I couldn’t function at work for years – it turned out I had ADHD

I’ve been sacked and fired a few times…more times than I care to admit.

It’s partly my territory. The media is constantly trying to keep up with the public interest, and entire teams can be cut short if suddenly deemed irrelevant. To quote fashion mogul Heidi Klum: One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.

And regardless of the industry, it’s typical to get fired or fired at some point in your life. “Plan to be ‘involuntarily fired’ at least twice in your career,” says Julie Bauke, founder and chief career strategist at The Bauke Group. “Whether it’s because of performance or as part of a big layoff, it happens to the best of us.”

It turns out to me that an undiagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder could also have played a role. When I was 33, I found out I had Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. And looking back, now that I know I have it, I can see how it impacted my performance.

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, ADHD impairs your executive functions, which allow you to plan, focus, and juggle multiple tasks at once. All of these are critical to success in today’s workplace.

at one I remember, for example, that I was constantly overwhelmed. The instructions themselves were pretty simple: create daily slideshows, send potential language to the boss to pitch social media posts, research content for future work. But remembering everything and somehow organizing it in my brain was impossible. It felt like there was no way those quests would stick. There was just too much information at once.

That’s fairly common, says J. Russell Ramsay, associate professor and co-director of the adult ADHD treatment and research program at the University of Pennsylvania. The functions associated with seeing all the information and then breaking it down are part of the brain’s working memory. And “poor working memory is a facet of ADHD,” he says.

After four or five months in each job, I also experienced a major loss of motivation. I wanted every role I got, but somehow after those four or five months I had to force myself to do it. It felt like a chemical switch in my brain. Getting myself to write or edit an article has been a constant struggle with my will. I remember going home every night and reading articles about motivation and productivity. Nothing worked.

Plan to be “involuntarily fired” at least twice in your career.

Julia Bauke

Founder and Senior Career Strategist, The Bauke Group

That early stage in any job is “like the honeymoon of a relationship,” says Ramsay. It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s a little scary. You want to make a good impression. But: “It always wears off,” he says. And people with ADHD feel it more. The chemicals in your brain that help keep you motivated even after this initial phase, like oxytocin and serotonin, are more erratic in their effectiveness in the ADHD brain. People with this disorder need more external motivation to keep going.

There was also the constant distraction that comes with ADHD. My distractions are internal rather than external. My brain would always rather envision the speech I would give at the opening of my alma mater Boston University (after Pulitzer, of course) or a date with a hot celebrity (Andrew Garfield, amiright) than anything else I did.

Sometimes these distractions ran deeper. Over time I got angry with myself. I was constantly worried that I wouldn’t be able to perform and it was only a matter of time before I screwed up again. I believed I was a failure and I was probably destined to fail. I carried that weight and it took my attention away from what I was doing.

Internal distractions can be harder to deal with than external ones, says Amishi Jha, a psychology professor at the University of Miami and author of Peak Mind. “With inner distraction, it’s with you no matter where you are, wherever you go,” she says.

Given all of this, my performance suffered a lot. And eventually I would be fired.

Fortunately, with every painful work experience came lessons. I’ve learned to break down tasks for myself and plan them out throughout the day in a calendar, notebook, or Excel spreadsheet. I’ve learned to tackle the big, scary projects first because the only way out is through. I’ve learned to ask for praise when I’ve done a good job because I need that external motivation.

Two weeks before I got my diagnosis, my therapist suggested I might have ADHD. i cried It suddenly clicked that maybe this difference I had felt in my role compared to everyone else had a name. And that it’s real. For the first time, I felt like maybe I could actually forgive myself for my many Crap. Maybe they weren’t entirely my fault.

When it comes to that inner emotional distraction, “once you let go of that,” Jha says, “you suddenly have more capacity available” to focus on everything else. After I received my diagnosis, that anger and fear began to dissipate.

Nowadays I read books about my condition to get a feel for how this brain works. I talk about it with friends, colleagues and bosses. I do mindfulness meditation every morning which, while not exactly fixing the system, has given me a greater awareness of where my attention is at any given moment. However, I do not receive medical treatment myself, I know that this is of great help to others. And I try to forgive myself when I screw up.

Poster for “This is my first ADHD support group.”

Photo by Lauren Shamo and Kiersten Schmidt

I even wrote a monologue loose based on my experiences infiltrating a theater festival this year. (I stress loosely because a lot of it was embellished for the sake of comedy.) It’s called “This Is My First ADHD Support Group” and chronicles the main character being fired many times until she finally finds out she has ADHD. The heart of the piece is self-compassion.

According to a 2006 University of Michigan survey of 3,199 people ages 18 to 44, which experts still cite today, about 4.4% of US adults have ADHD. That’s about 8 to 9 million adults. Most are undiagnosed and untreated. I’m terrified to publish this piece, but I hope it helps you (or anyone really). Finding out I have ADHD was monumental for me.

My diagnosis was three years ago. And I wasn’t fired or fired since.

For credible information and guidance from professionals familiar with ADHD, visit Children and adults with ADHDthe Attention Deficit Disorder Associationor the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders.


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