Over the years, I’ve had many people ask me how to go about explaining to their boss, partner, friends and family their ADHD diagnosis. Often times, these are folks who have recently been evaluated for ADHD and are eager to explain their lifetime difficulties to people they know, with the hope that they’ll be better understood.
I’m all for openness, honesty and disclosure, but you may be surprised to hear that I don’t always recommend that people share their ADHD diagnosis; at least not to everyone.
Sadly, there are many people in this world who still do not believe ADHD exists. We can spin our wheels forever, talking till we’re blue in the face trying to prove that it does, indeed exist. We can point out the new research coming out that shows chemical and structural differences in the ADHD brain. In many cases, the effort is worthwhile, but in others, it can backfire. For example, if your boss is concerned that you are consistently late for work, you may want to explain that your ADHD prevents you from getting out of the house in time. If your boss is one of those people that firmly believe ADHD doesn’t exist, or that it’s over-diagnosed, then revealing your ADHD can put you in a pretty tough situation. A red flag might go up and your job could be in jeopardy. It doesn’t matter if you have the top ADHD expert in the world telling your boss you have ADHD. If your boss doesn’t care or doesn’t get it, it may just backfire for you. Even though there are federal laws in place to protect employees with disabilities, it is very very hard and expensive to win such cases.
When and Who to Tell
Once an ADHD diagnosis is given, it IS important to share this information with your loved ones. Whether it’s you carrying the diagnosis, or your spouse or your child; the rest of the family needs to know so that they can begin to understand the challenges the family member has experienced all his life and set up ways to help and support them. This is part of the healing process- sharing the information and receiving the support that’s needed.
Many adults still carry the stigma from (not that many) years ago that ADHD means they are “stupid, lazy or crazy” and fear that family and close friends will judge them negatively. Unfortunately, there are still people who DO believe this, therefore, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of disclosure. If you’re certain that sharing the diagnosis will only make matters worse, re-consider the urge to do it. If you think it MIGHT help but you’re not sure the person in question believes ADHD exists, find other ways to explain your symptoms without using the term, “ADHD.”
For example, if your symptoms at work are creating problems for you, you could tell your boss that sitting near the door is very distracting for you and prevents you from doing your best work. Before discussing the problem, though, have a plan in place. Follow up by saying, for example, that you know you’d be more productive if you could move your desk further away from all the activities in the office. This way, you are stating a problem and offering a solution. Compare this with the following scenario:
You: “I just figured out why I get distracted at work. It’s too noisy in this office. I was just diagnosed with ADHD. Could I swap offices with Sally?”
Boss: “Everyone has ADHD these days. It’s just an excuse for lousy performance. Just try harder and you can get your work done.”
See the difference?
When NOT to Tell
Because ADHD has been in the news quite a bit, many people do believe that it is the diagnosis “du jour.” As in the example above, consider who you wish to tell, why and what the possible outcome could be. Telling your boss can backfire. However, if you have a solid working relationship with him/her and feel your job is stable, then it could benefit you by being up front and open. But if you’re already on thin ice, think twice about disclosing it blatantly. Again, in general, use a description of your symptoms rather than full disclosure of your diagnosis, and offer suggestions on how to make things work for you.
You probably have a relative or two that thinks ADHD is a made up disorder. The obvious reaction, when you get a formal diagnosis, is to explain to them that you actually do have a neurobiological problem and it’s not a matter of being lazy or incapable. Again, think about what you want to achieve here. Typically, it’s to be better understood. But if Aunt Ethyl is too set in her ways to consider that you have a valid medical condition, then what will you get out of disclosing your ADHD?
How to Tell
First, arm yourself with information and have books, pamphlets and websites ready to share with friends and family. You want to first educate yourself as much as possible, so that you’re ready to answer any questions people might have. Start with a bit of history. If you’ve had a long difficult time as a student and continue to struggle in college, explain that you now understand the reason for your academic struggles.
Explain that this is a lifetime, often genetic condition that can’t be cured but can be managed. If your ADHD has impacted those you love in a negative way, discuss how this new bit of information- your diagnosis- can help turn things around for all of you, but that you need their understanding and support. Explain that you will be pro-active by getting appropriate treatment for your ADHD.
Since ADHD is a lifelong, chronic condition, it’s important for you and your loved ones to understand that even with proper treatment, you will still face roadblocks along the way. Your ADHD won’t go away, but chances are, you’ll be able to tame it.
Remember, too, that ADHD is not an excuse for your difficulties; it’s an explanation for them.
(Originally published January, 2009)
What has been your experience? Who do you share your diagnosis with? How? Share your experience with others below in the Comment section.
VERY GOOD summary of this whole topic. It is crucial to one’s credibility to consider this extremely carefully, just as you have outlined. The decision has to be weighed over time and one should never impulsively just divulge. And as you state, to whom you are disclosing is extremely important. And it is only with time that you can really know enough about that person to decide if it is necessary to disclose, and, how that person may receive the information.
Thanks for all you do in supporting our ADHD community, my friend!!
Thanks for your comments, MK! I do think people need to be more cautious about how they explain their ADHD and to whom…. you are so right.
Funny how just like with everything else to do with ADHD, I think I’m so special, only to find out that everyone else in this tribe has the exact same problems.
How to disclose? I can’t tell.
I know when and how to not do it, though: I disclosed during the glow of first diagnosis, which in Germany took me around six months to get after I realised adhd is the answer. On top of that, it was also the fourth week on methylphenidate.
I felt forced to disclose to my then-CEO. I was anxious, I was overconfident, I had 3 hours of sleep, I couldn’t eat, I had never overmedicated at that point and didn’t know that could happen. I talked myself into a few corners – at the speed of light. hello, overmedication, hi, first timer here.
It was an epic disaster, and the decision to let me go was taken, I’m sure, the second I started saying the magic words “my problems over the summer were all due to me having adhd, but it’s okay now, I fixed it through several strategies including medication, which has changed my life!! look how brilliantly much better my previously already good work output has become!”
I only told the CEO because I had told my manager, and he convinced me that to save the situation, I could and should tell the CEO – and I trusted my manager over my own better judgement.
Here’s the rub, in my experience: your direct supervisor, if they are actually involved in your work process, will not mind the adhd negatives, because they get to see the positives. Telling them is still a risk, for all the reasons listed above.
But don’t. Do not. DO NOT!!! tell work-people 1) who have power over you and 2) who don’t know your work output about the adhd, or associated problems. The risk is too high.
I could not believe this was happening. I was due a promotion, the promotion had already been signed (without me knowing this), it had been a done deal, I was told to my face. Instead, because of one single 45 minute meeting, they pulled back the promotion, and five days later I was let go.
I still can’t believe this happened. It’s been 11 months since, I’m now in a job which moves faster, is better, gives me the opportunity to learn new things, and also had me jump from below average income for someone with my qualifications into the stratosphere. So in a way, I’m grateful. I’d still be there, toiling away, thinking I was the least senior and thus the worst qualified in my team, thinking I had to bear the work environment because no one else would take me. I had so MANY actual job offers, good ones… !
It’s true that this prompted me to move onwards and upwards. But it hurt, and it was deeply unfair, and thus, it is my opinion that if you have a way to not disclose? DON’T. It didn’t help me that my manager went to bat for me. It didn’t help that my team colleagues were outraged. It didn’t help that the workers representative tried to talk sense to the CEO. Nothing helped. In Germany, neither does the law protect us.
They made me feel like a piece of dirt, and took away my beloved job and my beloved team, even though I had spent all my free time for six months to try to fix my adhd related problems- and found so many things that worked for me! But it wasn’t enough, because now they knew about the diagnosis.
Maybe, in the US, there are fewer prejudices, but my current manager is from the US, and has told me that it’s the same in the there. “It’s fine that you told me. Do not tell my successor was her advice.
So be CAREFUL. Even people you trust to be good about it may, in fact, not be. Don’t tell work people if you don’t HAVE TO. If your company is serious about accepting mental health stuff as part of being human, and gives perks to those who ask for them, maybe tell. If not? Please, please, please: zip your mouth shut. Sit on it. I KNOW how hard it is. I couldn’t help myself, three times! Even despite the above disaster! And yet, it is never a good idea.
I was lucky, my skillset is currently in demand. If it hadn’t been, I may never have found work again, causing an even more severe bout of depression than the one I did fall into, anyway.
Scream the song of “I Have ADHD, I Now Know Why Everything Has Been Happening To Me So Much For So Long!!!!!!” from the rooftops. But unless your company is serious about actively helping staff feel and be better, do not utter that combination of letters in any work context, ever. The getting fired for it does still hapoen. The real world is not the safespace the ADHD-friendly webspaces make it out to be.
Wow Wow Wow. What a powerful post.
I’m really sad for you that you had to go through that, although you did land in a much better job position. Still…you sure did take a hit on your way there.
You are so right. It is often unwise to share one’s ADHD diagnosis in the workplace. In the USA, we *do* have laws to protect us, BUT it is almost impossible to make the law work for us. So in general, it’s usually safer to not disclose except under very certain circumstances.
Thank you again for sharing your experience and your thoughts on all this.
Thanks for the posts. I’ve sent probably most of my life with ADHD. Despite 30+ years of career/ financial success, I dealt with many conditions as we all do. Diagnosed with anxiety, insomnia, depression, even bi-polar type 2 once….no meds ever helped or were band aids at best. Finally, dr triedadhd diagnosis and treatment. It was like a miracle. Immediately anxiety disappeared, racing thoughts gone, clear concentration….I’d say 80 % of symptoms I’d had last several decades disappeared literally overnight. I was ecstatic. My bro commented to my mom…is he ok? I’d spoken to him in a calm way…not spastic all over the way as always, maybe he thought I was high? She said no, he’s fine. Another friend blasted me after revealing adhd…now you blame all your past on this etc, didn’t go well. Another good friend said, maybe you’re on too high a dose (I’m not) cause you don’t sound like yourself…that felt hurtful. I’m thinking despite best intentions of sharing this revaluation for me…it’s probably better to not advertise!:)