ADHD and nails: a career match made in heaven?
Women and people of colour are notoriously underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed when it comes to ADHD. Many women don’t find out they have ADHD until their 30s or 40s. Some never find out at all.
The result is often low self-esteem and a bunch of other co-morbid mental health issues - commonly depression and anxiety.
The reasons that women are often diagnosed in later life are multi-faceted. One is that girls often don’t fit the profile of the stereotypical ADHD child from the 1990s, which is a badly behaved boy bouncing off the walls with hyperactivity and from a disproportionately working-class background.
We now know that ADHD can affect anyone and everyone differently – girls especially. ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and there are three types: Hyperactive, Inattentive and Combined. Girls tend to be in the latter two camps whereas boys are more likely to present with external hyperactivity which gets them noticed by teachers and parents. This means girls often slip under the radar at school so they receive negative feedback rather than help.
“Inattentive ADHD is still hyperactivity but it is more of a mental hyperactivity than a physical one,” explains therapist and ADHD coach Ellen Hartley. “Girls with the inattentive type tend to be creative daydreamers with heightened emotions and problems with concentration, while often still being high achievers.”
Some believe that girls are far more likely to mask their symptoms due to socialisation and sexism – girls are expected to be quieter and better-behaved than boys.
“Due to being well-spoken, timid and female, I flew under the radar for diagnosis,” says nail tech Kate Wheelan from Callan, County Kilkenny in Ireland.
“I got diagnosed [with ADHD] when attempting to complete school for the second time and did not want to end up dropping out again. I wanted answers.”
“ADHD people are often super smart but struggle with executive function which makes certain things like organisation, concentration, task switching and time management a real challenge.”
Executive function is controlled by the frontal lobe of the brain and requires dopamine to work – something that ADHD brains produce a lot less of than neurotypical ones.
This means that people with ADHD are far more likely to be impulsive and lack self-control, which can get them in all sorts of trouble explains Hartley. “However this need to seek out dopamine, the drive to take risks and the difficulty to be under the authority of others make ADHD people incredible entrepreneurs, leaders and out-of-the-box thinkers.”
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ADHD – a winding route to finding nails
When we put the call out for nail techs with ADHD to get in touch with their experiences we had no idea that we would get such an incredible response. For many of you, becoming a nail tech was a saving grace after years of struggling through school and higher education.
“It's often in university or college that those with undiagnosed ADHD really start to struggle after years of masking and even overachieving,” explains Hartley.
This is a time when we move away from the family home and our everyday routines and are expected to fend for and be responsible for ourselves. Juggling studying, everyday tasks, social life and often a job quickly becomes overwhelming for those with ADHD without the right support or understanding.
Some manage to stick out their studies despite having a string of ADHD burnouts. For many though, this is not the case, but for some dropping out of university was the catalyst that caused them to find nails.
“My nail career began in 2012 after I dropped out of uni because of what I now know was undiagnosed ADHD.” Explains nail tech Rose Tucker who was diagnosed this July at 30 years old.
It came after Tucker’s symptoms peaked when she was put into chemical menopause, which can exacerbate and heighten ADHD symptoms.
When she left uni she felt lost. Then her mum saw an ad for a nail apprenticeship in a local salon and encouraged her to apply. "The rest was history." Tucker now owns a salon called Rose Tucker Southport where she lives in Merseyside.
Nail tech Elise Smith, 25, from Glasgow, dropped out of university multiple times before being diagnosed with ADHD earlier this year. “I always knew there was something up, but didn’t really know what it was. I just constantly felt like I was just keeping my head above water.”
She started doing nails while at one of her stints at uni. “I was never quite happy when I went to get my nails done, I would be obsessive over them being perfect, so I thought I would try it!”, she says. Now she owns an inclusive salon called Sky High.
Treasure KariKari, 27, from London, is still studying and is on a waiting list for NHS diagnosis which could be up to 18 months long. Even though she has been reviewed by an educational psychologist who confirmed she has ADHD, she would have to have a diagnosis from a psychiatrist to be prescribed medication.
“I want to try medication as I really want to finish uni,” says Karikari who first affiliated with ADHD after scrolling through Twitter and seeing a post on how symptoms differ in women and how Black women are more likely to mask symptoms.
“ADHD is an underserved area and a lot of GPs don’t know a lot about it and how it can affect different people which is one obstacle to getting a diagnosis,” says Hartley. “Another is the long NHS waiting list and the high cost of going private.”
Despite struggling with uni, Karikari found time to complete an intensive level 2 +3 ITEC qualification in nail technology in May 2017 and started her first nail tech role for Nails Inc in Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge. Now she is a trainee manager for Townhouse in Harrods, London.
Megan Allcock was one of the few who wrote in that was diagnosed as a child. After always struggling in school, it all changed when she enrolled on a Level 3 nail course and “fell in love with nails”.
“I loved that you can create something so individual for someone and they're wearing your work. Then they come back and you re-create another design! This is the only thing I’ve been able to give my full attention to. Five years later and I still get as excited as I did the first time… that's when you really know.”
ADHD nail tech struggles
Time management and time blindness are common struggles for people with ADHD and for nail techs that have it, it can make sticking to appointment times tough.
“I struggle with listening to clients talk while working,” says Whitney Galloway, 24, Manchester. "It can make me work slower and struggle to focus on what I’m doing.”
“Time blindness really affects me as it makes others think I don’t care when I genuinely do,” adds Karikari. “That plus perfectionism makes me take forever with treatments sometimes.”
“Perfectionism can make ADHD people really hard on themselves,” says Hartley. “They must learn that done is better than good.”
Organisation and memory can also be a challenge for ADHD, leading to a laundry list of lost items and missed appointments. To overcome this, Hartley explains that some (especially women) will overcompensate by masking their symptoms by being excessively early, compulsively taking notes or obsessively logging events.
Nail tech Brittany Alexandra Bevan, 29, Wrexham overcompensates by always being early and says she finds the frustration she feels when a client is late “horrendous”.
Similarly to those with autism, people with ADHD can suffer from overstimulation and sensory overload. This means that busy environments like a nail salon, bustling with clients and buzzing drills can cause challenges.
“Picture Windows 97 trying to run with 11 internet tabs open and a Limewire download in progress,” explains Tucker. “But Windows 97 is a busy restaurant and the tabs are all the noises I hear. My brain can’t filter them out and gets overwhelmed.”
Tucker says she is still learning her triggers but has adapted her salon and working hours accordingly.
“I think it’s really important to try and voice these to clients and colleagues so they understand if you need to adjust further,” she says.
“My clients know that I prefer to keep the salon doors and windows closed to soften external noises, or if I go quiet it’s because I’m having difficulty concentrating or am overstimulated. I’m yet to meet anyone who’s not been respectful of it.”
Anxiety meltdowns are very common for those with ADHD and masking at work day in and day out can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
“When I finish work, I have to go to my room, spend five minutes on my own and emotionally unload, as the job can be extremely emotionally draining and overwhelming,” says ADHD tech Charlotte Nicholson.
Hartley says this is a good coping strategy to “come down” after a day of intense social activity. It’s a little-known fact that executive function also helps manage emotional regulation, meaning that controlling emotions and impulses can be a lot harder for people with ADHD.
Another facet of this is rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD). “RSD can make any rejection, real or perceived unbearable for people with ADHD,” explains Hartley. “This can cause challenges at work and in relationships and cause people to become socially withdrawn.”
“I’ve always struggled with RSD,” says Galloway. “It’s made getting feedback from clients much harder, to the point where I avoid asking how their nails are.”
“If a client does not return one day, I take it a lot harder than my neurotypical friends due to my RSD”, agrees Wheelan. “It makes me feel personally hurt.”
Thanks to poor impulse control and a tendency to drop hobbies as quickly as they are taken up, those with ADHD are often subject to what is known as “the ADHD tax”.
“I've spent a lot of money on courses that I've done nothing with,” says Nicholson. "If I don’t get something straight away, my anxiety can get the better of me. I tell myself I was useless at it and then it's packed away in a drawer never to be seen again.”
Poor organisation and bad memory can also cause bills to be paid late, resulting in mounting fines and financial stress.
Nail tech Lindsay Howard, 42, says that keeping up with social media can also be a drain. “Sometimes I can be super energetic and be on it and other times I’ll ignore messages because it can feel overwhelming.”
Hartley suggests blocking out time to focus on social media and reply to messages. “Social media can cause a lot of anxiety, especially for neurodiverse people. Using apps to limit screen time can be helpful as can scheduling tools for social media posts to ensure posts are going out even when you don’t feel like posting.”
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ADHD nail tech superpowers
ADHD is full of contradictions, which means individuals can be an employee of the month one month and floundering the next. It also means that many ADHD struggles can also be "superpowers" at the same time.
“My memory can be awful with things like remembering to text clients back,” says Nicholson. “I can, however, remember all the details of my conversations with clients when they come back four weeks later,” Nicholson adds that she and her clients see her perfectionism as a plus.
“I’m a very passionate person and I have to do something I care about to the best of my ability,” says tech Nataszija Moore, 26, from Manchester. “This is my ‘superpower’, so to speak.”
Meanwhile, Smith adds, "The “superpower” part for me is my drive when I love something. I’ve only been doing nails full-time for a year and a half and I’ve opened a salon and training academy and trained five other staff members.”
The ability to hyperfocus and get “in the zone” is one of the upsides of ADHD for many. It means that despite often suffering from overstimulation if the time is right and in doing something they love, ADHD people can tune everything out for hours and concentrate with laser focus.
“Due to hyperfocus, I’m convinced I have achieved so much more than I would have without ADHD,” says Smith. “I think it also makes me really creative and when I’m in the mood, I will get so much work done.”
“In the right environment, working on a task I love, my hyperfocus enables me to complete tasks to an intensely detailed and high quality in record times,” adds Wheelan.
“It feels like a state of mind I can slip into if the circumstances are right. It is a trait I’m very proud to possess. My creativity, paired with my hyperactive thoughts, means I can produce complex ideas quickly. It helps me to come up with content for my social media and when my clients tell me to freestyle a set.”
Howard reminds that a challenge of hyperfocus is it can be hard to switch off… “You are so focused on creating the next nail art idea. It’s like a pull to constantly want to do more and more to the point of ignoring the need to eat, drink or go to the loo.”
For some, the inability to focus on one thing can actually make them great multitaskers. “I can focus better when I'm multitasking. I can do what I love and thrive. I can be a mom, wife and a boss at the same time under the same roof,” says South Africa-based tech Chanel Louw, 36.
Meanwhile, mental hyperactivity and the need for stimulation and risk-taking to stave off boredom can make ADHD people highly ambitious, despite this being contradicted by motivation problems.
“My inability to be satisfied means I'm constantly pushing myself to do better,” says tech Danielle York. “If I’m not a little stressed, I'm empty so I’m constantly learning new techniques. This year I started entering competitions. It’s a great way to challenge myself, and ‘relax’.”
“People with ADHD are natural empaths,” says Hartley. “This means they are attuned to others' needs and can make people feel comfortable and at ease.”
“Being ADHD teaches you to read people,” says Louw. “It's a sense of knowing and understanding what people feel.”
“Clients say I’m very understanding and easy to talk to,” says Tucker. “Although our minds may drift, we try our best to be good listeners and to help you out.”
The bottom line is that while there are upsides to the contradictory elements of ADHD, it is these very contradictions that can cause ADHD people to have such struggles with their mental health, says Hartley, ambitious but lacking motivation or being able to hyperfocus one day and not being able to focus at all the next.
“This is why it is important to learn to understand your ADHD and learn coping mechanisms and strategies to counteract these struggles,” says Hartley. “Medication can help overcome symptoms but cannot cure ADHD. Finding structure and a routine is very hard for ADHD sufferers, therapy and coaching can help with this. It can really help to manage symptoms like task switching and time management, which in turn will help ease anxiety.”
Most of all though, says Hartley, it’s imperative for those with ADHD to find a thing or multiple things they love to do, and that might just well be nails.
“ADHD isn’t always easy, but my superpower is I’m always ready to concentrate on nails,” says Allcock. At the end of it all, I wouldn’t change it, even if I could. ADHD is a part of me, it’s what makes me Megan and I wouldn’t be Megan without it!"
ADHD and nails – a match made in heaven?
Thank you so much to all of you who wrote in to share your experiences.
Check out this Instagram post to see all of the reasons why you being an ADHD nail tech suits you.
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