The Full Stop – Unemployment for the Adult with ADHD

  • The following article has been published with kind permission from Lew Mills, PhD, MFT, a Bay Area psychotherapist working with Attention Deficit in Adults.

    by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

    More often than one might imagine, adults with ADHD find themselves without a job and without a plan. Losing a job can have many causes, but being without a plan is easy to associate with ADHD. ADHD is characterized by having difficulty visualizing the future as well as in knowing how to put the pieces together to get there.

    Ordinarily unemployment is a good time for some counseling or career coaching, to focus on the next steps. But I want to describe a specific circumstance, which I call the “full stop.” Beyond having difficulty thinking of what to do next, at a full stop a person feels they are losing all forward momentum. It will feel as if they can never find a job that will use their unique abilities or engage their unique passions. The full stop is recognizable by the inability to move forward.

    Paradoxically, an ADHD person may also feel like they have a torrent of thoughts about where to turn next. But each one leads to a few weeks of planning, submitting applications to schools, sending out a few tentative resumes and then a realization that something else is more interesting or workable or more promising. After a bit of time at the full stop, it is nearly impossible to start forward again. Paralysis sets in and depression follows.

    For a non-ADHD person, with a raft of experiences of success in their work life, it might make sense to take this opportunity for some serious re-evaluation of one’s life priorities. Life-coaching, or in-depth career planning might make sense. However, for an ADHD adult, on the brink of depression and perhaps financial ruin, this broader perspective is difficult to achieve and anxiety will soon swamp any view of the big picture. With ADHD, some specific strategies for the full stop are indicated.

    Here is an analogy. When you ride a bike, the faster you are going, the easier it is to turn smoothly and remain stable. As you approach a stop sign, you find yourself switching the handlebars back and forth to keep the front wheel underneath you. If you come to a full stop, it is nearly impossible to balance on the bike. In order to navigate the bike now, you need to get some forward motion. It actually doesn’t matter in which direction. Once you are moving, you can then steer the bike again.

    By analogy, you cannot pick a career direction when you have lost all forward momentum. If you try, you will most likely “tip over.” Pondering the limitless possibilities can quickly overwhelm you. Before you can pick a direction, you need to have some forward motion!

    To translate the metaphor, you need to have a context of success in the present in order to choose your future. If you get any kind of experience of success with work, it will give you some momentum. From there you can build on your confidence and make some turns into perhaps totally different directions. The more momentum you have going for you, the easier it is to switch directions, even if you have been going in the completely wrong direction.

    You need to get started somewhere, and it is OK to let go of making it the “best” direction to be going in. There is one more qualification of this rule, however. It is much easier to get started going downhill than facing up the hill. In other words, you do have to choose something that you will succeed in. Here it is important to realize where your strengths and weaknesses are.

    A person who feels that they have failed in one job will sometimes choose the next job at a “lower level.” But this does not necessarily mean it uses their strengths better. Often lower level jobs are ones with more clerical, organizational demands and fewer higher-order thinking demands. How much sense does it make to go with a job that suites your ADHD abilities less? Think about what you really do know that you can do well, and go with that. Narrow your vision for a short while and stick to that, until you are moving again. Then you can steer.

    Can’t even find a starting place? Here is another analogy for how almost any activity is better than no activity at all. In sailing, like bicycles, you can sometimes come to a full stop as well. But if you “scull” the tiller back and forth you can actually fan the water off the back of the boat enough to push yourself forward. Literally changing direction, repeatedly and forcefully, can propel you forward enough that you can then turn back into the wind and sail. There may not be any other way to catch the breezes that will push you forward.

    You don’t fool yourself that this aimless churning of the water off of your stern is deliberate steering. You know that it is just to move you to where you can turn into the wind again. In other words, if you do need to investigate a million possibilities, know that you are sculling, not steering. You will meet lots of people, talk about a lot of ideas, and something eventually is going to happen that will push you along. Once you have momentum, then you can find where the wind can help you most.

    Is this making sense? Get moving forward before you try to steer. If you can’t move at all, steer everywhere, just to generate the activity that will help you find some forward motion. Once you are moving, then you can actually steer where you want to go.

    Let’s hope you never find yourself in this position. It is a very lonely and scary place to be. But if you do find yourself there, know these self-rescue tips and it might help you get back to smooth sailing sooner than you think!