Real Stories of ADHD Triumph
Six artists, thinkers, and entrepreneurs with ADHD share their remarkable success stories and prove that taking the road less traveled can, indeed, make all the difference.
Beth Nielsen Chapman, 58
Songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman has come a long way from singing at weddings and in bowling alleys in her high school years. Today, she’s a card-carrying ADHD success story — a twice Grammy-nominated, Nashville-based singer-songwriter. In addition to recording her own albums (including Prism, recorded around the globe and sung in nine different languages), she’s written hits for artists like Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Bette Midler, Elton John, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, and others.
She’s also a songwriting teacher and workshop leader. In 2014, she released Uncovered, and that same year The Mighty Sky was nominated for a Grammy for “Best Children’s Album.”
Nielsen Chapman lived with undiagnosed ADHD for most of her life. Now 58, she was diagnosed at 56, after her second husband, a psychologist, recommended that she visit a clinic near Nashville. She felt both relief and sadness after her diagnosis. Her sadness didn’t come from the fact that she had ADHD. It came from remembering all those times “when I had been hard or mean to myself… because I thought I wasn’t up to snuff.”
Nielsen Chapman is now a master of hyperfocus. “I go in my studio, and I think I’m going to be in there for 10 minutes, and my husband calls to me at midnight and says, ‘You going to go to bed today, or are you going to wait until tomorrow?'” Her biggest problem is getting enough sleep. It’s not that she has trouble sleeping; it’s getting to bed that’s the challenge.
Nielsen Chapman has the heightened intuition and emotional sensitivity that often comes with ADHD. These contribute to both the depth of her songwriting, and the subject matter she writes about. Long before her first husband, Ernest, was diagnosed with cancer, she’d started writing the poignant lyrics for her album Sand and Water, in which she explores grief and the joys of living.
A year after Ernest’s passing, a friend invited Nielsen Chapman to a retreat with Deepak Chopra. There, she found her most important ADHD treatment: meditation. “When you practice it with some regularity, your mind grows still.” Nielsen Chapman is calmer and less in need of ADHD medication when she meditates. She also manages time better.
Nielsen Chapman uses Adderall on occasion to treat her ADHD symptoms, especially when she has to critique a song the next day after a night of writing. Like many with ADHD, she finds herself finishing projects at the last minute. Once when she was asked to write a song for Willie Nelson, “It took me until the very last day to finish writing it. I handed it to him at the last second,” says Nielsen Chapman. Yes, he liked it.
Nielsen Chapman sees her diagnosis as one of the best things that has happened to her. “ADHD is a gift and a challenge. Sharing that I have the condition with others has been essential to my happiness.”
Peter Shankman, 42
For someone who was sent to the principal’s office regularly for talking out of turn in class, being a sought-after professional speaker feels pretty sweet to Peter Shankman. He’s in high demand as a guru on customer service, marketing, social media, and more.
Born and raised in New York City, where he still lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter, Shankman has learned to use his ADHD to his advantage. His transformation from class clown to corporate consultant, author, and entrepreneur was fueled by a determination to prove that he wasn’t a “slow learner,” as his teachers called him. Shankman worked hard earning his undergraduate degree in journalism and photojournalism from Boston University. He’s best known as the founder of Help a Reporter Out (HARO) and The Geek Factory, a New York-based social media, marketing, and public relations strategy firm.
Until his late 20s, Shankman’s exercise routine consisted mostly of running to McDonald’s for Big Macs and to the grocery store for cigarettes, he says. Today, exercise is a form of ADHD medication for him: He’s a licensed skydiver, runs marathons, and has completed the Ironman triathlon.
Because of his challenging childhood — he suffered from dyslexia and was bullied in school for a while — he wants to reassure kids that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. He routinely visits New York City high schools and gives talks about ADHD to students and teachers.
Shankman, who was diagnosed in his late 20s by a psychiatrist, doesn’t take medication to treat his ADHD. He believes that “my level of dopamine after I go skydiving or for a long run is the exact same as taking Ritalin or Adderall.” Shankman says skydiving grounds him. “[It] gives me the ability to focus and think clearly.”
Before learning how to manage his ADHD, “I always waited until the last minute [to do something] or I’d forget things,” says Shankman. He’s learned to turn this last-minute approach to his advantage. “When I need to write a book, my publisher gives me six months to do it. I usually wait until the last week. I book a flight to Tokyo and I write chapters one through five on the flight there, and chapters six through 10 on the flight home. That’s the only way I know how to work.”
When it comes to success at home, with his two-year-old daughter, Shankman sheds his devices when he’s with her. “I spend the majority of my time focused on her, talking to her. I enjoy living in the moment.”
When Shankman goes home to his wife and daughter, “I stop at the door and I take 10 long, deep breaths. It centers me, and it allows me to walk in with a clear, calm head.”
Shankman doesn’t see his ADHD as a problem. “Know that what you have isn’t a disease, it’s a benefit. You need to learn to manage it. Whether that’s [taking] medication or doing 20 jumping jacks to change your brain chemistry for a bit, we have the ability to think and process faster than most people. We need to embrace that.”
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 conceived 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 others with ADHD 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.”
Dave Farrow, 40
Dave Farrow is a two-time Guinness World Record holder for Greatest Memory — a far cry from grade school in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, when his handwriting and spelling were so poor that he was labeled a slow learner. “The idea that I’m a slow learner kind of stuck in my craw,” says Farrow. He set out to prove his teachers wrong.
At 14, Farrow was diagnosed with ADHD. He believed that there must be an advantage to having the condition, and he made it his goal to find it. “I had a lot of difficulty learning in the classroom, but I had a big passion for learning in general,” says Farrow. He spent hours in the high school library, reading up on topics that fascinated him. In an effort to improve his ability to study, he researched speed-reading, basic visualization, and other techniques. These tools led to the creation of his memory training approach, which he developed during high school.
Farrow, a sports enthusiast, also wondered if he could apply interval training, a popular sports-training technique, to his own brain. Testing his hypothesis, he set an egg timer for two-and-a-half minutes and worked intensely. He chose a task that was very tough to do in that amount of time — memorizing a long list of foreign vocabulary words. “But I would be feverishly trying to do it.” When the timer went off, he stopped. He gave himself two minutes or so to do something he really liked, like playing video games, to clear his head. Then he repeated the process.
Farrow says that he dodged distraction and fatigue by studying in short intervals. Farrow’s study technique is based on brain chemistry. When we work too long, says Farrow, we burn up the brain chemicals that help us focus. When he worked for short intervals, he bounced back faster, could focus more deeply, and had near total recall. “It was because I stopped myself, instead of waiting for my brain to stop me, that I got in control [of hyperfocus].
“By the time I developed these techniques, I became so good at learning, and was so bored by the pace at which school was going, that I started my business [Wizardtech Inc.] right out of high school.” Farrow hosted memory workshops for companies and individuals, improving their efficiency by teaching them to save time spent in looking up facts or figures by remembering them.
Farrow’s biggest career break came after winning his first Guinness World Record for Greatest Memory, in 1996. His achievement brought new corporate clients, television spots, and work with McGill University neuroscientists on a pilot study based on The Farrow Memory Training Technique.
Farrow, a self-described adrenaline junkie, uses athletics, not medication, to treat his ADHD and his co-existing intermittent mood disorder. “The euphoria I [feel] after resistance training just [makes] me feel better.”
Adrenaline-seeking behavior also affected Farrow’s social life, especially dating. “I had to kind of go through relationship after relationship, failing and failing, until I found the right fit.” In 2008, after several years of dating, he married Andrea.
Farrow uses his unique approach to life to foster success. “There are so many different ways to be. As people with ADHD, we’ve been struck with lightning and made different than everybody else. Why try to conform? Why not embrace your differences?”
Michelle Dean, 47
Looking back on her life, Michelle Dean sees how undiagnosed ADHD affected her. In public school, she was unable to clean her room or focus on homework. Neither of her parents understood Dean’s struggles. Her mom asked her why she was so lazy, and her dad asked what was wrong with her. Dean’s self-esteem plummeted. Believing that she wasn’t up to snuff intellectually, she focused on her social life more than her schoolwork.
In high school, Dean worked for her parents as a sales rep for their Aloette cosmetics franchise. After graduation, she became restless and left her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, to move to Montreal with a boyfriend. The relationship didn’t last. “If I had a great relationship with someone, I’d ruin it because I didn’t feel I deserved it,” says Dean.
At 20, she backpacked around Europe for four months. Shortly after that, Dean met her husband. “He instilled confidence in me that I’d never had before.” The couple has four children, including a daughter, who was diagnosed with ADHD at 11, and a seven-year-old son, who is currently being evaluated for the condition.
Dean has worked at a number of positions, including one at the Okanagan Aloette cosmetics franchise. There, she was top salesperson of the month numerous times. In 2010, she became a sales manager. That year, she was sixth in Canada for recruiting new sales reps and won a cruise to the Caribbean. “I wanted it more than anything, and I was relentless,” says Dean. She attributes her drive to her ADHD. “When I am interested or challenged by something, I will not stop until I accomplish it.”
In 2011, she opened her own Aloette franchise, which she ran for two years. She found the demands of running a business, including managing more than 80 workers, overwhelming.
At 44, Dean was diagnosed as having ADHD by a family physician and was prescribed Vyvanse. “It was like this light went on for me. The first day I took it, I thought, ‘I’m going to test myself.’ I had a huge box of filing to do and I thought, ‘I’m going to see if I can get through this.’ And I got through it. I felt so good.”
Unfortunately, by the time Dean was diagnosed, it was too late to save her business. “Had I been diagnosed a year before, I think I would have had a good stab at it,” says Dean. In hindsight, she feels she should have stayed in her capacity as a sales manager rather than running her own franchise.
In 2013, Dean was hired to open the City of New Westminster’s new conference center, the Anvil Centre. This involved setting up supplier accounts; ordering furniture, phones, and office equipment; and setting up software for the centre.
The opening of the centre was so successful that Dean was hired to be the city’s Special Events Coordinator. Among her duties, she orchestrates civic events, like the grand opening of the civic centre she helped create, the city’s Santa Claus parade, and the unveiling of the renowned “Wait for Me, Daddy” war memorial sculpture.
Workplace strategies for Dean include dividing large projects into smaller tasks, and taking walks to re-focus and refresh her mind. Dean feels that her ADHD-induced creativity is an asset, allowing her to problem-solve in a pinch.
Dean embraces ADHD, not only for herself, but for her daughter. “She saw that I was successful. She could see that [ADHD] wasn’t a bad thing to have. It was just a different thing to have, a different way to think, and a different way to approach life.”