“Once I Accepted my ADHD, My Life Began to Change”
How one woman with ADHD learned to balance her professional, creative, and family lives amidst a late diagnosis.
When adults learn they have ADHD, most look for ways to cope. Terry Matlen looked for her calling, and wound up launching a successful consulting business, www.addconsults.com. Along the way, the Birmingham, Michigan, resident has learned how to balance her creative side — she’s an accomplished artist — with her work life and how to be a better wife and mother.
It was a long journey, and Terry didn’t get there on her own. Along the way, she got help from several people, including Sari Solden, the author of Women with Attention Deficit Disorder.
Terry: My younger daughter, who is now 18, was diagnosed with severe hyperactivity when she was three. I began to read about ADHD, and I realized that other people in my family had symptoms — including me. I had a thorough evaluation, and the doctor confirmed that I had inattentive ADHD. It was 1994. I was 41 years old.
I had trouble accepting the diagnosis. I’d always blamed my problems on anxiety. I’d been treated for panic attacks for years, but nothing worked. Sari’s book described a woman whose ADHD caused her to panic in malls because she couldn’t filter out stimuli and was overwhelmed by all the noise and confusion. That hit home with me, because I’ve experienced the same thing.
I started taking a stimulant, but the side effects, which included even more anxiety, made it impossible to take on a daily basis. Now I use medication only once a week or so, when I need to stay focused. When I was writing my book, Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD, I took it every day for six months.
Knowing I had ADD put my foibles in perspective — why I’ve always detested parties, why I couldn’t have people over because my house was always a mess, and why I kept losing friends because I forgot to call them. Once I accepted my ADHD, I found I had more emotional energy for my family. My life began to change.
Dr. Jerry Matlen (Terry’s husband and an orthopedic surgeon): Finding out about Terry’s ADHD was more of a gradual revelation than a sudden shock. It explained a lot of things, including why she would start projects, then move on to something else before finishing.
Even simple things were hard for Terry. She had trouble orchestrating a sequence of events, like cooking chicken, broccoli, macaroni, and cheese at the same time. She could never balance a checkbook. Once, she opened a new bank account so she could just start over.
Terry: Like most moms, I had always believed I should be able to manage the household, take care of the kids, keep food on hand, and so on. But I couldn’t, and I felt ashamed. Now I accept that housecleaning isn’t one of my talents. Just because I can’t fold linens, put clothes away, or even see the mess around me doesn’t mean I am crazy or stupid. Now I have a cleaning crew come in once a week. I allow myself to have “no-guilt” messy areas around the house.
One of the biggest challenges I faced was helping my daughter, who had to be supervised every minute. I would think to myself, “You’re a mom — why should you need help with your own child?” I had to get rid of my guilt to realize it was okay to hire someone to come in and help me keep her busy, calm her down, even when I was home. This allowed me to spend time with my other daughter, and be a better parent to both.
Sari Solden (Terry’s mentor): Most women have expectations about what it means to be a wife, a mother, a friend, and they feel ashamed when they fall short. They’re the ones responsible for remembering peoples’ birthdays. They’rethe ones who are supposed to shop for food and clothes, to plan the family’s meals and to cook. But when you have ADHD, these expectations collide with executive function problems.
Terry: Sari lives in Ann Arbor, which isn’t far away. I met with her after reading her book, and I’ve been working with her ever since. At first she was my mentor. Now she’s more of a consultant. I check in with her at transition points in my career, and when I want to make major changes in my life.
Before I had children, I was a social worker. After learning that I had ADHD, I decided that I was passionate about working in the field that Sari pioneered: helping women with ADHD.
At first, I taught community education classes, but I got bored with that. So I got involved with the local chapter of CHADD, and I wrote an article for Focus, a magazine published by ADDA. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to get back into clinical social work, setting up a private practice that specialized in ADHD.
I figured I would work a few hours each day, and spend the rest of the day painting in my studio. Sari thought it would be better to block out two full days for clinical work, and two for painting. [Visit Terry Matlen’s Web site to see some of Terry’s artwork.] Sari also helped me figure out what times of day I should work on things that required lots of focus.
Clinical practice didn’t work out. I found it hard to concentrate in my office, knowing that my children needed me. My daughter’s school was calling me constantly. So I shifted into consulting.
Because of my work with CHADD and ADDA, and with the online support chats that I’d been hosting, people had begun e-mailing and calling me from all over the world. I realized that I was onto something huge, but I didn’t know how to help all these people. When I came up with the idea of an online clinic, I talked it over with a friend who is an ADHD coach. I’ve been running the online clinic since 2000. I love the fact that I can work at home and be available to anyone in the world who has a telephone or a computer.
Sari: Whatever the challenge facing them, people with ADHD need to believe that it can be done. I have ADHD, too, and I had accomplished some of the things that Terry aspired to. I’ve been able to help her steer a course, staying away from the rocks, and helping her get back on track when she drifts off. For example, if Terry and I meet after several months and she’s overwhelmed with too many new projects, choices, and ideas, we discuss what to eliminate or how to restructure her goals.
Terry: Over the years, Jerry has learned to share more of the child care and housekeeping responsibilities. He knows that grocery shopping can take me three hours, so he often takes on that chore.
Since I’m not a morning person, he’s the one who wakes our younger daughter and gives her breakfast and her meds. Then I take over and get her off to school on the bus. We each have our special time with her and neither of us is overburdened.
Jerry does his own laundry. He even reorganizes the freezer so things won’t come tumbling out. When I began writing my book, housekeeping took a back seat, and he was very supportive. His tremendous sense of humor helps a lot. When there’s a bump in the road, he can say, “That’s the ADHD,” instead of blaming me.
Jerry: When friction comes up in a marriage, you sometimes think your spouse is being insensitive or doing something on purpose, not that they’re unable to do anything else. If I wanted to ask Terry something while she was on the phone, she’d put her hands over her ears and grimace. I felt two things — that I was bothering her, and that she wasn’t paying enough attention to me. I’d wonder why she couldn’t just tell the person on the phone, “Hold on, my husband needs to speak to me.”
Once I understood that ADHD makes it hard to concentrate on two things, I learned to wait until she was off the phone. She wouldn’t have to worry about multitasking, and I wouldn’t feel bad about being ignored.
Sari: Working things out with ADHD is hard if your partner isn’t involved in the process. Spouses sometimes can’t imagine how difficult life can be for someone with ADHD. They feel resentful. They compare their family to other families and wish theirs could be like that.
Terry: I can’t downplay the difficulties of having ADHD. But I’d like to think that I’ve learned to use ADHD in positive ways. ADHD has gotten me where I am professionally. I’m totally focused on working in this field, and it gives me tremendous satisfaction.
Sari: The great thing about Terry is that she takes risks and makes choices that allow her to grow. When she reaches one level of success, she wants to take on new challenges. From local to national ADHD boards, from writing articles for her local chapter to writing a book, from helping a few clients a week in person, to helping hundreds online.
Terry: I tell people that ADHD isn’t a death sentence. It’s a challenge. Don’t look at the rocks, but at the path between the rocks.