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“What If My Intense Drive Is Because of — Not in Spite of — My ADHD?”

Like many women with ADHD, I’m a high-energy, creative thinker, boycotter of the status quo, and classic over sharer. I’ve long used these traits to help me succeed in life. You can, too. It all begins with hope.

When my son Markus was diagnosed with ADHD at the age 12, I met with a psychologist to learn more about it. Instead of answering my questions, she told me to scale down my very ambitious son’s expectations so he wouldn’t be disappointed in life. Who would ever tell a child that? Not me. Instead, I fired her.

Eight months later, I received the same ADHD diagnosis. Because our symptoms were so different, it took me eight months of learning about his ADHD to finally see his diagnosis in myself. I discovered that my drive and ambition were a form of hyperactivity.

I felt vindicated by my diagnosis. I had struggled for several years to explain symptoms that were getting worse as I got older (hello, hormones). I was tired of going to doctors who would, in essence, pat me on the head and say, “Honey, it’s nothing.” I knew it was something.

I also knew that, had my mother taken the same bad advice I had received, I would have never graduated from college, completed law school, or received a second graduate degree.

That’s also when I made it my mission to change the somber conversation around ADHD. I’ve long subscribed to the theory that whether we think we can or think we can’t, we’re right. I choose to believe that I can.

Do I have weaknesses? I do. I’m never on time for anything that’s not business-related; my husband will affirm that that means my business, not his. I’m incapable of washing a load of laundry just once; the smoke alarm is the only reason my house hasn’t burned to the ground; and I cannot tell a linear story to save my life — or yours.

But the flipside to my ADHD weaknesses are my great ADHD strengths. I’m not hyperactive, just otherworldly energetic. I’m not distractible, just incessantly curious. And, yes, I’m impulsive but isn’t it Dr. Ned Hallowell himself who posits that creativity is simply impulsivity gone right?

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Medication didn’t work for me, so I had to figure out what did. I learned that I need quick workarounds. If it’s complicated, I won’t do it. Exercise works well at increasing my dopamine, so I think of it as my medicine.

My day always begins with a workout. If I know I will have an especially hectic morning, I’ll make it easier to start my routine by sleeping in my gym clothes and just jumping out of bed.

The truth is that I have felt different my entire life. I’ve always been too much. Too chatty (as a child they called me the “Burlingame Blab,” after my hometown and because I’d share family secrets to anyone who’d listen); too intent on challenging the status quo (I proposed to my husband by flying a plane over Singing Beach, MA); too ambitious (I go big or I go home); too willing to say exactly what’s on my mind (like the time I told my kindergarten teacher that blue was a better color than the puke green she was wearing.)

Even so, I’d always done well in school, had never been fired from a job, counted my one and only marriage among my greatest achievements, and have always found clutter anxiety-producing. Could I really have ADHD?

ADHD is My Fuel

Thinking through my diagnosis more carefully, I made an important connection: My personal drive is a form of hyperactivity, and my interpersonal intuition is the reason I can walk into a room and read it even before anyone has uttered a word. These two ADHD traits have explained my entire life and confirmed for me that, by golly, I have ADHD.

That’s also when I decided to start a podcast for smart women — to help them connect and understand their brilliant, creative ADHD brains. What better way to find my people than by letting them know that I am their people?

[Click to Take This ADHD Symptom Test for Women]

But first, I had to educate myself on all things ADHD. So I read everything I could find from experts who have ADHD themselves — people like Ned Hallowell, M.D., John Ratey, M.D., Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author Thom Hartmann, Patricia Quinn, M.D., author Linda Roggli, etc. After all, if I wanted to learn how to surf, wouldn’t I take lessons from a surfer who rides the waves daily, has experience with wipeouts, and has endured point break? Someone who has actually spent time on a board?

In our community of women with ADHD, we have professors, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. We have women who manage budgets in the billions and women who don’t but now know that they can. What these women have in common is the shared belief that they are successful because of their ADHD, not in spite of it. They are in the right environment, working in an area that takes advantage of their natural strengths and interests. These women are action-oriented. They don’t think about what they can’t do or what they wish they could do. They go out and do it.

My best advice for those diagnosed with ADHD is to focus on your strengths and delegate your weaknesses. The biggest mistake we make is trying too hard to fit in, instead of working on where we stand out.

I have never met a person with ADHD who wasn’t truly brilliant at something. That includes my son Markus, who has been my greatest teacher. This fall, Markus started his first semester as a senior in his third high school — the school where he’s finally cracked his learning code. At his new school, he’s earning a 3.7 GPA, playing varsity basketball, discovering a love for economics, and applying to colleges.

Markus taught me that creative ADHD brains need more structure, not less. In the right school (environment), with teachers who believe in him (our brains thrive on encouragement and praise and wither under criticism), my son’s sky is limitless.

Markus didn’t need his expectations lowered; he needed them raised. Once he confirmed that his teachers cared about him personally and knew how smart and capable he really was, hope took hold. Hope is the bridge to our success. It fuels our motivation, drives our determination and gives us the confidence to soar. I am a peddler of hope.

[Click to Read: “You Are Not the Sum of Your ADHD Challenges”]

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7 Comments & Reviews

  1. I totally get this. I have told my psychiatrist that I consider adhd to be my friend and foe. I was diagnosed last year at 43, prior to this I was in constant trouble for missing meetings, running late and talking. I worked for 18 months as a respiratory specialist in clinical trials……clinical trials with adhd, worst job ever; skills needed, microscopic organisation, preplanning, everything done to exact times and tidy…as you can imagine I was on the brink of losing my job, so I took a huge risk of taking a seconded temp contract as an end of life specialist nurse in the community whilst already on a temp contract. The new job was solving complex problems using drugs completely off piste….bingo, perfect!!!
    It wasnt till I had started the secondment it dawned on me I could have no job at the end of it and my wife had just had our 2nd child. I ended up with a permanent post in end of life care and 5 years down the line realised that my adhd gave me the ability to take risks without thinking and also a million ideas to make me excellent at my job.
    I have done jobs in my house and on my cars my friends would never dare attempt because my adhd makes me feel I can do anything (even if only once).
    My foe brought me trouble, my friend brought me risk taking elements that ended up in 3 sons, a wife 10 years younger than me and achieving my career goals.
    Embrace the speeded up, multi-idea, disorganised benefits of a multifunctional mind

  2. I totally agree with this article. Flipping the conversation from weakness to strength is key for ADHD, dyslexia and other non-neurotypical brains. Unfortunately, most educators in high school and university are stuck in the past and focus on neurotypical learning styles. People like Tracy are changing the conversation. More people, especially educators, need this information.

  3. Great article! The comment about thriving with encouragement and withering under criticism hit home. I’m so glad your son has found a group of teachers who support him. This is the dream for all parents.

  4. Thanks Tracy, this is a great article. You always talk so much sense and in a way my ADHD brain stays intrigued and focused (and trust me this is hard to achieve). You have helped me to see my ADHD symptoms as a strength and how to work around those parts that are holding me back.

    I hope you will be able to write more articles for ADDitude, it’s a great website and I think you can achieve great things together and make a strong impact to ADHD lives.

  5. I don’t quite know what to think about this. On the one hand, it’s positive and uplifting. On the other, it doesent’t really apply to people who lack the hyperactive/impulsive traits. I see this pattern over and over in the “ADHD is an advantage” genre.
    Just once I would like an article (webinar, podcast, book, podcast, video) that highlights how primarily-inattentive ADHD contributes to success. We’re pretty much excluded from this conversation, as far as I can tell. It has bothered me for a long time.
    Can any of my fellow non-H ADHDers post anything about how their inattentive ADHD actually helps them?

  6. Great article. I’m of the primarily inattentive type, just diagnosed a year ago at age 44. For example, in school I forgot to do my homework so often that my teachers were surprised when I remembered. I’m not hyperactive, but I’m impulsive enough to take on challenges before sanity takes hold! Looking back, this has always been a thing, like agreeing to play an improvised solo at a band competition with only 5 minutes practice for instance, or deciding to repair the snowblower engine myself. A few years ago at work there was a big high-profile event and someone needed to be in the centre of it all for about a year leading up to it. When I volunteered, more than one person said “better you than me” because to mess it up could be career-ending. I did it though. After it was over I was a bit down, without a sense of purpose. And then another opportunity came up to handle our Dept budget and I volunteered, despite my meager grade 10 math skills. Yes, it’s risky, but it’s an irresistible change to show myself what I’m made of.

  7. Another good article.

    @harrtofgold – “Yes, it’s risky, but it’s an irresistible chance to show myself what I’m made of.” I love this attitude and I feel the same, and I love it! Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. Sometimes I feel, I may need to do something of the sort again myself, to re-affirm confidence in myself. It does give you a great feeling, even if you fail, that nobody can take away. It makes you smile…and others are proud of you as well, for having the courage to do something that they wouldn’t dare. 🙂 QUEST!

    *With the right encouragement and aim, it’s amazing what people can, and will accomplish.

    @2weelz – I started to say that I think those who are only ADD (as apposed to ADHD), are just as attentive, but process the information slower, however; it has been discovered and documented that there aren’t TWO types of ADHD..just ADHD and how it presents in different situations.

    I have to agree with the sentiments of Acfearnley, and Taxer24 as well.

    Thanks for posting.

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