It’s unsettling, at best. This idea that you might not notice the return of ADHD symptoms when you decide to stop medication. But it’s more common than most people realize.
A friend wrote to me last week, marveling at the difference in a co-worker’s job performance on medication and off medication. The co-worker didn’t seem to notice mounting problems at work, but the evidence was all there in black and white.
Here is my friend’s account:
Last week, I found myself sifting through three years’ worth of notes, left by a recently fired co-worker at my office. What I found was both fascinating and disturbing.
This person was fired due to mistakes that rose to a very potentially serious level—serious in that they could have caused significant problems for both the office and the client if they had not been caught and remedied by other employees (including myself).
This person has an ADHD diagnosis (so do I). We work in the legal field. You simply can’t make mistakes in law. Obviously, human beings make mistakes. But you have to be as perfect as it is possible to be, even when you work as a support person in the office. You are paid to manage details, lots and lots of details. It’s detail management to a degree that I never would have imagined existed, prior to my first job in a law office.
Details. Details. Details.
It’s easy to assume that a law office would be a bad place for an ADHDer to work. I mean, we simply can’t handle details, right? For me, this issue all comes back to level of interest: We ADHDers are always at our best when we are engaged. And we aren’t all the same person—we all have different interests. Me, I find law really interesting, I find the work surrounding it interesting, the stories behind the work interesting, and, yes, I think that the drama of it all keeps me engaged.
I’ve found ways to succeed in this environment. Checklists are one—and I check, and double check, and triple check things all week long, just to make sure I haven’t missed something. I poke through my files, scanning the names in the filing cabinet just to be sure everything is in order. I clean off my desk at the end of the day, every single day, to make sure that there is nothing that I don’t have a plan or a purpose for sitting there. I take meticulous notes not only for the benefit of others who may work on the file, but also as breadcrumbs to orient myself to the current moment when I come back to the file. I leave absolutely nothing to memory. But enough about that.
There had been a series of mistakes made by my coworker already, which were in the process of being addressed at various levels, but the whole situation culminated when this coworker went on vacation for a couple of days. While she was gone, a phone call came in that alerted the rest of us to an item that needed immediate attention. The coworker had told us that “everything was fine” in the files that she was managing, and that we didn’t need to check on anything—that she would take care of anything relevant when she returned. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
When I needed to find another item relevant to another one of her cases, which did indeed require attention before her return, I happened to stumble upon something else that was basically on fire and would have blown up if I hadn’t accidentally found it. Consequently, I had no ethical choice but to alert the boss, so that the situation could be addressed. The other office staff and I did what needed to be done, and this person was fired.
But wait, there is another layer to this story. I had actually trained this person to replace me, a handful of years ago, when I left to pursue another opportunity. She was new to the profession and when I left, she was enthusiastically learning the work and had a good grasp of the basics. I felt that she would grow in the position and that she was capable of succeeding. I’d created checklists and samples for her to reference in my absence, so that she would have a road map in those moments where a new situation might arise.
The Paralegal Turns Archaeologist
Late last year, my co-worker and I had the opportunity to reconnect. I returned to working in the office during a break in my regular work schedule; the boss had brought me in organize the office and address the backlog of administrative work. I found my co-worker seeming stuck and ready for something new. She’d already expressed to the boss that she was interested in leaving, and she had his blessing to seek another position elsewhere—though her job search was slow and sporadic. And it seemed that this would be a good choice, because the level of her work was not where it needed to be. She lamented that she was nervous about working elsewhere. It was hard to tell if the issue was one of lack of confidence, lack of ability, or lack of motivation. But at one point she did say to me “I haven’t taken my ADHD meds in like a year and a half. Maybe I should start taking them again.”
After she was fired, I discovered just how far everything had slipped from when we’d last worked together, and in a sort of eerie way. Paralegal turned archaeologist, I cleaned out her office, solving puzzles, connecting dots, and, yes, going through all of her notes. You can’t really ever throw anything away in a law office. You might need it later (great environment for the OCD inclined!). I needed to review these several years’ worth of notes that she’d left behind, determine what was there, what should be kept, and what could be tossed. It was just like digging through layers of dirt—you know, except for the actual dirt part. Her notes, in particular, had been shoved in a drawer, stuffed in there chronologically with the most recent on top.
Pages and Pages of Nothing
Partially consumed legal pads, used pages still flipped backward over the top. Names and partial names. Phrases and words. No indication of action taken on anything written. Cross-referencing any of it to the files was pointless; little data in her notes anchored them to the files. These legal-pad notes were mostly useless. No dates. No times. Pages and pages and pages of nothing. I continued leafing through them all, moving backward in time. And then I noticed something that maybe shouldn’t have been such a surprise. At about 18 months from the top of the pile, the notes became slightly more detailed. Slightly more useful. More dates. More times. More information. This is right around when she was still taking stimulant medication.
A few months farther back in the pile, at about the 26-month mark, it began to look like a completely different person was writing the notes. No joke. At that layer, notes became informational, conversational, and they included action items, conscientiously noted dates, times, and phone numbers. At nearly three years back, not only were the notes excellent but they also included stacks of used checklists. It was a checklist form that I had created for her, to help her structure her day once I was gone. She had used them for quite a while, checking things off, adding things in the margins, in addition to the pages and pages of handwritten notes.
By the time I dug to the bottom of the pile, I realize I’d watched someone’s mind fall apart in reverse.
Stopping Meds; Habits Falling Apart
I remembered something else that she’d said at one point after I’d returned to the office: “You know, it’s interesting, right after I stopped taking my meds, I still had some really good habits, like the meds had helped me learn new habits and they stuck around for a little while.” I couldn’t help but wonder if this had initially given her the impression that she could function adequately without medication. And then, lulled into a false feeling of security and lacking the motivation to follow up, she just never started taking her meds again. Habits fell apart. The job slipped beyond her ability to cope.
By the time I reappeared a handful of years later, she was making mistakes that were very apparent. I filled gaps when I could, but ultimately, she had to be allowed to fail on her own terms. I’d actually encouraged her to start taking meds again but the motivation to follow through just wasn’t there.
How about you? What do you notice when your medication wears off? Or, have you ever stopped medication for a while and noticed similar changes?