track a lot longer."

Denise R. Greenwood, M.D., 50

Surgeon, Little Rock, Arkansas

"When I was diagnosed [at 31], I was excited," says Denise R. Greenwood, a surgeon specializing in oncology of the breast. "It gave me an answer, and it put some of the pieces of the puzzle together."

Before graduating from medical school, part of the puzzle was Greenwood's academic record. "Before I took standardized tests, I hadn't noticed a problem," she says. At 31, while doing her residency at Marshall University, West Virginia, Greenwood was diagnosed with ADHD by Barbara Guyer, Ed.D., who founded the HELP (Higher Education for Learning Problems) program at Marshall. HELP was created to assist medical students and physicians with academic challenges, especially learning disabilities and ADHD.

After her residency, Greenwood moved to Arkansas to do a fellowship in breast cancer. "I was married, pregnant with my second child, and nursing my first," says Greenwood. Because she was nursing, she stopped taking ADHD meds. She graduated and, in 1994, established the Arkansas Breast Center, in Little Rock, as well as Link Breast Center, a nonprofit organization. Greenwood was also a medical adviser to the La Leche League, on the board of councilors for the state medical society, and president-elect of the county medical society. "People told me to slow down," she says. Over-committed, Greenwood often ran late. "I had to be constantly doing something," she says.

"I came to realize that my ADHD might have more of an impact on my life than I had realized," she says. The only treatment she'd been offered was medication. After learning more about adult ADHD, Greenwood stepped up her ADHD treatment, adding exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, and coaching.

Now, Greenwood says, "My personal relationships have gotten better. They have more depth because I don't feel scattered. It's hard to have a successful relationship if you can't focus on what another person is saying."

"There's no reason [ADHD] should prevent you from doing anything," she says. "You may stumble, you may have difficulties before you're diagnosed, but, you know what? They're not insurmountable."

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