Writing a New Chapter

Once her youngest child left home, successful screenwriter Sally Harris, decided to get to the bottom of her daily struggles by discovering she has adult ADD.

ADHD Symptoms: Undiagnosed ADHD
ADHD Symptoms: Undiagnosed ADHD

By almost any standard, Sally Harris has a full and enviable life. She’s happily married, with three grown children. She has both an apartment in Manhattan’s fashionable Murray Hill neighborhood and a country house in the Berkshires. She’s built a successful career as a screenwriter, yet she still finds the time for volunteer work, including serving on the national board of the Salvation Army.

But like many people with undiagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), Sally spent years frustrated by difficulty in coping with the basic tasks of everyday life. Even simple chores, like shopping and cooking, were exhausting to her. She always felt that she was falling short, disappointing herself as well as her family and friends. Worst of all, she never knew why everything seemed so hard.

Today, thanks to her own efforts and the help of Boston-based ADD coach Nancy Ratey, Sally’s good life has gotten a whole lot better.

Sally Harris: I was one of those ADD people who fall through the cracks. I didn’t have trouble in school, and the problems that showed up later in life weren’t obvious to others. I never felt lazy or stupid. I always knew I was talented, but I would stumble over all sorts of things. I couldn’t seem to get stuff done. I felt thwarted.

Being diagnosed with ADD changed my life. I call the diagnosis my “Rosetta Stone,” because behavior that I had never been able to understand suddenly made sense.

Fred Harris, Sally’s husband: It really bothered Sally when she had trouble with things other people could do easily. She would need to find her keys or her notes before a meeting, and she wouldn’t have a clue where to look. She took that sort of thing very personally. It was always “What’s wrong with me?” It’s painful to look at someone you love, and see her so tormented.

Sally: I was a theater major in college. When I was 31, I produced and played the lead in a successful feature film, The End of August. I came to New York to continue my career in acting but found that I couldn’t have a career and a family. On impulse, I’d start projects – screenplays, fund-raising for charities – but not finish them. Time always ran out. My husband said that I was always trying to put a quart and a half into a one-quart bottle.

Fred: This used to come up all the time. We’d be going to the airport at 3:00 p.m., and at 2:30, Sally would still be shoving clothes into a bag. She could never estimate how long it would take to do something. It takes about 45 minutes to take a cab crosstown in New York City late Friday afternoon. Sally would always leave just 15 minutes. She never thought anything was impossible.

Sally was relieved finally to understand her behavior and not to feel embarrassed by it. She deserves a lot of credit. It was her own research that inspired her to go out and get diagnosed.

Sally: That was three years ago. When our children were still at home, I spent most of my time helping with their activities. There wasn’t much time for anything else. But once our youngest child went off to college, I knew it was time to address my own issues.

Right around then, a friend was telling me about her ADD. It piqued my interest, so I started reading about it. When I picked up Ned Hallowell’s and John Ratey’s Driven to Distraction, it was epiphany time. The book lists 21 diagnostic questions, and I answered “yes” to almost all of them. For me, the question that resonated most was about not reaching your potential. I always felt that way.

I went on medication, and that gave me a boost in energy. Medication also slowed down my rapid-fire mind so I could concentrate. I went to the Hallowell Center, where they referred me to Nancy. Meeting her was the greatest thing in the world.

Nancy Ratey, Sally’s ADD Coach: Many of the people I work with are high-functioning, like Sally. They’re driven, and they’ve managed to succeed in life by working from their strengths. They do a good job of covering up their struggles, but beneath the surface they’re suffering. They know they’re fooling people, and they feel like scam artists. There’s a tremendous amount of guilt.

At some point, they hit a wall. They’re no longer able to use the strategies that used to work, like waiting until the last minute to complete a project. When you have a family, you can’t pull all-nighters or work all weekend and still maintain good relationships and stay healthy.

Sally: I thought it would be hard to talk to a coach. But it was like a waterfall. Here was someone who knew what I was talking about, someone who could listen to me and understand. The fact that Nancy also has ADD seemed strange at first. Why take advice from someone who has the same problem I do? But Nancy knows how to do all sorts of things because she’s had to figure them out herself. She’s as passionate and enthusiastic as I am, and that’s what makes her a great coach.

Nancy: I’m very high-energy, and I like to coach people who are fast-paced and who have a good sense of humor. I’m blunt – people have to expect blunt feedback. Sally is one of my most amazing clients. She’s so determined, so willing to work.

I’m there only to expedite my clients’ agendas. The job is helping Sally realize her goals. It’s not me telling her, “You need to do this.” It’s me saying, “You told me this is important to you. If that’s right, you need to stop doing X and start doing Y.”

Sally: I didn’t think coaching by telephone could work. But we’ve been doing half-hour sessions, first twice a week and now once a week, for almost three years.

One thing I asked Nancy to do was to help me finish a screenplay by myself. I had written other screenplays, but always with a partner. This time, I didn’t want to collaborate. Once I understood ADD, I realized I had depended on the other person’s sense of structure, not their creative input. So Nancy is now my partner. She listens to me and helps me sort myself out. I don’t talk to her about the screenplay’s content, but we do discuss my own organization and strategies I can use to work long hours without burning out.

Nancy taught me to ask myself, “What’s the minimum number of hours I want to work on the screenplay today, and what’s the maximum?” As a writer, I find that sitting down and getting started is the hardest part. So I set the timer on my watch for 15 minutes, write for that long, and then give myself a 30-minute break. For the rest of the day, I work in 45-minute stretches with 15-minute breaks. That’s something we came up with together.

There are lots of other things that are important to me – my family, volunteer work, travel. It’s hard not to feel scattered. Nancy gave me a way to stay on course with the screenplay, despite all these other things in my life. She taught me to think of these other interests as “transparent.” That way, I can always keep the screenplay in mind.

Another thing I learned is what Nancy calls “structured flexibility.” I look at what I want to do that day, and the time I have to do it in. I have a schedule, but I can move things around. If I want to work three hours on my screenplay, I can do it in the morning or in the afternoon.

Nancy: People with ADD are often allergic to structure. We see it as an enemy instead of a friend. Usually, that’s from trying to lock ourselves into a too-rigid structure. My whole idea of coaching is to help people create a flexible system that works for them, instead of forcing them into a system that is incompatible with who they are and what their situation is. Structured flexibility lets you stay on target by choosing from a list of tasks you have to accomplish. For Sally, that means, instead of sitting down to write when her brain feels dead, she runs errands. When her mind feels clear, she goes back to the writing.

Sally gets an amazing amount of stuff done. She continually challenges herself to go to the next level, trying to master tasks that cause problems, coming up with ways to live the life she wants. I don’t think she ever imagined her life could be so multifaceted.

Sally: Another thing that’s been a huge help to me is cognitive therapy. I tend to keep a lot of things going around in my head – ruminating, rather than getting things done. The Hallowell Center recommended cognitive therapy, and I tried a version called “rational emotive behavioral therapy.” With REBT, I write down exactly what I’m thinking, and come up with ways to dispute self-defeating ideas like, “I’m too old to start another screenplay,” “I’ll never finish,” or “Why bother? It doesn’t really matter.”

I carry a lot of baggage from all those years I spent with undiagnosed ADD. I wasn’t aware of it, but I would have negative thoughts, like “I’m not good at this” and “I can’t do that.” And if I thought I wasn’t good at something, I stayed away from it. I never used to cook, because it was fraught with times and measurements – you had to finish the broccoli at the same time as the casserole, calculate how much each person was going to eat, and so on. Now that I feel more comfortable about cooking, I’m intrigued by it. I feel confident that when I understand a problem, I can solve it.

Fred: The fact that Sally feels so much better about herself has improved our relationship. I don’t think I was ever insulting, but there was a certain wise-guy element to what I said to her: “Every time we go to the airport, the same thing happens, and we’re late.”

Now that I know what’s causing Sally’s problems, they’re easier for me to accept. And I have to say that I’ve learned from Sally. I’m self-employed, and I have a hard time keeping track of projects, file folders, and things like that. Many ideas that Sally learned from Nancy – color-coding, taking the stuff out of your pocket and putting it in the same place every day – have really helped me.

Sally: I’m 56 years old. At this stage of life, I suppose I could look back on the years before I found out about ADD and think, “If only I had known.” But the way I feel is more like, “Hooray, now I know.” It’s been exciting to see how much better life can get.

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