I was twenty-one when I was first diagnosed with ADHD. I struggled through school and had very low self-esteem, but I’m a determined person, so I never let anything stop me from getting back up and trying again. Despite my hard work, there were challenges I couldn’t identify, much less overcome on my own, because of the neurodevelopmental disorder I didn’t know I had. I was frustrated that I kept underperforming and very hard on myself. I got used to taking responsibility for everything that went wrong. It wasn’t until my much younger brother was diagnosed with ADHD that I finally got tested.
It took me a long time to accept my diagnosis, to believe that my ADHD was real, and to understand how it impacts my everyday life. It wasn’t just school that was hard for me, I struggled with friendships and relationships, in part because I had very little self-confidence. I was used to blaming myself for everything, and on top of that, I surrounded myself with people who were hard on me and gravitated toward relationships where I was made to feel like the problem. It was self-fulfilling. I didn’t believe in myself or feel like I deserved help or support or praise, so I was more comfortable around people who didn’t appreciate me or see my strengths.
With the help of therapy and medication, I started to realize that there were a lot of situations in which my deficits were actually super powers. For example, I’m a great problem solver and a quick thinker, and I have a lot of practice messing up, so finding solutions comes naturally to me. Before I was a writer, I worked in marketing and communications. I loved listening to clients, learning about their challenges, and helping them find unique solutions. It was a big advantage to be able to see things differently than other people.
Over time, I became more confident and made friends who understood my challenges, saw my strengths, and wanted to cheer for me. I started to be honest with my family about what I needed and how they could help. I learned that by advocating for my needs, surrounding myself with people who saw me the way I wanted to see myself, learning to appreciate my super powers, and writing down my feelings, I was able to succeed in work and at home.
How did you get into writing and take the leap to be a full time author?
Not long after I was diagnosed with ADHD, I took a creative writing class. Our first assignment was to write about the most humiliating thing that had ever happened to us. Once I started writing, I couldn’t stop. Writing down my feelings made them true and real. So, I kept writing. The more I wrote, the stronger I felt and the more I started to understand myself. And the more I wanted to write.
I got an MFA at The New School in Writing for Children and Teens, and I wrote two books, before I finally sold my debut novel Braced to Scholastic in 2015. After Braced came out in 2017 and I signed a contract for two more novels, I was ready to be a full-time author.
Tell us more about your latest book Focused. What inspired the story?
Focused is about Clea, a gusty chess player, who has undiagnosed ADHD. I wrote Focused because ADHD is complicated and challenging to understand. There are so many misconceptions and a lot of misinformation. I had never read a book with a character who had a brain like mine. I wanted to give readers without ADHD a chance to experience what it feels like to live with ADHD and readers with ADHD the opportunity to see themselves in a book.
You have ADHD but you sat down and wrote a whole book. How did you do it?
Writing a book can be intimidating. For me, the key is never sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a book today,” because I have a hard time getting started and that would make it even harder. I need small, achievable goals in order to get work done. I try to set a goal each day, such as write 1,000 new words.
Also, I don’t think I could write a book about something that wasn’t really interesting to me. I’ve found that I need to be hyper focused on the story and emotionally invested in the characters and what they’re going through in order to dive into a book.
I actually wrote my third book on a contract, which means that Scholastic purchased two books from me, but I had only written one of them. I thought that writing with a contract would be harder for me, because of my ADHD, and that the pressure would overwhelm me. I was surprised to find that I loved it. Knowing that my book was definitely going to be published and that my editor was waiting to read it empowered me. It felt like there were people cheering for me as I inched closer to the finish line.
Not only are you publishing books and going on publicity tours, you are married and have a kid. How do you stay organized?
I have definitely struggled to stay organized. There is a lot to balance right now with an almost two year old at home. The strategy I use and highly recommend for anyone with ADHD is to write everything important down. I use the calendar on my phone (with alerts) and it helps so much. As soon as I get a deadline or schedule an appointment, I save all the information in my phone, because I know if I wait, even a minute, I’ll forget. I have a lot of challenges with my working memory, but ever since I started implementing this strategy I’ve been able to stay much more organized and on top of all my responsibilities.
My best advice for anyone with ADHD or without is to learn who you are and what you need to be and do your best, and then advocate for yourself and set expectations. It can be hard for me to ask for extra time, and I still get embarrassed asking for clarification on directions, but I force myself to do it, because I’m always glad I did.
What is your advice for someone recently diagnosed with ADHD?
One thing I would recommend to anyone who has recently been diagnosed with ADHD is to make a list of everything that is hard for you. Then, look at each challenge and think of how it can also be an advantage. For example, when I’m excited about an idea, I have a hard time keeping my thoughts inside. It takes a lot of work for me to filter myself and not say exactly what I’m thinking. A different way of looking at that is—I’m a really strong communicator and I’m great at expressing myself with other people, which makes me good at brainstorming and idea generation. It might take time and work to feel proud of having ADHD, and there are definitely days where it’s hard for me to be positive, but the way I see the world is one of the things I love most about myself.
Alyson Gerber is the author of Focused, a novel about a girl caught between her love of chess and her ADHD. Focused is a Junior Library Guild Selection and has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association’s Booklist. Alyson is a graduate of The New School’s MFA in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. Connect with Alyson on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.