‘Making friends with my brain’: the long and winding road of ADHD

At the start of ADHD Awareness Month, which aims to educate people on the obstacles those with the diagnosis face everyday, ADHD coach and author Leanne Maskell shares her story of managing her career alongside the condition

Credit: Rankin

My life is firmly divided into two parts: before finding out I had ADHD and afterwards. The diagnosis enabled me to not only thrive, but to literally survive.

I started working at age 13, appearing in Vogue UK for my first job. This wasn’t something I wanted to start, but I was unable to stop. Having undiagnosed ADHD made me extra vulnerable to exploitation, and I ended up in contracts allowing agencies to get me into debt without my knowledge – with interest.

I couldn’t listen at all in school, but could teach myself under intense pressure of exams, achieving straight As. Everybody was shocked – my teacher even asked the class if I’d cheated. I felt like I’d somehow tricked the system and went on to get a 2:1 law degree, despite feeling stupider than ever. 

After university, my entire life fell apart. I didn’t know it then, but this is because ADHD is highly situational; symptoms may appear differently at different points in our lives. 

Contrary to popular belief, good exam results will not get you a job by themselves, especially if you have no idea what to do. My undiagnosed ADHD meant I couldn’t prioritise. I spent hours re-doing my CV for a million jobs and had panic attacks during interviews. I managed to scrape internships by begging family, friends or strangers before impulsively quitting them all a few days later. I once baked a recruitment company a box of brownies to try and bribe them into getting me a job. 

As a model, I was being made to wear fake pregnancy bumps to model maternity wear, while starving myself under the pressure of losing weight and hopelessly applying for any ‘real job’ that would have me. I’d get drunk two-three times a week just to be hungover, as I didn’t feel such intense anxiety. Every day felt like drowning in an ocean of fish swimming the completely opposite way to me. 

This lack of structure quickly spiralled into even more impulsive decisions, such as impulsively leaving a long-term relationship and moving county every month. Like one in four women with ADHD, I became suicidal. 

If I’d ended my life at 25 instead of seeing a psychiatrist, I never would have found out that I had ADHD – and I wouldn’t be here. The diagnosis enabled me to accept that I was indeed ‘different’ to most people. The medication helped me to sit still long enough to find and apply for a job I wanted and go to an interview, where I was offered a job in mental health and disability law.

It also helped me to finish writing The Model Manifesto, a book I wrote to help models avoid exploitation. I spoke on Lorraine before going into my office job, determined to achieve my dream of keeping it for at least one year and finally being ‘normal’. 

Ironically, working in disability law taught me that ADHD could be a disability. I could try to be ‘normal’ all I liked, but it’s not normal to live over the road from your job in a flat you can’t afford because you’re so scared that you’ll quit. I learned that I didn’t have to do everything by myself and there was help available.

Seeking help through coaching

Accessing ADHD coaching through the government’s Access to Work scheme empowered me to understand how to make friends with my brain, instead of shaming it into submission. This led me to write ADHD: an A to Z before feeling a duty to share this with others. I was terrified that it would destroy the career I’d fought so hard for, but within weeks of self publishing I was receiving daily messages from people exactly like me all around the world. 

One of these was a woman at Microsoft, who invited me to do a talk there. Realising I wasn’t alone made me understand that I didn’t want to be normal and I decided to quit my job to train as an ADHD coach and finally live life on my terms, combining my personal and professional experiences to empower others. 

The broken healthcare system of years-long assessment waiting lists meant I quickly had a waiting list of hundreds of people desperate for support. This led me to set up ADHD Works to help others through accessible resources such as courses, coaching and training. This year, I’ve trained more than 80 ADHD coaches – a career I never even knew existed five years ago. 

I’ve also trained companies such as Yahoo, Deutsche Bank and Disney UK – places I could have only dreamed of working at as a graduate. I still have to stop myself from laughing when they announce my ‘achievements’, such as presenting to directors of the World Health Organization, because, for me, my most impressive achievement will always be staying alive. 

Leanne Maskell is an ADHD coach, the founder of ADHD Works and author of ADHD Works At Work