Today I want to talk about something personal. Something I don’t share with many people. I haven’t shared this widely up until now because I hate the idea of people seeing my quirks and achievements as anything other than my weird ass personality or my hard ass work. But honesty and integrity are important to me, and I feel this needs to be shared. Here is my story of personal leadership.
I was a bad student. Disorganized, inattentive and way too chatty. This started back in the 80’s, before people realized that kids like me, the restless talkers who forgot to do their homework and couldn’t concentrate on the teacher long enough to follow along, had brains that worked a little differently than what was considered normal. I was diagnosed with ADD (now technically called ADHD but will be referred to as ADD in this post because it’s mine and I want to and I personally, like most women diagnosed with this, identify more with the inattentive, lost in space aspects of the condition than the bouncing off the walls aspects) in college after years of struggle, including barely passing most classes (and outright failing many), forgetting to do entire projects, making presentations up as I went because I forgot to write my notes, and being late to class so many times in high school that I almost didn’t graduate. I wasn’t the attentive, well-behaved girl society expected and that was tough at times.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved the social aspects that came with school. My friends were and are still amazing and I enjoyed every minute of our lunchtimes. But I hated class. I hated feeling dumb, overwhelmed, and unprepared. It was truly traumatic. Countless times I would go to bed at night and pray to wake up smart. I would pray to be good at math, to not get caught daydreaming and staring into space, to know the answer when the teacher called on me, to remember to do my homework. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, I was convinced the rest of the kids were smart and I was stupid, all because I got bad grades. Things seemed to come so easily for most of my friends. But me? I would be in the same class, hearing the same lesson, and be utterly lost. I went to years of tutoring. Private tutoring at the kitchen table of a wonderful retired teacher and family friend, followed by years at an international tutoring chain, which did little to help my learning. The amount of time and effort and money my parents spent trying to get me up to speed academically was admirable, and I’m thankful for that to this day. It was clear to them that I was smart, but not to me. I was an avid bookworm, scored off the charts on reading comprehension and writing, and had no trouble learning my dance routines and performing them on stage at competitions. But none of that helped my grades or my self-confidence. To me, it felt like nothing could ever help. Nothing helped because I was different in a way that isn’t very different at all but doesn’t align with conventional ideals.
And then, everything changed. At the beginning of senior year in college I went to a doctor because I was having horrible migraines and anxiety. I had already attributed both to the stress of senior year, knowing full well my grades were not good enough to get me into the competitive post-graduate internship required to become a registered and licensed professional in the field I studied. After talking for a bit, the doctor got around to asking me some questions about my ability to pay attention and follow directions. I guess it was all pretty clear to a well-informed outsider, because that day he prescribed me some meds and my god, did things change. Suddenly, I could learn! It was absofuckinglutely amazing. I was smart. I was brilliant. I was organized and successful. I felt seen and heard and truly valued in society for the first time. I realize this is dramatic AF, but it’s real. I felt like I emerged from a weighty fog, could see clearly, and I knew my life would never be the same. I went on to graduate college, started a wonderful job that provided me with the experience I needed in order to apply for that competitive internship process, then landed the most competitive of all internships at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. I excelled beyond anyone’s expectations at Hopkins. I developed an unshakable confidence that I had never experienced before; a genuine belief in one’s self that comes only after years of failing and finally succeeding. My life was together, and I was happy and smart. I made it.
Fast forward about a decade. Things are still going great. I’m engaged to the man who is now my husband, my career is on fire and I’m overall killing it. I am about to start a new job that requires an extensive physical exam that includes an electrocardiogram (ECG). To everyone’s surprise, I fail this ECG. Like, super fail. Eight grade math class fail. I fail so hard they immediately take me back to the ECHO machine. After some scanning and ECHOing and whatever, they say I have a prolonged QT and need to make an appointment with a cardiologist before they can clear me to work. A fucking cardiologist?! I was 34 years old. What 34-year-old has a cardiologist? Well, after that day, I did. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and a prolonged QT. Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), as it’s also called, refers to the measure between the Q wave and the T wave in the heart's electrical cycle, and can lead to fainting (check), blurred vision and headaches (double check) and strokes and sudden death. Since I have no known family history of anything like this, the docs determined it was likely related to my meds.
Turns out I am one of the people who experience negative side effects of these medications, two of which are LQTS and high blood pressure, both of which I had. While I was relieved to have found this out prior to stroking out, I was T E R R I F I E D of what this all meant. I knew I would have to stop taking the meds. The meds that, in my opinion at the time, made me who I was. On the meds, I was smart and talented and witty and funny and successful. I had beaten hundreds of people out of jobs and internships at that point and was convinced it was all going to unravel. But I knew it had to be done. I had to stop taking the medications and rely on little old, stupid and confused me to figure out my life. I was mad and scared, but I wasn’t about to be dead at 34.
So, I stopped the meds. And so began my epic journey of self-discovery.
I was tired and foggy, but more determined than ever to keep my life and career on track. I made a promise to myself that I would figure out exactly how to manage my brain and my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had started the process of discovering not only how to live my life, but also my life’s mission. I researched organization techniques, learned methods to retrain my brain to notice certain things, and most importantly, developed (and implemented…there’s a big difference between the two) habits and routines that set me up to succeed. Basic things like running through a quick mental check list of everything I needed before leaving the room, writing important information down in a dedicated notebook, or putting my keys and work badge in the EXACT SAME SPOT every single day. I put that in caps because it really was that important. This may sound simple to non-ADD folks; most of you probably do these things without realizing. But those of us who know, know it’s only happening if you make it an intentional habit. Even to this day, if my keys or badge aren’t where they are supposed to be, I know something is wrong and I need to regroup. I need to refocus my efforts on focusing my life. And instead of thinking about doing it, becoming overwhelmed and then stressing about why I’m not doing it; I fucking do it. I do it because I know how critical it is to my happiness and success. It’s so important that I want to do it. I want to take care of myself so I can take care of my life. I was able to truly understand what it meant to be happy and successful because it happened after my ADD diagnosis, and I’m proud to say that I am still those things even after the LQTS diagnosis. I can no longer rely on medications to help me, and now I know I don’t need to.
My ADD was the asshole backseat driver of my childhood, but I know that it also provided me with some of the things that now make me a successful leader. For example, I can operate in the midst of chaos and change better than most. It used to feel frantic and chaotic, but now with my awareness around personal leadership, I can harness the energy of the situation instead of being overwhelmed by it. I can carefully and intentionally guide a team in times of turmoil and lead them out of chaos. My ability to adapt quickly with ease is an asset in all areas of life. Couple that with my steadfast focus on focusing, and I’m still able to beat everyone else out of the running for competitive jobs (I said what I said, and I’ll do it again). I believe my ADD allows me to see things from a slightly different perspective than a lot of people, which comes in extremely handy when working on high-level problem solving and strategic planning. And, almost boringly, there are times when my brain, and the brains of most people with ADD, function pretty much exactly like everyone else’s. The symptoms come and go, which makes consistent actions and high-level personal awareness even more important.
Today, most of the people in my day-to-day life never knew the pre-medicated or medicated me. They don’t know the work I’ve put into honoring my mental and emotional health, both of which I value greatly. If I could have stayed on the meds, I’m certain I would have. This next point is immensely important to me: If you have ADD and are on meds and they are safely working for you, please keep taking them because that is wonderful, and you deserve the clarity that comes with them. I used to wish that was me. Now, I know that everyone has their own journey in life, and this is mine. The real me was destined to feel the devastating and terrifying blow of the rug being pulled out from under them. And I needed that to trust that I could do this life thing on my own, because I had no other choice. The real me is not dumb or flighty or a bad student. In fact, I finished graduate school last year with a 3.96 GPA (that one professor is still on my shit list…), which allowed me to completely rewrite the story of my academic career. I could not have achieved that without strong personal leadership skills and accompanying mindset. The real me is a wildly creative and curious person who craves stimulation, but also fully recognizes the importance of being focused, centered and aware. The real me is successful because of the freedom that comes with maintaining an organized routine, while also having the personal leadership skills to enjoy spontaneity, and even setbacks, without getting lost in a sea of paralyzing what-ifs and self-doubts. The real me is really fucking smart and driven. The real me is a boss, figuratively and literally. Most importantly, the real me is a woman who knows herself and sets herself up to succeed, regardless of what hurdles she may face. I’m still not the most well-behaved woman, at least not by patriarchal standards, but fuck those anyway. The real me is joyful, passionate, persistent, and empowered. The real me knows that with hard work and dedication to personal leadership development, I can continue to rewrite the story of who I am. My next chapter is about helping other women reach the same realization. The real me is excited to help other women learn the personal leadership skills and do the hard work needed to rewrite their stories.