“I Was So Worried About Getting Fired That My Anxiety Took Over… and I Got Fired for It”
“In my search for an interesting, important career, I got fired… a lot. I didn’t know it then, but ADHD was quietly sabotaging me — and pointing me in a better direction.”
It’s taken me more than a decade to figure out what to do with my life.
Since graduating in 2011 — with dual honors and two degrees (in criminology and psychology) — I’ve had at least seven jobs. I started as a claims management specialist at a health insurance company but got fired after 11 months. They didn’t trust me with the phone. The Navy dropped me at the interview stage. Six months at a lawyer’s office came next. Teaching English (after completing the certification process first) was where I had some success — I taught for three years at three different schools abroad in Jakarta.
In 2016, I changed course again. I went back to school, earned a master’s degree, and became a journalist.
It’s Work, Nothing Personal…
Why all this bouncing around? I had no idea I had ADHD until late in 2019.
It’s like being a short-sighted horse lead out of the stable onto a racetrack. Everyone tells you you’re a quick stallion and will have no problem winning the race, but you can’t see the track and keep running at top speed into hurdles that everyone else can clearly see — and jump.
A distressing pattern emerged everywhere I worked: After six or nine months, a single, usually quite bad incident would occur that would make my bosses uncomfortable and a bit confused.
My brain would jump instantly from “something’s gone slightly wrong” to “I’m totally getting fired again,” which is scary. Then I’d ask out loud if I was getting fired, which of course just put the idea in their head.
So stressed with anxiety, I’d stop sleeping as they mulled putting the matter to human resources. The stress and lack of sleep would make me incapable of handling my problem rationally. Add to that personality quirks like making jokes when you’re nervous, and things that are actually fine devolve quickly into a kerfuffle.
Day to day, I’d get embarrassed over little errors and details I’d missed and come back with short sharp replies, or a rushed and often awkward excuse/reason that was much more than was needed. I didn’t learn to shut up, apologize for minor things, and just calmly explain what happened until I was 27.
To managers, I became increasingly unpredictable and distracted but was otherwise a good employee. I was just “weird” and loud, a potential problem for bosses who would then “not know how to handle” me. They became alarmed and suspicious — in no small part because of my rapidly growing history of distractibility, lack of attention to detail, and quirkiness.
When confronted, I’d panic and stumble over my words and get confused over what was and wasn’t real. I’d jump in and finish sentences. I’d challenge and question people intensely and aggressively to establish and, be seen to establish, control of the situation. There was never a specific reason for my awkward or excessive actions — we didn’t know why I was forgetful. Why I couldn’t stay on task. Why I took criticism so badly. Given how hard I tried, it made no sense.
HR Meetings and Other Disasters
Formal HR meetings were inevitable, and so were my reactions.
I’d get defensive and intense, which was confusingly coupled with an intelligent, well-planned argument written out on paper with the logic and clarity of a lawyer. The generic, corporate process was typically led by someone who didn’t really care but for me, it felt like my life was on the line.
In the moment, I’d be heavily engaged but only process the superlative version of what was being said. I never remembered anything positive, would nit-pick irrelevant points, and in doing so suffocate effective communication. Another devastating pattern.
When things got out of control, I would get psychological help from my general practitioner. I aced all the tests for anxiety and depression and doctors always concluded that was the problem. The ADHD behaviors remained undetected for years, during which time they caused increasing frustration and confusion for myself and those who supported me.
The sad thing is I loved my jobs — all of them — and defined myself by each one. It always felt personal because it was. I worked hard but was ultimately culled off anyway. I didn’t want to let anyone down but I did. When you aren’t properly supported, that guilt and frustration is heartbreaking.
I couldn’t understand that I wasn’t supposed to feel that unhappy and that my trouble was not a personal fault.
Learning from Loss
All that job loss and recovery taught me a lot. Here’s what I’ve gleaned:
- Listen to the voice in your head. If it’s telling you, “I don’t want to be here,” leave. You won’t regret it.
- Mental health is more important than a paycheck. Losing your job with your mental health intact is much better than being made to feel incompetent for months on end. You’ll find a way to make ends meet until the next job comes along.
- It’s also ok to write things off as a bad day. You’re not perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist.
- Get up and get the job done. Remember what Confucius said. “Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” It’s true. When you’ve been floored so many times, having the will to pick yourself up and keep going makes you and your support network strong — and is a lot more valuable than the job you lost.
- Learn from every experience. Take the time to consider what you liked and didn’t like in the job you just lost and what you want in your next job. Write it down. Learn from it.
Success at Last
Writing has always helped me focus and given me clarity. It’s a wonderful coping tool because it allows me to edit, re-word, and re-organize my thoughts. When I’m at my most chaotic and feeling vulnerable, writing helps me make sense of and face complex problems, which is how I ended up in my current career: journalism.
Working as a journalist is challenging, respected (well…), diverse, fast-paced, fact-based, and yet also creative. It gives me a way to make a difference and has a touch of showmanship, too. That’s why I love it.
I think I’ve finally arrived at the right place. All I have to do is talk less, listen carefully, make no excuses, and ask questions when things don’t make sense — even when it’s awkward — a natural habitat for a curious ADHD mind.
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