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Career tips and starting a business with ADHD. Plus ADHD and PTSD (Phoebe Gavin’s story)

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Leadership and career coach Phoebe Gavin was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. Phoebe’s mom was her number one advocate. She never made Phoebe feel like there was something wrong with her, and that’s followed her to this day. Now, she works with clients to empower them in the same way. 

Phoebe takes us through serving in the military, to fashion school, to starting a business with ADHD. She shares career tips when you have ADHD and her journey navigating ADHD and PTSD.

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Episode transcript

Jessamine: Hey everyone, it's Jessamine. Before you begin the episode, we wanted to let you know that Laura and her guest Phoebe talk about sexual assault, as a part of Phoebe's story. Unfortunately, Phoebe is far from alone. If you, or someone you know, needs help please visit rainn.org. That's R-A-I-N-N-dot-O-R-G.

Phoebe: I respond very strongly to boredom. When I'm bore, all of the worst parts of my ADD really flare up, and I was getting to a point in my corporate career where I was realizing I could just do this job stuff all the time, and I cannot make myself do it. What's happening? And I realized it was that I was bored, and the only way to resolve my boredom problem was to start my own business.

Laura: This is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they have ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I head up our editorial team here at Understood.org, and as someone who's had my own ADHD moment, I'll be your host.

I am here today with Phoebe Gavin. Phoebe is a career and leadership coach who helps ambitious professionals build successful, fulfilling careers without sacrificing work-life balance. You can learn about Phoebe and her work at betterwithphoebe.com. Phoebe, welcome to the show! I'm so glad you're here today.

Phoebe: Thank you so much for having me.

Laura: And this isn't your first appearance on an Understood Podcast Network show. You've also been on our "How'd You Get THAT Job!?" show.

Phoebe: I loved it, it was a great experience.

Laura: We like to get started on "ADHD Aha!," Phoebe by sharing your diagnosis story. Tell our audience, when were you diagnosed with ADHD?

Phoebe: I was diagnosed when I was 5 or 6 years old. I don't remember it too much, but the way that it's been told to me by my mom is I was having some behavioral issues at school, and the teacher recommended that I get reviewed for lots of things.

And the thing that really seemed to make the most sense for the way that I was showing up to school, and also a lot of the things that were happening at home were ADD. and very quickly, once medication was introduced, it made a huge difference in all of the challenges that I was experiencing. So, that diagnosis stuck, and I've spent the last 30-something years figuring out how to live with it.

Laura: What was going on when you were a kid? What things were teachers, parents, what were people noticing about you that led them to an evaluation?

Phoebe: I had a hard time sitting still. I was bouncing around a lot. I was interrupting a lot, and I was speaking very quickly. And so, those are the things that I remember being told to stop doing. And those are the things that when I had a quick conversation with my mom about it, those are the things that seemed the most air quotes strange when comparing the way that I behaved to the way that other kids behaved.

And a big part of it was also boredom. I picked up a lot of the things that we were learning in kindergarten. Either I had already learned them because my mom was a full-time, stay-at-home mom. And so, when I was three and four years old, we did a lot of education very early. I started reading when I was early four, so I was bored a lot at school as well. And so that was fuel on the fire for a lot of those behaviors.

Laura: It's early to get a diagnosis so, that combination of of your mom's astuteness and noticing with, I'm assuming, kind of the strength of your symptoms really must have come together there.

Phoebe: Yeah. I'm very fortunate that my mom had the time and the willingness to be open to all possibilities. As a Black woman coming from the Black community, there is a lot of reasonable skepticism of the psychiatric community. And my mom really made the decision to just see what people have to say and decide for herself whether that made sense for us in our family.

And ultimately, we got paired up with really good providers who treated her and treated me with a lot of care and dignity, and she felt comfortable that they were acting in our interests. And that is not always the case for Black families.

Laura: Right.

Phoebe: And so, I feel very fortunate that all of those things happened the way they did. Another thing that was really important for her is that she, immediately after that, connected with an organization, Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD), and there was a local chapter in the area and she connected with other parents. She connected with providers who specialized in supporting people with ADD.

And that allowed her to get lots of different perspectives about the various ways that it can show up and manifest for people at different ages, and also to just feel less alone for both of us as we went through the journey.

Laura: It sounds like an overall very positive experience, thanks to your mom and her fantastic advocacy efforts for you. You know, what was it like having ADHD as a child in elementary school? Did you feel stigmatized at all? Was it helpful to have the diagnosis? Tell me what that was like.

Phoebe: I think as a kid, I didn't internalize it as a thing that I needed to be thinking about on a day-to-day basis. I really was focused on behaviors and the things that I needed to do differently, because that's the way that my mom talked about it. She didn't talk about it as "You have ADD, and therefore" she would say, "It's important for you to wait for other people to finish before you talk. That's polite."

The reason why I was interrupting people is because my ADHD brain had a million different things to say, but she didn't frame it as you know, "You have this thing that's wrong with your brain and it's making you behave in a way that's bad." She very much used empowering language to help me think about the way that I treated myself and the way that I treated others, the way that I wanted to be perceived, the way that I wanted to project myself. And that is something that carried with me from childhood all the way through adulthood.

She was always encouraging. She was always telling me that I could do the things that I wanted to do. We had a little poster in my childhood bedroom with a little bear that said "You never know what you can do until you try." And we would refer to it throughout my entire childhood, and we still refer to it today. She's always been that person. And so having that voice with me and then inside me once she was no longer with me, has always been a source of encouragement.

Laura: Wow. That's fantastic. And you had the extra support of taking medication, correct?

Phoebe: I did. I came off of it at age 15 or 16.

Laura: Well, let's talk about that. I want to move into kind of middle school and high school years where we know that the demands of organization, the executive functioning demands, get so much harder. What was that like for you moving into upper grades?

Phoebe: Middle school is a very challenging time for me. I unfortunately experienced a lot of race-based bullying in elementary school and in middle school. And finally, that started creating some behavioral issues that had nothing to do with my ADD and had everything to do with just being a traumatized kid by from having people be so mean to me for things that were completely out of my control, that weren't actually bad at all.

And so, it would be difficult for me to suss out whether the behavioral issues that I had in middle school were related to ADD or related to, you know, responding poorly to cumulative bullying. But I had a lot of challenges in middle school. I did not perform very well. And academically I got in a bit of trouble. Things started to even out in high school, but middle school was tough for me.

Laura: If you don't mind my asking, why the decision to go off of medication?

Phoebe: I come from a low-income background, and around age 15, I decided to join the military in order to pay for college. And when I spoke to the recruiter, one of the things that he said is that if you are on that medication, you can't join. And so, I had to figure out, how do I live without this thing that I've been using to help me so that I can get to the next stage in my life and be successful as an adult?

Because I knew at that time, and it was certainly true then, I,t's less true now that really the only way that I was going to become a successful professional and escape poverty was to have a college education. And so, being on that medication felt like the difference between being able to find economic success as an adult. And I had to figure it out. And so, I tapered off of it and then was off of it for, definitely 17, probably most of 16 as well.

Laura: I didn't know that. Is that still true, that you can't be on medication if you're in the military on ADHD medication?

Phoebe: I'm not sure if that is still the case, and I don't want to oversimplify it to say that you can't be on any medication and join the military, but that specific medication was a problem, and I had to come off of it in order to pass my medical examination.

Laura: What was that like, being in the military with ADHD and not having the support of the medication? I know that you had kind of weaned yourself off of it and you were coping. But there's so much structure in the military. At least that's my perception of it.

Phoebe: That's definitely true. It's a very structured environment, which is very supportive for someone with ADD, but also the kind of work that I was doing for the first half of my military career was very physical. I was working in a kitchen. I joined as a cook. The schedules were like very clear and the responsibilities were very obvious, and there wasn't really anything to do other than mono task. This is the thing that needed to be cooked and so we needed to be cooking it.

However, shortly after I got to my first unit, I was transitioned out of that responsibility and I was brought into the administration of the unit. And so, I was the executive assistant for the commander of my particular unit. And so, that really I had to lean back on those coping mechanisms that I developed in high school, because I went from a very sort of physical, immediate environment to being in a more intellectual, self-structured environment that was much more administrative.

I spent a lot more time with paperwork and computers and having to do things in fine detail and remember things that this random police officer made this statement, and I need to remember to do that thing. So, it was a very different environment.

And so, the first year and a half was pretty easy, and there weren't a lot of expectations that were challenging for my ADHD brain. And then once I moved into that executive assistant role, that administrative assistant role, things got challenging again and I had to build new coping mechanisms. I had to update the ones that I used in high school so that they worked in that new context.

Laura: Did you share your ADHD diagnosis?

Phoebe: I did not share it with anyone else. It honestly wasn't even a big part of the way that I saw myself. Again, going back to the way that my mom helped me develop good coping mechanisms is that we didn't think about it as we're doing this because you have ADHD, we didn't talk about it that way. And so, even as an adult, I really didn't internalize "This is hard because I have ADHD," I internalized "This is hard. I need to do something about it."

Laura: Let's talk about moving on to college then. So, you went to college after the military?

Phoebe: I did. So, right after my deployment, I moved to New York and went to fashion school.

Laura: Ah! You went to fashion school from, I think you've done so many things. So exciting.

Phoebe: I did a couple of internships in the fashion industry and then ended up moving in another direction altogether. But I had a lot of mental health issues while I was in school, because I was just coming off of a very difficult deployment to Iraq. And I had been back in the States for maybe a couple of months before I started my first semester of college, and it was just too many transitions at the same time.

I went from being in the military to being a civilian, from being a full-time worker to being a full-time student. I went from being in an environment where I knew everyone, because we were all in the unit together to where I knew no one. I knew zero people in New York City when I moved there, and some things happened during my deployment that I hadn't processed and were very traumatizing.

And so, I had a lot of issues that first year, and I would again attribute them more to the other things than to needing new or updated coping mechanisms with school. But I was extremely motivated to figure out how to make it work, because I had literally gambled with my life to be in that chair in that classroom, and so, I was going to figure it out. I didn't care what needed to happen. I was going to figure it out. I didn't almost die to not get this degree.

And so, I experimented a lot with lots of different ways to organize my time and to record information and to keep track of my assignments. But I also got really lucky that I sort of slipped and fell into a relationship with a veterans service organization that connected me with mental health services. And so, there were these two things going on where I had a lot of mental health challenges related to my deployment, and also my ADHD brain was trying to cope with an academic environment again.

And these two things were definitely making each other worse. And so, being connected with mental health resources, being able to see a therapist, being on mental health medication made space for me to relearn how to be a good student with ADHD.

Laura: Well, first of all, thank you for your service, Phoebe. I want to be mindful not to ask you to think too much about things that may be traumatic events, but in terms of your ADHD impacting you while deployed, was that something you ever noticed?

Phoebe: I am fully "therapized." You can ask me whatever questions would be helpful.

Laura: OK.

Phoebe: The first half of my deployment was in a very sort of low-key environment, where the locals were very happy with the base and there was a good economic relationship, so we didn't really have any issues. And then the second half of deployment, we moved to an area where the locals were very hostile, and so, we were attacked regularly in that space, lots of mortars and sirens. And it was just like a really like day to day, like "It's today the day we're getting bombed. Maybe. Yesterday they bombed us. So, probably not today." Like it was a really stressful situation.

But then on top of that, I was sexually assaulted by one of my fellow service members. And so, between that acute event and the day-to-day stressor of "Today might be the day we get bombed." When I came out of my deployment, I was really very low. And I think there are certain aspects of this that have changed, but the culture around mental health at that time in the military was very bad, that if you came back from a deployment and you were having a hard time, that you were weak.

And I think a lot of aspects of that have changed because the military suicide rate is so bad and has been so bad for so long. But at that time, people were not getting screened and people were not encouraged to seek help if they needed it. And then my deployment ended three months before my contract ended. And so, I didn't actually experience any mental health support during that transition period. I went from, "OK, we're back. I have paperwork to fill out because I'm back. All right. I have new paperwork to fill out because my contract over. OK, now I'm in school."

Laura: You also had mentioned experiencing trauma from race-based bullying in school as a child. So, a number of, you know, traumatic events in your life. And I'm curious if you would be open to sharing the interplay between ADHD and PTSD. We know that ADHD and PTSD can kind of look alike in some ways. The trouble with concentration or trouble sleeping. Do you sometimes have trouble unpacking where one starts and where one stops?

Phoebe: It is definitely difficult for me to know how much of the challenges I've experienced over the course of my life have been ADHD, versus some of the traumatic experiences that I've had. I do know that when something very difficult is very active, all of the ADHD symptoms really spike, and I've had lots of moments over the course of my life where that has happened.

You know, when I was in early school, elementary school, and middle school, there was a lot of race-based bullying when. I was in the Army, coming out of the Army, there was a lot of challenges around the experiences I had during my deployment. When I was in my first couple of years of college, I was still processing everything that happened while I was in the Army. When, and very recently, toward the beginning of 2020, I was divorced.

And during that divorce, which was a very difficult marriage that ended in a very difficult way, my mental health was probably the worst it's ever been, and it was very difficult for me to function at work during that time. And then we all were going through Covid over 2020.

Laura: Right.

Phoebe: And so, there have been lots of times where the mental health ups and downs have had a very exacerbating effect on the way that my ADHD was manifesting in my day-to-day life and in my work life.

Laura: So, Phoebe, since you were diagnosed so young, it's hard to say that you had an ADHD moment at 5 or 6 years old. It was more the people around you, your support system, I would think. So, I'm wondering, this is "ADHD Aha!," the show, I'm wondering if you have had an "aha" moment about your ADHD and about how big of an impact it has on your life. And if you could share that with me.

Phoebe: I would consider my ADHD "aha" moment being when I decided to shift from my corporate career to building my coaching business. I respond very strongly to boredom. When I'm bored, all of the worst parts of my ADD really flare up, and I was getting to a point in my corporate career around sort of the end of 2020, middle end of 2020, where I was realizing I am stuck at home and I could just do this job stuff all the time, and I cannot make myself do it. What's happening? And I realized it was that I was bored.

I had learned everything that I could in that role, and the next step up were problems or topics I wasn't really interested in learning. So, I would just be a different kind of bored if I went for the next rung in the ladder, and I needed to figure out what's the next thing in my career journey that's going to allow me to use all of the skills and experience that I've developed over the last several years, and also give me the kinds of challenges that are going to keep me motivated and focused? So, that there's intrinsic motivation. I don't have to rely so much on willpower to get things done on a day-to-day basis.

And I played with a lot of things, experimented with a lot of things, and ultimately realized that being a coach was the way that I wanted to move forward. That the easiest thing for me to do every day, in my job was train people and answer people's questions. And that's when I ultimately decided that I was going to put myself on a path to leaving my corporate job and focusing fully on my career coaching business.

I cannot thank my mother enough for not just the way that she handled those early years when I was experiencing so many challenges, but throughout my entire very challenging childhood, there was never a point where she made me feel pathologized even though I was experiencing pathologies.

But another thing that has been really helpful is that I'm just really curious about how humans work. And so, I read a lot about it, and I listened to a lot of podcasts about it, and I've taken courses about it. I just find humans really interesting, the way that we see and perceive the world, the way that we see and perceive ourselves, the way that we make decisions, that's just really interesting.

And learning about those things have helped me learn about myself and notice some of the ways that I might set myself up for failure, and things that I could do differently to set myself up for success.

Laura: Can you give me an example of one of those things that you've learned about yourself?

Phoebe: So, a really good one is the spotlight effect. We tend to think that everyone is looking at us and paying attention to us and noticing every single thing about us, and that can create a lot of hyperfixation and anxiety for people with ADD because we think everybody knows that I'm bad at this thing. Everybody noticed that I made that mistake. Everybody noticed that I was 45 seconds late to the meeting because I didn't notice the notification. And it's just like, not true.

Most people are not paying close enough attention to us to notice all of those little things, and letting go of the hyper fixation and letting go of the anxiety around needing to be perfect allowed me to take imperfect action, to improve my skills, to improve my habits, reflexes, and also let go, help me let go of the idea that, like one productivity stack was going to, like, have me solid for the rest of my life. It was OK for it to iterate as my life changed.

Laura: You work with a lot of entrepreneurs, right?

Phoebe: I mostly work with professionals who are still in some sort of like corporate career. I do work with a lot of folks who are considering starting their own business, but mostly I work with career professionals.

Laura: You're an entrepreneur.

Phoebe: I am.

Laura: With ADHD. Tell me about being an entrepreneur with ADHD. The pros and the cons of ADHD in this quote line of work.

Phoebe: Yeah, I think the biggest pro is that you have a lot of control over your experience of work. I think the biggest con is that you get to choose from all of the choices.

Laura: Right, right. How do you cope with that?

Phoebe: Well, I was lucky in that I had this transition period where I was working full-time and then doing my coaching business as a side hustle. I was also lucky in that I had been working remotely since 2015. My first remote job was way back when, and so, I had a lot of experience in figuring out what kind of remote environment, what kind of home environment allows me to thrive while working remotely. But there are a few things that were very important.

One was having some sort of dedicated workspace. In the beginning, I was living in a little New York apartment. My dedicated workspace was a tote bag. I didn't have work things in it that I would arrange around me, and then the only time I saw those things was when I was at work, and otherwise they would go in a closet and I was not at work.

I am now, thankfully, in a place where I can have my own office, and so, this is my work zone and I try really, really hard not to do work elsewhere. And that helps me make sure that from a mental, contextual perspective, I know I am "work me" right now because I'm at this desk and I'm looking at this computer. And if I was at a different place and if I was looking at a completely different computer, then I could be in writing my fiction zone. I could be planning a trip zone, but I'm not in work zone.

Laura: Do you have a lot of clients who have ADHD?

Phoebe: I do, since I talk about it a lot, I tend to attract folks who also have the sort of similar flavor of neuro-spicy. Because there's just less to explain. And also, I can be more proactive about explaining, "Hey, we need to do this tactical thing. You may have challenges with that because of your ADHD."

Laura: Are people, and maybe specifically your neurotypical clients, are they ever confused when they say you have ADHD or concerns like, "Oh, my coach has ADHD?"

Phoebe: I think they're confused because I come off as like very high-functioning and I am very high-functioning. But they, the expectation, I think, is that if that is something that you experience at and with a lot of intensity, that it diminishes your ability to function at a high level. And that's certainly true if you don't have any coping mechanisms. But I was incredibly fortunate to get diagnosed early in life. And so, I have three decades of experience of figuring out how to function at a high level while also being neuro-spicy. I think they're more surprised that I'm an introvert. No one ever sees that one coming.

Laura: Tell me more, Phoebe. I didn't see that one coming. Tell me more. You're an introvert?

Phoebe: I am absolutely an introvert. I find that socializing with humans to be very energy-draining, but that doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable, and it doesn't mean that it's not fulfilling. It just makes me tired. There are lots of things that I do that I enjoy that make me tired. I power lift and I run. Those are very enjoyable things that make me extremely tired, and I do all of them regularly.

Laura: I am relating so hard right now to this. Like I'm also very curious about people. Part of my job is interviewing people and learning about, you know, people's experiences. But I find it I'm actually more introverted, I think, than people realize, and it is an interesting contrast.

Phoebe: I love all my clients. I love working with them, but my job is to listen to their problems all day. And so, I listen to their problems. I absorb that very intense energy of difficult emotions. I process it and give them solutions to help them feel supported.

The primary emotions I deal with as, a career coach are anger, resentment, frustration, and anxiety. Those are very high-energy emotions, and we have to dig through a lot of details and get into a lot of sort of deep identity stuff to get them to a point where they understand why they're responding to a situation in a particular way, and to get them comfortable with some of the other options that they have so that they can take those actions.

Laura: Emotional regulation in general is really difficult for people with ADHD. So, if you have clients, if some of them have ADHD, and you're helping them sort through it, and then you're dealing with your own neuro-spicy brain, that's got to be tricky. I mean, I'm taking that now, neuro-spicy.

Phoebe: I'm not sure who I got it from, but I loved it when I heard it. I did not invent it. And yeah, it is. But it is again the most fulfilling work that I've ever done in my entire life. A lot of the clients that I deal with, regardless of whether they're neuro-spicy or neurotypical, have very deeply ingrained habits around how they react to certain emotions. "If I feel anxious, I do this. If I feel angry, I do this. If I feel frustrated, I do this. If I feel resentful, I do this."

You can feel just about anything. Feelings are signals. They are not instructions. We don't have to do what a feeling is telling us to do just because we're feeling it. And a lot of the work that I'm doing with my clients is helping them identify "I am feeling this emotion as a result of a thing that's happening at work. What are my choices, and which of those choices is going to be in the interests of my future self?"

Laura: That's a lot of, how do I put this, working with ambitious professionals. Does it ever get frustrating for you? Like, how do you cope with this?

Phoebe: It depends on why they're ambitious. I work with a lot of ambitious professionals, and. But I don't work with people who are ambitious for the sake of ambition. I think that can get to a point where it's just greed and, that I'm not into. I definitely work with a lot of ambitious people who have been conditioned to be ambitious, and they're trying to learn a different way of being. They're trying to find ways to incorporate ambition into other aspects of their life, or to do a better job of calculating the cost-benefit of prioritizing work over other aspects of their lives. Those folks are really fun.

And I also love working with people who are ambitious because they have a cause or a community or a particular not self-centered goal at the forefront of their thought process for their ambition.

Laura: I appreciate the nuance you provided there around the word ambition and ambitious. Ambitious people have a lot of energy is how I often think. And that's got that has an impact on you, who's working with them. Which leads me to my question of do you feel that ADHD has made you more resilient in your life?

Phoebe: I think all of it has made me resilient. I've been through some stuff.

Laura: You've been through a lot. You have. Yes. Yes.

Phoebe: And I think again, it still goes back to my mom and this idea of the things that you experience, the things that happen to you, where you grow up, where you are in life right now. That isn't who you are unless you choose to make it part of you. And so, I don't see my ADD as like an identity marker that I internalize as part of me. It is a way that my brain works, but I don't consider it part of who I am as a person.

And so, it makes it a lot easier for me to step out of self-judgment and self-criticism, and to listen to some of the other voices at my sort of internal mental table, instead of the one who wants to find reasons why I'm not good enough, or why I'm going to fail, or why things are going to go wrong. And I think that, more than anything else, contributes to the resilience.

Laura: What's this fiction you're writing?

Phoebe: Oh, well, I am working on, fantasy concepts. That is pretty exciting and fun. And I don't know if I'm going to do anything with it, but most of the writing that I do, and most of the reading that I do, is nonfiction and related to organizational psychology and workplace stuff and labor markets. And I wanted to have a creative outlet that would allow me to really get out of this universe of GDP and unemployment rates and into something that was a lot more fun. And so, I'm working on a fantasy concept that may or may not become anything, but is right now a really fun diversion when I need to get some energy back.

Laura: I love that. I love that. What else would you like to share before we hop off, Phoebe?

Phoebe: I think I want to remind everyone who might be listening that you are not going through this by yourself and wherever you are in your diagnosis journey and, you know, creating your own set of coping mechanisms, your productivity stack, wherever you are in your journey, you're in the right place. And something that can make your journey easier is surrounding yourself with people who are either going through the same thing or are farther ahead than you, and can help you along. Choose not to be alone. Choose to surround yourself with people who can support and help you.

Laura: Well, Phoebe Gavin, thank you so much for being here today on "ADHD Aha!". Phoebe's website is betterwithphoebe.com. Phoebe, it was really lovely to speak with you today. Thank you.

Phoebe: Thank you so much for having me.

Laura: Thanks for listening. As always, if you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org. I'd love to hear from you. Be sure to check out the show notes for this episode. We have more resources and links to anything we mentioned.

This show is brought to you by Understood.org Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with learning and thinking differences like ADHD and dyslexia. Learn more at Understood.org. And if you like what you hear, help us continue this work by donating at Understood.org/donate.

"ADHD Aha!" is produced and edited by Jessamine Molli. Jessamine, are you there?

Jessamine: Hi everyone. I'm still here.

Laura: And Margie DeSantis.

Margie: Hey, hey.

Laura: Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. Ila Miller is our supervising producer. Briana Berry is our production director. Neil Drumming is our editorial director. Creative and production leadership from Scott Cocchiere and Seth Melnick. And I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.

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  • Laura Key

    is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.

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