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Managing your emotions with ADHD: One lawyer’s story

Dina Ragab is a lawyer with ADHD working on the California high-speed rail project. Dina has always known that she was “neurospicy,” but therapists couldn’t see past her anxiety to the ADHD underneath. It wasn’t until after law school that she was diagnosed, went on medication, and realized there were ways to manage her sometimes all-consuming emotions.

Dina’s job path wasn’t always a smooth one. She went through a few positions and work environments until she found the honest, straightforward boss that she needed. In this week’s episode of How’d You Get THAT Job?!, hear Dina describe her journey through misdiagnosis — and how self-advocacy is an opportunity for co-workers to take one another’s needs into consideration.

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Episode transcript

Eleni: Before you begin, we wanted to let you know that my guest Dina and I talked about ADHD and anxiety, as well as past suicidal ideation. It's an important part of her story and many others. If you or someone you know is struggling, you can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Hotline at 988 or visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website AFSP.org. I hope you enjoy the episode.

Dina: I had gotten glasses when I was in second grade and that was the first time in my life that I realized that trees had leaves. And putting... taking that medication for the first time in my life was when I realized that emotions had skin, that you could have emotions that stayed within the barrier of your own soul.

Eleni: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "How'd You Get THAT Job?!," a podcast that explores the unique and often unexpected career paths of people with learning and thinking differences. My name is Eleni Matheou and I'm a user researcher here at Understood. That means I spend a lot of time thinking about how we find jobs we love that reflect how we learn and who we are. I'll be your host.

Right now, if you want to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you're probably going to have to sit in traffic or fly. My guest Dina Ragab is using her legal knowledge to finally help California get high-speed rail. Dina has ADHD, but she didn't get diagnosed until after law school. That information helped her figure out the best way to regulate her emotions, which wasn't always easy in the past. She found a job where she can keep it cool and also do work she's passionate about. Dina, welcome to the show.

Dina: Thank you so much for having me.

Eleni: Yay. So, you're currently a lawyer.

Dina: I am.

Eleni: Have you always wanted to be a lawyer? What attracted you to law?

Dina: So, we moved to the United States when I was six, and one of the most formative recollections that I have as a child was the O.J. Simpson case. And someone told me how much Johnnie Cochran made. I think it was like something like $30 million or whatever. And I was like, "I want to make that money, like, let me do that." That made sense to me.

Eleni: That seems like a lot of money.

Dina: That seems like it would fix everything, you know? But yeah, I guess that's kind of the funny answer. The other answer is just kind of as a child that is, I don't want to say difficult because I wasn't a difficult child, but I was raised by two parents who read a lot, who were very much critical thinkers, and who really considered every opportunity an opportunity to, like, engage. And I think when you're raised in that kind of an environment, you're naturally curious, you naturally ask a lot of questions, and you're seen sometimes by other people as potentially combative because people don't like answering questions that they might not know the answer to, but they were supposed to know the answer to.

That narrative began from when I was very young, from that like "Haha, money," but then also "You're combative, you like to argue, you like to be right, you're stubborn," naturally lent itself to "I guess you're going to be a lawyer one day." So, that's how we got here.

Eleni: Well, I know that you got your first law job before you went to law school. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dina: So, I graduated undergrad in 2009, which I don't know everyone's backgrounds, but it was not a great time to graduate in terms of the housing, economic everything collapsed. Boom. And yeah, boom. I had taken the LSAT and I had gotten a good score, but I just wasn't ready to apply to law schools. It was for me, just I needed a little bit more time. So, I actually went to Egypt where my family was, and I wanted to live with my grandmother, spend more time with her.

At that time, 2009, 2010, there was a lot of refugees in Egypt because they hadn't yet closed their borders to Iraqi, Sudanese, Eritrean, Somali refugees. And the United States had processes for the UNHCR and all these other entities, the IOM, International Organization for Migration, they were doing interviews, but the migrants weren't getting that relief because there was no one that was doing the advocacy portion. So, we did that testimonial work between someone coming to tell you that they have a story and then actually presenting it to UNHCR and we'd prep all of our clients. And then because I was the only Western-educated Arabic speaker, I also became an interpreter.

It was an extremely rewarding experience and I think it really helped me make the most out of law school because sovereignty, national rights, just even in human rights, changed from being this abstract notion from a fairly privileged life to, "Oh my God, like I am meeting people who don't have a nationality, they don't have a place that is allowing them to call that place home." To see that otherness, really shadowed a lot of my work in law school and then a lot of what I would do thereafter.

Eleni: So, I know you didn't get an ADHD diagnosis until after graduating law school. So, looking back, what were some of the greatest challenges like throughout your studies and, you know, throughout grad school that you can now reflect back and attribute to ADHD?

Dina: I always go back to being a kid because I think so much of my ADHD experience, and learning about that, was forgiving myself as a child. I could never just focus on what was happening around me. My first-grade teacher — so I didn't speak English in first grade — and in the beginning of the year she was mostly sending my mother notes about, you know, "You need to get your daughter warm clothes. Like this is winter in the East Coast. Like you're not just because it's sunny, does it mean that she doesn't need a hat and gloves."

And then by the end of the year, we were already getting notes about "Dina won't stop talking to her neighbors. She's learned two words, and she won't shut up." And there was no contextualization of any of that, right? For the first 25, 26 years, I was mostly reacting to other people's stimuli and not understanding why I wasn't OK. You know, the first time I remember having suicidal ideation, I was 11. You know, I started going to therapy, I started going, and all they could see was anxiety. All they could see was, you know, eating disorder, because I was fat. All they could see was these extraneous outside things. And this went on for nearly 20 years. And that really upsets me. That like viscerally upsets me.

During law school, I had doctors who had me on Klonopin, Ambien, which isn't prescribed anymore, Lexapro, and I think a fourth drug that I can't even remember anymore. It's all part of the journey, right? So, I found the right person who knew me well enough to understand that I wasn't a drug seeker. And so, he said, "Let's just put you on 10 milligrams of Ritalin and see what happens." And I had gotten glasses when I was in second grade, and that was the first time in my life that I realized that trees had leaves. And putting... taking that medication for the first time in my life was when I realized that emotions had skin, that you could have emotions that stayed within the barrier of your own soul, that you didn't have to feel literally every single ______ thing that everyone was feeling or that you were feeling out loud.

Eleni: Firstly, I know you had mentioned, you know, being misdiagnosed. And I just wanted to say, you know, it's not the first time I've heard that.

Dina: Yeah.

Eleni: You're definitely not alone there in terms of, you know, doctors not going deeper with symptoms and like kind of thinking more about the root cause as opposed to just like what's on the surface. So, yeah, you're definitely not alone. So, I know that you mentioned that, you know, things have changed a lot in the last decade since your diagnosis. I would love to hear more about, you know, what you're up to now and how perhaps your diagnosis kind of like set you on the path that you are on now and how you're able to kind of manage things at work.

Dina: After my diagnosis — I was unemployed during my diagnosis — and again, I mean, you know, it is not a great time to be a worker in America, but my parents, my family friends, my older relations, my, you know, the Arab mafia, as I don't like to call it, they really, you know, rallied around me and they knew that I was capable and that I wouldn't disappoint them. And, you know, I had a lot of people who put me out there and supported me.

And I started getting consulting jobs, working for different pharmaceutical companies, helping them with regulatory stuff and kind of that nexus between law and project management. And you know, I remember distinctly one of my first jobs that was like that, that was full-time consulting, so you're kind of on-site. And I was living in New York at the time, and I had to commute two and a half, three hours each way to get to work. 0% chance, 0% chance I could have done that unmedicated.

So, I did that for a couple of years, and I ended up getting the opportunity to move to California to work for a company as their full-time legal counsel. And I knew that I really didn't want to do consulting anymore. It was really tough on me not feeling like I had a 401k, which, I mean, in this market, OK. But health insurance was really tough for me, Obamacare was there at the time, but it was super expensive. And I just wanted to be able to, like, afford my own life, you know?

So, I made the huge step of moving to California, again totally by myself, and I got this opportunity. I just sent application to a consulting company where I would be working for California High-Speed Rail. And I don't know if a lot of people know about this, but California High-Speed Rail is, you know, the largest infrastructure project in the country. We are trying to connect Sacramento all the way down to San Diego, but most importantly, Los Angeles to San Francisco right now. And we're going through the Central Valley of California. So, it's a lot of heartland and farmland. And it's, I work for the real property branch, which means that our particular subset of that project is acquiring all the land that we'll need. And I was interviewed in that position by an individual who was the deputy director at that time, and he is an honest person, and I can't express this to like the stratosphere of the universe enough, but working for an honest person, like, is literally like my brain getting hugs.

Because I know that I can screw up, I can do good, I can do indifferent, I can be sassy, I can be weird, I can be whatever, and he's just going to tell me how he feels about it. I don't have to contain myself within myself because I have an environment that allows me to have that conversation and then pulls me back. Also, on the other side of it — and I think this is just luck — but you know, COVID happening when I got this job made it that this job that I absolutely love was remote.

And, you know, I don't know if this is my ADHD or if it's just who I am as a person, I never want to work in an office again. It is immensely important to me to be able to decompress alone. It is immensely important to me to be able to express myself off-camera, and where my body and my face are not being policed by other people, because it is more difficult for me as someone with ADHD or maybe it's just who I am, it is more difficult for me to create a neutral body positioning just for someone else's comfort.

Eleni: So, we talked earlier about your passion for social justice. In addition to working with refugees, you also worked with public defenders when you were in law school. How does your job now fit in with your interest in making the world a better place?

Dina: You know, we talked a lot about my advocacy early on in the podcast and I found in my work and maybe this will change as I get older, that it is really hard for me to stay in the human atrocities part of the conversation. Like working, going to jails every day when I was working as a public defender like assistant, you can't just like remove yourself if you start to have a panic attack. I couldn't do that. And I knew that about myself.

And so, to be able to work in something that I consider like a positive impact on our communities, a positive impact on infrastructure, a positive impact on climate change, it's a different form of advocacy. How can we create those structures where we're feeling fulfilled, where I can create a safe space for myself, and then where I'm also allowed to be my honest self without it creating rubber bands, you know?

Eleni: It sounds like in this role it's a combination of, you know, great people that you're working with, like the right environment in terms of, you know, being able to work remotely and then also actually doing like impactful work. We talked a lot about managing emotions and self-regulating at work as like one of the key things that has shifted for you over the last decade. Is there anything else that like or are there any other, like, coping mechanisms or, you know, like tips and tricks that work for you in terms of like things that like help you in the workplace with your ADHD?

Dina: Yeah, I think, you know, advocating for yourself in a way where you are honest about what you need, but without putting your issues as front and center. So, what do I mean by that? I have ADHD, right? And that means that I need to do things a little bit differently. But if I spend all my time explaining to everybody else, "I have ADHD, and these are all the reasons why I need to do this stuff," I'm actually neglecting the part of the conversation where someone else who may be neurotypical or who may be neurospicy to just simply explain to me what they need to make their lives easier.

A lot of people don't know that they're suffering from something, because I didn't know I was suffering from something. And the people who really helped me the most weren't people who said "This is a disease" or "This is an impact," or whatever. They just said, "This is how I do stuff. Does this stuff work for you?" And to just work through that, "I just have these tools. What are your tools?" Like we are all Doras, and we just need to, like, really fill our backpacks. And instead of filling our backpacks with other people's feelings about us, instead of filling our backpacks with water bottles that we're never going to drink or books that we're never going to read, like let's fill it up with tools. So, make sure that they get you through what you need, but that you're also flexible to take on the things that you want to take on and to release the stuff that isn't working. I hope that helps.

Eleni: Yeah. Thank you for that answer. And I think that's also a really helpful reframing, where it's really about just having a conversation and also, it's almost an opportunity to connect. So, it's like, "Hey, like this is, this is what works for me, what works for you?," as opposed to kind of positioning it in a way where you're like asking something of someone. It's more just like a little bit more collaborative.

Dina: Yeah, because I always like to give the other person the opportunity to collaborate instead of it just being a accommodation.

Eleni: Yeah, exactly. And then it's more of a conversation. I love it. Cool. Well, yeah. Thank you so much for talking to me, Dina.

Dina: Thank you so much for having me, Eleni. I appreciate you so much.

Eleni: You've been listening to "How'd You Get THAT Job?!" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at thatjob@understood.org with your thoughts about the show. Or maybe you'd like to tell us how you got that job. I'd love to hear from you.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out our show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. Also, one of our goals at Understood is to help change the workplace so everyone can thrive. Check out what we're up to at U.org/workplace. That's the letter U dot ORG slash workplace.

Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

"How'd You Get THAT Job?!" is produced by Grace Tatter. Briana Berry is a production director. Our music was written by Justin D Wright, who also mixes the show. Margie DeSantis provides editorial support. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. And I'm your host, Eleni Matheou. Thanks again for listening.

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    leads user research for Understood. She helps Understood to center its work on the lived experiences and voices of people who learn and think differently.

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