For most of my career, I worked exceptionally hard to excel in a job I was never meant to be good at. But it wasn’t until I finally received my ADHD diagnosis at age 28 that I learned why.
For those who are less familiar with what working with ADHD actually feels like, here’s a primer. Being good at time management, shifting priorities, and keeping organized in a fast-paced environment—the broad, yet desired traits for candidates in most roles on the job market, especially entry-level ones—are the exact qualities that people with ADHD don’t usually have. In Driven to Distraction Edward Hallowell, an MD and psychologist who also has ADHD, describes it as “having the brain of a Ferrari with the brakes of a bicycle.” Navigating the inability to stay on task, as well as challenges with working memory, and regulating emotions when things inevitably go wrong make ADHD adulthood very choppy waters. And while I didn’t know I had ADHD until quite recently, I can now see it’s effects clearly shaping my whole adult life.
A few years after college I zig-zagged—in typical ADHD-fashion—into what I thought was my dream job. I was a coordinator on the marketing team of the edgiest, and most innovative media company. Working at this company came with a lot of cachet, but the role required an expected mastery of the exact skills that are challenging for someone with ADHD. The endless stream of cool projects required meticulous administrative work behind the chaotic scenes. I tried my absolute best to build and track budgets, plan events, maintain spreadsheet after spreadsheet after spreadsheet, all while I kept myself organized and responded to hundreds of incoming emails. Every day felt like making a 5 course-dinner under irrational time constraints with a hot plate and a toothpick. As you can imagine, my success wasn’t very consistent.
Overwhelmed, and completely overloaded with stimuli every time I walked into our Brooklyn warehouse (which also doubled as a production hub), I ended up telling my doctor about my struggles at a regular check-up. She suspected ADHD and had me trial stimulant medication, which increases the activity of dopamine and norepinephrine (adrenaline)—brain chemicals that people with ADHD are lower in—to help with attention and emotional regulation. The medication helped keep me organized and on track, but overtime expectations got higher as projects piled on and I was put on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan) about a year and a half into the role for not consistently meeting expectations. The whole process with HR felt incredibly awkward and shameful—taking me back to the 7th grade where, despite my best efforts, I had completely failed an exam because I forgot to put my name at the top of it.
With the help of counseling and the support of my manager, I underwent a tailored bootcamp in time management and organization. These skills develop over time for people with neurotypical brains, but ADHD-ers have to learn how to manipulate their pokey reward-response centers in order to make time management and organizing happen. With my unrelenting will to please, and fear of getting fired (fear is a huge motivator for people with ADHD) I was given daily and weekly feedback on what I did well (positive feedback is another huge motivator). After taking a time management workshop, I asked my manager for a deadline on every project, even ones that weren’t time sensitive, so I was always held accountable for getting it done. While the entire process felt incredibly embarrassing, I’m grateful it happened. I developed time management and organizational skills I wouldn’t otherwise have. And thanks to neuroplasticity, the rewiring of the neural networks in the brain through growth and reorganization, those skills remain with me to this day.
Despite making it through the PIP, I still felt myself drifting. By 2018 budgets at the media company were cut, departments restructured, and my feelings of job security and sense of purpose unraveled. I found myself reminiscing about the Creative Writing classes in college that I thrived in and regretting not having explored a potentially lucrative writing career in copywriting or brand strategy. I later found out that ADHD-ers thrive in this kind of creative work—as it is stimulating, digestible, and requires a lot of ruminating. We are big thinkers who are wonderful at turning random accidents into productive victories.
But that dream was still far away. To build out my portfolio, I began freelancing for industry friends and contacts. Under the wing of my department’s Creative Director at the media company I also took on several writing projects internally. Months then years went by of this incredibly slow and frustrating work to pivot my career. Job prospects would present themselves and ultimately fall through. Unable to regulate my emotions, I became very depressed and existing issues with drinking and substance abuse spiraled out of control. From previous patterns of where my undiagnosed ADHD took me, I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t destined to fail.
I was officially diagnosed with ADHD 2019, when I was 28 years old and decided to get sober. I paid $3700 out-of-pocket for a thorough 8-hour evaluation conducted by a neuropsychologist who was thoroughly vetted by my therapist and psychiatrist. (Fun fact: most insurances will only cover the cost of the stimulant medication, and not the evaluation, which is a vital part of a responsible diagnosis as stimulants are a controlled substance with high abuse potential.) After this evaluation, the results were clear—several patterns pointed to ADHD, giving context to the issues I struggled with up until this point. While a diagnosis was liberating, it also validated my shortcomings which engendered a lot of negative self-talk I still work hard to keep at bay. On a positive note, the diagnosis fueled taking sobriety very seriously—as I also learned that about 25 percent of adults who are treated for alcohol and substance abuse also have ADHD.
In January 2021, a year and a half after the diagnosis, I felt my meds begin to carry a lot of emotional weight as they became part of who I was when I was trying to operate inauthentically and I was now in a very different place. Then the pandemic hit, as did working from home, which for the most part is TERRIBLE for people with ADHD. There are no environmental cues guiding your brain to focus—just your own crumbling will. I had thought about weaning off my medication for a while, and with one year of sobriety under my belt and the comfort of being able to undergo stimulant-withdrawal at home, I knew it was time.
Though it had been over three years since the PIP, I was still dissatisfied working in a career that my brain wasn’t hungry for. I developed a spiritual practice through sobriety, and thought if I opened myself up to being the most authentic version of me, the right job might come along. So, after a very slow taper and a withdrawal-induced panic attack-turned-stint in the psych ER, I got down to the lowest possible dose. I then began working with a health coach who specialized in ADHD to get off my meds completely. The first day I began working with her, I got a random call from a friend at a design-studio I had interviewed with in the past. They were hiring writers interested in interviewing me again. As they teach us in AA, it was a moment where I felt my higher power at work.
A month after that phone call, I was just beginning to live medication-free and started my first day on the new job as a copywriter and strategist at a branding and design studio. In contrast to my time at the media company, I know now that this is my true dream job. In Delivered from Distraction, another book on ADHD by Howell, he lists connecting your energy to a creative outlet as a successful habit of ADHD adults. I’m paid to be creative, and do work that I care about—95% of my job is tinkering with sentences and thinking about words. The stakes are much higher because projects are client-focused—meaning the consequences of not doing the work are very grave, activating the reward-response center of the brain and firing off adrenaline. I get no emails, and a couple of my coworkers also have ADHD and are also thriving. The work environment is a completely supportive culture where everyone is on the same team, and play is encouraged where time permits.
Operating stimulant-free is a full-time job on its own. I keep a strict sleep schedule—8.5 hours a night is ideal. I practice transcendental meditation twice a day for 25 minutes. I exercise regularly and focus on exercises that train my body and my mind simultaneously—like dance cardio, pilates, or tennis. I take fish oil, rhodiola, lion’s mane, and gingko biloba daily to help support my focus. I work on coping strategies in weekly sessions with my therapist and am on Prozac to stabilize my mood. Despite all this effort I still have my days—a lot of days—where my brain just isn’t doing what I need it to. On those days I could wonder how things might have been different if I was diagnosed earlier. Would I be farther along in my career had I gone down the right path sooner? Would the alcohol and substance abuse have gotten as bad as it did? But, ultimately, as is life with ADHD, there’s a beautiful serendipity to how things have occurred. And now, after getting what I thought was my dream job and now my true dream job, I’m at the beginning of a journey to a full and happy life of self-awareness, reflection, and accountability beyond my actual wildest dreams.