How I got diagnosed with ADHD aged 38
Piece by Dan Northcote-Smith, Creative Director at The&Partnership
I sit in the middle of a small arthouse cinema. The room is packed. My first film is showing at the Short Cinema Festival in Leicester, my home town. The last time I lived here I was hungry and borderline homeless, but that was years ago. A lot has changed. I cannot sit still at the best of times but when my name appears I feel my legs start to twitch uncontrollably.
My film starts. Disaster. This is not the finished version. It’s not graded and there are no titles. This is heartbreaking as the story is told via text messages between the protagonists, shown on-screen. Watching this crowd watching this incomprehensible piece of work was nearly too much. I want to run but I’m trapped. The next 4 minutes and 58 seconds are pure agony. How had I uploaded the wrong version? How could so much hard work be ruined by such a simple mistake? The truly painful thing about this is it didn’t feel like a surprise. Mistakes like this have followed me around my entire life.
When you have ADHD you can be the hero and villain of your own story.
I didn’t actually know I had ADHD at this point. I just thought my brain didn’t work as well as everyone else’s. I found things hard that others found easy. Late, disorganised and forgetful. Terrible with money and likely to blurt out the wrong thing. School was hard. Homework remained unwritten and concentrating in class felt impossible. I knew I wasn’t stupid but I had to wonder, what the f*ck was wrong with me?
THE PENNY DROPS
At 38, the answer to this question finally arrived. A photographer friend told me about his ADHD diagnosis. His symptoms sounded like he was talking about me. I spoke to a psychologist on Zoom, took tests and filled an ironically long questionnaire. The results were unequivocal. I suffered from profound dual-type ADHD. I cried when I got my diagnosis, years of guilt and feelings of inadequacy lifted.
Rewind 20 years. I met a man called Nick in a grimey trance club in the Midlands. He was studying ‘Creative Advertising’. I thought, that doesn’t sound like a job, I’m in. I had always thought advertising was amazing. My teenage walls were plastered with my favourite ads (between posters of Gianfranco Zola and Jennifer Aniston) and I distinctly remember getting in trouble in chemistry for shouting ‘Armadillos’. Nick’s tutor told me to write a portfolio. It won me a place on their art foundation. Pass that and I could take the degree. No A-Levels required. The best bit? Writing ads did not feel like homework.
After uni I went to Watford. Tony Cullingham was the teacher I always needed. A master of motivation. The Jose Mourinho of creativity. I left with a job. It’s mad to think that I went from having to steal food to eat, to working in a London agency within 5 years. I was right, advertising is amazing.
ADHD IN AD AGENCY
For a creative, ADHD can be a gift. Ideas come easily, your brain works very fast and is used to travelling in several directions at once. Sometimes the only thing holding you back is how quickly you can write. Enthusiasm is essential to any creative department and people with ADHD have Ikea bags of the stuff. Unconventional solutions to problems can land you in trouble in the real world but in advertising they win you awards. When I found a partner who excelled in logic, ideas got written up, presented and sold.
That partner? Nick, my trance club friend.
NO DOPAMINE, NO REWARD
Being disorganised is common in ADHD. The knowing stuff part of your brain doesn’t talk to the doing stuff part of your brain, so completing tasks is hard. ADHD brains just don’t produce the chemical rewards for getting stuff done. This is called ‘executive dysfunction’. Agency support systems can be a real help for this. You are surrounded by great things that remove the burden of organisation, like project managers with to-do lists, client deadlines and calendars. These ‘external structures’ are the key to helping ADHD people reach their potential. It’s like an armadillo, smooth on the inside, crunchy on the outside. Armadillos.
Agencies are also fantastically distracting places. A wandering mind can lead to great creative leaps but can let valuable thoughts slip away. Overstimulation from emails and DMs can make thinking impossible. Some days motivation eludes you. It’s not laziness, it’s just that your brain’s dopamine tank has run dry. Long meetings can be exhausting. If you ever see me filling my pad with doodles, this isn’t boredom, I’m just calming my mind to help me retain information.
LIFE HAS CHANGED
I now take one tablet every morning which helps the different departments in my brain talk to one another. I can now stay focussed, retain items in my short term memory and complete tasks, like writing this article. I feared that this could affect my creativity, that lateral leaps would be impossible. I needn’t have worried. I still create ideas, but now I can sell them too. I write decks and deliver them to clients. Now I focus for so long I often stand up to make a cup of tea and my legs would have gone to sleep from the lack of movement.
My diagnosis came right around the time I joined The&Partnership. I didn’t know if I should tell them or not. In my third week I was invited to hear my new colleagues from every department talking about their neurodiversity. It was time to leave the guilt and shame behind, I guess.
ADHD IN THE INDUSTRY
Agencies should add neurodiversity to your DE&I targets. Diversity of thought powers your creative output and ADHD brains are a renewable energy source. Our job is solving business problems in surprising and original ways. People with ADHD are allergic to boredom and they don’t read the instructions.
To build ADHD inclusivity, agencies should:
- Create quiet spaces to think. Away from client calls and talk of invoices.
- Create diverse teams: It’s not everyone’s jobs to be organised.
- Build the external structures and assume neurodivergence. The support you give will likely help all your creatives.
- Set limits of 45 minutes on meetings and don’t judge people for doodling.
If you think you might have ADHD, getting a diagnosis can help you become the creative force you know you can be. Your agency would benefit greatly from helping with this.
Thanks for reading the story of my ADHD journey. It took me a long time to start. My tangents have now been edited out. Hopefully I submitted the finished version.