‘If you create an environment that works for you, ADHD does not have to restrict you’

American psychotherapist Sari Solden: 'I am very happy that I have chosen entrepreneurship. I could not have stuck working in an office environment for much longer.'

Sari - psychotherapist, writer and speaker

Her tip for women entrepreneurs with ADHD

‘You need someone to help you organize: a partner, coach, assistant or professional organizer to fill in your gaps. To find the right help, it is important that you understand your own brain so that you know exactly what kind of help you need.’

Anyone exploring the subject of women and ADHD in more depth is bound to come across the work of the American psychotherapist, writer and speaker, Sari Solden. What does she think of the combination of entrepreneurship and ADHD? ‘Women with ADHD are often well-suited to going into business. But they need help to do so. They need someone to fill in their gaps for them.’

Distracted

1995 was an important turning point in Sari’s life. She was working in one of the only practices in the US that helped adults with learning problems at that time. But working in an office environment proved difficult for Sari. She had to move to a different room every hour, which made her feel unsettled. Clocks were ticking and noises from outside forced her to close the window and turn on a fan instead. She couldn’t finish her reports because she was distracted by her colleagues chatting, so she ended up taking work home with her. She often asked herself why her colleagues could deal with these things when she couldn’t.

It was around this time that the first books on adults – or to put it more accurately, adult males – with ADHD were published. Before then, ADHD had been seen as something that only affected children. But Sari recognized much of the described behaviour in both her male and female patients with learning problems. What’s more, she also recognized that same behaviour in herself. She sought help and discovered that she too had ADHD. Low doses of medication had a discernible effect almost immediately. ‘It was just the little bit that I needed. Before I started taking the medication, I could not say more than a few sentences in a row. All of a sudden, I was telling entire stories. I remember hearing myself talking to colleagues at work and thinking to myself “who is this woman?”’

‘I also thought: now I am going to write a book about women and ADHD’

Sari began to notice that her female clients were coming up against different problems to the men. For example, they were much more ashamed of their deficiencies. Then, all of a sudden, everything came together. Sari moved from California to Ann Arbor in Michigan. ‘In the beginning I thought it was a cold and depressing place. But I also thought: now I am going to write a book about women and ADHD. My medicines ensured that I could accomplish this. I was able to organize all my ideas about women and ADHD and put them down on paper.’

ADHD

The book, Women with Attention Deficit Disorder, was an enormous success. Sari became a pioneer who revolutionized conventional wisdom on ADHD. ‘I was in the right place at the right time and success was so healing for me. I had been invisible for my entire life. Now I was travelling the world, giving lectures and talking to women who said: “What you are writing is so recognisable. It’s as if you are talking about me.”’

Sari was already familiar with writing. ‘I used to be terrified of dogs as a child, so when I was seven, I wrote a story about a little girl who went to a psychiatrist because she was afraid of dogs and how he helped her to overcome her fear.’

‘Maybe I was a good listener to compensate for other things that I wasn’t good at’

Sari grew up in Detroit in the 1960s, when the Motown record company was taking the world by storm. The ethnic mix of the city’s neighbourhoods changed and Sari’s family ended up being one of the last white families in a mostly African-American community. This suited her progressive family. Sari’s father was a fine artist and businessman, while her mother was a free-thinking intellectual. ‘I grew up in a family where differences were appreciated. It’s not that my parents necessarily understood me as a person, but I was encouraged to think differently and think big.’ Sari was a sociable, calm and empathetic girl who was good at listening. ‘Maybe I was a good listener to compensate for other things that I wasn’t good at.’

The older Sari grew, the clearer it became to her that she was different. But she had no idea why. ‘From my third class in primary school onwards, I had difficulties with mathematics and spatial awareness. My handwriting was terrible. But I could still keep up. That changed in secondary school. The gap between my abilities and my difficulties grew wider. Now I can understand why. I was twice exceptional: a gifted pupil, but one with ADHD. I couldn’t keep up with the smart kids, but I also couldn’t fit in with the social kids. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I dealt with the situation by staying home a lot. I became anxious and withdrew.’

‘I often wrote out entire textbooks. It was the only way to remember them’

Sari’s problems were exacerbated when she moved into a flat with other students.  I was a messy Bessy. I had to cook for myself, do household chores, keep my finances in order and study as well. I couldn’t manage. People with ADHD have a poor working memory. To compensate for this, I often wrote out entire textbooks. It was the only way to remember them.’

Like most girls back then, Sari got married straight after graduation. ‘I wholeheartedly yearned for a superficial, conventional life. But I was incapable of cooking, receiving guests and keeping the house neat. When giving a speech, I always say: “ADHD saved me from a superficial life. If I could have conformed, I would have conformed. But I just wasn’t able to”.’

‘I also had boxes full of notes and ideas piling up in the basement’

The family’s entrepreneurial blood also flows through Sari’s veins: during her marriage she set up several programmes. ‘I did a lot of really interesting things, mainly connected to creativity and healing. But although I started on several plans, I also had boxes full of notes and ideas piling up in the basement. I was extremely frustrated at not being able to put them into practice. Naturally, I now understand that this was down to my ADHD.’

Sari divorced and remarried, this time to her piano teacher, who was nine years younger than her. Together, they set off on a new business adventure. They started one of the first rock music schools in California. ‘It was a success and based on a good idea, but after a while I suddenly realised that my husband was the musician and the talented one, while I was playing second fiddle. I didn’t want that anymore.’

Psychology

Sari returned to higher education and picked up an old love:psychology. She did a double concentration in her master’s degrees, cross-cultural counselling and family therapy. After graduating, she started work at a practice for adults with learning problems.

‘You can’t wait until you have all your ADHD symptoms fully under control’

Since then, Sari has published two books. A third book, A radical guide for women with different brains, is coming out at the beginning of July. Sari sees clients on three afternoons a week and is also much in demand as a speaker at conferences. ‘I’m often asked how I manage to combine all this. The honest answer is that I have learnt to live with a certain amount of chaos and confusion. You can’t wait until you have all your ADHD symptoms fully under control. Take my writing, for example. I often have thousands of ideas. And I produce way too much text. But I do not have the gift to then structure this mass of information. But if I had waited until my ADHD was fully under control before I started writing, I would not be where I am today. I have to remember two things: I must use my strong points, and I have ADHD.’

‘ADHD does not have to restrict you’

‘I often tell my clients “Learn to see yourself in your entirety. You do not have a disability; you have a challenge. If you create an environment that works for you, ADHD does not have to restrict you.” I am very happy that I have chosen entrepreneurship. I could not have stuck working in an office environment for much longer. It was driving me crazy.’

‘I think that the flexibility that entrepreneurship offers is a great advantage for women with ADHD. It can be difficult for people with ADHD to do a full working week. Luckily, quality is more important than quantity when you are an entrepreneur. But this flexibility can also lead to you work too few hours. You constantly have to find the balance between freedom and control.’

‘You need someone to help you organize’

But Sari acknowledges that entrepreneurship can also be tricky. ‘You can’t go it alone. You need someone to help you organize: a partner, coach, assistant or professional organizer to fill in your gaps. To find the right help, it is important that you understand your own brain so that you know exactly what kind of help you need.’

I asked Sari what kind of help she has. ‘My husband and a personal assistant Erica help me professionally. And my husband and daughter both help me personally at home. I also have an assistant, Denise, who has been working for me for twenty years. She works a lot from home, but I can contact her 24/7 by email. I also have someone to do my finances. And until recently, I ran the practice together with a partner. She was supposed to take over more of my clients, but she fell in love with a guy – one that I had introduced her to – and now she’s moved to another state. But changes and adapting to them is just part of being an entrepreneur. It’s just that you can quickly get upset by transitions when you have ADHD.’

Authenticity

There is one word in particular that Sari uses several times: authenticity. She thinks that this is the key to success in business. ‘While I was studying for my master’s I went into therapy, and during one session, I said that I didn’t know what to do in my summer holidays: should I sign up for a writer’s workshop or a drama course? My therapist answered: “You have been forced to be a good actress your entire life. Be authentic and sign up for the writer’s workshop.” I followed that advice and I think that this is what changed my trajectory.’

‘Do what you want to do, do it differently than other people and show it to the world’

‘Learning to be authentic is a lifelong process. It doesn’t mean that you have overcome all your difficulties. But it does mean that you no longer have to conceal the essence of who you are. I think that this is also good advice for entrepreneurs: do what you want to do, do it differently than other people and show it to the world. People respond to authenticity. Maybe not everyone will respond, but you will find the people you want to attract. I know this for sure.’