The ADHD Empty Nest Mom: Rediscovering Life PurposeJuly 20th, 2012 by admin
We got to know each other, and talked about her ADHD diagnosis, the role it played in her life, and her goals for the future. She left and did not come back.
Two years later, Marilyn scheduled her second appointment. For all that time, she had been thinking about our first conversation. She told me, “I think I’m ready for you now. I have the same problems that I had two years ago. My children are grown up and gone, and my husband is divorcing me. I just don’t seem to care any more. I have no meaning in my life.”
Marilyn was dealing with issues that were both deeply personal for her, and practically universal for all women, especially women with ADHD. Without understanding her ADD/ADHD brain type throughout her youth and early adulthood, Marilyn had struggled to find a place in the world, always searching for a relationship that made her feel worthwhile – until motherhood came along. Then life made sense for the first time in a long time. She had structure day in and day out. She always had a new short-term goal to focus on. Most importantly, she had an overarching purpose to her life.
But who was she as a person, now that the caregiver role was over?
I began my work with Marilyn by taking a long, thorough look at what she believed about herself. It quickly became clear that having the spotlight shined on her made her very uncomfortable. She was entirely defined by her role as a timid wife to a very controlling man and a generous mother to two sons. She couldn’t remember the last time she had thought so much about herself as an individual, or talked so much about her own life.
With reliable exercises, we were able to work past Marilyn’s discomfort and get to the heart of her issues. We inventoried her conception of herself: her characteristics, how she talked to herself, her best achievements, her beliefs about her limitations. We mapped out her life so she could see the big picture of her own existence, acknowledging the patterns in her behavior and decision-making process.
From this foundation of self-awareness, I wanted Marilyn to think about doing things that would make her happy. This was our biggest struggle yet – she had become totally numb to identifying her own needs and preferences and following through on them. For decades she had been a passive responder to others. If she couldn’t remember the sorts of activities that made her happy, she had to learn from scratch. Saying goodbye to her comfort zone, Marilyn had to go out into the world and push her boundaries. Each time she tried doing something new, we would go over the evidence of her experience: Was she capable? Was she smart? Did she feel accepted? What did she like or dislike? How did it feel when it worked or didn’t work? We were taking baby steps to answer the big question, Who was this Marilyn woman, anyway?
Often with each new hurdle Marilyn’s impulse would be to retreat back into the shadows, but she would force herself to push forward. After many months, she found her new community: volunteering at an after-school program. Seeking out activities that made her feel happy and talented, she took on greater responsibility, eventually organizing youth wellness programs full-time as a professional volunteer. In her new role, she was able to say with confidence, “I feel happy working for others even without getting money for it. I am someone who loves all children and I want them to live fully in healthy bodies.”
Marilyn’s life today is full of passion and purpose, and her nonprofit programs stretch across multiple cities. She told me that the difference between her life before and her life now was like going getting a second chance on her deathbed. It may have taken two years for her to articulate it, but it all started with her statement that she wanted a bigger purpose to her life. Now she has saved her own life, and she helps others embrace health and fulfillment every day.
So much can be learned from Marilyn’s story. On one hand, it is a multi-layered chronicle of the challenges for a woman who has never taken control over her ADHD. She had to fight back a lifetime of self-hatred, doubt, and passivity. It is a long story of good days and bad days, huge leaps ahead and frustrating backslides, and the daily choice to stick to her treatment regimen even through today.
On the other hand, Marilyn’s story teaches that changing your life is nothing more or less than a two-step process.