I’m a professional organizer and I have ADHD.
Are you giving your screen side eye right now? It’s a totally normal reaction if you have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). When I tell my clients that I, too, have ADHD, they look at me like, “Really?” And then the very next question they ask is, “How are you a professional organizer?”
The answer is simple. I’m good at organizing stuff—it’s the task initiation, emotional regulation, time blindness, working memory, overwhelm, under-stimulation, and follow-through that I struggle with.
If you need help getting organized, and you also have ADHD, you’re in good hands… and also in good company.
I’ve always loved organizing, especially organizing other peoples’ stuff. I used to spend the day working on my organizing my brother’s room and then present it to him and my parents that evening in a big reveal. I can imagine my parents wondering to each other, “Why won’t she do this to her own room?”
I had the hardest time cleaning my own room; not so much with starting, but definitely with finishing. Starting meant enthusiastically dragging everything out of my closet into a giant pile in the middle of my floor. After all, how could I be expected to put my things away properly if my closet was a mess?? Inevitably, the shiny would wear off halfway through organizing my closet and the big pile of stuff would slowly get shoved under my bed or back into the closet. As it turns out, making a bigger mess to get organized is one of the foremost tenets in my own organizing and life process.
The signs of ADHD were there at an early age.
In elementary school, I was always at the top of my class grade-wise. I didn’t have missing papers and my Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper was super- organized, but I was also a little…spacey. In fifth grade, a couple of boys gave me the nickname “Airhead” Morper (get it? Sounds kind of like Erin Morper?) and that nickname stuck like rhinestones to an 80’s jean jacket.
Even though I was day-dreamy and drifty (I remember learning about syllables in second grade when everyone started clapping out the syllable and snapped me out of my daydream, I had to pretend I knew what was going on by copying my best friend), I excelled in school and sports and life was good.
I had no idea I would miss that structure of school and my youth.
Moving has always been one of my most favorite activities. Not the moving truck and get the utilities switched kind of moving, but the everything I own fits in my car and I’m off to have an adventure kind of moving. This is how I spent my college years. (And my 20’s. And some of my 30’s.)
In five years, I went to three different schools and took a semester off to work at Disneyworld. I wanted to find myself, but I didn’t want to stray too far from the “should” schedule. (You “should” go to college, graduate in 4 years, get a good job… you know the “should” schedule.)
After college, I kept moving from shiny object to shiny object. I moved through countless jobs, relationships, and roommates. I fed off the drama and chaos created by my lifestyle.
Then, one day in my late 20’s, I looked around and marveled at how different my life was than the lives of my friends.
My friends were moving forward with their education, careers, and relationships while I was…not. I comforted myself with the idea that if I really wanted to have that kind of life – the healthy relationship, high-paying job, one-page resume kind – I could.
I’d never failed to succeed when I really wanted something. But no matter how hard I tried, I seemed to be moving backward instead of forward. I sabotaged my relationships, my career opportunities, and ultimately my self-esteem. I was way off the “should” schedule and I didn’t know why. I found myself growing increasingly isolated and depressed because I was so embarrassed about where I was in life. The ditsy persona I had subconsciously cultivated wasn’t serving me anymore. Running out of gas with my keys locked in the car wasn’t as easy to laugh off at age 28 as it was at age 16. Neither was being constantly overdrawn, perpetually late, or overly emotional.
I used to wish someone would hold my hand and just tell me what to do next.
It’s not like I didn’t know what I needed to do; I just couldn’t seem to do it. Motivating myself to do even the most basic of things, like put gas in my car, started to feel impossible. I wished I could ask for help, but the thought of telling anyone how hard it was for me to complete basic tasks made my stomach hurt. I kept working toward this thing called adulting, thinking that if I tried just harder and wasn’t so lazy, I could do what other people made look so easy. I understand shame, overwhelm, helplessness, and hopelessness because that’s what I felt all the time.
My attempt to get back on the “should” schedule…
I finally decided that what I needed to do was change everything in my life all at once and put an enormous amount of pressure on myself by going back to school to get my master’s degree in occupational therapy.
I felt so much pressure going back to school. I saw the stakes as being astronomical; I had to succeed because I couldn’t stand the thought of not following through on yet another venture. I had graduated ten years before and I was in classes with 20- year-olds who had stayed the course and were poised to apply for graduate school within the year. I had come out of my undergrad with a solid 2.8 GPA. If I wanted a chance at grad school, I would have to get nothing less than an A in each and every course I took.
I took a deep look inside and asked myself, “What did you do to earn that 2.88 GPA?” And the answer was simple. Wait until the night before the exam to study, cram all night, and get a passing grade. I fell back on my old habits, confident in the knowledge that they had worked at one time. And this time around, I was serious about school. I could do it. So, I stayed up all night and guess what- I couldn’t do it. I failed my first test and I was devastated.
I had never failed to rally when it really counted. And this really counted! I had to get into grad school so I could have a steady, fulfilling career. I couldn’t fail at yet another thing! But I had no had no backup plan and meanwhile I was falling behind in all my classes. I became so depressed I started sleeping through class and crying was my new normal. Finally, my fear of yet another failure and my boyfriend’s concern convinced me to go to the student health center to see someone about my depression.
I went to the doctor thinking depression was my main concern and came away diagnosed with ADHD at age 32.
I told the nurse practitioner the details around how miserable my life was, and she asked me to take a quiz. The quiz was for ADHD. After I completed it, she asked me if anyone had ever mentioned ADHD to me as a possibility. I said no. The nurse practitioner then told me she believed I had ADHD and prescribed Adderall as well as an antidepressant. I really didn’t believe I had ADHD, but I started taking Adderall anyway. I mean, if a medical professional thought it would help me, why not?
I didn’t do any research and I definitely didn’t tell anyone except my boyfriend. Since I didn’t know much about the disorder, telling people I had ADHD felt like I was making excuses for my behavior. Instead, I poured myself into school, spending hours studying and obsessing over my notes. After my first semester we moved yet again, to another city. I continued taking pre-requisite courses for an OT graduate program.
Soon, I had taken out a healthy sum in student loans to pay for school. After four semesters and hundreds of volunteer hours at an OT clinic, I realized that I was already in significant debt. I hadn’t even started graduate school yet! I had to find a way to bring in some income but going back to bartending or waitressing was a direction I didn’t want to take.
Meanwhile, I was helping my grandparents downsize for their move into a smaller house.
I helped another family member pack for a cross country move because her Multiple Sclerosis was acting up. I helped a friend work through a garage full of post-divorce moving boxes that she hadn’t even looked at in a year.
One Sunday night, when I’d gotten home after an afternoon of decluttering picture frames, my boyfriend said, ”You should start charging people to organize their stuff.” I was like, “That’s not a thing.” He immediately googled some variation of “organizing” and sent me a link to the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO) website.
And Start Somewhere Professional Organizing Solutions was born.
I will never forget the feeling I had right after I decided to start my own business. I felt this incredible freedom and joy. I could be as creative as I wanted to be, I could really help people, I could work as much or as little as I needed to through school!
I came up with the name “Start Somewhere” because, to me, that was the key to getting organized. No two peoples’ starting places will be the same, but I had a process that anyone could use to just start. I did all the business-y things like setting up my business structure and getting business insurance. I joined the local professional association of organizers and one of my colleagues even referred me for a state-funded program that provided organizing services to people who had suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI). I started working with clients when I didn’t have class and I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this work I loved.
I wish I could say then I lived happily ever after, but things got pretty rough after a few months. Even though I had great organizing skills, and I learned all I could about TBI, I was struggling in my business.
I passionately put all my energy into helping my clients get organized in ways that worked for them post-brain injury. I brainstormed how to better serve them, what different strategies we could try, how we could get them the organizing products they needed but couldn’t afford. I did all of this while watching them struggle to adjust to the new truth that they were never going to be able to do the things they were able to do before their injuries. I found myself getting angry, crying a lot, over-eating and drinking, and feeling overwhelmed by all I had taken on.
I finally had to quit taking clients from that program because it was taking such a toll on my emotional and overall health. Having had no experience working with working with that population, I didn’t have the knowledge I do now. Without boundaries and self-care, compassion fatigue can completely take over. But something good had come from my experience. Through my studying of TBI, I became more interested in my own brain. I also realized how much I took for granted after working with people who didn’t have the kinds of resources to take care of their mental health but would if they could. I looked at my ADHD diagnosis and considered that I did have the resources and support to take care of my brain and maybe I should look into it.
But it took another three years to take action. I kept my organizing business afloat, but I just couldn’t seem to get it together and really flourish. And I felt so, so alone. I watched other organizers I admired do new and exciting things, and I would think, “I can totally do that!” and my next thought would be, “Why can’t I do that?” I kept finding myself in this awful state of inertia or having yet another crisis caused by procrastination. I was working so hard and I loved helping people get organized, but I was struggling to move forward no matter what I did.
Denial of my ADHD not only kept me from learning how to help myself, but also kept me from helping others.
Almost five years after I had been diagnosed with ADHD, I decided I was ready to face it.
I signed up for a 12-week ADHD coaching program and I met my tribe. I still get emotional thinking about how powerful it was to meet people who so completely understood my struggles because my struggles were their struggles. I felt completely accepted. I was able to talk about things I’d never verbalized before, like how intensely I felt my feelings and how much shame I felt about losing touch with friends.
I learned how to plan my day, my month, my week and track how long tasks actually took. I could finally look back at patterns in my life and understand the how and why behind all the moving, drinking, stress, shame, job changes, and emotional distress I had experienced. Above all, I accepted the fact that managing my ADHD was the key to accomplishing my goals.
Managing my ADHD meant I needed to find external structure, the right kind of support, and my own customized (however weird they may seem) strategies to create a life I love (thank you, Judith Kolberg!).
When it came to my organizing business, I learned to accept that there are certain things I’m really good at and things I’m really bad at. I discovered and embraced my strengths and one of my strengths is helping my clients get organized. I’m passionate about being that person I needed in the past when I wished someone would hold my hand and tell me what to do next. While I won’t actually hold your hand, I will give you the guidance you need to find your own support, structure and strategies to organize your life. I’ve read the organizing books, attended the conferences and taken the classes so you don’t have to.
I attended my first Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
(CHADD) conference immediately after the coaching program and it was there, among some of the most incredible, talented, loving, intelligent, hilarious, kind, and accepting people in the world,
I decided I wanted to specialize in working with people who had ADHD.
Making that choice was easy and exciting but choosing to stop pretending everything was fine and telling my real story has taken some time. Even as I write this, my heart is hammering in my chest. A small part of that is because I’m thinking of ex-boyfriends and ex-bosses who might read this, but the bigger reason is because…
I’m so excited to meet you, my new client, a brave and tough and beautiful soul who is taking control of your life and asking for help you need.
I shared my journey to this point not to pretend I have all the answers now, but to show that with the right tools for you, positive change is possible. I just might be one of those tools for you!
Today, I still live in Austin, TX with my amazing partner- in- life, Jaxon, and our two cute but terrible dogs, Wilbur and Zoe. We intend to stay in Austin for the long haul (in fact we just bought our first house!). I serve on the board of our local NAPO-chapter as the Director of Marketing and have a Little Sister who l love making slime with. Start Somewhere Professional Organizing Solutions has become Start Somewhere Organizing and Coaching as I work toward becoming a Certified ADHD Organizer Coach. I’m looking forward to starting a CHADD chapter in Austin so stay tuned if you’re a local.
Thank you for reading my story. Whether we get to work together or not, I wish you all the best on your own journey!