Women with ADHD are fighters. They battle to have their symptoms evaluated, diagnosed, and treated. And then they fight to succeed in a male-centric world — and these seven leading ladies prove that they sometimes win big! Learn why we love these doctors, entrepreneurs, and other ADHD inspirations.
Women (and men) with adult attention deficit disorder (ADHD), take comfort in these stories from famous women with ADHD.
actress, Los Angeles, California
Roxy Olin’s parents nicknamed her “Rollover,” because she did somersaults, nonstop, around the house. “I stood out because my brother was so calm and organized,” says Olin, who appears in MTV’s The City and The Hills.
“My parents knew that something was off with me when I was young,” she says. “I struggled in school and got into trouble all the time. In third grade, I remember studying for an important test. I knew my spelling words backward and forward, but I got only one right because a classmate had hurt himself and had to get stitches. I was so distracted, I could barely remember a thing when I took the test.”
Olin saw a doctor and was prescribed Ritalin, which didn’t agree with her. She and her parents tried to manage her ADHD without medication, until she was formally diagnosed, as a teenager, and put on Adderall.
When she entered a drug rehab program that didn’t allow her to take the ADHD medication, she fell apart. She got into five auto accidents in two months. Many of her friends insisted that there was no such thing as adult ADHD.
“My therapist stood up for me, telling the rehab directors that I needed Adderall. What’s more, he told them that adult ADHD does exist, because he had it,” says Olin. “He eventually taught me the organization and time-management tricks that helped him succeed in his career.”
Olin uses those and other strategies to keep herself on track in her high-profile job. “If I have a call time of 11:30, I write down 10:30.” When she’s on set rehearsing, she taps into her ADHD to add dimension to her characters.
ADHD affects her relationships. “I’ll talk about my ADHD when I’m out with someone. If the person doesn’t understand, or grows impatient, he or she is not supposed to be with me. I’ve learned, at this point in my life, that this is part of who I am. You don’t have to keep your ADHD a secret.”
organizer and wellness coach, Mill Creek, Washington
It would seem that being a professional organizer and having ADHD are an improbable match. For Robin Stephens, it makes sense. For 10 years before her diagnosis, she helped clients create order in their homes and their lives through her company, Your Life in Order.
“You are drawn to what you mirror,” says Stephens, who graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in behavioral psychology. “I could never function and concentrate if my environment was cluttered.”
As a girl, Stephens didn’t understand why she couldn’t sit still in class. She was also a perfectionist; she couldn’t tackle an assignment until the previous one was complete. As an adult, Stephens found out that she had bipolar disorder. Eventually, she discovered the link between bipolar disorder and ADHD. After several years of difficulty focusing on her new career as a wellness coach, Stephens decided to get evaluated for the disorder.
“It was absolute, total relief,” she says. “I’m a big believer that, if you know what something is, you can deal with it.”
Because of her work with others who have ADHD, Stephens has strategies and tricks to help her manage her symptoms. She couldn’t get through a day without to-do lists, breaking larger projects into manageable chunks, and planning frequent breaks in her schedule. Two assistants help her stay organized.
Stephens has boundless energy and talks rapid-fire, so she sometimes wonders where her personality ends and her ADHD begins. Her personality does affect her dating life. Some men are scared off by it. “Some people can’t deal with it,” she says. “But after all this time, I’ve learned it’s got to be OK to be me.”
education administrator, Chicago, Illinois
“I can multitask because of ADHD,” says Evelyn Polk-Green. “It helps me keep all of my projects straight.”
Former president of ADDA and a project director at Illinois STAR Net — an organization that provides training to parents and professionals in education — Polk-Green knows firsthand that there are advantages to having ADHD. Her mission is to help the world understand them.
In elementary and high school, Polk-Green did well in a structured school environment, but as a freshman at Duke University, she found it difficult to organize her days. She left without graduating. She got married and had a child. With a baby at home and a full-time job, she went back to school, and got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in early childhood education from National-Louis University in Chicago.
It wasn’t until Polk-Green’s oldest son was diagnosed with ADHD, at age seven, that she began to recognize that she was also coping with the disorder. “I read so much about it,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s me.’”
She finally understood why she was able to be successful at work, managing several projects at the same time and hyperfocusing on deadlines, but couldn’t keep her house in order. Although she managed without medication for years, she now says that medication is key. “It makes the difference between being frustrated and being productive.”
Her advice to other women? “Figure out how the disorder affects you,” she says. “Then use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses.” This may mean asking for help when needed. “Choose a strategy — be it medication, therapy, or hiring a housekeeper — and stick with it. Your life will get better.”
journalist and author, San Francisco Bay Area
Katherine Ellison always knew what she wanted to do with her life. At age 11, she published her first magazine article, which ignited a passion for writing and put her on the path to becoming a journalist.
School was not always easy for Ellison, but writing enabled her to focus. “Writing helped save me,” she says.
After earning a degree in communications and international relations from Stanford University, Ellison worked as a foreign correspondent for the San Jose Mercury News. The fast pace of the newsroom suited her talents. But her work was inconsistent: A Pulitzer Prize, at age 27, was tarnished by errors in some of her articles.
Ellison couldn’t make sense of her inconsistency, so she sought a therapist. She felt she was sabotaging her own work. It wasn’t until she was 49, and her oldest son was diagnosed, that Ellison discovered she had ADHD.
Ellison realized her work problems were due to ADHD. She has tried a range of treatments to manage her ADHD symptoms — metacognition, neurofeedback, meditation, exercise, taking medication occasionally. These, along with plenty of forgiveness, have helped her most.
In the past, it was hard for her to listen to friends and family, but Ellison is now more aware of how she acts around others. She works hard to maintain the relationships in her life. Her book Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention chronicles Ellison’s experiences of trying to connect with her son, in spite of their both having ADHD. “Accepting ADD and getting calmer has helped me be less reactive to my son,” she says.
Ellison believes that finding one’s passion is key to managing a life with ADHD. “I chose to do something that was perfect for the way my brain works.”
restaurateur, Minneapolis, Minnesota
As an entrepreneur, Cynthia Gerdes finds that ADHD is a boon. “It’s easy to do a million things at once,” she says.
Owner of Hell’s Kitchen — an award-winning restaurant in Minneapolis, which brings in more than a million dollars annually — Gerdes started her career as a teacher. She owned several successful toy stores before she entered the restaurant business. Gerdes, who holds bachelor’s degrees in education and business administration from the University of North Carolina, was always able to work the long hours her jobs demanded, but when it came to smaller tasks, like food shopping, she was lost.
“I couldn’t cook,” she says. “And even with a grocery list, I couldn’t get the five ingredients I needed.”
Frustrated, Gerdes saw her doctor, who gave her a questionnaire to fill out about her symptoms. When she found she had ADHD, she finally understood why she had more energy than everyone else.
Gerdes attributes some of her behavior to ADHD, especially her frequent change in careers. She believes that the disorder allows her to get a project off the ground, but causes her to move on once things settle into a routine. This is the reason Gerdes started a restaurant after her toy stores had become successful.
The restaurant exec has found that making adjustments in her schedule is enough to keep her ADHD in check. “I won’t do two meetings in a row,” she says, “because I know I can’t sit still that long.” Taking breaks while reviewing menus and bills helps, too.
She still has problems with grocery shopping. Her husband, who is a chef, is supportive. “He is amused and bemused when I spin in circles around the house,” she says. “Thank God, he is a chef!”
developmental pediatrician, Washington, D.C.
“I’m not the sort of person who thinks ADHD is a strength, but I do think you can use it to become successful,” says Dr. Patricia Quinn, who practices in Washington, D.C.
Quinn wasn’t hyperactive as a child, but she did lapse into long spells of hyperfocus. She didn’t notice her mother calling to her from the other room, but she could focus on her schoolwork for hours. “I was also impulsive,” she says. “I jumped into things and, fortunately, I did them successfully.”
Quinn chose a career in medicine because it was challenging. While attending medical school at Georgetown University, she ran into problems, though. Quinn could remember and understand the material in lectures, but had difficulty absorbing information from textbooks. She sought help, but, at the time, no one realized adults could have ADHD.
Quinn specialized in child development, and started doing research on ADHD. In 1972, she figured out that the qualities that made her successful in medical school — hyperfocus and impulsivity — were part of the disorder.
Quinn’s mission these days is to highlight the problems facing women and girls with ADHD. In 1997, she cofounded, with Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., The National Center for Girls and Women with ADHD, and she has written several books on the topic. She believes that the condition often goes undiagnosed in girls and women because it tends not to cause hyperactivity the way it does in men. “Girls and women are not bothering anybody, so they don’t get diagnosed.”
Quinn, who does not use medication to manage symptoms, says that discovering that she had the condition helped explain why she felt so different from other medical students. She believes that it was, ultimately, hard work that got her to where she is today. “I had a lot of success despite my ADHD,” she says.
psychotherapist and author, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Sari Solden knows all about the stigmatizing effects of ADHD. After finishing the meal at a dinner party, years back, women knew that they were expected to get up, bring their dishes into the kitchen, and put things back where they belong. “It’s like a dance after the meal,” says Solden. “Me? I just stood there, frozen.”
For Solden, who specializes in ADHD’s effect on women, such experiences have shaped her work and life. She understands the shame women with ADD suffer when they can’t stay organized, keep on top of the family schedule, and maintain friendships or a tidy home.
After graduating from California State University with a master’s degree in clinical counseling, Solden started her career in a large family service agency. She had trouble doing the administrative work and focusing on long lists of clients. She often found herself switching off clocks and fans in the office to help her focus.
Through her work, Solden started learning more about adults and learning disorders, and recognized her symptoms as attention deficit. Upon hearing the term “ADHD” from a doctor, Solden felt relief. “It was liberating,” she says.
Now in private practice, and having learned to organize her professional and personal life, Solden is paying it forward. In her book Women with Attention Deficit Disorder, she explains the difficulties that women with ADHD face, and gives strategies for navigating society’s expectations. “Women with ADHD have to understand that their brain works differently,” she says, “and not blame themselves.”
Solden says that finding other women with ADHD has helped her, because they understand how her mind works. “I learn from the women with ADHD I work with. They inspire me.”