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Visions Journal

The Great Unmasking

How unemployment helped me rediscover myself and embrace my ADHD brain

Carly Johannson

Reprinted from the The Many Faces of Neurodiversity issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (3), pp. 34-35

Photo of author, Carly Johannson

In June of last year I was let go from my job. I can’t say I was expecting it (who is?), so naturally, it came as a pretty huge shock. I felt blindsided but told myself it was for the best. I soon disappeared, without a trace or another word, from the only corporate environment I’d ever known.

Even though I accepted the situation for what it was, I couldn’t help but overthink everything that had brought me to that point, and about what I could have done differently. I started to obsessively analyze every piece of feedback I’d been given in my work life, both the positive and negative. I was highly creative but lacked confidence and focus; I was an excellent writer but unorganized, with terrible time management; I had good ideas but was either too soft-spoken or too emotional.

Instead of finding a sense of clarity, I was just left feeling more confused and a lot like I had failed. If I’m being honest, it felt like I had never fit in to begin with. It turns out I had undiagnosed and unmanaged attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Reassessing and relearning

Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult is disorienting, to put it lightly. I’d never considered I had it until I was spending every day alone with my thoughts. I finally got tested as a last-ditch effort to explain my declining mental health. I’d always thought I was just severely anxious and a bit depressed. I had no idea my brain worked differently than most of the people around me.

From that point on, many of my symptoms made sense. My paralyzing decision-making anxiety. My screaming thoughts and inability to hold a conversation. The constant, jittery restlessness and intense emotional reactions. Even my work “failures”—all explained by an acronym I’d never thought twice about. My head was spinning with new information, and I knew I needed time to process it. I promised myself I’d take at least the summer off before attempting to look for work again. Truthfully, I had no idea what a job would even look like for me now.

A funny thing happens when you discover something life-altering about your mind and behaviour: suddenly it’s all you can see. It was like taking off a mask I’d been wearing my entire life. My brain felt both free and overexposed. One minute my thoughts were pure chaotic nonsense, the next I felt like I had superpowers. I was flooded with the desire to do things and act in ways I thought I’d left behind. I felt confidently impulsive and unfiltered, then wildly anxious, thinking I’d said the wrong thing or made an irresponsible choice.

The whiplash was isolating and overwhelming until I learned that the unmasking sensation was common.1 I had quite literally been masking my ADHD traits, thinking I was managing them. Now I was in a game of tug-of-war with my own personality. I started re-evaluating everything I thought I knew. It was like starting a puzzle from scratch.

I had often mourned aspects of my childhood and adolescence for reasons I could never quite explain. The more pieces I put together, the more I understood why: I used to let myself be whoever I wanted, then, without even realizing it (until now—thanks, therapy!), I listened too closely whenever I was told I should be somebody else. The “mature” adult I’d prided myself on becoming wasn’t bred out of self-awareness, like I thought. I was just overcorrecting (read: masking) behaviour that seemed undesirable to the people around me and getting praised for “mellowing out.”

I took what I thought were flawed personality traits and instead of harnessing the good parts of them, I tossed them aside. Imagine my surprise when I learned that maturing isn’t the same thing as moulding yourself into someone you think everybody else would prefer. At 27 years old, I felt like I was looking at myself for the first time.

New awareness, new direction

What does all this have to do with me finding a job? Everything. And that’s the point. As I cautiously dipped my toes back into the job pond, I knew I needed to find in my next role what I hadn’t had in my last one: the space and permission to be authentic and supported.

The problem was it didn’t feel possible. Reading through job descriptions, I felt myself shrinking again. With every rejected application and interview I didn’t nail, I felt more and more like I didn’t belong. I’d figured out how to manage my symptoms in healthy ways, but nobody seemed to care. They just wanted someone who checked all their boxes, someone they wouldn’t have to accommodate. It was exhausting. It still is, but it’s even more exhausting to put back on the mask I only just learned how to take off.

If my former self knew what I know now, she would have plenty to say. Since I can’t go back in time, all I can do is offer advice to anyone hiring or managing someone with ADHD. Don’t assume they’re not good at their job because they lack certain skill sets—some of the best ideas are born from disorder. If they’re struggling, ask them what they need, then actually give it to them—you’ll be glad you did when you’re the one watching them thrive. Fewer people learn faster than a neurodiverse brain with a bit of passion and support. Take a chance and believe in one. You’ll soon have a creative superhero on your hands.

If you’re hoping for a happy ending for my job search, you won’t find one yet. But that’s not the takeaway. The takeaway is everything else I found along the way. For the first time in my life, I feel like I know myself and my value. For years, I trapped myself in environments that made me mask who I really was because I wanted stability over freedom.

To anyone who has done the same, know that it’s not worth it. Know that your brain, neurodiverse and all, is precious and worthy of accommodation. Know that you’re allowed to prioritize giving your unique mind what you feel it needs, without shame or guilt—whether that’s journalling, exercise, medication or anything in between.

Know that asking for what you need isn’t an inconvenience, and if someone tells you it is, they have a lot to learn and they don’t deserve you. Know that you should never have to stretch, shrink or mould yourself into someone you don’t recognize because somebody else says that’s how you’ll succeed. If you’ve figured out how to embrace the parts of yourself you’ve forgotten, you’re already succeeding.

About the author

Carly is a 27-year-old writer and fierce mental health advocate living in Vancouver. She hopes to someday blend her passion for words and her experience with anxiety, depression and ADHD into the creative profession of her dreams—she’s still figuring out what that’s going to be

  1. Lovering, N. (2022, May 10). Masking in ADHD: The “why” matters. Psych Central.

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