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How an Adult ADHD Diagnosis made me a better Software Engineer

(This is not medical advice, just my own experience.)

My Problem

I had quit a job where I had been slowly, then quickly, burning out. Unfortunately, simply quitting and getting time to myself didn't solve my problems of anxiety, irritability, inability to focus on fun or important tasks, or even relax.

I tried all the advice: exercise every day, eat healthy foods, reduce caffeine intake, take vitamins, be in the sun, find things that make me happy.

Some of these things did help, but only for a little while, or only so far. I still felt deep emptiness in my chest, listless, wandering the house, unable to feed myself or even just watch TV, which is both boring and guilt-inducing. The only thing that really brought me joy was gardening occasionally and anytime my significant other was home, which began to strain our relationship.

What I NEEDED to do was work on my portfolio, job applications, and enhance my skillset. There were tons of boring tasks that I had to do in order to get a paycheque again. And yet, I just couldn't.

At the same time, I kept coming across others' experiences with ADHD in adulthood and I felt like I was reading my autobiography. Some example statements are:

  • "ADHD is not attention deficit, but executive function deficit; how this actually affects people is Interest, Challenge, Novelty and Urgency (ICNU). If a task doesn't meet those requirements, it won't get done until it does meet a requirement."
  • "A person with ADHD may have strong emotional responses to things that a non-ADHD (normal) person wouldn't. This includes low frustration tolerance, impulsivity, temper outbursts, mood fluctuations."
  • "When someone with ADHD is able to complete a task incredibly fast and well, it sets up expectations of being able to do that all the time, which is extremely frustrating."
  • "Using a threading model, instead of a single thread, (the ADHD mind) has a main thread and X more threads (say, 5) running in the background. We can swap the main thread for a background thread easily, but we can't stop the background threads from running. When unmedicated, they all fight to be the main thread. Hyperfocus occurs when the main thread panics and the scheduler makes all background threads dump their workloads and help."
  • "Someone with ADHD has a hard time shifting from global focus to up close focus; one might not be able to ignore lyrics in a song at any time." (which is why I only listen to synthwave/vapourwave these days :|)
  • "Boredom feels like death." (multiple sources)
  • "Having ADHD and wanting to do a task is like trying to bite off your own finger. You know that it's entirely possible, but your brain stops you from doing it, but in an absolute emergency where it is necessary, you could do it quickly."
  • "The largest and maybe most debilitating symptom is complete inability to regulate my emotions. I don't feel anything halfway, everything stings more than it should and it's exhausting. If I'm happy, I feel like I can do absolutely anything and it I'm sad it physically hurts and I'm unable to let go of it for a VERY long time."
  • "People with ADHD prefer generating ideas to developing existing ones."
  • "People with ADHD may seem to think fast, but they are mostly dropping ideas once they get the gist of them and move on."
  • "The ADHD brain needs stimulation/dopamine to maintain focus."
  • "When bored, ADHD people can make rash decisions, like change majors, quit school, move countries."

It's probably obvious that I wasn't just struggling with focus, but I was also depressed and exhausted. These anecdotes still rang so true for me that I felt it was worth pursuing real help.

Getting Help

In order to actually get any help, I had to repeatedly ask my doctor for how I can solve my problems. They would suggest talk therapy and do exercise, things I was already doing. I had to specifically request a psychiatry referral.

At my first psychiatry meeting, I was assessed for moderate depression and diagnosed with ADHD. I was put on a kind of Zoloft to start, then I would try a kind of Ritalin later, once the SSRI had had time to show results.

Once again, this isn't medical advice from a medical professional, just a diary entry :)

With Zoloft, I had the almost immediate effect of very improved social anxiety. I would normally go to Trader Joe's and feel immense hatred and frustration directed at every single stranger. This almost entirely dissipated.

When I did start Ritalin, I found it made me super effective at completing tasks in the real world, like all the laundry, redesigning the garden, deep cleaning my desk area, but it wasn't solving my very important problem of focusing on software challenges, studying and interview prep for a new job.

(At this point in the story, I did get a job, and a job of my dreams. In this case, my excitement for the opportunity directed my focus. I succeeded even with an ADHD handicap! Absolutely proud of myself, but the pace I was working was unsustainable. Managing my ADHD was still necessary.)

Today, a much lesser dose than was initially prescribed is helping me enjoy work tasks that are not novel, interesting, or time sensitive. I'm not where I would like to be yet, but I am easily 80% of the way there.

Becoming a Better SWE

I have found a happy routine which has made me more effective at my work than ever before. I've also learned some valuable truths:

  1. Stress is cumulative and NOT binary. It will, and does, get worse, and when it does, it's harder to repair yourself to normal. (It also has very real long term effects!)
  2. Being honest about your mental health to your leads and colleagues helps you manage your guilt, and them to manage your time. They will value your honesty and reward you for it (if they're decent, anyway).
  3. You have to demand help. This is when talking to doctors but also you have to demand it of yourself. As much as people love you, they almost never have the energy or awareness to fix you.

As for exactly how my ADHD diagnosis has made me a better software engineer:

  1. I can focus on the repetitive, boring or frustrating tasks. Sometimes, it's not perfect focus, but pushing out code without feeling stress or guilt about it is HUGE!
  2. I am learning how to use my ADHD "quirks" to an advantage, like taking pauses when I feel bogged down and bored to realise the solution I'm working on isn't satisfying because it doesn't really work.
  3. Tuning into my feelings and needs is continuing to heal the stress from my body and mind while also keeping me effective at my job, so if I'd like to write repetitive tests then I can pivot to that. Or, if I really want to go bug hunting, I can spend my energy there.
  4. showing up daily means doing at least a little every day, not everything every dayI live by this diagram to reduce the guilt I may feel, and communicate my needs to my team. Almost always, most of my teammates are feeling the same way and have appreciated the weight of guilt being lifted from them, too.
  5. When I need novelty, I can use that time to explore the area of the Venn diagram where my work responsibilities and what's novel and exciting to me overlap. In the end, this always benefits the company and the product, not just my mental health.
  6. Actively improving my social anxiety has forced me to meet new people at work or explore new projects that widen my horizons, my skill set, and my entire career trajectory.
  7. Often, I have to discern if I am feeling sad and depressed, versus unable to focus. Sometimes I can't focus because work is ambiguous, or something personal has affected my mood. It's important to solve the actual problem and not a symptom.
  8. Avoid burnout at all costs - it can destroy everything you hold dear.

My favourite resources for continued management include reading up on ADHD and related topics. I get a lot of insight from this ADHD writer on Twitter, Jesse J. Anderson. I continue to check in with myself, communicate with my colleagues, and see my psychiatrist.

ADHD iceberg, showing symptoms not normally visible or known to others, like mood swings, hyperfixation, poor impulse control, sleeping problems, anxiety, forgetting to eat, etc

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