By Penelope Richmond.
Until last year, I only ever held down a job for a maximum of 3 months (and there were many jobs). I left my last employer, and my first professional role with a reputable consultancy firm in the city, at the end of 2021 after an all-time record for me of 10 months.
Why were these jobs over so fast? I was (just about) clever enough to obtain a first-class degree in Theoretical Physics, I’m driven, resourceful, very hard-working and I’m good with people.
But my brain isn’t wired like most people’s. I can’t regulate my attention: I’m either hyper-focused or I get distracted by anything and everything. I can’t sit still in meetings. I’m impulsive. I get overwhelmingly bored very quickly, to the point where it’s actually painful. I often miss bits of conversation and then have no idea what’s going on. I become exhausted from concentrating, and from desperately trying to mitigate the disastrous consequences of all the above. I’m a woman with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).
I graduated from university years late, due to a combination of undiagnosed ADHD and extremely difficult personal circumstances. By then, all I really wanted was to have a relatively ‘normal’ adult existence; to have a proper career. I achieved this ‒ or I did initially. But it quickly came to light that, although I had the intellectual competence, work ethic and attitude to succeed, I simply couldn’t do it.
I burnt out several times. I was constantly sick. I’d fall asleep in meetings due to exhaustion, cry outside meetings and drink too much after work. It was after realising that I might lose my job and not be able to pay my rent that I sought help. I was told almost instantly that I probably had ADHD. A formal assessment then confirmed this.
To know that I have ADHD has been a revelation. It has validated my past struggle and helped me in limitless other ways. I have started taking medication, which has partly helped. My late diagnosis has also made me grieve for the life that I could have had so far, had I been diagnosed as a child.
Regardless of my limitations, I can be brilliant given the right circumstances, as can all those with ADHD. This is why I don’t think of it as a disorder; people with ADHD usually have enhanced cognition under pressure. It’s like a switch that goes on; I can think most clearly when other people can’t think at all. When I’m hyper-focused, I can achieve more in a day than most people can in a week. I’m very creative. I notice everything; I have an extraordinarily high perceptual capacity – as confirmed by researchers at UCL who stuck electrodes on my head. I think of my mind as being designed for survival in the days of hunting and gathering: when noticing tiny things and acting quickly made the difference between life and death.
In understanding how my mind works, I can make changes. I can cope better and make the most of the good traits that I have. And I have many: I have optimised my circumstances to suit the way that I work.
My new employer is me. I do freelance data visualisation and data journalism. Apart from client calls, I work to my own schedules. I keep meetings short and to the point. I use a variety of techniques to keep productive. And, unless I’m hyper-focused, I always take an exercise break in the middle of the day.
I like the pressure of being freelance: the pressure of delivering projects to a tight deadline, and of future employment depending on me doing a good job. I work for anyone, and I never get bored, because there is so much variety in what I do.
I also have the time and energy to be creative for the first time: I paint, I make music and I write!