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One Woman’s ADHD Success Story


ADHD Success Stories: Women Who Make ADD WorkBy Kathy Swantee – It has been almost 3 years since I was diagnosed with ADD. I had picked up the book Driven to Distraction (Ratey & Hallowell) when my son was tested and found myself within the pages as well. The way I saw things, the way I did things; this was actually a cohesive explanation! The closest I had ever come to putting a finger on my difficulties had been in college. I was studying autism for a college psyche class and was struck by some of the resemblances to my own struggles. I wondered if I might have some mild form of autism…25 years later came my diagnosis of ADD, a disorder in the same spectrum as autism, if only I’d known how close I had been.

When we returned to the doctor’s to discuss treatment options for my son, we were discussing options for myself as well. I will never forget the first time I took that tiny little pill (5mg Dexedrine) and the effect it had on me…the calmness that replaced the anxiety, the ability to think things through in a cohesive way without getting lost, the capacity to do a half-hour’s errands in a half-hour. This was a very new frame of mind for me, and only the start of the adjustments and changes that would be necessary to make my life work doing and being who I really was.

I was 41 years old. . I had gone to school for art and worked as a commercial artist for 10 years; my life was consumed by my job and trying to keep my house in order. I had been through a 13-year marriage that ended in divorce, my home being foreclosed and filing bankruptcy. At the time my marriage ended I was a stay-at-home Mom with a 2 and a 5 year old and no idea what I was going to do.

My solution was prayer and to follow my intuition. Writing a list of pros and cons had never been an approach that worked for me; following what felt right was how I had learnt to operate (although this course never went over big with the linear thinkers in my life). This is one of the positive qualities I see developing from my ADD. The lack of balance in my life had led me to rely on intuition and faith that there would be guidance. I knew very well how easy it was for me to ‘miss things’, so tacked on to every prayer was a request that I would recognize the guidance when it came.

I had lost my mother a year before my marriage ended. This is where I place the beginning of my recovery. The shock of losing the person whom I now recognize as being the one who helped me hold it together threw me into a tailspin. It made me look at my life and realize how unhappy I was and gave me the strength to start over. So there I was, with my kids, in a house I could not afford the payments on, trying to figure out what was next.

Art By Kathy Swantee

I had done a lot of creative work in this home — painting, designing stencils, color schemes — several people had asked if I would be interested in doing work of a similar nature in their homes. This was my starting point. My entrepreneurial nature broke through! It had always been difficult and draining for me to be employed by someone else, keeping set hours, having to be there even when the work was slow. Setting my own schedule, working the hours during which I knew I functioned best — these were things that helped me get past some of the obstacles I encountered. I did ok. Not ok enough to hold on to my house, though.

I have had miracles in my life, small and large, but the next one never ceases to amaze me. I had volunteered to run the art program for our town’s summer program in exchange for my children being allowed to attend. I worked there a couple of days a week and had the other days to continue my other work. To this day I cannot tell you how I managed to do this…besides doing art projects with the kids, I was responsible for picking up supplies, which were frequently donated. This was the case on this day. I was on my way to a local farm to pick up sheep’s wool, yarn, wooden beads, etc…

On arrival I realized I knew the woman making the donation. I had met her at church. She is one of the most incredible, inspiring people I have ever met. Marianne is blind, but that never held her back. She had accomplished more than most people who do not have a disability to challenge them. We talked for a little, I picked up the supplies and loaded them into the car. As I was leaving, she asked if I had found a place to live yet. I don’t know how she knew I had to move, as I had not told her. I had not even started looking for something, I was very depressed and the whole situation was really taking a toll on me.

She asked me to walk with her to a house next door to the farm to get a couple more things, on the way explaining that they owned this house, too. It was a three-bedroom ranch used for storage, accommodating out of town guests and the overflow of activity created by their 4 teenagers (yes, 4). When we arrived she explained that they did not need it for those purposes anymore, and asked if I would be interested in renting it. What a wonderful gesture, and too bad I couldn’t afford it. This is the miracle part, when I asked what she wanted for rent, her response was, “whatever you can afford, we’ll work it out.” My children and I spent the next four years of our lives here.

It was not easy. I struggled, but I was in a situation that with effort I could manage. I helped on the farm, read to Marianne, helped with transportation. She always seemed to be there for me when I needed help with the kids so I could finish a job (or just regain a semblance of sanity). I was freed up, though, just enough to begin painting with watercolor again. When I worked full time at commercial art, I had no energy left by the end of the day to even think about painting (or fixing supper — most of my pay was spent on going out to eat).

Some of the wounds started to heal. The painting was relaxing; it put me in the moment (something that had always been a challenge for me). In the spring we watched the lambs and kids bounce around in the pasture behind the house. I painted, consumed self-help and spiritual books, and painted some more. But there was still something blocking my growth.

Taking the wisdom from these books and applying it to my life was increasingly frustrating. When painting I made the same mistakes, I didn’t stop usually taking things too far so they would look “worked” and lacked spontaneity. I called my painting my part time gift, I could not always count on the ability to do what I wanted nor did I have the ability to be prolific enough to pursue watercolor seriously. More than anything else, this is what I wanted to do.

This is where my life was when I was diagnosed. As I had always done in the past, I started to consume all the information I could find on ADD/ADHD. Things started making sense. I began to recognize the compensations I had built into my life to make it work and I started to build on these. The way I kept lists, my need to keep workspaces organized in a certain way (God help the person who doesn’t put my scissors back where they belong). Everything had to be written down or I would not remember so I kept a large desk calendar at a spot designated ‘central control’. Anything I needed to remember was on that calendar, if the kids had something I needed to be aware of it was to be left there.

Art By Kathy Swantee

The first step was taken; the doctor started us both on 5mg of Dexedrine. The one fear I had about going on medication (I felt it was not fair to put my son on medication if I were not willing to try it myself) was the loss of that creative spark that was at the center of everything I did. The opposite of what I feared happened. The creativity expanded in a way I could not have anticipated. I was able to recognize the things that were holding me back and find a way to get beyond them. Unlike in the past (when all I wanted to do was get to it and start painting) I found myself doing the preparatory work that is so necessary in creating a fully formed piece of art. I could do what I knew I needed to do but had not been capable of previously. Ideas were formed into thought-out compositions; detailed sketches were completed and transferred to the watercolor paper. Color composition was planned and tested before I began the painting. The first two paintings I completed after treatment began were so far beyond what I had previously been capable of it floored me and everyone who saw them. There it was, that dramatic contrast between light and dark, vibrant color, no overworking. I could do it and I could do it in far less time than it had taken before, even with the time I was now putting into the preparatory work. I could do this! This was my goal and nothing was going to keep me from it now.

One of the most amazing things that resulted from treatment was the realization that all the information I had read trying to find answers was still stored in my brain; it was the incapacity to put the information together and apply it that had stonewalled me. Now things were coming together so fast it was overwhelming. The initial wave of understanding, the sudden flow of comprehension, recognition of the catalysts that had been behind certain situations… this is where therapy comes in. I had a lot to rethink and make sense of. Getting past the ‘what ifs’ was one of the first challenges. I found a counselor who had a background helping adults recently diagnosed with ADD. Talking with her helped put things in perspective. I was able to see myself in a more understanding and forgiving light. It was necessary for me to work through the past in this way in order to move on. I was able to recognize the need to deal with the secondary effects of depression and anxiety resulting from undiagnosed ADD. I could deal with this.

Family dynamics were changing as well. My son was no longer beyond my ability to help. He was receiving counseling along with the medication. The amount of reading and research I had done had provided me with more knowledge on the subject of ADD/ADHD than most of the people who were involved in providing his education. Advocating for him to be given the compensations he needed to succeed became a priority. I began going through the information pertaining to education and wrote an outline of what I wanted to say and what I felt he should receive to put him on a par with other students (outlining is a most helpful tool when planning what you want to say). I have worked with 2 different school systems regarding this issue. Luckily the first was very compliant and there was little need to push. He had a comprehensive IEP written up and began to receive the extra assistance he needed. The change was obvious. His grades went from C’s and D’s to almost all B’s and his constant disruptions of the classroom decreased dramatically. When he changed schools 2 years later it took a lot more advocacy to get him the assistance he needed.

Knowledge is the key; if you know what you’re talking about it is hard for it to be dismissed. Finding someone in the school system who works with your child and wants to help is also very important. Today he is doing well; bringing home B’s and a few C’s. Last report card he even brought home an A in Science. In the spring he took the English MCAS (I will restrain myself from giving my opinion on this form of knowledge assessment). The amazing thing is, provided with the right environment for test taking, he got the highest score for the whole 3rd grade!

It has not been an easy road, but it has certainly been one of the most satisfying. Making a living as an Artist has a great many challenges. It is what I do; it is who I am. A year and a half into treatment I started to teach. This had always been beyond me. My inability to retain my train of thought when explaining something had been an embarrassment, vocabulary access had been a serious issue (I could never find the word I wanted to use), not having a coherent procedure was also a drawback. I went through my art books and put together a 21-page booklet with what I felt were the basics and used that for my anchor.

Each student receives one when they begin my class. I put a lot of emphasis on drawing skills, color theory and composition. They are taught how to take color notes on a painting. One of the things I have found most helpful is the color notes. I find I cannot work on just one painting from start to finish; I usually have several going with different color schemes and at different stages of completion. Having these notes (word notes alone do not work for me) allows me to work this way. The colors and mixes, technique (everything is labeled)… all the information is there to pick up where I left off.

I have found the teaching to be a very satisfying outlet. Repeating things to my students helps me more fully internalize and apply what I have learnt on a more consistent basis. When I explain something I explain it in as many different ways as I can think of, especially visually. I have many repeat students because they say they get something from this method of teaching that they do not from the more traditional approaches. This has also become one of my ways of connecting with the outside world, as I have a strong tendency to isolate and become absorbed in my work.

Art By Kathy Swantee

This past spring I was provided with the opportunity to have my artwork reproduced as note card sets and prints. This has started opening a whole new set of doors for me. Responses to the reproductions have been beyond what I could have hoped for. My work has been accepted by a gallery (Chelmsford Center for the Arts), which was one of my priority goals. Six weeks ago I purchased a commercial computer system that will allow me to make my own reproductions. I went into this fairly computer illiterate, but that wasn’t about to stop me. I have been overcoming hurdles all my life, learning how to use a computer was just another one. I enjoy the challenge of learning something new; monotony and I do not get along.

So I will continue in this manner. Setting goals and actually achieving them has become one of my greatest joys (after my children). Most days I can now look forward to with anticipation instead of the dread of what will go wrong today. No more what ifs. I still go for counseling when I am in need of an objective perspective to work through something. My gift has become a full time one, and for all it took to get me to this place, I will never take it for granted. My time and energy are spent looking ahead, the past is there for me to learn from and grow…nothing more, nothing less.

I was accepted into my first gallery in September. The gallery is affiliated with an arts school, I will also be teaching there. I am in the process of sending them information and images to set up a page on their website for me. We are also in the process of setting up a new show for spring of watercolor florals by a variety of artists in various media. I have been asked to be the feature artist for the showing.


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