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Coping with Adult ADHD

By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

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Every woman I know can probably relate to many of the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hypractivity Disorder (ADHD)-feeling overwhelmed and frazzled, disorganized, unable to focus. But take those symptoms and multiply them by 10, and you'll get some sense of what a woman with ADHD is dealing with.

Still, any of the tips I'm going to outline here could apply just as well to those of you without ADHD who simply want to gain more control over your life. Let's get started.

First of all, stop blaming yourself. I can't emphasize this enough. You are not a failure: If you have ADHD, you have a biological brain disorder that no amount of hard work is going to change. Which brings me to my next piece of critical advice: Set realistic expectations for yourself. If you had a broken leg, would you still try to run a marathon? Yet that's exactly what you're doing when you try to gain Superwoman status with ADHD.

Other suggestions:

  • Embrace structure. More than anything, you need to develop systems to keep you organized. You can take the high-tech route-I think devices like Palm Pilots are technology's form of Ritalin-or embrace low-tech solutions like a notebook or calendar in which you keep your to-do lists, addresses and other vital information. An in-between option is one of those cardsized digital voice recorders on which you can record notes for yourself. Important: Keep everything in one place. Make sure you write all your appointments in the personal calendar that goes with you everywhere first before transferring it to other calendars.
  • Educate yourself. Learn all you can about ADHD through books, Web sites and support groups. Set realistic deadlines. And break down your tasks into small, doable parts. For instance, rather than listing "plan dinner party," on your to-do list, break it into tasks: set date, set guest list, look through recipe books and plan menu, write shopping list, go shopping, and so on, with a specific time set aside for each task.
  • Understand your need for stimulation. As one woman said, it's as if she were born with her thermostat set too high. This means you will be drawn to the edge, are more likely to take risks and embrace change. Use this understanding to question your motives in the risks you take, asking yourself if you're undertaking a change simply for the excitement, or for other, more appropriate reasons. Find outlets for that need for stimulation, such as high-energy hobbies like marathon running or horseback riding.
  • Take breaks. You need periodic "timeouts" to regroup and keep from becoming overstimulated-so take them.

Coaches and Organizers-Get One or Both

Personal life and professional "coaches" have become all the rage these days, with some top executives even insisting on bringing along their personal "coaches" when they change jobs. But for the woman with ADHD, a personal coach is not a luxury, but a necessity. I strongly recommend you find one if you've been diagnosed with ADHD.

Your "coach" doesn't have to be a professional; it could be a friend, relative (although your partner is generally not the best choice), or co-worker. This person basically works with you to help you manage your life, from identifying goals and determining the steps necessary to carry them out to pushing you to follow the agenda you set for yourself. Some coaches are even specially trained in helping people with ADHD. A good resource is the International Coach Federation (www.coachfederation.org).

For more nuts and bolts help, consider hiring a professional organizer-disorganization is typically the number one complaint of women with ADHD who seek treatment. Professional organizers come into your home or office to help you tackle those piles that seem to proliferate like mushrooms after a thunderstorm. To find one near you, go to the National Association of Professional Organizers at www.napo.net. To get yourself started, check out the book, ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life (Brunner-Routledge, 2002) by professional organizer, Judith Kolberg and ADHD clinician, Kathleen Nadeau, PhD. They emphasize realistic strategies that "work with" a woman's ADHD.