Around a year ago I circulated a bit of a personal memo around Netflix Amsterdam office. It was about my struggles with ADHD and Autism in my everyday life at work, and even if Diversity and Inclusion is a huge part of Netflix culture, I really didn’t know what to expect. Especially since I had never spoken about my Mental Health issues, either at my previous jobs or in my private life.
I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was 23, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have the symptoms before the diagnosis. And looking back now, I know they were pretty clear. I was overactive both physically and mentally, I had trouble with proper planning, prioritizing, organizing and focusing on tasks, with a sprinkle of poor time management. Do you know which of those skills are needed to be successful in school? You probably guessed it: all of them. I was called “Talented but lazy” and that meant that I was pushed even harder by both teachers and parents, which made everything even worse. It’s not that I didn’t try, I just couldn’t do it. Every day of my life, I heard that I should be like everybody else, to behave like the good students and do what they do. The more I tried, the more I failed. I changed schools quite often, I even dropped out of four different colleges. Having autism didn’t help either. Difficulty in building relationships, having issues when talking one on one since I can’t really recognize emotions very well, looking for stability and structure at all costs… it made me very nervous every time I spoke to anyone and failed my friends many times. Even now, I don’t really have many friends from the age when I was a kid or a teenager.
Eventually, I moved to another town and started to work. But I struggled at that as well. I couldn’t take orders, I was impulsive; more complicated tasks were un-doable for me. I started to feel like maybe I was never “talented, but lazy” but maybe more “stupid and lazy”. When I was around 23 I got yet another job at a store as a salesman selling picture frames and candles as gifts and… I almost lost that job as well. Depressed, I decided there is nothing left to do but to check in with a therapist.
During my first meeting at the therapist's office, I was devastated. The simplest tasks were too hard to follow and I couldn’t even finish reading one book in my life (apart from some Albert Camus works and the Witcher saga). The diagnosis didn’t take long: ADHD, high on the spectrum.
After my diagnosis, things went pretty fast. I got a prescription (Concerta, which is basically a mix of four different “amphetamine” salts mixed together) and started Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy; I was ready to go and conquer the world. Almost literally. Let me put that into perspective with a timeline:
2009 - Salesman at the local store in Poznań
Early 2010 - Start of my ADHD treatment
Mid 2010 - Blogger for LPP (one of the biggest Polish fashion brands)
Mid 2011 - Internship as a Copywriter at a local agency in Poznań
Late 2011 - Community Manager at Havas Media in Warsaw
Early 2014 - Social Media and Community Manager at CI Games in Warsaw
Mid 2015 - Social Media Manager for CEE region at Ubisoft in Warsaw
End of 2016 - Social Media Manager at Netflix in Amsterdam
Mid 2017 - Marketing Manager at Netflix in Amsterdam
It took seven and a half years to go from uneducated, depressed, suicidal salesman to Marketing Manager for two markets in the CEE region at Netflix. But I didn’t change jobs so often only because I could. There was another reason.
Mental health is not a popular topic of conversation in Poland. The stories I hear about people talking to their close ones about depression and/or anxiety are usually more traumatizing than the mental health issues itself. Friends laughing and making jokes about suicide. Families claiming that happiness is your own and you should never go to a doctor to be happy. Close ones cutting off troubled people because they are “sick” and they will never be “normal” again or just being told to “Suck it up and behave like a real man”.
Against this backdrop, I never really spoke about my Mental Health issues at companies that I worked for. And even though my symptoms were managed to a level that I could stop taking medication, they didn’t go away entirely. I was still less organized than my colleagues. I still drifted off during meetings while they talked. I still had issues with remembering important things and making notes was super hard. But I had a secret solution for when it became too apparent that I could not function in the same way as my colleagues. Ding, ding, ding, let’s play a game called “Look for another job!”.
When I moved to Netflix, some of the things changed, but a lot of remain the same. After some time I started, again, to get the familiar feedback I’d been getting since school.
- You shouldn’t use your laptop during meetings, people may think it’s disrespectful
- You should remember important things
- You should be on-time more often
- You are very disorganized
- You’re super creative, but you need to work on strategic thinking
- You should focus when people talk to you
- You get where I’m going with this
Yes, some of those are not as actionable for me as for other people. So I started brainstorming about potential solutions to this problem. You guessed it. I can change my job again or... or I could change my whole identity and start over somewhere warmer than Amsterdam. But for the first time, a counterpoint emerged to my tried & true method of job-hopping - I really, really like this job. Dang it.
Around the same time and just after one of our Diversity and Inclusion meetings at the office, one of the team leaders, James, asked me, “When was the last time you felt included?”. My initial reaction as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, European Christian was “Always”. It seemed like there was absolutely no reason for me to feel excluded. But something stayed with me after this question. I felt treated like the neurotypical brain, when in fact I have a very atypical brain. But I was far from calling for a revolution. First of all, I was good at pretending to be neurotypical (or maybe not as good as I think, seeing the feedback I have received since I was a kid) and, second, I actually never spoke about any of this. Even to my closest family. The Shame wizard strikes again!
I made a decision. Not an easy one as it went against everything I knew about being, well, me. I met with James again, thanked him for the question he asked me a couple of days ago. A week later, I met with my supervisor - Carmen. We talked for an hour during lunch. In tears, I told her who I am and was going through for almost my whole life. Not going to lie, it was liberating. But also I knew it wasn’t enough; I wanted to tell my team about it as well. It took me a month to actually write a two-page memo about ADHD and what it means for my everyday work and life. But writing was still the easy part. Pressing the SEND button, damn. When the memo finally went out though, the support I received was truly outstanding. But Carmen also knew that if I really wanted to make a change, I needed to go broader.
"You need to go broader," she said.
"Should I go on stage and talk about it during our All-Hands meeting?" I joked out loud.
Apparently, it wasn't as big a joke as I thought, because Carmen agreed and she actually put me on the stage of an Amsterdam Theatre before around 400 Netflix EMEA employees. Remember when I wrote that sending a memo was hard? I almost whispered “I miss you” to that SEND button just before entering the stage.
After 60 minutes of me talking publicly about my life of Mental Health struggle, Screaming internally the entire time, I left the stage. Every time I felt that the hard part of this journey is over I was again surprised by the next events. Because I stood there for at least five minutes, fighting the desire to just walk out the door, but I knew that 400 people were waiting for me outside. In the following days, I got a lot of questions; everything from diagnosis, through definitions, to practical things. But the question I heard the most was, "How it is to have ADHD?".
Well, it's tough to explain as I don't really know how it looks like to not have ADHD, but let me try to put it briefly into words.
So you know that lovely feeling when you complete a task? It could be anything from tying your shoes, paying taxes, to completing a big project at work? That is a hormone known as Dopamine and it's released every time you complete a task. People with ADHD have less Dopamine that average person. That means my brain is bored out of its mind (pun intended) all the time. And what brains do when they are bored? They look for a stimulus. So an ADHD brain jumps from one thing to another thing, back again, then on to something else in split seconds as it looks for something that will release Dopamine.
The bright side of this is something called hyperfocus, which means when my brain will actually find something that will give me even slight boost of Dopamine (it could be a book, a project or even a person) it will literally forget about everything else, and just push me to continue doing this one thing. Or at least until it gets boring again. Let me tell you, the harder the project, the more insane the challenge seems, the easier it is for me is to do it. I hate repetitive tasks, I love to experiment and innovate as this gives me Dopamine.
The other question I got asked a lot was "How can we help, what can we change in how we work together?" and oh boy, that one was tough as I actually hadn’t thought about it. But the very next day was the first day of my life when my ADHD and Autism was out in the open in the office. And through the last year, I had a lot of space and understanding to introduce small changes in my environment to be better equipped for challenges at Netflix.
As autism requires a lot of structure and changing, my habits are pretty challenging. I don’t lean into Netflix's flexible work hours that much. I get a bit stressed whenever someone plans a meeting for me either during lunch hours or before my planned arrival to work. I also don't use the hot desk system but asked our Facilities team for my own. The structure is important but also, with ADHD I regularly forget stuff I need from home, so it's easier to have my headphones at my desk instead of wasting time every day to actually be sure I packed them this time. I prefer shorter meetings as it's easier to remain attentive. Everybody knows that if I forgot about sending that asset link, it's not because I don't want to share my work but more likely that I saw a weird-shaped stain on the window, and I lost my train of thought. They know when I'm looking at my watch when I talk to people, I'm not being disrespectful; I’m just trying to take ownership of my lack of time awareness. I take notes on an iPad, not my laptop. And when I daydream during a meeting, my team knows that I'm probably brainstorming with my supercharger brain thinking machine, not just avoiding office work. And much, much, much more.
Some of those changes may seem trivial to you, but for me, they are life-changing. Because I no longer need to spend energy on actually pretending to be somebody I am not, I have much more to offer at my job. And the leftover energy I have after a day of work I decided to spent on Mental Health education. I took charge as a leader of our Mental Health Employee Resource Group for Netflix EMEA at our offices in Amsterdam; just yesterday I proudly sent an email about all the activities we planned for Mental Health Awareness Month. And seeing how the number of signups grows with every minute fills my heart with joy.
I might never truly understand what Inclusion really means in its many forms, but the last year gave me a lot of ideas on it. At the moment I think it’s mostly about one thing - Honesty. Being included means that I can be honest about who I am. Being inclusive means giving people room, to be honest and inclusive environment should empower people to be honest about themselves. There is not a day in my life in the past year that I don’t feel forever grateful that I ended up in such an environment and with such stunning colleagues. And I wish that for everybody, to be in an honest environment and to be themselves.