I’d rather be telling filthy stories but i’m kind of fighting with an (unusual for me) anxiety issue.
This is a long story and I would rather not tell it all right this moment, but we’ll see, these things grow as I go one sometimes.
I’ve worked in high tech for an absurd number of years. I had an aptitude with computers from the time I first encountered them in the late 70’s; I learn things hands on, and pick them up quickly. So when, for example, the poster/plant department of Tower Records needed a person to take over ticket sales when we first got a terminal, my boss tapped me because he knew i’d be all over it.
It’s always been that way. I don’t have patience with manuals and instructions, but things I can learn by getting hands on and problem solving, I launch at. My first high tech job was as a shipping clerk, but I quickly found my way into a test department (at Seagate in Scotts Valley), moving into engineering on hard work and fast learning.
This got me every job since, going through most of the top tech companies of the 80’s and 90’s. I won’t mention my current employer by name, but Sun and Cisco were both great for me, allowing me to keep learning and growing as an engineer as well as a technical expert in non-engineering teams.
It’s the same story throughout; aptitude, work ethic, intelligence, and extremely good communication skills.
The fact that I didn’t always excel at deep focus tasks was balanced by all the rest; if I could not solve a deep technical problem, I knew how to diagnose the issue, and collaborate to get it solved quickly by people who had the specific skill I did not have. I compensated for certain difficulties, by multi-tasking exceptionally well. Yes, I have had phone sex while programming perl code, and did both well, thank you.
However, there are certain limits in those raw talent areas. A musician friend of mine, a guy who had a PhD in music, once explained it to me by saying, sure, those gifted ear players are amazing, and can go on for entire careers without ever needing formal music education and the ability to read music. But at some point, they tend to run into territory where they don’t know why something is a certain way, and are limited in one way or another by it. While ear players can be incredibly gifted, if they need to, for example, arrange a horn or orchestral part, they generally need somebody to translate hummed melody to charts.
I solved this by choosing to work in areas in which I am gifted – and I say this not with hyperbole, but with a relentlessly self-analytical person’s understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses.
I know my communication skills are strong, because I was raised by communicators (my father was a college teacher specializing in speech-communication, logic and semantics, my mother was a poet and a career bookstore person, who worked at my father’s editor for every scholarly thing he ever wrote), and because my role in every job i’ve ever had has tended to included bridging the gap between people who are talking past each other, or who are struggling with misunderstandings. I’ve written vast amounts of technical documentation, entire manuals. I’ve also worked in business negotiation.
I solve problems, I handle crises. If I were a doctor, i’d be a trauma surgeon because ‘save you from dying’ is my skill set, not ‘nurse you back to health’. So my career has been a lot of engineering support, because it uses all my strengths while not being impacted by my limitations. It makes multi-tasking a huge strength, it makes handling a crisis well a huge strength.
Theer are limits, though. Because at a certain point, inevitably, hign tech companies tend to decide that if you’re good at something, really, really good at it, it means you should go do something else.
This is why you get your best engineer, who is not a good leader, promoted to manager, or your person who’s great at schedules and spread sheets but crap at communication, promoted to ‘program management’ (which is half communication). In nearly 40 years in high tech, I see this pattern over and over. Promote people away frolic what they’re good at, and stall them out there.
So you get people who are great at support (ie, me) asked to suddenly be good at something that needs none of the crucial support skills (great under pressure, great at triage and diagnosis, great at analysis of an issue). Yes, I can write code; no, I’m not a programmer. I’ll never write great code, or code quickly, and I don’t want to be doing that.
This is where i’ve found myself over the last few years.
The last three or found years, i’ve dealt with a collision of issues that are unlike anything else i’ve faced, and it’s put me at a crossroads.
There’s a long story here which i’ll summarize; my 24 year old daughter has long struggled with mental illness, as well as with a wide variety of physical ailments, those difficult to diagnose autoimmune sorts of things which almost seem random. After a few years of success late in highschool, and then in college, she gradually worsened, defying both her medial and psychiatric professional to solve either problem (and in all likelihood, the two making each other worse). Her collapse led to worsening familial stress; as she got less and less functional, my family got less and less functional overall, with steadily worsening distraction for me. This spilled into work, making me less and less able to maintain focus and do anything outside my core strengths.
Add to this my employer moving me into the worst physical space imaginable for a person stuggling with distraction; a vast, open space, with no sound barrier, and no visual break. Constant noise, constant vistial activity, constant bombardment of distraction. In a team of people doing phone support, we had no place to screen anything out (and I cannot work n headphones, i’ve tried).
I reported this to my employer and was greeted with (in effect) ‘nothing we can do about it’.
And then – pandemic.
Everything got worse, other than the physical space issue. For two+ years I worked from home. I at least had a door I could close for meetings and phone calls. But as the familial troubles grew, my stress got worse, further inflaming a problem with concentration and focus.
I started getting hammered on my performance reviews, for the first time in my career. Not because I was not getting things done, but because the expectations got fuzzy, and what was being asked was suddenly at odds with my actual work. I’ve never gotten a bad review, ever, and suddenly I was getting one after the other, all coming down to lack of organized project work, for a person who wasn’t doing that sort of work.
IT wasn’t until this year, 2022, that I finally said, wait, maybe there’s something going on I am not recognizing.
One day I tried an ADHD med a friend had given me, when I expressed curiosity. And my world changed. I suddenly felt the building anxiety and depression melt away, and had a normal work day, closing out issues.
That day I made a psychiatric appt.
The diagnosis with ADHD was obvious, to my shrink. She went through the full formal process, but I don’t think either of us had any doubts about it right from my initial report of the problems. My kids both have serious ADHD, and I think my mother had it. I fit all the symptoms, I find, but hadn’t recognized in myself (or rather, I noticed but figured, well, it’s not impacting me, so, no issue).
Treatment didn’t just improve my work performance, it calmed be down and – almost over night – removed my depression and most of my anxiety.
That was four months ago now, and it’s had a major impact on my life. That’s not to say all my problems went away, far from it; it’s a tool. But i’m still learning how to use this tool, ie, how to let it make me more effective, how to use the improved state to fix my work performance issues. But I finally feel for the first time in 4+ years, like i’m able to regain controll of things.
That said, this is going to be a long process. High tech companies, despite having huge numbers of employees who are dealing with ADHD, are not good at understanding a
handicap disability if it’s not something they can see. Any neurodivergence will scramble them if it goes from being pure strength, to handicap disability needing accommodation. I’ve had a number of conversations already with HR and management, but every single conversation seems to go the same direction: i’m guided to counseling and therapy, promised the ability to accommodate needs, but then any accommodation I specifically ask for, tends to result in confused and vague response and a finger pointing at the other party.
I’m led to believe that any support is available except the support I need, which is NOT what I expect from one of the world’s richest, most progressive companies.
THis is all new territory for me, but i’m thankful that I have support from friends, family, and a growing community of people i’m meeting who are dealing with adult ADHD. I’m only now starting to talk about this experience, and there will be more to this story going forward. But, i’m unwilling to just knuckle under to an employer i’ve given 22 years of my life, because they’re uncomfortable dealing with an invisible
handicap disability. I do not want to fight about this, I think I can persuade, but, if it’s a fight they want, I am willing to fight. 2022 is not the year then want to hear phrases like ‘age bias’ and ‘ handicap disability bias’ but I can make a compelling case for either, let alone both.
EDIT: I’ve been reminded that the word ‘handicap’ has now been deprecated, and we’re supposed to use ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’.
I’m not going to get into the issue I have with this as a semantics expert (every time we start deciding a word is bad because of ‘connotations’ we create a murky swamp of vague meaning, which will just then render the next word as ‘no longer ok’ after a bit when the meaning is transferred and the connotation with it; but that’s a topic for later, and for now, i’m striking out the word in question, acknowledging that it’s currently out of favor).