OCD and ADHD affect my role as an employee. From being denied jobs to managing deadlines to emergency responses, my disorders has severely impacted my work capacity. However, not all the effects on my job are negative: OCD and ADHD also provide major benefits to my work performance. Often times, my mental disorders only hurt certain aspects of work performance while providing my greatest strengths.
Lifeguarding and Swim Lessons
I worked at several public pools during high school and early college as a lifeguard, water safety instructor, headguard, and lifeguard instructor. People with ADHD have an interesting relationship with the crowded sensory world of a public pool— ADHD and SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) are tightly linked. People with SPD tend to hate getting splashed and, well, you’re going to get splashed as a lifeguard (though it actually doesn’t happen all that often). The echo of indoor pools can also become overwhelming. Yet I know several very successful lifeguards with ADHD, including one individual with moderately-severe SPD. Referring back to my article on ADHD, sufferers become overwhelmed when processing many stimuli simultaneously. One hypothesis I agree with posits that ADHD sensory overload occurs because the individual is hyperaware of each stimulus. The sounds of a rowdy kids, PDA-ing teenagers, and water features become targeted sources that the lifeguard will bounce between rapidly. By focusing on areas of high activity, ADHD creates a natural heuristic that optimizes search time. Of course, drownings can occur in areas of low activity, and that’s where OCD comes in.
OCD hates uncertainty and catastrophizes most situations. While in the chair, I would neurotically scan every corner of the pool for fear that I had missed someone drowning. Unsurprisingly, I never missed a thing. One of the pools I worked out did regular practical tests every shift. Sometimes, headguards would drop a weighted silhouette before you arrived at station and time how long it took you to find it. Other times, they’d lightly toss a green ball in areas with few people or behind water features and measure your response time. Thirdly, every lifeguard had to answer a first aid question before the end of each shift (this pool was seriously on top of things). I consistently had great response times and knew the Red Cross Lifeguard manual inside out and backwards. My usual scan consisted of quickly darting between high-activity and high-risk zones and then perform a longer, more thorough search. I’d perform this cycle once every 30 seconds as per Red Cross recommendations—can’t break protocol with that good ole OCD. My disorders definitely combined into a powerful tool for keeping the swimming public safe.
Concerns about pedophilia and a scrupulous adherence to the lifeguard manual created stressful experiences. My POCD (Pedophile OCD) dramatically changed how I taught swim lessons. Drowning utterly terrifies me; its what drove me to become a lifeguard. Teaching kids to safely have fun in the water fulfilled a personal mission. But one day, a coworker commented that they feared parents would accuse him of molesting their children during lessons, so they only taught classes of older kids and never got in the water. In that moment, their feared transferred to me. As a senior instructor, I requested to only teach high-level classes and kept physical contact with students to a minimum. That’s difficult to do when you need to physically grab the legs or arms of kids in swimsuits to help create the muscle memory needed to swim. Scared of parents, I relegated myself to improving the technique of those who already knew how to swim. Given my experience, I wouldn’t be assigned a class during some swim lesson sessions. Instead, they’d wait a day or two to identify students in need of the most help and assign me to them. Nine times out of ten, they were under eight years old. I love working with kids and watching them succeed, but helping them induced hidden stress.
Luckily, my symptoms were not too bad at this point of my life. I was able to fight through my intrusions during this period.
Every little accident at a pool must be immediately life threatening. At least, that’s what my intrusions told me. Two specific instances highlight how OCD-driven catastrophization can impede work. When someone poops in a pool, you have to close the pool down for 30+ minutes after netting it out to give the chlorine time to sterilize the water. If someone has diarrhea, the pool must be closed for 8+ hours since you can’t net it out and diarrhea may be caused by an illness. I was headguarding on a weekend which meant that I was second-in-command to the building lead (on the pool half of the building). While making rounds, I noticed a brown haze in the water and immediately feared it was diarrhea. Closing a pool on a weekend day costs substantial money and inconveniences hundreds of people. Safety comes first, but the decision to close should not come lightly. After a little deliberation, I shut down the pool for the day. The next week, my manager called me in and told me the haze probably came from a waterlogged log of feces instead of diarrhea and that I didn’t have good evidence that it was diarrhea. Sadly, light hazes don’t appear on security cameras, so the closure was ultimately based on my word alone.
The Red Cross states that any fall from above standing height should be treated as a possible spinal injury by the lifeguard. EMS can make more informed decisions when they arrive. One time, a child fell off the first step of a slide and received a small laceration on their head. The headguard on duty managed the child’s care while I took over the routine functions of the pool. The child’s wound was small, they were fully coherent, and the guard caring from them was a special forces battle medic (they lifeguarded on the side for a bit of extra dough, talking to them was always interesting). The guard simply washed the wound, applied pressure until it stopped bleeding, and applied a bandage—nothing more needed to be done. At our supervisor meeting the next week, I strongly expressed my disagreement that the situation was handled only as a laceration and not as a spinal injury. I genuinely wanted to have called 911 and restrained the child on a backboard.
Truly a dramatic reaction to an inconsequentially small cut. In fact, planning responses to dramatic situations became a mainstay of my day-to-day work. Even when constantly scanning the pool or managing lifeguards, you have plenty of time to simply think. Patrolling the pool, I’d draw up catastrophic scenarios and planned emergency responses to each and every one—a practice I continue to this day (minus the pool). During my career, I had to handle several life-threatening situations and my constant mental practice equipped me with the knowledge and cool to deal with them. A recounting of these events is beyond the scope of this article—though I’ll probably write about them one day—but I’m very proud of how I managed those situations.
Wow, I talked a lot about lifeguarding. I promise the next few sections will be far shorter. As you can see, OCD and ADHD definitely costed resources and led to overdrawn conclusions. However, they helped me deal with numerous serious scenarios and continually sharpened my scanning performance and first aid knowledge. Combining the positives and negatives, OCD and ADHD formed me into an accomplished lifeguard.
I describe how OCD and ADHD affect my teaching in detail in Teacher in the Gray – Part 1: Let Me Teach You How to Drown. In brief, I love teaching but ADHD causes my lectures to take a million tangents while OCD causes me to overexplain each of them. Furthermore, grading causes me substantial stress and takes me an unrealistically long amount of time to complete as I obsess over giving each student a fair and uniformly judged grade. Grading would literally debilitate me.
Working as a teaching assistant became a battleground of love and fear. I genuinely enjoyed prepping study sessions as an undergraduate and lectures/experiments as a graduate student. Even if I couldn’t get out of bed for work (see below), I could still get up to teach. Both ADHD and OCD generated this passion for education. People with ADHD perseverate on topics of interest and when they get excited about a topic, they get really excited—0 or 100 with nothing in between. Once, one of my undergraduate teaching assistants asked me about why I didn’t like Windows or Apple (Linux for the win). She asked me after a night class and I warned her that, if she let me, I could go on for a long time. She said she didn’t have anywhere to be and I proceeded to give a 45 minute impromptu lesson about operating systems, kernels, Electron Apps, and package management software with a dusty chalkboard to match. In addition to excitement, the compulsive need completely understood helps me teach very thoroughly if you’re willing to listen.
While in treatment, I was surprised to learn how talkative many people with OCD can be despite their fears and co-morbid SAD (Social Anxiety Disorder). Quite a few people with OCD obsessionally fear that they will be misunderstood and that said misunderstanding would lead to dramatic consequences, e.g., I misstate a fact in my class and it affects that students dissertation in six years. People with those fears tend to belabor points and repeat their conclusions multiple times to ensure clarity. Paradoxically, repeating the same point numerous times in a row with slightly varied language tends to confuse people.
Teaching in a grading-free environment lets my strengths shine. I currently work as an educator at an aquarium. Thus, I teach people about life and conservation both on the floor with guests and occasionally through online media. Since aquarium guests don’t have homework for me to grade—odd, I know—my OCD doesn’t hold me down and I can fully engage in my work.
This is a tough subject for me to write about because it makes me feel ashamed and guilty. To get straight to the point, I’ve been late or missed work numerous times due to OCD and MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). Intrusions worsen as the day ages and some nights cause such bad spiraling that I don’t fall asleep until very late, if at all. Sometimes I can muster the energy to get to work and push through, but I’m typically so exhausted that I fall back asleep after my alarms go off. Missing work effects everyone on shift and I rightfully feel guilty for how I’ve impacted them. This guilt feeds into MDD and spirals even further. As a general rule, if I miss work, I will spend the rest of the day in bed watching TV while not eating.
I’ve gotten very lucky with how my places of work handle absences. My symptoms were far milder during high school. To my recollection, I was never late to a single shift. Quite the opposite: I would compulsively check my work schedule multiple times per day and tried to arrived 15–20 minutes early—I still check my schedules repetitively (something I need to work on [these brackets exist solely to increase the amount of punctuation in this sentence «as are these»]). The next four years of work occurred in small academic labs. My job primarily consisted of bioinformatics—computational analysis of biological data—so I could miss a day and make it up on a weekend with little-to-no consequence. Only recently have my absences begun to matter again.
ADHD can be a hero when it cares. As stated above, ADHD goes from 0 to 100 when it gets excited. This results in an intriguing work-related phenomenon. If someone with ADHD doesn’t care about their job, you could pull out all their teeth before they get out of bed. However, if they love their job, they will jump out of bed on the first alarm even with only a few hours of sleep. This behavior describes me perfectly. I love my job at the aquarium immensely and have gone to work multiple times with only a few hours of sleep. To my memory, I’ve been late only once or twice and missed work exactly once, and its no coincidence. In many ways, I become addicted to work. I volunteered part-time at the aquarium during treatment before working there. One day, I signed up for a double-shift and tried to volunteer for the late night event as well. This would put me at 12 hours of volunteering that day and I genuinely wanted to be there the whole time.
Missing work effects everyone and results in self-feeding depressive loops. If I love my job, though, I can use my ADHD to break OCD and MDD. Throw me at job I enjoy and I will give it everything I have plus some.
Here’s a few other list items of how my disorders affect my work:
- If given free-range over a project I’m interested in, I will spend an unholy number of hours on it and learn new skillsets just for that task. For a specific example, read Two Laptops and Fourteen Hours.
- Insects trigger my contamination OCD. I applied for a job at a pet store. The interview went well and they were excited to hire me since my availability filled a scheduling hole. After disclosing my concerns with insects, the company declined my application. The job required handling crickets multiple times per day to feed animals and their on-site staff was too small to reasonably accommodate my disability. I wrote about an interview that included insects in The Cockroach, I Guess.
Mental disorders have a mass impact on my work life. They tear me down, undermine my confidence, and result in missed work. However, they empower me to fight through their own pain and excel in many functions. Learning more about OCD and ADHD help me understand how I operate and learn to adapt to my biology. Through their strengths, I have and will accomplish many things.
Have a great day and always practice self-compassion!A Fantastic Friend of Mine