“I Felt a Constant, Low-Level Sadness.”
“I wasn’t depressed so much as unenergetic and unfocused. The ADHD diagnosis made sense.” Learn how one Ivy League graduate fought for the right diagnosis — and learned how to communicate, concentrate, and clear the clutter from her life.
Disorganization didn’t stop Jordana Haspel from excelling in high school or graduating from Brown University.
But for this adult with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), success in the structured world of school didn’t lead to success in the adult world of work and roommates.
Bright as she was, Jordana lost one job after another. Her messiness alienated roommates. Therapy and medication for depression helped her cope but didn’t get to the root of her problem — until a therapist suggested that her depression might be a side effect of ADHD symptoms in adults, rather than the cause of her unhappiness.
The right ADHD medication and the right ADHD support coach have helped Jordana turn her life around. Today, she is a successful marketing copywriter, with an apartment that, while not pin-neat, no longer reflects the chaos that once ruled her life. Best of all, she finally feels she is in control of her symptoms of ADHD.
Jordana: A therapist I was seeing for depression several years ago suggested I might have ADHD. I felt I had a kind of constant, low-level sadness rather than major depression.
A lot of my symptoms were symptoms of ADHD: I wasn’t depressed so much as unenergetic, unfocused, unmotivated, and confused. Although I was surprised at the suggestion that I had ADHD, some things did make sense. I had done well in school, but while my friends really got immersed in their majors, I just went to classes — sometimes.
Barbara: Jordana was an indifferent student. She slid through a lot of her classes, getting mostly Bs. She was still doing all-nighters in her senior year, while most of our classmates had outgrown that. Meeting deadlines were challenging for her.
Jordana: After graduation, I saw people who weren’t as smart as I do a lot better professionally. They were able to focus and give it their all, and I couldn’t. Since college, I’ve been through three careers. I worked as a journalist on several local papers. I spent a year doing visual effects and animation for the Narnia movie before I was fired.
Johanna: When Jordana didn’t have structure and people like parents or friends watching over her, she fell apart.
Jordana: I had trouble in my personal life, too. I realized later how ADHD affects social development. Other kids seemed to know how to behave, how to interact with people. I’ve always had difficulty reading social cues, getting along with my peers. As an adult with ADHD, it never occurred to me to say “Hi” if I saw someone I knew. I had trouble keeping up with conversations; I’d put in my two cents after everybody had moved on to another topic. I interrupted people. I was just uncomfortable. I didn’t fit in.
When I lost my last job, about a year and a half ago, I told my therapist I needed more hands-on help. He suggested Barbara. One of the first things we worked on was miscommunication. That’s what had cost me my job. I was ostensibly fired for not getting there on time, but I’d thought I was doing what my supervisor had told me to do. Work started at nine, and he said it was OK to get there by 10, when they made “rounds” to check on everyone’s progress. I called in if I was going to be late, and I thought that was OK. When they fired me, they hadn’t said anything to me about lateness for months, and I hadn’t picked up any signals that my supervisors weren’t happy.
Barbara: People with ADHD are often very literal. If you give them specific information, they know exactly what you’re talking about. But if employers are vague when giving directions, or if they leave out relevant details, there’s room for misunderstanding. That happened where Jordana worked. Her failure in reading nonverbal signals and clarifying spoken instructions led to problems. In my work with her, I emphasize the importance of clarifying anything she doesn’t understand.
Jordana: I ask more questions than I used to — not to be demanding but to find out what I need to know. The people at my new job — as a marketing copywriter for a weight-loss company — are good communicators. When I began here, I asked my boss to let me know if there were any problems with my performance. If I’m not sure what needs to be done first, I might say, “Is it OK to go through my priority list with you?”
I’ve been working with Barbara on other problems that come up at my job, too. She’s helped me find little on-the-job tricks that make a big difference — like working in a quiet place when I need to concentrate, and putting attachments on e-mails before writing the message, so that I don’t forget to add them.
We work on scheduling, too. I have a mix of long- and short-term projects, and I start the day with tasks like answering e-mails. I save the middle of the day for long-term projects that I’ll have to come back to, like creating training materials. There are some things I do every week, like gathering content for the website on Wednesdays. I use a computerized planner and set alarms to remind myself of those recurring tasks, as well as meetings.
Barbara: Jordana works best doing chunks of tasks, rather than making a lot of transitions. When she has to edit something, she’s learned to do the whole thing, rather than stopping to return e-mails. One of the gifts of ADHD is the ability to hyperfocus, and “chunking” takes advantage of that gift.
Jordana: My other big problem was organization at home. That’s always been a struggle for me and a sticking point for people I’ve lived with. When I shared an apartment, I usually managed to do my share of the cleaning and keeping the common areas from being taken over by my stuff, but I had to be pushed.
Johanna: Jordana and I lived together at college and for a few years after we graduated. She was very messy. During our freshman year, she left so many papers and books lying about that you couldn’t even see the floor in our room. Papers and bottles would just pile up, and she never noticed when it was time to empty the trash. After that, Jordana had her own small room, and it was really cluttered. You had to jump from space to space to get across the room.
Jordana: Barbara came over and helped me organize my apartment in a way that fit my personality. The hands-on help made a big difference. She helped me sort through my possessions and found a place to put everything. She even showed me how to fold clothes and sheets right, and do other tasks I had never learned.
Barbara: If someone says, “My place is a mess,” that isn’t descriptive. For one adult, “messy” might mean that there are a few things out of place. For another adult with ADHD, it means that the whole floor is covered, and nothing is organized.
Working with Jordana in her own environment, I could watch how she did housekeeping tasks. I learn a lot by observing the ways someone organizes. Even in the messiest of places, there’s some element of organization. I like to build on the things people are already doing, to follow the contours of their personality. It makes more sense than giving everyone the same strategy for an organized life.
When I saw that Jordana tended to toss her shoes onto the floor of her closet, I suggested using clear plastic bins as “target practice,” so she wouldn’t have to constantly hunt for matching pairs.
Jordana: One reason I’m messy is that, if I don’t see something, I forget it exists. If clothes are at the bottom of a dresser drawer, I never wear them. Organizing visually is better for me. Instead of using drawers, I now hang all my clothes in the closet, so I can see them. And I keep a lot of things in clear plastic boxes, so I know what’s inside. I took the doors off my cabinets. It isn’t neat, but I know what I have.
Another idea I got from Barbara was a kind of “curfew.” Every night, at a certain time, I put everything back where it belongs. This keeps piles from accumulating.
Johanna: Jordana’s apartment is much more organized now. She has baskets and cubbyholes where she puts things. Before, there was no organization at all.
Jordana: I can’t say my apartment still looks as good as it did the day Barbara came and first helped me organize it, but it’s a lot better than it was. Barbara also helps me organize my medical information and manage my health care — my psychologist, psychiatrist, and GP — making sure everything is integrated.
Barbara: Most of my clients see doctors for medication, and they may be seeing a therapist, too. A lack of organization makes it hard for them to get to the right people for the right treatment. Because I have Jordana’s permission, I can talk with her therapist if I feel that some difficulty is related to her mood problems and can’t be corrected by coaching. The benefits are reciprocal: The things I notice point out what needs to be worked on through therapy. And the work the therapist does allows us to move forward in dealing with other challenges.
Jordana: I think the work we’ve been doing has helped my mood. It was helpful to realize that my being depressed was largely a reaction to ADHD.
Barbara: ADHD can be a huge contributor to depression. It’s depressing not to have a life that works. And when people gain some mastery over the parts of their life that aren’t working, their mood starts to lift.
Jordana: For me, ADHD is not all about focusing and paying attention. Organizational and social skills give me particular trouble. I have learned to organize my apartment better and to communicate better. I’m better socially, although it’s still hard to be in a large group and to listen to only one conversation at a time. I still say things impulsively sometimes. But I am aware of my problem areas and of my power to change them. The more control I have over what’s important to me, the less reason there is to be depressed.