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Executive function and ADHD shame in women (Katy’s story)

Katy Weber’s ADHD symptoms took center stage during the pandemic. She was stuck in “waiting mode” and experiencing “time blindness.” And then she learned about executive function and dug into signs of ADHD in women.

Before the pandemic, the stereotypes that surround ADHD never felt relatable to Katy. Once she was diagnosed, she started talking to other women with ADHD and found her community. Now, she sees how ADHD shows up in her children, and she’s getting them the support they need — earlier than she got it.

Katy is an ADHD advocate and coach and the host of the Women & ADHD podcast. Katy had Laura on her podcast, and now it’s Katy’s turn in the hot seat!

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Episode transcript

Katy: I was really struggling and complaining to my therapist about how I felt like I was in suspended animation all the time. I had all these ideas but didn't have the ability to do any of them because I felt like I was literally just sitting on the couch with my phone in hand, not knowing the next time I was going to be interrupted. And that was like the first time I had ever even heard of the term executive functioning.

Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood. And as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.

Laura: I'm here today with Katy Weber. Katy is an ADHD advocating coach, founder of Women & ADHD, LLC, and host of the "Women & ADHD" podcast. Oh, my gosh, where to start, Katy? Where to start? Well, we've been here before. Katy and I got to chat on her show — just fabulous, I recommend everybody check that out — but I'm so excited to have Katy here with me today to answer all of my questions about her story and her "aha" moment. So, welcome, Katy.

Katy: Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm excited to get a chance to sit down and chat with you again.

Laura: I like to start off in with my guest by just asking: when were you diagnosed with ADHD and what was happening in your life at that point?

Katy: Yes. So, I am what I like to call a pandemic diagnosis. I was officially diagnosed in November of 2020, but I think my own kind of self-diagnosis journey really started fairly soon after lockdown when I was really struggling and complaining to my therapist about how I felt like I was in suspended animation all the time. My kids were home, and my husband was home and I just couldn't get anything done because I was just like waiting for the next catastrophe to happen around remote learning and Wi-Fi and Zoom and like all of these things. And then the next thing I know, my kids needed to eat again. And it just felt like I was suddenly this, like many mothers during that time, I was like a full-time butler and chef and housekeeper, and yet at the same time, you know, we all had this heightened anxiety, and I just felt like I was doomscrolling all the time and we couldn't go anywhere. And it was just such a difficult time for so many of us.

When I was describing this to my therapist, we really kind of zeroed in on the inability to do anything right and that kind of waiting mode where I felt like I had all of this unstructured time and no ability to really feel like I was accomplishing anything. My therapist, who was diagnosed with ADHD years ago after her middle schooler was diagnosed, she'd been gently kind of suggesting I look into it over the years, and I was very dismissive and was like, "I don't know what you're talking about." I had all these stereotypes about it being a hyperactive little boy, and I was like, kind of offended. I was like, "Do you really feel like I am an immature, petulant child?" I think it was...

Laura: I'm sorry.

Katy: ...right? Like, I was totally offended. I was like, "What do you talk... ADHD?" I just didn't relate to it on any level and really didn't take the time to think about what connection she was making in our conversations. And then after lockdown, she was like, "Dude, like, really look into what this looks like, especially it and how it manifests in women." And that's why I remember like I had taken an online ADHD test, a generic one for adults, and there were some things that I kind of related to. But a lot of those DSM questions like, "Do you feel like you're run by a motor?" I was like, "I don't know what that even means, I guess? Don't we all? Like, what do even is that?" And so, I scored kind of moderately but didn't really think much about it.

And then it was when I took the one specifically for women through ADDitude Magazine, the one written by Sari Solden, where it was like wasn't talking about fidget spinners and the need to move, right? Like it was talking about core shame around clutter and, you know, questions like, "Do you hate when people show up unannounced?" You know, it really sort of got to a lot of the social and emotional elements of ADHD that had just never occurred to me. And that's when I was hit with that realization — many of us are — where I was like, "Oh, OK, I, all right, I see where this is." And that's, so that was kind of like, yeah, the spring or summer of 2020.

Laura: Which ADHD symptoms do you think you were struggling with the most during the pandemic? Walk me through a typical day and like maybe point out the symptoms that you experienced throughout that day, during that time.

Katy: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think it was I mean, we... it's often called like waiting mode. I feel like I hear it called that or even I think it's an element of time blindness where I just feel like I can't start something if I know that there's an appointment looming, if I have a doctor's appointment at 1 p.m., I can't do anything leading up to that. And I didn't realize that was a focus issue or an anxiety issue. It was just sort of something I never thought much about. I think what was going on during the time of the early pandemic and lockdown was I had all of this internalized hyperactivity of like, "Oh my goodness, I have this all this time, and to myself, right?" And all these people are like baking bread. And, you know, you see all these projects, people like doing all of these home projects at the time and everybody was doing all these things. And I had that impulse, right? Like I had all these ideas. I was like, "This is a great time to invest in my business and start a new one."

And this is like, you know, I had all these ideas but didn't have the ability to do any of them because I felt like I was literally just sitting on the couch with my phone in hand, not knowing the next time I was going to be interrupted. And that was like the first time I had ever even heard of the term executive functioning. Like, I never heard that term before I was diagnosed and realizing how executive functioning plays into the sort of decision-making or kind of knowing what your next step is. So, I felt like there was this divide between all these thoughts and ideas percolating in my mind, but also feeling like I was ending each day, having accomplished virtually nothing.

Laura: I feel slightly relieved that I'm not the only person who struggles with the "Oh, something's about to happen and like an hour. So, I can't focus on anything else up until that moment." It happened to me yesterday. My daughter was going to have a playdate and I was waiting for her friend to show up. And so, an hour before her friend showed up, I started to get super anxious, and I had all these things that I wanted to do. But I was I was kind of like creepily waiting by the doorway before I needed to. And I just I was struggling so much, just waiting for this event to start so that I could start my next event. I've never heard anyone else explain it like that. So, thank you.

Katy: Well, I remember also, too, another wonderful thing about ADHD is, with time blindness, was like I had this moment of realization when I was sitting down, I had to pick my kids up from school — I had to pick them up at three — and so around 2 o'clock, I kind of started in waiting mode where I was sitting around just parsing on my phone because I was like, "I don't want to start anything because I'm going to have to leave in an hour." And then literally 5 minutes before I had to leave, I had my coat on and one shoe and I saw some dog food on the kitchen floor or something, and I started sweeping and mopping the kitchen floor 5 minutes before I had to leave because I just decided it had to be done right then. So, I ended up being late to pick up my kids.

And even though I had literally done nothing for an hour, up until 5 minutes before and I just I was like, I thought in my head, this is something I could easily do in 5 minutes. And I think that's another thing that a lot of us struggle with, which is like, how long will that task take us? And so, I have those moments where I'll sit around for an hour doing nothing, but then we'll be late, because I thought it would only take me 5 minutes to completely reorganize my kitchen cabinets.

Laura: Do you feel like now that you have a better understanding personally of what that being run by a motor phrase means?

Katy: I mean, yes and no. I guess I still don't. I mean, I use that example because I still don't really understand what that means. But I think a lot of it sometimes comes down to this idea that many of us, when we're diagnosed in adulthood, don't realize that not everybody thinks this way or operates this way. Right. And so, this term, do you feel like you're run by a motor? I was like, who? Everybody feels that way. Like, I just felt like that was, like, akin to asking me if I breathe the oxygen. Like, it's like, yeah, right? My heart beats.

And so, I think, you know, a lot of us women, especially we don't relate to the hyperactivity element of ADHD. Even if you talk about internalized hyperactivity because racing thoughts, you know, three songs playing in your head at all times, rereading paragraphs or having 18 tabs open on your computer. Like all of those things that are examples of internalized hyperactivity, I think many of us are just like, "Wait, that's not universal?" And so, a lot of the diagnosis is really sort of sorting through like understanding like, "Oh, I didn't, I genuinely didn't realize everybody isn't like this."

Laura:Looking back on when you were a kid, I know, you know, it still happens today, obviously, but especially back in the day, so many girls with ADHD were overlooked because they didn't fit into that externalized hyperactivity mold. Can you tell me a little bit about whatever you may remember about ADHD symptoms growing up?

Katy: Oh, gosh, yeah. How much time do you have? Yeah. You know, I think one of my first realizations with my daughter when she was doing a project in the third grade, and it was on Singapore and it was a country project and she had all this fun doing all this research. We were gathering all this information, we were gathering, you know, souvenirs that we had gotten from being there, and she had everything kind of together. And we had this giant blank, white trifold billboard that we had to put information on for this project. And she just was like, couldn't figure out where to start. She just had all of this difficulty organizing all the information in terms of like, where do I even begin?

And I remember looking at her and being like, "I had that exact problem." I didn't know what it was. This was years ago, long before my ADHD diagnosis. But I remember thinking to myself at that moment where I was like, "Yeah, I feel like I may have had an undiagnosed learning disorder. Like, what if it's that inability to organize information?" Like, I didn't know what that was. And that was something that I remember occurring to me. I was in the gifted program from third grade on. And I think that's where my difficult relationship with academia really started because that was the first time when I look back at my report cards, once I was in the gifted program, it was the first time my teacher started talking about potential as a term in terms of like, "I have a lot of it and I'm not reaching it, and I'm not doing whatever I need to do to reach my potential."

And this, again, this divide between what they saw in me versus what I was accomplishing, and that, I think kind of stayed throughout in my report cards in school, which was like, "She's bright, but she's not applying herself" or "She's too easily distracted in groups" or like it was just constantly this "She's something nice and positive" followed by but and then all of these negatives and I looked back — I remember the first time I looked back at my report cards, thankfully, my mom kept them all and I actually had access to them, which I think is hilarious because I don't even know where my kid's report cards are. But I remember like reading over them and just crying over this like, progression of this little girl who in kindergarten and first grade was like the teachers were like, "She's a born leader and she's so enthusiastic and loves to participate."

And then seeing over the years just this constant, like pulling back in terms of my own confidence to the point that I think by high school I just really gave up. I just thought, "I'm waiting for somebody to kick me out of this gifted program. I fooled everybody. I somehow, I fooled their aptitude tests, I'm clearly not very smart." And then by high school, you could see like, I just had truancy issues. I just stopped going. I skipped, I partied with my friends, like I was doing anything but studying because I just felt like I was very confused. Like I just didn't understand why everybody said I wasn't trying hard when I felt like I was trying very hard.

And I remember my parents saying, "You don't apply yourself because you're worried if you did and you fail, that that would say more than not trying" or something like that. Right? Like that idea of "This is probably why you don't apply yourself because it's, maybe you're afraid that if you did apply yourself and you didn't do well, that that would say something about who you were." But I was like, "I feel like I'm applying myself."

Laura: Yeah. Don't you just love when people say "This is why you're not applying yourself," right? "Let me tell you what you're thinking," right? Yeah, right. Oh dear.

Katy: Yeah. And so, I saw a lot of that and I think that was really — when I was first diagnosed — so much of that grief when looking back over your life, was centered toward that young girl who like gave up on herself in a lot of ways.

Laura: Wow. Yeah, that comes up a lot, especially with women on this show, that grief looking back and that's part of my own story as well. Do you remember what grade or age you were when you started to notice those comments about not living up to your potential, quote-unquote, on your report cards? Like, when did that start to surface?

Katy: It really started around the third grade. I think it escalated in middle school like it does for a lot of women, when it was kids, when there was more structure...

Laura: Yeah, more organization. Yeah.

Katy: ...and more expectation of independence where it went to, there were comments that my grades are slipping and that I need to study harder. This idea that like disappointing results, if you had studied harder, you would have done better. And me thinking, "I don't even really know how to do it, how to study harder." I don't want to make it sound like I was studying every night because I certainly wasn't. But I think it was like feeling like I really didn't understand what "study harder " even meant. And just feeling really lost about what I needed to do.

Laura: Actually writing that down. Because that's something I want to keep in mind with my own child. "What does study harder even mean?" I mean, so you guys get to watch like this is how I remember things.

Katy: Semantics matter, right?

Laura: Yeah.

Katy: Yeah, exactly.

Laura: What do you think would have helped you, looking back? What would have helped you with living — I'm going to use the phrase that, is the phrase we don't like — living up to your potential?

Katy: I mean, one of the things I noticed when I started interviewing women for through the podcast because I think the vast majority of the women who I interviewed did quite well in school, right? I feel like that it's more common for women who are diagnosed in adulthood to have done really well in school and kind of white knuckled it through there, through school, and then to have not have struggled that much, but really kind of doing things last minute and pulling it together.

Laura: Yeah, that's me.

Katy: Right? Yeah, I remember.

Laura: Yeah.

Katy: I feel like one thing I've noticed from interviewing so many women is that the women who were diagnosed with another learning disorder in school at a young age, like dyslexia or dysgraphia or dyscalculia, it was like established at a very young age that they had this learning disorder and so that they needed help, they needed accommodations. And there was nothing wrong with them, right? This sort of narrative of "There's nothing wrong. Like, you just need help. You think differently, you learn differently."

And I feel like for those of us who received no diagnoses, there was this idea that like you were the problem, right? That you just weren't trying hard enough. You weren't, there was something you needed to figure out on your own in order to do better, as opposed to looking outside for help. And it was, I sort of feel like there's this divide in terms of how that affects your self-concept, right? Aging into adulthood in terms of depression and anxiety around this idea of "I have to figure this out. There's something wrong with me," as opposed to "I need whatever tools I need to succeed "

Laura: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Katy: So, I guess in answer to your question, I feel like a diagnosis of something would have been helpful. But I think really understanding or having been taught at a younger age that I, it wasn't my problem, that this was something I needed help with.

Laura: Right. It's like you weren't doing poorly enough to get the help that you needed, right? That's a real problem. I mean, you mentioned white-knuckling it through. There are so many kids, boys and girls, who are doing that right now and they're just getting their C's and they're fine, but they could be getting A's if they had the supports that they needed. You have two kids, is that right?

Katy: Yeah, I have a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son.

Laura: Now, when you got diagnosed with ADHD, they had not been diagnosed with ADHD. Is that right?

Katy: Yeah. Most of, you know, so many women I interview were diagnosed after their kids were, right? And I think it's quite common with adult diagnoses, especially in moms. But neither of my kids were diagnosed. And so, when I was diagnosed, I immediately saw ADHD in my son, I mean, I feel like he and I were I've always felt like he and I were cut from the same cloth in many ways, especially with school and reading comprehension and that kind of stuff. So, I immediately was like, "He has ADHD and you know, I had to get my husband on board because that took a lot.

My husband was very, very uncomfortable with, he was like, "Sure, whatever you can get diagnosed, it's fine." But what I actually started suggesting that maybe our kids had it, a lot of the stereotypes and the stigma really kind of came up and we had to deal with a lot of that. But my daughter, I'd never would have thought she had ADHD, as she does really well in school because again, in my mind, ADHD meant difficulty in school and that was sort of a fundamental characteristic, right? And so, it wasn't until I started interviewing countless women for the podcast where I was hearing the same story over and over again of doing really well in school but having this anxiety building up around perfectionism and performance and being the good girl that I was like "Oh, yeah, that explains my daughter perfectly."

And it wasn't until she went into high school and went back to in-person learning that her anxiety had gotten to the point where I was like, "Yeah, there's it's undeniable at this point." So, I had them both assessed. We did the full psych assessment over the summer, and...

Laura: Oh, they both did it at the same time?

Katy: They both did at the same time, and they both were diagnosed with ADHD and generalized anxiety.

Laura: Wow. It's weird because I wanna be like "Yay! congratulations," but truly though, yay! for you for getting them the support that they need earlier than you received it yourself.

Katy: Well, yeah, absolutely, right? And I just have such gratitude for seeing all of these different sides of how neurodivergency manifests, right? And I just feel so grateful for having developed the ability to see this. And also, just like a language as a parent on what did we need and what are some of the things we can do for you and how to communicate with their teachers. Because their teachers are seeing kids who do really well in school and aren't a problem and aren't an issue, and they don't see signs of ADHD in either of my kids. And, you know, if I bring up ADHD, they're like, "I don't know what you're talking about. They're fine."

Laura: What do you say in those conversations to help them understand?

Katy: Well, one of the examples I love to give to teachers with my son is, my son will never ask for clarification because he doesn't want, A: he's worried that he's going to look stupid. And B: he's worried that the teacher already said it and he wasn't listening. He was being inattentive, as he often is, and he's worried that he'll get in trouble because he was like, "Maybe she said it and I wasn't listening."

So, he'll never ask for clarification. And it gets him into trouble because there's times where he sort of has to guess on a test and if he guesses wrong, you know, then we have this conversation around where I'm like, "Look, the teacher is there to help you." And he's like, "No, I can't raise my hand," you know. So, I try to explain to the teachers what anxiety looks like when a kid is just sitting still, being well-behaved, you know, like what's happening behind the scenes. And they're seeing a very different kid. They see a little boy who is well-behaved and seems to be paying attention and is staring straight ahead. And then the minute he gets through the front door, he burst into tears because he's like been holding it together all day. Yeah. And so, just letting them know that there's more happening.

Laura: So, during the pandemic, when you were in this suspended animation and starting to realize things about yourself and your ADHD symptoms and then eventually talk to your therapist, when did "Women & ADHD" launch?

Katy: So, the podcast launched in December of 2020. And it's funny because I started interviewing women in the very beginning before I was even diagnosed officially, and there was this part of me, that part in the back of my mind where I was like, "What am I going to do if I'm like not like diagnosed with ADHD? Like, because I just knew, I mean, I just knew viscerally that it was ADHD. But I still, I launched the podcast, like technically before I was officially diagnosed.

Laura: Wow. So, tell listeners more about what you do in addition to the "Women & ADHD" podcast.

Katy: Well, so I was meeting all of these incredible women after I started the podcast and realizing the conversations I was having felt kind of integral to my own treatment plan in terms of, you know, gathering information and understanding why we are the way we are, what's going on. Really understanding that like treating ADHD isn't just going to the doctor and getting a prescription for medication — I mean, it's huge. It's very helpful — but I also feel like there's so much more we're kind of left adrift to figure out what even ADHD is.

And so, I was realizing through the podcast that I was meeting all these phenomenal women and like fighting each other felt really important, like it felt like it was a big deal. And I just like, my view of myself as a wife, as a parent, as a human being, was changing so dramatically that I wanted to create a community so that all of these women could meet each other. And so, that was when I created the "Women & ADHD." I, you know, created an LLC and sort of started this online community where everybody could get together and gather. But, you know, given the fact that we all have ADHD, it's sort of like herding cats a lot of the time, getting us all together.

Laura: Listeners, you're lucky that we're doing this right now. We made it, yeah.

Katy: Right? But I think understanding that that impulse is there, that not only is finding each other is such a wonderful part of reducing shame around some ADHD behaviors, but also feeling a lot of validation, realizing that we might not be the only person struggling with these things and finding out the why. So, I wanted to create this community. So, I created WomenandADHD.com and the URL was available, and I was like, "Awesome, this is great." So, I created this online community.

Laura: Katy, you beat me to it, damn it. Yeah.

Katy: Well, I always say this on the podcast, like, one of the best decisions I ever made was to call the podcast "Women & ADHD" because that is literally what I typed in a podcast platform when I was diagnosed. So, I wanted it to be something found because I didn't have a platform, I didn't have an audience or anything.

Laura: SEO, baby.

Katy: Right? I know.

Laura: You gotta think about it.

Katy: That's my journalist background.

Laura: Are there doubters ever who are like, "What? A podcast about ADHD?" or like, "What's the big deal? What is there to talk about over and over again?" Obviously, this is coming from a place of experience. So, I've fielded questions like these and I'm maybe I'm asking for advice, you know, for a friend. How do you respond to that?

Katy: I feel like I'm very good at putting up boundaries around unsolicited comments for myself because I have a tendency to ruminate over them for months at a time. And so, every once a while when I do get a negative review for the podcast, it's usually about the fact that I won't shut up and that we're all just whining too much. That seems to be the comment, the negative comment I've gotten. I mean, I certainly feel like there are a lot of comments about like "Everybody experiences this. This isn't ADHD, this is just life."

And I think that's the one I have the most difficulty answering or dealing with because it's really hard to articulate. And I think that's a question I ask a lot on the podcast and a lot of conversations that we as women have, which is like, "How much am I struggling? Am I just being lazy? Is this just an excuse?" I think it's really difficult to sort of draw a line in the sand around the difficulty between, you know, chronic, lifelong struggles that impede in your life to a significant degree versus like "Everybody loses their keys. Ha, ha."

Laura: You took that to the place where I was kind of coming from, which is, it's not that I'm getting reviews or emails about like, "Why this show? What the heck are you doing or anything?" Like, nothing like that. In fact, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, but maybe it's just that voice in my head and like the occasional out in the ether, or like overhearing someone at a restaurant complaining about this ADHD excuse kind of thing. And like, how serious is it really?

And I find as talking to people over and over again that through throughline comes through, like in the actual conversations of, "Oh yeah, this is a really big deal. There's this thread throughout your life that caused all this difficulty, and here we are talking about it." But it's hard. It's kind of ephemeral, those moments, right? It's hard to hold on to them to explain to folks.

Katy: Oh, absolutely. It is. The self-doubting kind of internal, ableist voice is loud in myself included. Even after living and breathing ADHD for two years, I still will be in the middle of an interview and I'll be like, "What even is ADHD? What are we even talking about?" You know, I'll just get like so frustrated at all of the unknowns around it. I'm like, "Is this really the explanation for everything in my life?" Because sometimes it feels like it and it does seem like so many inexplicable random struggles that I've had over the course of my entire life really do kind of come back to this one diagnosis in a way that just feels so like I just feel so profoundly seen by this diagnosis and by these conversations and by this community that that's what I have faith in.

I don't know at the end of the day, what the DSM is going to talk about next or what really is the ultimate definition of ADHD. Like, for me, it's about the fact that any time we talk about the similarities, the pull, the reaction is just so like elemental, right? So visceral in a way that I've never had that reaction to anything else, and certainly not to depression or anxiety, which is sort of were always those diagnoses where I was like, "Ah, didn't fit, whereas ADHD fits like a glove."

Laura: Katy, thank you so much for being on the show today. And for everyone out there, her show is "Women & ADHD" and it's really fantastic. I recommend that you check it out. Thank you so much, Katy.

Katy: Oh, thanks for having me.

Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at Understood.org/mission. "ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine!

Jessamine: Hi everyone.

Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

 

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