It’s one thing to be distracted and lack organization when you are a child with a parent watching over you. It’s another thing when you are an adult, responsible for yourself, and yet holding down a job, a relationship—or just finding your dang car keys—feels impossible.
Linda Watson was having trouble managing her finances, and her partner was having trouble with the chaotic mess Watson left around their house. “One year for Christmas my partner said, ‘All I want is for you to tidy the house,’” says Watson, who decided she’d do something better: She’d hire an expert to help her get organized.
Adult ADHD is often a hidden problem. Thirty to 70 percent of children with ADHD continue to show signs of the disorder as adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Some adults don’t even realize they have ADHD until their child is diagnosed and they put the puzzle pieces together.
Adults with ADHD typically have had a history of problems in school or at work. They can’t stay organized, are impulsive, distractible, can’t stick to a plan, forget to eat. Many have figured out their own systems and ways to manage, but still have a feeling that something is wrong; they’re not functioning at their best. “If you are very bright, you can slide by, you can do OK,” says Melinda White, a licensed therapist in Berkeley, Calif., with a specialty in treating adults with ADHD. “It may be that you’re just not working up to your potential.”
Watson had dabbled with medication for ADHD but it didn’t work so well for her. “I’ve been able to do things in my mind, keep things in my mind, but the busier I get and the older I get, I just can’t do it that way anymore,” she says. Watson’s financial planner recommended she see Rachael Eaton, a life coach and registered counselor who owns Time Well Saved, a Seattle-based business that specializes in working with adults who have ADHD.
Increasingly, many adults like Watson are turning to a life coach, in addition to therapy and medication, to treat their ADHD. For an average charge of $105 an hour, a coach will help you assess what’s not working, why, and fix it. Most need to see a coach just a few times to get their systems in order, so it’s a relatively cost-effective way to solve some large problems.
“The biggest flaw of an ADHD adult is they are unable to pick a system by themselves and stick with it,” says Eaton. “You obsess about all of the things that you need to be getting done, but you can not focus long enough to accomplish anything. This is anxiety inducing.”
Eaton does not recommend whether a client takes medication, or attends therapy beyond her coaching. “Some people choose to be on the medications, some choose not to be on them,” she says. “That’s something they work out with their doctor.”
What Eaton does figure out with her clients is a plan. “The first thing we put into place is an appointment calendar, a place where you can write things down,” she says. Eaton also gets her clients to keep a chronological notebook so they can record those random thoughts as they come up. “No one wants to lose any of the ideas they have,” she says.
Eaton helps her clients reduce their project load and learn to say “no” to their impulse to add more to their plate. She helps them choose a goal and determine how to accomplish that goal. Then she sets up a format for checking in with her client to gauge progress—some are disciplined enough to require a coach for a couple of sessions, while others need constant reinforcement from Eaton.
White agrees that the coach approach can be successful, for the right person. “For some high-functioning adults, it is probably the main thing they would need,” says White. “The disadvantage to just using the coaching approach would be if the client had a number of other emotional issues that need to be resolved.”
For that reason, Eaton says, she is careful to observe the boundary between therapy and coaching. “Therapy focuses on what’s going on in your head psychologically, the reasons you are feeling what you feel,” says Eaton. “Most therapists refrain from giving you direct advice. A coach says, ‘Here’s what you are doing wrong, here’s what you can do to fix it.’”
This approach works for some, not for others. Coaching is most effective in someone who has come to terms with what it means to have ADHD. “People often want the magic pill to change their behavior,” says Eaton. Instead, dealing with ADHD is a constant effort at applying systems and reminding yourself to stop, take a moment, and refocus. “You have to accept that it is not going away. It will come up in the moment you least expect it. You have to be vigilant.”
Most ADHD experts recommend a combination of the three: medication, therapy, and coaching. But in order to take advantage of even one, you need to be organized enough to get treatment—no easy task for a person with ADHD. “I get lots of phone calls from people who really want to come in and get some help,” Eaton says, “but they never make it to their first appointment.”
For Watson, who now runs her own marketing consulting business, the coach approach has succeeded. Eaton helped her prioritize her life, both professional and personal, and put systems in place that work. Watson says her finances are in order, her household mess is tamed, her partner is happy. And, thanks to Eaton, she’s feeling something she’s never felt before. “She’s helped me set up new patterns,” says Watson. “And I’m experiencing some relief for the first time in my life.”
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