Recently, I was reading an article written by a woman on a topic dear to her heart- an area of study she is so passionate about, she made it her life’s work. It covered a lot of mental health related material that fascinated me, and I learned a lot. I visited her website and after reading more on her topic, clicked on the “About Me” page, wanting to know more about her life and what brought her to study and become an expert in her field. What I found was information on her education, her work experience and just a bit about her family. But what I really wanted to know was more about her. What was it in her history, in her life experiences, that made her want to dedicate her life to her particular studies? I found no clues.
Which got me to thinking. Do you wonder how I got into the field of ADHD? Are you at all curious about the person behind these newsletters, my websites, The Queens of Distraction, my books, etc.? If not, that’s ok! Just toss this in the trash bin and go back to what you were doing. If you are a bit curious, read on.
For what it’s worth, I’ve decided to tell you more about me- my early life, what led me into wanting to learn about ADHD and helping people with ADHD, and what else is behind the Terry Matlen behind the curtain.
Besides learning more about me, I hope this will give you the incentive to open up more to others- even complete strangers, if it’s safe to do so. I think when you do that, it does make you feel more vulnerable, but it also opens up another whole world of ways to not only understand yourself better, but to find new ways of connecting with others. So here goes.
Who is the Real Terry Matlen?
I was born in the 1950s, which makes me old enough to be a grandmother, even a great grandmother. But I am neither. (By the way, my birthday is this Saturday, so feel free to send a Happy Birthday shout-out). I was the second born of three and the only girl. This had its advantages. First, my older brother got to be the guinea pig, so that by the time I came along, most of the mistakes were already made (and hopefully, my parents learned something from them). As the only daughter, I held a special place in the family instead of getting lost, like many “middles” do.
My mother was a gifted tap, ballet and modern jazz dancer and before her marriage to my father, was on her way to becoming a professional. She had her bags packed, ready to move from Detroit to California to break into show business, when she met my dad. At which point, she promptly dropped her suitcase and fell madly in love and subsequently ended her professional career to become a full time wife and mother. To my younger readers, remember that back in those days, that’s what most women did: they put their husband and family’s needs before their own, letting go of their dreams. In my mother’s generation, few women pursued college, let alone a career.
My father came from a family that owned a slew of department stores. His dream was to become a doctor, but that was shot down when he entered the military during WW ll where he became a medic and did something with zeppelins. What he did with those, I don’t know. He was also an actor in the military shows.
Fast forward to my early life. I was a fearful, shy, introverted child with a huge imagination. Unfortunately, the stories I conjured up were always frightening and dark: was that shadow really a killer waiting to grab me by the throat at bedtime? Do I dare swing my feet over the side of the bed, when someone underneath will surely grab me by the ankles and drag me down to my death?
Will I really kill my mother if I step on a crack?
Oh, it went on and on like that for many years. The fears suffocated me until I developed a fear of suffocation. I developed school phobia because I feared if I didn’t stay home, someone would kill my mother or worse, she would leave and never come back.
When I was seven, hypochondriac Terry got violently ill with what the doctor insisted was the stomach flu. I lay in bed for well over a week, unable to eat. As the family story goes, my lips turned blue and the only way my mother could hear my whispered calls for help was if I rang a bell my father rigged up on the wall next to my bed. The doctor berated my mother for constantly calling him, until she screamed on the phone for him to come to the house immediately. Good thing he finally listened, because as it turned out, I had a ruptured appendix and needed emergency surgery.
I survived, of course, only to have my neurotic ol’ self become, well…more neurotic, in part because my mother was not allowed to stay beyond visiting hours and also because I was assigned to a sadistic, mentally unstable nurse who scared the crap out of me.
Being sensitive and easily frightened and overly stimulated, those 10 days in the hospital were horrifying.
Around that time, my dad became jobless when the family business went bankrupt as malls became more popular than mom and pop department stores. He scrambled to make ends meet.
Three years later, when I was ten and he was 43, my father dropped dead in the middle of the night from a probable pulmonary embolism or heart attack, or both. My mom became a widow at age 36. The night he died, my first thought was that I would be taken directly the next morning to an orphanage. Of course, that didn’t happen. But I was given more responsibilities at a young age to help manage the household and help care for my younger brother, 5 years my junior.
What saved us was our creativity. My mother taught dancing for a while. My brothers and I were drawn to playing music. My mother scraped enough money together to buy or rent instruments for us. We all had a safe haven to explore our music. Later, for me, that expanded into art, where I later studied painting as a college student.
In elementary school, I’d always been an excellent student. I don’t know how, as I couldn’t focus on the teacher. In those days, in Detroit, our class sizes averaged in the mid to upper 30s. And often, we had what was called a split section. Half the class was 6 months older and learned entirely different material and at a faster pace. I could not filter out what they were doing in order to focus on my own work. Yet, I got by with all As and Bs (except for handwriting, where I always earned Cs).
We moved to the suburbs when I was in 6th grade and my status as the smart popular kid morphed into the socially backwards “dumb” kid who dressed 10 years behind the times. These suburban kids were children of professionals and light years ahead of me in every possible way. I was lost. I was humiliated, teased, bullied. My self-esteem plummeted. And as the schoolwork was so much more advanced than my previous school, my grades slid straight down into the toilet. I could no longer get by through listening in mini bites. I did not have the attention span to stay connected with the teacher. Plus, I had a full blown anxiety disorder that also prevented me from staying focused. I just wanted the day to end so I could go home and feel safe.
Middle school was a disaster, like it is for most young people, so no need to discuss that. Let’s move right into high school, where I started off as a lost soul wanting desperately to shed my “loser” status. That skin was hard to shed, so I decided to put my efforts in the things that interested me in school, which basically was art. Academically, I was a loser, due to the anxiety and undiagnosed ADHD. And I didn’t care, for I had discovered Mrs. Cowan and her art department and spent every possible minute in her class, learning the mysteries of drawing and painting.
In those days, the kids were in one of three groups: hippy types, greasers, and pre-college preppers. Since I was then a fairly accomplished guitarist with musical friends and had begun to play small local clubs (ok, just a few times, but still..) and was also getting fully involved in art, I fell into the hippy group. Well, sort of. As an introverted outsider of sorts, I had few friends and most of them were also artist types. One of my friends worked in the school office and at the end of my senior year, all of the students’ files contained a letter from the counselor, describing the future paths of the senior students. She told me that mine was stamped: “Not College Material.”
I’ll never forget that.
My mother was too entrenched in making ends meet, that she couldn’t advise me on what to do once I graduated high school. In fact, I didn’t even think about what happened after high school. I only saw a huge blank space that made no sense. Thankfully, a friend’s mother guided me and helped get me into the local city university “on probation”, as I’d have to prove that I could succeed even with a pitiful GPA.
I signed up for some liberal arts classes, avoiding math and science (unaware I most likely had a math disability) and found that I loved English. I chose classes that only held interest to me. Surprisingly, at least to me, I soared. When I was allowed to enroll in my first studio art class, I fell in love with college. And more so, with art and psychology. I earned a degree in Art Education. The idea of teaching appealed to me. Again, in those days, girls weren’t encouraged to explore careers outside of the stereotypical ones. In my forth year, I started student teaching and that’s when my life bottomed out: I HATED it. My (undiagnosed) ADD made it impossible for me to manage a room full of children, scattered everywhere, climbing on desks, throwing things and worse. I had no idea how to tame a classroom. I learned too late that I was not born to be a teacher. I wanted to make art, not teach art.
I graduated with top grades and a teaching certificate but never set foot in a classroom other than to substitute teach in order to earn money. I spent the next two years studying only painting, but became depressed and confused about my future. Few artists can make a living doing what they are passionate about.
Around that time, I met my future husband and fell hopelessly in love. He was in medical school with laser vision on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. And I was floating in indecision, with no idea what to do with my life.
Since I loved psychology classes as an undergrad, I decided I’d go into mental health. But psych classes meant science and math, and those were my weak links. I instead chose social work where I could bypass most of those kinds of classes. It spoke to my strengths, which was writing and working with people. I earned full academic scholarships and completed my MSW degree in 1½ years, then got a job as a therapist, working with young people struggling with severe mental illness.
If you’ve gotten this far, please email me and tell me this wasn’t all for naught, because my intention was not at all to go into such detail about this, but, well…that’s where it landed.
My other passion was to become a mom. I loved children (though I hated classrooms) and after seven YEARS of trying to have a child, we realized that wasn’t going to happen. I was terribly depressed. But then I realized that what I really wanted was to be a mother, period. It didn’t matter if I gave birth to a child or not. I wanted to be a mom. And that happened on what was to be one of the happiest days of my life: June 1, 1985, when our daughter was born to another woman who needed us as much as we needed her.
Kate was a precocious child who kept me on my toes both literally and figuratively. Since she was so bright, I had to be “on” all the time, keeping up with her- answering her constant questions, keeping her safe from her somewhat impulsive behaviors, but also keeping up with her physically, as she was unbelievably hyperactive. In those days, I never knew the term ADHD, but when it got to the point where I was worried she’d be in danger by her climbing, jumping and running without a care in the world, I sought out the help of mental health professionals to find out why my girl was so different from my friends’, whose kids could sit in their laps and loved being read to. My girl was swinging off Coke machines.
As it turned out, she didn’t have ADHD– she was labeled “gifted”, so we worked on stimulating her hungry brain.
Then along came baby #2. She made Kate look like acentenarian. Mackenzie, too, rushed through her milestones earlier than her peers. But then something dreadful happened that turned our world upside down. She had a drastic, life threatening reaction to the MMR vaccine and went into seizures. She was on life support as her brain began swelling from the live virus that was eating away at it. We didn’t know if she’d make it. The doctors put her into a drug-induced coma for 4 days to try and stop the seizures. It worked. She survived. But the toddler we knew and loved was no longer- she became a stranger to us. The illness left her completely impaired. She lost all functioning, including her memory of who I was. Her speech was gone. She couldn’t walk or crawl. She couldn’t even suck from a bottle.
After three weeks in the hospital, we were finally able to bring her home, though she was unable to even hold her head up on her own. After months and months of therapies and interventions, my little Mackenzie began to show glimpses of progress. She began to move her right arm (the brain damage affected her entire right side and she looked like she’d had a stroke). She learned to move Cheerios on a tray, finally able to sit up in a high chair (with straps holding her up). She showed even more progress- she began to crawl! At 2 years of age, there was no speech, though, and the neurologist told me we’d have to teach her sign language. I shook my head and said no- she WOULD learn to talk again.
She was now walking! But she couldn’t sleep and I’d have to lie on her body, in her crib, so that she’d stop flailing long enough to have 20-minute naps throughout the night.
It was hell. For her and for us.
But it taught both of us determination. She was a fighter and so was I. And slowly but surely, she began to talk!
By this time, Mackenzie became severely hyperactive, due to the brain injury. With two very active small children, I had to get help in making sure Mackenzie would be safe. It took two adults to look after her and I soon became more than exhausted. Daily visits to various therapists to get Mackenzie better as best we could, took its toll on me. And I still had a preschooler to care for as well.
The stress of all of this made me question my sanity. I couldn’t understand how people could have four children and not go completely nuts. I thought I was losing my mind.
Mackenzie is now in her late 20s and still has residual problems she’ll live with the rest of her life. But she has resiliency.
Years after her initial illness, I continued to fall apart. Then one day, as I was talking on the phone with someone, I realized why I hated the phone so much- I couldn’t hear what the person was saying! I figured my hearing was going, so I went for an evaluation and found my hearing was actually better than most my age.
During this time, I was also trying to learn as much about ADHD as possible, so I could better help and cope with Mackenzie. In those days (late 1980s), little was written on the topic, believe it or not. But I read everything. For some reason I’ll never understand, I found and read a book on adult ADHD- the first that had been written (I believe); it was by Dr. Lynn Weiss. I devoured it, my mouth gaping, as it described my nuclear family- the family I grew up with. I won’t name names, but my family tree is dripping with ADHD, but I didn’t realize that until I read this book.
And then it dawned on me: it described me to a “t.”
That’s when I went to get evaluated for possible adult ADHD and passed with flying colors. Meaning, I had a classic case of inattentive ADHD. The confirmation was liberating: it explained the many difficulties I had growing up (anxiety is often seen with ADHD).
The pieces fit. I went to counseling. I tried medication. My life changed in ways so significant, that not many years later, I decided to dedicate my professional life to helping other adults with ADHD.
I went to conferences. I volunteered. I became the local coordinator for my CHADD chapter. I was offered a spot on the ADDA board of directors and later became its vice-president. I read. And I read some more. With my social work background, I decided to open up a private practice dedicated to working with adult ADHD. That didn’t last long, because my daughter’s needs were too great and she needed me home. Getting calls from her school in the middle of therapy sessions was unfair to my clients, so I shuttered up my practice.
I wasn’t sure how I could continue my professional work. People from all over the world were emailing me, asking for help. Remember, in those days, few professionals understood adult ADD. So I decided to open up a virtual ADD clinic where anyone with a computer could access me and get help. In the year 2000, www.ADDconsults.com was born.
Five years later, I wrote my first book, “Survival Tips for Women with ADHD.” I began presenting at large national and international conferences. My second book followed. “The Queen of Distraction” was published October of last year (2014).
I’m still as passionate about my work as I was back in the mid 1990s. I love seeing men and women “wake up” and learn how to put their lives back together again in the context of having an ADHD brain.
Throughout all of these years, I continued to make art and music and have had my paintings shown in galleries locally and out of state. In fact, if you’re curious, you can see some of my work at www.TerryMatlenArt.Homestead.com .
As I look back and read all of this, I’m not quite sure why I chose this topic for my newsletter today, other than my own curiosity about a woman I’d never met but whose writings inspired me. I wanted to know more about her.
I hope knowing a bit about me will inspire you to look more deeply at your own life experiences and learn how those shaped you into the person you are now. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel comfortable in opening up more to others and sharing your strengths, your challenges and offering up more acceptance of yourself.
In the spirit of all this self-disclosure, please do feel free to ask me any questions you might still have about me, my life, my work. Or better, tell me about you! Just post your questions in the Comment section below and I will respond.