How Undiagnosed ADHD Impacted Work

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I work in public education. I was a teacher for nine years and I’ve been a school administrator (principal or assistant principal) for the last five. Most of the work impacts I share will be from my experiences in that realm, though the struggles I faced I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to regardless of the field you work in yourself.

Disorganization

Similar to home, my classroom and my offices have all shared the common problem of ‘piles instead of files.’ Whether it is the never-ending stack of papers to grade or the endless forms that make their way onto my desk, I always feel inundated with so much paper that I can barely think straight.

Deadlines

The ADHD brain typically sorts everything into mental piles of “now” and “not now.” For me this translates into a lot of procrastination as I wait for whatever the project is to come close to due. The only thing that really flips something onto the “now” side is if the deadline actually has consequences attached. There are some hard deadlines in education. There are many more soft deadlines, the ones that have no consequences when you break them. Once you learn that there’s a soft deadline, well, that project just got put back onto “not now.” I’ve had many projects assigned in September or October get pushed all the way to June that way, much to the chagrin of my supervisors.

Poor short term memory

This one hits pretty hard. There are so many conversations that happen on the fly in break rooms and hallways, and even regular meetings that I just happen to walk into. And people are always asking me to help with things. In my current position as a principal, it’s a huge part of the job. Ultimately, I am a support staff member who helps make sure everything in the school runs as it should. But when those promises are made on the fly, I typically forget them before I am ten feet away. I have unintentionally broken so many promises over the years that I’ve no doubt gained a reputation of at best being flaky, and at worst, being a liar.

I can also come across as disconnected and uncaring because I cannot remember names of people I just met. Most of the time I can’t recall a name seconds after it’s been shared with me, even if I’m trying hard. Then I feel awkward about it and even in the “still new” period where I could ask again, I don’t. And then it grows too late and I feel disconnected and intimidated by further connection with that person. Not a great way to build relationships.

Distraction

I don’t have the outward hyperactive symptoms but that certainly doesn’t stop my mind from racing. Whether I’m walking down a hallway or meeting with a person one-on-one, my mind is probably attempting to hop back and forth between a dozen ideas at once. This makes it look like I’m not paying attention, even when I am trying my best. I once attended a meeting where I took three pages of diligent notes and was later accused of not paying attention.

Long meetings do stretch my stamina. I will often have to pull out my fidget or stand up at the back of the room to stretch my legs. All the while my mind is desperately trying to be elsewhere.

“Work Chores”

These are the mundane must-dos of work. When I was teaching this would be grading papers and lesson planning. As an administrator it might be reviewing paperwork, completing observations and evaluations, or setting and reviewing agendas for all the meetings that need to be run. All of these are frequently put off in favor of other tasks that are more interesting or immediately rewarding.

Possibly related to distraction, I struggle reading nonfiction text. Especially when it’s assigned reading. It immediately gets classified a chore and all of a sudden my comprehension level drops to zero and I may spend half an hour trying do read and re-read a single paragraph. Nonfiction texts are frequently used as part of professional development and it’s a constant struggle for me to learn in this manner.

Time Blindness

Many ADHDers struggle with time blindness, which is basically the inability to tell how much time is passing. As a principal I might start a project in my office and inadvertently stay working on it for several hours. Just today I was in my office until nearly 7pm, about 3 hours after every other employee had left the site. I missed dinner and a regularly planned evening activity that starts at 7. This can also take place during the school day, disrupting my effectiveness by keeping me engaged in tasks longer than expected.

This may also account for all of the late arrivals at work. Try as I might, get up as early as I like, arriving on time for work seems all but impossible. It’s not like I’m horribly late, but I typically roll in about 5 minutes later than my own expected start time every day. It seems like there’s always some unaccounted for thing that pops up, one more thing I remember, or some time that I just ‘lose’ somewhere in the morning.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)

If you’re not familiar with RSD, the basic idea is that you perceive rejection, even when it isn’t there. So where there’s disagreement, you may read confrontation. Where there’s a helpful tip for improvement, you may hear criticism. Many ADHDers experience RSD symptoms and it is believed that they are taught through experience: as we have suffered so much rejection throughout our lives, we begin to anticipate it everywhere. So when your boss tells you “we need to meet,” your mind may immediately jump to the worst case scenario. Without multiple points of reassurance, I can very easily feel that my boss is “out to get me” every time she comes by my office.

The high stress that stems from RSD and falling behind at work inevitably leads to more sick days taken. Frequently I’ll find myself in need of a “mental health day” just to get away and do something that feels good, or even to do nothing in particular. Where this can get tricky is if I get into playing a new video game or binge-watching a new series. Then one sick day can easily turn into two or three.

Low Impulse Control

Taking multiple sick days in a row when they’re not *ahem* exactly necessary, could definitely be connected to low impulse control as well. My low impulse control can manifest in several other ways at work too. Sometimes it’s giving into my current fixation and spending time on it when I should be working. Other times it’s the need to throw out a joke or snarky response in meetings. It doesn’t matter how serious the topic of the meeting is, a snarky remark is often the first one to roll off my tongue.

Before my teaching career, I actually quit a job on a whim. My wife and I were working multiple jobs as we neared the end of our college careers, and at one point we both worked in a call center as our second or third job. My wife had a day off and I wanted to have the same one so we could be together. When my request was denied, I handed in my badge and quit on the spot. I haven’t done this with my professional career, though I will admit the thoughts cross my mind from time to time.

It all adds up

I’ve shared a lot of impacts of ADHD on the workplace here. What they add up to is supervisors seeing you as disorganized, lazy, flaky, or just plain not caring about your job. Personally, I have spent my entire professional career feeling like a failure because I could never do the job that my colleagues seemed to be able to. I couldn’t keep up. Oh I could pour hours into an extra-curricular club that I was excited about, but I always felt mediocre about my teaching and have felt even worse as an administrator.

I am on my third job in as many years. My last two employers have cited many of the problems above as reasons why we should part ways. I was never outright fired, but we had those conversations where you’re invited to “read between the lines” and move on. In education, when you start to get that kind of pattern on your resume, it raises red flags to future employers. It says there’s a problem you keep running from. I am the primary source of income in my home, so seeing the huge liability I was becoming for my family financially was one of the driving factors behind me seeking therapy this year. That’s what ultimately led to me learning about ADHD and getting my diagnosis.

So although I’m not glad I had all these struggles, I am glad that I finally saw the need to get help. Because now I know the reason behind all of these issues I’ve faced. I’ve been measuring myself against a bar that I could never reach because my own brain was working against me. Knowing I have ADHD is a huge help, because now I can see what all of these problem areas are. I’ve begun treating ADHD with therapy as well as medication so that I can continue to overcome these issues and finally feel successful at work.

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ADHD Voices: Tanya

Photo courtesy of Tanya Polly

I’d always known I was different. Not in a Peter Parker spidey-senses-tingling kind of way. More like that feeling when you have a cold, your senses are dulled, and you know that you’re not quite hearing everything at full volume. But you’re very aware that everyone else is operating on Dolby Digital surround sound. 

There was the time I told a friend’s mum that I wore tights in summer because they “filtered the warm air” so it was cooler by the time it got to my legs. Or when we had to write about one of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions in a history class and I spent an hour praising how ingenious it was that he had created the world’s first trampoline. He hadn’t. It was a parachute. But my head had seen “cloth stretched apart by wooden poles” and it meant someone could fall from a height “without injury.” Interpreting things slightly oddly has always been my forte. 

Struggling with school

Then there was hitting age 15 and being surrounded by all my classmates studying for mock exams; I just didn’t understand. I knew what I’d been taught, and I wasn’t going to waste hours re-writing all of my schoolwork in the vague hope that I’d remember it all a bit better. 

I’d been a model student until then: I was a real-life Hermione (right down to the precocious corrections of everyone’s grammar) and loved to learn. I devoured books. I was always reading, writing, drawing, crafting. Anything to keep my hands and my mind busy. I just wanted to know everything. I would obsess for weeks or months on a topic. Pirates. Rainforests. Tornadoes. Dinosaurs. Jack the Ripper. I delighted in finding nuggets of trivia to drop into conversation. 

Suddenly, I found myself stifled in a classroom learning dull facts that bore no relation to the technicolour world I learnt about in my encyclopaedias. I didn’t understand. Why was I being expected to learn all of this pointless information? I was bored. My mind wandered. My mum was called in to talk to my head of year about my lack of motivation and enthusiasm. But I was still doing well enough in all my classwork that they weren’t really worried – just a bit concerned that I wasn’t “applying” myself. 

I achieved a straight set of A and A* grades at GCSE. I hadn’t revised for even an hour. And clearly, it would have been a waste of time anyway, to my mind, given my stellar performance. I was excited to start A Levels, anticipating a new challenge, hoping that finally my schoolmates would have caught up to my level of enthusiasm for learning and that the materials we’d be studying would be a little less elementary. 

It took about a week for those hopes to drain away. I felt trapped in a world that was stifling my creativity, stumping out my curiosity. Lessons were a list of boxes to be ticked, stock answers to be memorised. And always, without fail: 
“You just need to apply yourself.” 
“You’re smarter than that.” 
“You have such good ideas, I don’t understand why your written work doesn’t reflect that.” 

I was surrounded by academic, conscientious girls who would sit in silence for an hour whilst I debated Shakespeare’s take on feminism, made jokes in French, questioned the benefits of our voting system. And then they would turn in full-mark essays whilst I could barely concentrate for half an hour when I got home to hit the minimum word counts. I was confused. I felt stranded. I desperately wanted to learn and debate, discuss and engage. My head was full of ideas and questions, but it just felt so pointless having to churn it all out so someone could match it up to a marking guide. 

Theatre was my saving grace. I joined a youth theatre aged 14, and I don’t think I have ever been as happy as I was every Wednesday evening, in the glow of the sconces on the wood-panelled walls, cocooned in the embrace of music and dance. Even now, the nostalgia of those rehearsals fills me at once with warmth and can bring me to tears for how much I crave recapturing that feeling. 

Into adulthood

Fast-forward to last year, and I’m struggling with a relationship that feels like it’s splitting at the seams, a diagnosis of severe anxiety and depression, and medication that feels like it’s doing more harm than good. 

I can’t keep track of time. I forget plans I’ve made. I get told off for constantly interrupting everyone. I feel like an outcast in every job I have, like everyone else was given the handbook for functioning in the workplace but I’ve got to work it out for myself. And it just doesn’t make sense. New friendships with colleagues feel forced. I can’t “just get on with” mundane, boring tasks. I start my day with the best intentions, and well-organised to-do lists and suddenly it’s 5pm and I haven’t done anything on the list. But I’ve been busy all day. Every day. 

I’m regularly describing my mood as “edgy”, “foggy”, “panicked.” Sometimes I’m speaking and it’s like someone else is doing the talking. My dreams are more vivid than ever, and I’m waking up every day exhausted from having already lived out an entire day in my sleep. Sometimes, I’m so hyper that I can’t sit still, my words tumble over themselves and I feel like a wind-up toy, a motor buzzing inside me, unable to think clearly until it’s juddered to a halt. 

And then come the days that I can’t face the world. It’s like there’s a slab of concrete pressing down on me, pinning me to the bed, clouding my mind until I can’t imagine ever being happy again. 

Making sense of it all

I spoke to my GP. I voiced my concern that I had bipolar tendencies, from all the reading I’d been doing. Luckily, she referred me and I was seen by a psychiatrist within weeks. I spent two hours unpicking my thought processes, my reactions, my instincts. It was cathartic in itself just to do that. Then came the magic words: 

“I think it’s very likely that you have ADHD.” 

My eyes were opened. 

True to form, I got home and scoured the internet for every morsel of information I could find on adult ADHD, specifically in women. I was reading about me. Suddenly, everything made sense. The overactive imagination. Feeling like time would speed up and slow down. That feeling that I was seeing the world through different lenses to everyone else. 

Life after diagnosis

It’s been 8 months since my diagnosis, and I feel like a different person. To quote Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo’s fantastic book, “You mean I’m not lazy, stupid, or crazy?!” 

It’s not that ADHD is an excuse for any of my frustrating traits (probably more frustrating to me than anyone else!), but it certainly explains a lot of it. And now that I have a reason, I can look into ways of mitigating behaviours that impact on other people. Or at least give them an explanation – that I don’t mean to interrupt them 7 times in a conversation, but I am aware of it and I’m working on it. That I’m really trying to be on time, but a 10 minute window where I can arrive without panicking is really helpful to my mental health for the rest of the day. 

It’s also made me realise that it’s ok to feel trapped in an environment where I’m stuck at a desk for 8 hours a day. It’s just not something my brain can handle very well. It’s helping me to focus my job-search, looking for things that will give me some scope to be out of the office, or to work from home a day a week. I’m stuck with the paradox of needing a routine, but also feeling suffocated as soon as I have a routine that is too structured. 

I’m not saying I have a handle on it yet. It’s a work in progress, and I’m sure it will be for quite some time. I might not know exactly where I’m going, and definitely not how I’m going to get there. But at least now I have a map. 

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Tanya can be found as @tan_pollypocket on Twitter
and you can check out her own blog, Polly’s Pocket as well.

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ADHD Voices is a series dedicated to sharing the stories of folks like you and me who have ADHD. Posts in the series are written by guest authors, sharing windows into their lives and struggles, written by them, for you and me. If you’d like to share your story, please contact me on social media or through my email, ADHDsurprise @ gmail.com

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How Undiagnosed ADHD Impacted My Home Life

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As you seek an ADHD diagnosis, your doctor or psychiatrist will ask about how it is impacting your home life, as well as work or school. The challenges we face which drive us to seek mental health services will almost always stem from one or more of these major arenas. And as you look closely, you will find the impacts of ADHD in all areas of your life.

As my diagnosis of ADHD-Inattentive came well into adulthood at age 37, I have found plenty of signs of its impact at home, work, and school. Though I of course experienced them all as they happened, I accepted what I had always told myself: that these were the simply signs of a good-for-nothing, lazy, and possibly incompetent person. Someone who did not care for his things, his family, or himself. A person lacking motivation to take care of even simple, every day tasks that every adult is simply expected to do.

As ADHD was given this camouflage of laziness, it wreaked havoc on my home life. After my therapist brought up ADHD I was able to begin to see all of the damage that had been done. Here I share some of the major areas of impact that I have observed in my home life as an adult.

Organization

I have always struggled with organization, and my adult home is no exception. First off, I own too many things. There’s a massive sense of guilt attached to letting go of anything that might one day be useful, and a great deal of nostalgia surrounding a multitude of belongings I’ve kept since childhood. I have collections gathered from many, many past fixations that are neatly stored and awaiting the day when the fixation might resurface.

All of these belongings greatly exacerbate the general state of disorganization that permeates the house. The farther you are from the front door, the more my belongings exist in piles. Historically this has been worst in the garage and an extra bedroom which came to be known as “the storage room.” Both areas tended to grow in clutter until I literally just threw items through the door onto the pile because either the mess was so bad the extra item wouldn’t be noticed, or because I could no longer enter the room without stepping on something.

My own bedroom has often gotten to a state where (predominantly) clothes dominate the space: in baskets, on the floor, or piled on open drawers. Tops of dressers and night stands are covered in clutter accumulated by dozens of drive-by drops as the rest of the house gets “cleaned.” Even the cleaner parts of the house like the living and dining room will collect small piles of clutter around the edges of the room and on top of flat surfaces. These get somewhat spruced when the infrequent guest stops by, but often are ignored as we become blind to the existence of the smaller piles.

I can clean and organize things, and every now and then I will muster up the drive to do a massive cleaning or organization project and I can completely fix a room or two over the course of several hours. But typically that is a one-shot deal and within a week or two the room has returned to its usual cluttered state.

Lack of maintenance

I always admired my dad for how well he took care of his things and family. Our house and acreage, many cars, various pets, and of course us humans in the home too. He was always working to improve and/or maintain things. For example, with his cars he kept a notebook for each one where he would log the maintenance he performed. These notebooks existed for the entire time he owned each vehicle. If anything became broken on the property or on a vehicle, it was fixed almost immediately.

I have always felt like a failure compared to him. No matter where I live, my home or apartment is in a constant state of decay, and though I may even notice what is happening I simply don’t have the drive to do anything about it. Many home-improvement projects are lying around started but unfinished and there are several items that are broken and have been awaiting repair for years.

This lack of maintenance also extends to myself. Routine things regarding self-care are very difficult to sustain with regularity. I have developed a few routines that help me (usually) stay on top of the basics like brushing my teeth and showering. But ‘bigger’ self care items like going to the dentist and doctor are put off for years in favor of the “go when it really hurts” plan. It’s not a great way to stay healthy.

Relationships

My undiagnosed ADHD was particularly challenging for my partner and my kids. My fixations were often all I could think about and took all of my time and attention, usually taking priority over all family matters. I would rarely help with chores around the house unless I was asked. I simply didn’t feel any drive to clean and do dishes or laundry. And when I did resolve to make changes, they would only last days or weeks.

A big part of my ADHD is emotional dysregulation. My emotions run very close to the surface and that means that anger, frustration, fear, happiness, sadness-any or all of these can come rushing out. While I can usually hold things together at work throughout the day (where there are real world consequences for ‘losing it’), I tended to lose it at home instead, where the immediate consequences for doing so are less severe. This often meant yelling at my kids or being surly with my wife when they weren’t really the source of the frustration or anger.

Managing life tasks

Poor executive function is the culprit for a lot of things I struggle with. I have low impulse control and tend to spend money on frivolous things or items related to my current fixation, whether we can afford them or not. I completely forget about or am slow to pay bills even when I have money to do so. An incredibly poor short term memory equates to a lot of broken promises to family members and many forgotten and neglected responsibilities.

Time blindness is another hallmark of ADHD. For me it shows up in a few ways. When I’m hyperfocused, I lose track of time completely and hours may pass. If I’m doing something that’s required or imposed, time my drag on and 10 minutes can feel like an hour. It also impacts larger passages of time. While I may think I called my dad earlier in the week, if I check the call log, it may show that as much as two months have passed. I’m horrible at keeping up contact with family and friends who are long distance.

What now?

This list surely isn’t exhaustive, but I believe it gives a pretty good picture of the major impacts that undiagnosed ADHD had on my home. I hope that reading it helps you identify some of the ways ADHD has impacted your home so that like me, you can begin to make changes for the better as you gain knowledge and supports to combat your symptoms.

Just discovering you have ADHD can be life-changing, as you can begin to build supports and routines into your life to counteract many of the symptoms. But for me, treatment through therapy and medication have been necessary. What isn’t helped by medication can be supported through therapy as you break down mental barriers and create new routines together. Things aren’t perfect for me at home yet, but I am seeing a huge difference for the better as I’ve begun treating my ADHD in earnest.

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