Ty Pennington Opens Up About Life With ADHD — and His 'Secret Ingredient' to Happiness

The Trading Spaces star is one of many celebrities featured in the new ADHD documentary The Disruptors

Ty Pennington visits the SiriusXM Studios on May 15, 2019 in New York City.
Photo: Noam Galai/Getty

Ty Pennington is finally feeling comfortable — in his identity, his work and with his mental health.

The HGTV star, 57, spoke with PEOPLE ahead of the release of The Disruptors on Thursday, a documentary exploring the reality of ADHD, attention-deficit and hyper-activity disorder.

The film highlights expert opinions, shares the experiences of everyday families, and gives a platform to several of Hollywood's most-known faces who all struggle with ADHD. Pennington is featured alongside stars like Paris Hilton, Howie Mandel and retired astronaut Scott Kelly, all of whom share a common diagnosis: ADHD.

Pennington, who wasn't diagnosed with ADHD until college, called life as a young kid "frustrating." He recalls spending most of his class time in the hallway, because the classroom was a place where he "exploded with disruption." His inability to focus made him miss out on "entire education," he told PEOPLE.

When he finally received a diagnosis, the Trading Spaces star said it was like a "new lens" had been put on his brain.

"It was a game changer for me because it really did open my mind to the fact that maybe there was something wrong with me," he told PEOPLE. "I'm now seeing life in a different way, because I didn't fail at everything (anymore)."

He went from spending time in the hallway during class and on the bench during sports games to succeeding in school and "scoring hat tricks." "It changed everything," he told PEOPLE.

Where Pennington struggled with confidence due to his struggles in school — "You're getting phone calls from your teacher saying like, we can tell he's intelligent, we can tell he's with it, he's just not completing the tasks," — an ADHD diagnosis gave him the newfound awareness to find his own niche.

"Every person out there with ADHD has a hidden talent that they must find, because it's the confidence that you can gain from that [discovery] that's life changing."

The carpenter found his hidden talent in the creative process. He knows there's some irony there: as a hyperactive person who can easily be distracted, he's "the last person you'd want using a power tool," and yet that's been his job for nearly four decades.

Yamalis Diaz, a professor of Child Psychiatry at New York University, said in The Disruptors that oftentimes, adults with ADHD pursue "really creative fields." Michael Phelps, Justin Bieber, Adam Levine and Simone Biles were all highlighted as examples of people exploring their creativity as an outlet for hyperactivity.

The Disruptors producer Nancy Armstrong calls ADHD one of the "most widely misunderstood neurological traits" in the world. "It is simultaneously a major public health issue as well as one of the most powerful engines of creativity and innovation for the world," she said.

Pennington said the creative process is what "calms" him. It just so happens that his creative process tends to be filmed and televised, making it "pure chaos." It's a good thing that's also right up his alley. "I love chaos," he said with a chuckle, but promises there is still a sense of calm in it for him, just off camera.

Extreme Makeover; actor Ty Pennington
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty

The Georgia native first appeared on television in 2000 on the TLC hit Trading Spaces, which pitted neighbors against each other to see who could perform the most impressive revamp of a single room in a 48-hour span. He was later pegged to be the host of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where he and a team of designers demolished and rebuilt houses nationwide while families went on a vacation — most frequently to Disney World. Pennington earned two Primetime Emmy Awards for his role as host of Extreme before its cancellation in 2012.

The experience on both shows launched Pennington from an aspiring carpenter into a household name. It also gave him confidence in his work.

"I've learned over time to not try so hard," he told PEOPLE. "For Trading Spaces, I was trying to let everybody know how creative I was. For Extreme, I got more than I ever wanted."

Now, he's moving away from the chaos of television and focusing more on having fun. He says he can do television "blindfolded" at this point, and wants to use his years of experience to help advise and guide other aspiring artists and designers.

His role on TV is now more in the realm of "seasoned artist-designer," he said, and his next project, the second season of HGTV's Battle on the Beach, airs in June, and features Pennington in the host role once again.

He says his "calm and happiness" comes from just having a project. It's the "secret ingredient" to his happiness — and he can accept it now. "I know I'm the person who's always gonna have four different projects going on."

He's just starting to learn that he no longer needs to prove his worth creatively in the same way he once did. He's focusing on off-camera endeavors now, like a "big build" in Atlanta, and a revamp of his and his wife's Kellee Merrell's Savannah, Georgia home.

"I can't believe my 15 minutes of fame has turned into 15-20 years. I think I'm incredibly lucky."

The Disruptors is now available on Apple TV, Vudu TVOD and Google Play.

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