How someone with ADD feels at work

‘Sometimes, things seem like they’re moving very slowly, when they’re not’


There is much that is frustrating in the modern office. Colleagues, occasionally; the politics of email; meetings, full stop. These frustrations unify offices across the capital, across the world, probably – they are relatable.

On the other hand, someone with ADD experiences the workplace differently.

“Sometimes, things in the workplace can seem like they’re moving very slowly, when they’re not,” explains Austin, who was diagnosed with ADD at college. He’s an Ivy League graduate who works in The Tab’s New York office. “It’s just that my brain’s moving very quickly and you have to detach what’s happening in your own head from what’s happening around you. I’ll get talking, and I’ll think I’m making total sense but other people won’t. [So] I get frustrated and paranoid because what’s happening in my brain doesn’t match what’s happening in the world around me, and what other people are perceiving.”

About ten years ago ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, became synonymous with classroom laziness and a fetishisation of victimhood. Middle-class parents whose children weren’t performing at school cast around eagerly to attach the label to their child; children who would once have been called “energetic” suddenly had a gratifying “condition”.

Austin - Dartmouth

Austin at his Dartmouth graduation

Clearly, this noise distracts from the reality: that ADD is a relatively common condition. It is estimated that it will affect between 4 and 8 per cent of the UK population at some point, and 9.5 per cent of Americans. It is more common in boys than in girls, and is thought to have a hereditary link. It is linked to anxiety, paranoia and depression.

And of course, there are the sweeping generalisations. People with ADD cannot sit still; they cannot concentrate. They are jumping out of their seats; don’t give them any sugar or they’ll have some kind of skittish, frantic breakdown. Austin thinks that there is a lot of misunderstanding.

“You can’t group people that have ADD into one bucket because it manifests in so many different ways,” he points out patiently. “It’s a case-by-case basis. For me, I don’t have attention issues. I have impulsivity issues where I don’t make good decisions with my time and can’t maintain routines.”

He thinks of ADD as a different mental framework, rather than a disorder. “I think it’s a [case of] different strengths and weaknesses, just like anything else.” Indeed, he is eloquent and illuminating on the topic. “Most brains thrive on the feeling ‘that I already know this, that makes sense, this is like a reinforcement’. But for someone who has ADD, the brain rewards novelty, and things that aren’t normal.”

So how does this play out in the workplace? Those with ADD are creative – “[they] have a really good ability to make broad connections and compare things” – but also handle problem solving well. “They see potential in everything,” he says. On the other hand, the repetition of work can be frustrating for brains that crave new stimuli.

He was not diagnosed with ADD until he was at college, when he gave up competitive rowing. “I was doing athletics at a very high, elite, competitive level,” he explains. “I was getting a regular dopamine release from training and I was forced to maintain a routine, so my symptoms didn’t get a chance to manifest themselves until I stopped. Basically, rowing was my medicine for a while.

Austin @ Dartmouth

A different Dartmouth night out

“When I stopped, I found I had way too much energy at night – I still have trouble sleeping because I basically sit awake in bed and if there’s a problem to be solved, or I’m anxious about something – I will think endlessly about it. I cannot stop thinking about it. I cannot calm down.” He says that his brain follows these sort of tangents during a working day too. “I can have a conversation with a colleague and simultaneously be in deep thought about something completely random.”

Now he is medicated – which he knows is another flashpoint of criticism by those who do not understand the subtleties of ADD.  “I definitely think there’s over-medication. In this country there are a lot of people that are getting illegitimate prescriptions. Especially at elite, wealthy schools like the Ivy Leagues, where students want access to study and party drugs. [And] people will think you’re somehow cheating the system if you tell people you take medication – the assumption is it’s just like ‘mega’ coffee that helps you concentrate.

“That’s not how it works at all. If you don’t need it, you will literally be less productive.”

Colleagues have looked askance at him, and suggested he doesn’t talk about medication publicly. “That’s bullshit. They shouldn’t be making value judgements about me – if i’m good at my job that’s all that should really matter.”

Austin takes Vyvanse, “an extended release version of Adderall requiring stomach acid to release the drug over time. You take one in the morning and you have a steady dose: the stimulant effect from the amphetamine provides a really smooth and even dopamine release throughout the entire day.”

Austin rowing at college

Austin rowing at college

He suggests a metaphor. “Your brain is a sink, and dopamine, which is responsible for pleasure in the brain, is like water constantly running and draining from that sink. But a person with ADD’s brain does not have steady water flow so medication effectively plugs the drain a bit to allow for the appropriate amount of water to flow to clean the dishes. Some medications like Vyvanse don’t just plug the drain but actually add water flow as well so they address the issue from both sides.”

It’s the safest and most-widely prescribed in the States. “It can’t be abused – because there’s a lot of people who will crush up their [Adderall or Ritalin]. They crush up and snort it like it’s cocaine.” Just as many people at elite schools are searching for ADD medication for party purposes as they are for studying.

It has other benefits – it is not addictive, chiefly – though the laser-focus it delivers can cause problems. “You’re so focused, and actually enjoying that focus that sometimes it’s too much,” he explains, “you won’t eat, you’ll forget to drink water. And the medication lasts for about 10 hours. So sometimes you get a headache because you realise you’re dehydrated, or you get really hungry. I go home after work and just eat and sit on my coach – I want go to the gym but I’ve basically just run out of energy at that point.”

Mainly though, he wishes people would stop assuming those with ADD are incapable or impaired. “On average, people with ADD have near genius IQs. You just can’t focus in the traditional sense. So you don’t get good grades, and start thinking, ‘oh i’m not smart which then leads to depression’, and in turn to a lack of motivation. I knew so many kids at high school with ADD who were brilliant but they didn’t apply themselves at all because they had been beaten down by feeling like they weren’t smart.”

Research into ADD suggests it came out of environmental necessity. It was an advantageous trait in hunter gatherer tribes. Now, symptoms of the condition are also a result of, and vary depending on, a subject’s environment. However, they are not recognised for their advantages.

“I have come to learn how my brain works,” he says. “And to appreciate the gifts I have because of my unique thought process, not to play the victim card aligning with society’s narrative of conformity and stigmatised norms surrounding mental health.”