“I Wouldn’t Give Up My ADHD”
“It’s been hard, but, as with any difficult thing, you learn something, don’t you?” Take notes from Sarah Blyth, Vancouver Parks Board Commissioner, and get inspired by these six other women leaders with ADHD.
Trudie Styler, 58
Actor and filmmaker, New York, New York
When Trudie Styler — mother of four and the long-time partner of rock star Sting — started school, in England in the 1960s, she had trouble learning to read. School officials sent her to get her eyes tested. When it turned out she could see fine, the diagnosis was simple: She must be a “backward.”
“Backward” is the British word for what we now call cognitive impairment. While she didn’t get a real diagnosis of inattentive type ADHD until years later, her mom came to her defense: “Our Trudie is not backward,” she said. “She’s just slower learning to read.”
School became a nightmare for Styler as she moved from a small primary school to a big high school. She was lost. What got her through? “My faith in God began to grow, and it was that small voice, when you’re extremely lonely and lost, that lets you know that you’re not alone.”
Being a good athlete and actor in high school also helped. “When I got on stage, and when I started to be another character, I could somehow take a distance from me, and that character would come through.”
After high school, Styler pursued an acting career. She packed her bags and left home for Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. While there, she became a house cleaner for a family, and later moved to London with them. She wrote the Bristol Old Vic Acting School, begging for an audition. She got one, and was accepted as a student, with a scholarship.
“My life really began there,” Styler said. “I had started to realize my dream. It was the first time the tide wasn’t going against me.” In 1981, she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. Since then, Styler has appeared in movies and TV series and has produced 15 films.
Yoga is a big help for Styler — “the meditation aspect has been incredibly useful in clearing the traffic that goes on in a chaotic mind like mine.” Medication helps her focus, especially when reading scripts.
Styler’s advice to parents: “As a kid, you obsess about wanting to be normal. As you get older, being normal is not such a big thing. Your gifts are important. Celebrate who you are, and listen for the small voice.”
Sharon Wohlmuth, 65
Author and photojournalist, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
After several academic stumbles — getting kicked out of a junior college for flunking shorthand, and dropping out of Pennsylvania State University because it didn’t interest her — Sharon Wohlmuth enrolled at Moore College of Art and Design, in Philadelphia, in 1972. “That propelled me into the most wonderful years of my life,” says Wohlmuth. It also started a lifelong passion that would earn her international acclaim as a photojournalist and bestselling author.
Arriving in New York shortly after graduation, armed only with a firm handshake, an impressive portfolio, and undiagnosed ADHD, Wohlmuth landed her first photography assignment, at Newsweek. Shortly after, she began her 20-year career as a photojournalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Wohlmuth says ADHD contributed to her success. “It gave me a certain spontaneity,” she says, “a sense of adventure and danger.” Wohlmuth covered everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Three Mile Island accident. The coverage earned the team of reporters, and Wohlmuth, a Pulitzer prize.
Around 1993, Wohlmuth was caring for her terminally ill mother, and working on what would become her co-authored book, Sisters. She became photo editor at the Inquirer in addition to taking on photo assignments at the paper. The responsibility overwhelmed Wohlmuth, and she decided to take a break with her husband to recharge her batteries. Just before they left for vacation, someone dropped a copy of Ned Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction on her desk.
Wohlmuth hit the beach and began to read it. “I started crying and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is me.'” At that moment of epiphany, the hotel concierge delivered the news that Sisters had reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list. Soon after, at age 47, Wohlmuth was diagnosed with ADHD and was put on medication.
Since leaving the Inquirer, Wohlmuth has relied on Post-Its, which adorn her car steering wheel and her bedside table lamp, to keep herself organized. She uses a Filofax for appointments, color-coding personal and business activities.
Wohlmuth has given speeches to Hallmark, the Omega Institute, and at commencement ceremonies, where she shares her experience with ADHD to educate and encourage young graduates.
Her advice for other women is, “Get professional help, and go online to find ADHD support groups. Read every single book about ADHD. You have to know what [ADHD] is. And then you discover you’re not alone, you’re not weird, and not stupid. You’re bright, but your brain just functions differently.”
Above all, Wohlmuth says a sense of humor is critical to managing ADHD. She and her husband share a joke a lot: “On my tombstone it will say, ‘Wait, I’m not ready; I’m still organizing.'”
Karen O’Donnell, 55
Documentary filmmaker, Toronto, Ontario
“Part way into the making of A Mind Like Mine,” says O’Donnell, “I realized, ‘Maybe I’m actually going to be in this film.'” Sure enough, in 2008, while making her second film about her son’s ADHD, O’Donnell herself was diagnosed, on camera, at 52.
When her son, 19-year-old Kail, learned about his mom’s diagnosis, “He started putting the pieces together. He said that, in many ways, he felt that my ADHD made things worse because I complicated matters for him. On the other hand, he felt more comfortable with himself. Until I was diagnosed, I don’t think he accepted his ADHD.”
O’Donnell had begun wondering about her own ADHD about two months before starting production on A Mine Like Mine. She’d been on a camping trip with her family, and “in four days, I lost my car keys three times,” she says. “I wasn’t overwhelmed or distracted, so the fact that I continued to lose my keys for no apparent reason upset me.”
When the late Atilla Turgay, M.D., a psychiatrist O’Donnell had interviewed for A Mind Like Mine, suggested that she might have ADHD herself, “I took a breath of relief,” says O’Donnell. “I knew my suspicions were correct.”
Being forgetful and having trouble prioritizing have plagued O’Donnell all her life. “I will never be able to manage my time on my own,” says O’Donnell. “I try to pack so much into each minute.” Because her film career requires managing logistics, O’Donnell uses various time management strategies to deal with her ADHD. She works with a team to keep herself on track, and builds in extra time for projects, so she can meet deadlines.
Time management has been a challenge in O’Donnell’s friendships, as well. “But my friends have it figured out,” she says. “They trick me by giving me false timelines.”
O’Donnell uses the buddy system to keep herself on track. “One friend has problems with clutter, so we barter our services,” explains O’Donnell. “I’ll say, ‘I can take an hour this week [to help you]. Would you take 15 minutes to go over my scheduling, and check on my progress?'”
“Try to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses,” says O’Donnell. On the other hand, she adds, “Don’t be too hard on yourself.”
Debbie Young, 56
Visual artist, Ellensburg, Washington
An award-winning artist, Debbie Young has had work commissioned in Washington, D.C., and is exhibited nationally. Young earned her bachelor’s degree, with majors in fine art and anthropology, from Washington University. Inspired by the natural beauty of the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, Young incorporates wood and stone into her eye-catching sculptures, and creates textural abstract paintings.
As an artist, Young feels that ADHD has been an advantage. “I’m always making different connections,” she says, “seeing things in ways other people don’t see.” In her career, Young has changed mediums, experimenting with painting, photography, drawing, and sculpture. “It’s been a good thing, but it’s also been hard, because I haven’t gone as deep as I would like in certain directions with my work.”
Young’s life took a turn when she found herself swamped with commissions, while caring for her terminally ill sister. Taking time off to regroup, she and her husband bought a farm in Ellensburg, Washington.
Instead of working in her studio, Young tended goats and gardens. But she missed the work she did as a full-time artist. “Prior to my diagnosis, I had done years of talk therapy,” she says, and it helped her notice when her life got out of control. “As early as grade school, I wrote an essay titled ‘The Different Child.’ I’ve spent my life wondering, Why aren’t the pieces fitting together?” After she had diagnosed herself, Young told her therapist that she thought she had ADD. “I just wanted to be evaluated to get another perspective,” says Young. In 2011, at 55, she was formally diagnosed.
Young struggles to deal with her ADHD symptoms.”I’m always getting lost in conversations,” she says. “When something’s important, like directions, or something that has to do with a sequence, I can’t follow it. I can’t hear the information and store it.”
Friendships are difficult for Young. “I don’t maintain them. I’ve lost friends by not keeping in touch.” On the other hand, Young enjoys spending time alone or with her goats. “I can entertain myself,” she says, “and I’m happy.”
These days, Young is learning all she can about ADHD by reading books, and she is benefiting from the routines in her life, like milking the goats every day. She’s also taking a structured approach to her art. “My mind works rapid-fire,” says Young. “Farming requires that I slow down enough to perform my daily tasks. It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but I’m doing it. And my art benefits from it: By slowing down, I’m getting a lot of inspiration from the things I see.”
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 ADHD, 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 ADHD, 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 ADHD 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.