Working and Surviving with ADHD
One woman shares her journey.
In this column, Sarah, a career coach, reflects on her experience with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in the workplace and explains when she’s told bosses and colleagues.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told I have a lot of energy. As a kid, I was often punished for it, with teachers giving me detention and warning me that I’d never amount to much. As an adult, people have jokingly asked what drug I’m on and where they can get some.
The reality is, I have acute attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s not something many of my colleagues know about, and it’s certainly not something I’ve ever broadcast in any job. While it’s estimated that more than 9 million people in the United States have it, ADHD, like so many things, carries a stigma that’s hard to overcome. There are actually huge strengths in having ADHD—I’ve got a superfast processing speed, I’m a nonstop problem solver, and my resilience is off the scale—but they mean nothing when they’re coupled with common misconceptions about neurodiversity. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or overlook me for opportunities.
I’m very selective about whom I talk to about it, and I only do so on a one-on-one, need-to-know basis. In a previous job, I told my boss out of a sense of duty—I was switching my medication dosage and was scared that I’d have side effects that would impact my work. Looking back, I don’t know if I’d do that again, as my performance didn’t end up being affected and I was self-conscious about having revealed that information. Now, I typically only tell people when I feel they need some context.
One of the lesser known aspects of ADHD is hyperfocus, which means if you ask me a question, I will get total tunnel vision (I’ve been called a “dog with a bone” on many occasions). Being hyperfocused means I tend to stick with a problem until it’s solved, which can make seem a little intense. In these situations I might share a bit about my ADHD, using humor wherever possible. Just the other day I felt I was a little too focused on brainstorming ideas, so I gave my coworker the context and made a joke about my “popcorn brain.” I find that if I can show that I’m in control of it, I can make it less of an issue.
I know myself well and have been strategic about playing to my strengths, but I also know where I’m weak. I’ve developed coping mechanisms to deal with my weaknesses, maybe in part so I don’t have to talk about being “different.” In my current job, I work from home, where I’m not distracted by people passing my desk or by sound all around me. I also carry headphones wherever I go, which helps limit outside noise as well as the constant processing going on in my brain. I’m super organized, not because it came natural for me but because I recognized I had to be in order to perform. If I weren’t able to come up with effective work-arounds on my own, I might consider sharing my condition with a boss I trust who could help come up with accommodations or adaptations that would help me be more effective.
Sometimes I’ve shared my ADHD when I’m getting vulnerable with peers. It’s this idea of “Hey, you bared your soul, I’ll bare mine.” Offering my colleagues a nonjudgmental, confidential space is hugely important to me—maybe because I understand how rare it is to have that.
When you have severe ADHD, there are often two paths: you either semi-give up, worn down by years of being told you’ll amount to nothing, or you turn it around, achieving obsessively and consistently no matter how tough the challenge. I’m happy I am the way that I am, although it took me a long time to get there. What I’ve realized along the way is that the decision to disclose a personal matter is entirely up to the individual. It’s about knowing yourself, weighing the possible outcomes, and making a decision that feels right to you. Whatever you do, try to look for the silver lining—it’s almost always there, somewhere.