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“ADHD for Smart Ass Women” host Tracy Otsuka!

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As women, it can feel like we have to do it all, yet not be “too much.” Add ADHD stigma and shame on top, and it can feel impossible. Good thing we have Tracy Otsuka to remind us that no one has ever made a difference by being “too little.” 

Tracy is an ADHD coach, the host of the ADHD for Smart Ass Women podcast, and author of the book with the same name! In this episode, host Laura Key and Tracy talk about how her son’s diagnosis led to her own, the need for an ADHD cookbook, and challenging the status quo. 

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Episode transcript

Tracy: I had noticed, probably in my mid to late 40s, my whole personality seemed to change, and what they said because of my age, as they basically patted me on my head and said, "Oh honey, it's hormones." So, my son was diagnosed and literally it took me eight months of researching ADHD for him, for it to connect in my brain that "Oh my gosh, what this has been all along is ADHD and he got his ADHD from me."

Laura: This is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they have ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I head up our editorial team here at Understood.org, and as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.

I am so thrilled to welcome Tracy Otsuka to "ADHD Aha!" today. Tracy is the host of "ADHD for Smart Ass Women," an amazing podcast. If you haven't checked it out already, where have you been? And she is also the author of a book with the same title. You can see the book on her shelves behind her if you are watching on video. Tracy, welcome! I'm so thrilled that you're here today.

Tracy: I am delighted to be here as well. Thank you so much for having me, Laura.

Laura: My pleasure. On the way to the office today, I was actually relistening to your very first episode of "ADHD for Smart Ass Women."

Tracy: Oh, no.

Laura: You're feeling nostalgic?

Tracy: No, I'm feeling stressed because that was five years ago and more than five years ago.

Laura: You have created something so fantastic. And I was listening to that first episode because I wanted to be reminded of your ADHD story and how you came to be diagnosed with ADHD. That's we talk about that a lot here on ADHD, how we like to contextualize those experiences so people can start to recognize their own signs and ADHD behaviors. So, I know that you were diagnosed about eight months after your son Marcus was diagnosed?

Tracy: Yeah.

Laura: One thing that I was wanting to know after listening to your first episode is what was going on at that time that made you start to think "I might have ADHD"?

Tracy: I had noticed, probably in my mid to late 40s, that all of a sudden my whole personality seemed to change and I had been going to everyone from hormone specialist to my general doctor to gynecologist, to a nurse practitioner, to a naturopath, a psychologist, I went from one person to the other. And what they said because of my age is they basically patted me on my head and said, "Oh, honey, it's hormones."

I actually had a psychologist say to me, "You're totally fine," because I was literally asking, "Do I have dementia? What is going on with my brain?" And I had a psychologist, she happened to be Asian, I'm half Japanese, and she said to me, "Oh, Tracy, don't worry about it. As we age, the bloom goes off the rose. And as Asian women, our standards are so high that we can't ever meet them again. So, you're just going to have to get used to this."

And I remember walking out of that office and thinking, "OK, maybe that's what it is." But my gut told me no. And so, my son was diagnosed and literally took me eight months of researching ADHD for him, for me to finally get for it to connect in my brain that, "Oh my gosh, what this has been all along is ADHD and he got his ADHD from me." And it was because, you know, the symptoms just look very different in women.

And you know what the key for me was? It was two things that I heard. Driveness is a form of hyperactivity. And I was nothing if not driven. You know, if you looked at my background, you would say, "Oh my gosh, by and large, she's so successful." And of course, they think that if you are successful, classically or traditionally successful, you can't have ADHD. Well, that is so not true.

It was just, it was my doing and going and not being able to slow down and, you know, from one business to another business. I had been a lawyer, I had run a high-end women's wear company. 60% of our business was Saks, Neiman's and Nordstrom. If you're listening from the United States, you know what I'm talking about. They're big box luxury stores. I had worked for dozens of banks selling distressed properties when the market crashed in 2000, what was it, 7 or 8?

There was so much that I had done that if anything, people would have said, "Oh my gosh, she needs to slow down." It was that, and the second thing was my heightened sense of interpersonal intuition where I could walk into a room, I didn't know anybody there, and I could literally read it.

And I really believe that the reason many of us have this heightened sense of interpersonal intuition is because when you can't 100% rely on your brain, you start relying on other senses and you start building those. So, those were the two things that when I heard that, "Oh, those were traits of ADHD?" it really became clear to me that my son got it from me. And then I looked at my family, my, you know, extended family, and everybody had ADHD or some form of neurodivergence.

Laura: I'm going to quote you from your first episode, which maybe you don't love that idea, but you use the term irritatingly positive. I don't find you irritating at all, by the way. I love your approach to talking about ADHD, but was there anything about ADHD that made life harder for you in your perspective?

Tracy: If you asked me, and a lot of times I'm quoted as saying that ADHD is a superpower. I don't believe that. I do believe, however, that there are traits of ADHD that can become among your superpowers.

Laura: Right.

Tracy: And the reason I say that is if you tell me that I can keep all of my ADHD qualities that get rid of my total lack of working memory, I would take you up in a heartbeat. I have the poorest working memory to the point of before the age of 13, I could memorize anything. I was the lead not only in the English-speaking place, but also the German-speaking place because my mom was German.

After 13, I cannot even remember when, let's say two sentences from a chorus of my favorite song. Now, if the favorite song was before 13, somehow that is embedded in my brain. Not well, but a lot better than after 13.

Laura: Those pathways are there.

Tracy: Yeah. So even, you know, I spent two and a half years writing a book, and I had so much panic about, I'm going to show up and someone's going to ask me a question about my book, and I am not even going to remember that I wrote it. So, yeah, I mean, I think there's a lot of nervous system dysregulation because I cannot rely on my working memory.

Laura: I'm so grateful, Tracy, that you shared so candidly just now, what you do struggle with. You have so much positivity, and you do such a fantastic job of helping women to harness their smart-ass, badass selves. But there's something so relatable too, about understanding like, this is hard for you too.

Tracy: Yeah, I mean, I think the difference between me and sometimes the ADHD women that really struggle, it's twofold. Number one, it's trauma. I've met thousands of ADHD women at this point, and what I will say to a T is that the women that struggle the most with ADHD are the women who have big T trauma. I had to work harder than everybody else in school, but I could work hard enough and still do well.

All those little cuts, if you've struggled in school, of not being good enough, and not trying hard enough and all of that, that can also equal big T trauma. So what people need to know is that I don't have big T trauma. And so, my journey is always going to be easier. And I really want people to understand that because I don't want them to beat themself up about the fact that they're having a harder time of it. So, because I don't have that trauma and I am naturally very optimistic, I tend to laugh off a lot of things.

So, what will women will see on my podcast is they'll often see me, you know, modeling what I'm hoping they're going to model, which is, "OK, where are we again? I can't remember where I was going with this," and then just laughing it off and getting back into it. So, I don't really apologize for those kinds of things. I mean, that's the way my brain works.

And yeah, it sucks when I'm in an interview, right? But the truth of the matter is, it's that neurodivergence. It's the fact that I don't have that focus thought that also allows me to be so creative and come up with new ideas and frankly, tap into that interpersonal intuition. And that's why I'm good at what I do, because I can see who women are, ADHD women are before they can see it in themselves.

And I have bar none, never met one ADHD woman who wasn't truly brilliant at something. So because we have these brains of interest, you know, her charge really is figuring out what does she love to do? What is she passionate about? Because those are the things that she's going to be the most successful at. And those are also the things where her executive functions, you know, they're going to work. She's so interested, she's so hyperfocused that she's going to learn better and faster than a typical brain.

Laura: You're approaching 300 episodes of your show. So, first of all, Bravo! That's so exciting. I have a lot of questions about what you've learned from the many women you've interviewed. I'm curious to start with, number one, what is the most typical kind of self-stigma that you hear women coming in with? I hear a lot of adjectives on my show. I'm really interested in what women are calling themselves. There's this gendered layer on top of the ADHD that's really sticky and hard to untangle.

Tracy: Oh, and it's ridiculous. I mean, yeah, and it's the way women beat themselves up and other women about the fact that they may need more help, like for the administrative household, you know, those kinds of details. And what I always say is, do you ever hear a man apologizing for the fact that they may need some help?

If they are traditionally successful, you are just going to assume they have all kinds of help. They have help in the home. They have help in their business. But for women, no. We're supposed to be able to do it all. And I think for ADHD women, especially women with kids, because then you add that layer on top of that. And if you're the one who is responsible for all of the home care tasks, which 70% of women, you know, we do, 75% of it.

Laura: Yeah.

Tracy: Yeah. You know, it's no wonder you're struggling and then...

Laura: Right. And it's all executive function at home. It's awful.

Tracy: Absolutely. And it doesn't, it's so boring to our brilliant brains. You do it one day and you get up and you gotta start all over again. It's literally like Groundhog Day.

Laura: Tracy, someone once asked me what I do on the weekends, I said, I load and unload the dishwasher multiple times.

Tracy: Part of the reason that I have been able to be successful with my ADHD brain is because I have a partner who does at least 51%, 71%. I mean, you know, he is, he never has looked at me and said, "Oh, you're going to do this because you're better at it because you're a woman." No.

What we do is we partition what we're going to do based on who's better at it. And then if there's something that neither one of us is good at, we kind of look and say, "OK, can we pay someone to do this?" Now, obviously we're privileged to be able to do that, and if we can't or we realize that, no, we can't afford to do this, then we're going to split it and we're going to do it together because there's no reason one of us should have to do something we both hate to do. But a lot of times that falls on the woman.

Laura: And I'm very fortunate too. I have a partner who is, my husband, is not just 51%. Yes, 70, maybe 75%, one percentage point for all of the unpaid global caregiving that women do is what he's doing at my house now.

OK, so a lot of self-stigma around and like that extra burden with all of the executive function work that comes with caregiving. Are you hearing a lot from women about misdiagnosis?

Tracy: Oh yeah.

Laura: You know, this is part of your story to tell me what you're hearing and what your suspicions are about that?

Tracy: You know, and it's shocking to me every single time — I mean, it is, but it isn't because I've received so many of them — but recently, like a day ago, you know, I had another email from a woman who told me, and I've had two this week, actually on this specific misdiagnosis. Both of them were misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder.

And we know that if it's not bipolar disorder and you're given the medication for bipolar disorder, it is completely awful for our ADHD. And both of these women had been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder for decades. Anxiety. Well, OK, let me say something about anxiety. I don't think I've met anyone with ADHD who doesn't have some form of anxiety.

I mean, how could we not? You know, given that we're always worried about this brain, right? And we're always worried about, "Oh, are we doing it the way we're supposed to be doing it?" And for a lot of us, especially those that are undiagnosed, we don't understand that. Well, screw that. What do you mean, the way it's supposed to be done? And I've always had an attitude about that. It's no, I'm not going to do it your way, but I will do it my way.

So, my number one value is to challenge the status quo. And you can kind of understand why that would be, because the status quo has rarely worked for me. But it can be kind of annoying to have someone, especially in a group setting. — I don't love groups at all — in a group setting who's constantly trying to make things better, right? Who's constantly trying to change things and won't just go along.

And I think especially with women who are socialized to kind of want everything even and the same, having someone who I don't know how else to say it, but is always standing out right and always trying to lead, is annoying. There are instances, especially when things are difficult, where, you know, people love to have that kind of person because. They're the one that is going to take the baton and move forward.

But generally when I'm thinking about women's circles, like I'm thinking about, you know, playgroups that I've been part of or women's boards that I've been part of, I mean, I'm sure I can be really annoying.

Laura: Wait, why don't you like groups, Tracy?

Tracy: Oh my gosh. You know, I think what it is, Laura. OK, how do I how do I say this without sounding like a brat.

Laura: Just say it. It's OK.

Tracy: And it's so interesting. I have discovered even in groups where individually I love the people, individually, I still struggle in a group. And I think it's because I'm so intense and I never thought I was intense. I mean, until I was 35, I remember someone calling me intense and I almost fell off my chair. It's really hard for me most times, you know, even like at a at a dinner, right? To sit back and just have it, like four people is great because you're across each other. But anything more than that, I don't know.

I'm, you know, I don't know other than it's my intensity, wanting to do what I want to do when I want to do about it. I adore people, and so I want to know about specific things about that person. And now, not everybody with ADHD is like this.

In my experience, the women that would be more inattentive actually tend to be very good in groups, right? And they can kind of just fade into the background and be one of many versus I think it's those that are pretty hyperactive where I don't have a lot of patience. I want to get to the answer. I'm so interested in people, so I want to know more about you. I don't really care about you right now. I just want to know about you.

Laura: I know.

Tracy: I think that's it. Can you relate?

Laura: Yeah. I completely relate to that. I don't like working in groups myself. I get very impatient. I can seem like a know-it-all, I think, and not because I do know it all, but because I'm like, yeah, I know what you're, yeah, yeah, yeah, get to, get to the next part, to the point. Yeah.

Tracy: It's much better though with ADHD women, right? Because especially the more hyperactive ones, they're just like you and the inattentive ones don't mind. So, I love groups of ADHD women.

Laura: Are you a perfectionist, Tracy?

Tracy: I am a recovering perfectionist. You know, that's the other thing with ADHD. I think everybody thinks that "Oh, well, if you have ADHD, your car is a disaster, your house is a mess."

Laura: Yeah, Cathy comic. Like, you're just, you can't. You're just, fetal position.

Tracy: Exactly. Sure. There are women with ADHD, people with ADHD that are just like that. But I also think there's the other ones, me included. And those are people who what I call it is visual pollution. So, if there's any visual pollution around me, I cannot get my work done. Now, that might mean that behind those cupboards it's not all that organized, but at least I don't see it. So if you walked into my house or you came into my car, it would look perfect. Just don't go in the cabinets.

So, I was the kid in school where, I don't know if you remember this or if they even did this, you know, when you went to school, but what they would do in my era is we'd have to open up our desks and the teacher would come and throw everything on the floor. My mom used to do that, too, with my, dresser. You know, it was such a mess. She would just take everything and throw it away.

Laura: Oh wow.

Tracy: And for whatever reason, I wasn't embarrassed by it. Like, I mean, even then, I think I thought it was funny, right? But I got good grades. The teachers liked me, so I was a little bit of a disaster or whatever, you know, I just. And I danced ballet six days a week. And I am telling you, I think that's what saved my brain, so that I learned what I needed to do to satisfy teachers, the school system, all of that. What were we talking about?

Laura: I don't know, but I love you, Tracy. Let's never stop.

Tracy: Yeah, I have no idea what we were talking about. Oh, it was about perfectionism. I have a publicist, and she told me, "Tracy," because she was preparing me for, like, interviews and all that stuff for my book, and she said, "OK, one thing I notice about you is whatever you forget, it comes back five seconds later. If you can just stall, it'll come right back and you'll remember what it was."

So, I was a ridiculous perfectionist. So, I was actually the opposite of what you would expect for ADHD. I would say the moms in our community, in our school, they were like, "Oh my God, that woman put a leash on her." I would come in and want to control everything. Whenever there was any kind of like teachers lunch or welcoming the kindergartners, I was the one that went in there and did a whole Martha Stewart like. Everything was beautiful. It was top of the line. The kids birthday parties were insane.

That was fun for me. It was creative, you know? And so I developed a reputation around that. And I loved to cook and I loved to entertain. And that was probably the first thing that went. But before, if someone would have said, "Oh, we're having some school event and, you know, can 50 people come over to your house?" I'm like, sure, no problem. That was fun for me. Like, I was insane.

Laura: Yeah.

Tracy: All of a sudden I could not even cook for four people. I literally would sit in my kitchen and I would spin, and I always had problems with the timing. What goes in when, you know. But I would kind of write it out in like a spreadsheet. And so it was OK.

Laura: Like the timing, like making sure that everything was warm by the time, like at the same.

Tracy: Oh my gosh, or what needs to go in the oven. And then that comes out and then coordinate. Like I was always bad at that. But somehow I figured it out. And for kids parties too, you can do a lot of, you know, like salads and things that were warm at one time, but now, you know, like a, you know, a rice salad or it didn't matter, right?

Laura: I love these party tips, ADHD party tips from Tracy Otsuka. I love it. That is your second book. That one's free. I'll give you that one.

Tracy: And I've often thought though, we need a really good cookbook or some way to take regular cookbooks and make them ADHD-friendly, because I already had trouble with all that text blocked up together. Like literally, I needed the garanimals version where there was a picture.

Laura: I'm picturing a cookbook that you open and it just says "Order in" on the inside.

Tracy: But OK, but see, I don't see the point of that. Why would I order in and then have to do all the damn dishes? No, I am going out, I never order in. I don't even understand that.

Laura: Go out then. It will say "Go out." Tracy, you talk so much about women being too much. I know that you don't think that they're too much, but like harnessing ADHD women, harnessing their too-muchness define "too much" for us, for the listeners of "ADHD Aha!"

Tracy: I think "too much" comes from what other people say about you. And I think when we struggle, it's because we're not being who we really are. We are trying to fit into a society that wants women to be vanilla and white, right? And sit down and sit still and be good girls.

Society doesn't like women who are constantly trying to push the status quo so we can be all over the place, right? Everybody says, "Oh, she's all over the place." And we can be like that because of, you know, we love the bright, shiny work. We're kind of dopamine chasers, right? Looking for the next thing that's going to, you know, give us that momentary boost and then it's on to the next thing after that.

If we can figure out, however, what it is that we're really meant to do with our life. And I believe that is the sweet spot of where our values are, what your strengths are like, what are you just naturally good at? And what are you using to move in the world right now that's working for you?

And then what talents have you built skills around so that you can turn them into a superpower or two or 3 or 4? What are you passionate about? And then what is your purpose? Which really is just one of your passions with the side of service, who are you going to help? We are mission-driven. We need to be helping.

So, if you can figure out what the sweet spot is, you can't help but be successful. When we're not in that sweet spot, though, when we're doing all the things, when we're trying to make everybody else happy and we don't even know what's important to us, that is when we really struggle.

I did a little poll a couple of years into my 100,000-member Facebook group, and I asked, do you feel like you have to make a difference more than your peers? And 98% of the women that responded said yes, that, you know, many of us have friends that get to a certain age, they're talking about retiring and riding off into the sunset. And I'm like, I could never think like that.

You know, there's only so much time. And because I don't understand time and I've never been good with time, I'm panicked about time. And there's so much that I still want to learn and do. And, you know, we are late bloomers too, so it is never too late.

I mean, I have 70-year-old women, you know, that I work with that do a complete roundabout and all of a sudden are doing their life's work and suddenly they realize that, "Oh my gosh, there is nothing too much about me." You know what I will say at the end of my podcast is, I mean, no one ever made a difference by being too little, right? So, I would say too much is a badge of honor.

Laura: You know, we do talk a lot about the struggles that people are going through. And I interview a lot of women. And again, that's with purpose. It's because I want to show what do symptoms that you normally see on a piece of paper or on, on a web browser, that it doesn't mean anything when you look at that list, what does it actually mean in real life? Right?

So, I believe that a lot of, you know, my listeners, I know that a lot of my listeners are going through the evaluation process, or they might hear this show and then they go through the evaluation process. What can you say to them?

Tracy: What I would say to them is "You are the expert on you." This is what I have discovered, when we have ADHD, we know it. And the truth of the matter is doctors, clinicians, whomever you're working with, they can't tap into your rudder. They don't know what's going on inside you and the way ADHD is tested, it really is all about that.

So, I have talked to women. Well, we know we know that the average is a woman will go to 3.2 clinicians before she's finally diagnosed appropriately. So, what I always say is you are the expert on you. If you get a bad diagnosis, if you have some medical professional, who diagnostician, whatever, who's telling you it's not ADHD, but you've done all the research yourself and you should, and you understand how your brain works and you don't agree with it. Go get a second opinion and even a third opinion.

I mean, because we know the 3.2, right? And it may be that whatever you've been diagnosed with before, the anxiety, the depression, is also there. But I will tell you that if ADHD underlies all that, it'll make the anxiety and the depression a lot better too. Because finally, you know what it is.

Laura: Absolutely. That is so helpful. I'm so excited that you came on "ADHD Aha!" You're such a role model. You're such an inspiration. Thank you so much for coming on the show today, Tracy.

Tracy: It was my absolute total privilege. Thank you.

Laura: Thanks for listening. As always, if you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. Be sure to check out the show notes for this episode. We have more resources and links to anything we mentioned.

This show is brought to you by Understood.org. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at Understood.org. And if you like what you hear, help us continue this work by donating at Understood.org/donate.

"ADHD Aha!" is produced and edited by Jessamine Molli. Jessamine, are you there?

Jessamine: Hi everyone, I'm still here.

Laura: And Margie DeSantis.

Margie: Hey, hey.

Laura: Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. Ilana Millner is our supervising producer. Briana Berry is our production director. Neil Drumming is our editorial director. Creative and production leadership from Scott Cocchiere and Seth Melnick. And I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

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  • Laura Key

    is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.

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