Twenty-one years ago, a career coaching client came to my office and proclaimed, with tears in her eyes, “You have to read this book so you’ll understand me.” In reading the book, Sari Solden’s “Women with Attention Deficit Disorder,” I realized the author was talking about me too, not just my client. I was 43 at the time.
My brain had always been a mystery to me. To memorize material for junior high school exams, I would start studying a full two weeks before the exam. I spent hours entering reams of possible exam content on index cards, and then spent many more hours drilling the material into my head by reciting it over and over as I paced my bedroom floor. This grueling daily process pretty much wiped out my social life in junior high school and high school. I was ashamed that I needed to prepare for exams in this way and told no one. I was also noise sensitive. My family lived in an apartment on Broadway, the noisiest street in New York City. I insisted that my parents close every door in the apartment to muffle the deafening sounds of car horns, police sirens and screeching ambulances so that I could study. My immigrant parents wanted their only child to get the education they never had, so while they complained about my sensitivity, they obligingly closed doors.
I don’t think ADD/HD is ever an isolated issue. It’s often one piece of a complex pie. My parents were not just immigrants, they were Holocaust survivors, German Jews who had escaped Nazi Germany. While losing family members to concentration camps and leaving their native country for America was indeed traumatic, in some ways it was just a capper on their abusive childhoods. Both parents displayed what I later learned to identify as narcissistic/borderline personality disorder. My mother was the parent with ADD. It’s not surprising that as a child, I needed to parent my parents. My normal was a daily display of my parents acting out their crazy-making childhoods. To them, I was both smart, capable and could do nothing right.
In my thirties, I told a spiritual master at a public seminar that I thought there was something wrong with my brain. He asked other seminar participants, “How many of you think there’s something wrong with your brain? Raise your hand if you think that.” Everyone raised their hands. That experience stopped me from talking about my brain again for a long time. Years later, I told the same teacher that I had ADD and needed help for my brain. He suggested phosphodiesterase and leafy green vegetables. I learned that knowing what to ask made all the difference.
As I learned to take better care of my own brain, I wanted to help others who were struggling and became a professional coach. In my twenty-year experience working as a career and life coach, I’ve found that most ADHD’ers struggle with self-esteem. The majority of non-ADHD self-help books and resources I’ve come across emphasize goal-setting, taking action and getting past “limited thinking.” While this sounds good, it unknowingly skims over ADHD’ers mental and emotional difficulties. Neuroscience, with its current orientation towards mindfulness, can also miss the ADHD boat.
I’ve found that personal foundation work — learning to love yourself with self-compassion — is key. Outer action without matching inner work can lead to self-sabotage and regression back to old behaviors. What the ADHD’ers I know most want is to keep moving forward and have a great life.
Dr. Miriam Reiss, DSS, MCC, coaches adults with creative brain-wiring on their careers and lives. She is Past Professional Board Member and Conference Speaker, ACO; Conference Speaker and Webinar Leader, ADDA; and Past President, Washington State Chapter, International Coach Federation. You may contact Miriam at firstname.lastname@example.org.