Turning an illness into an asset

Diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, an entrepreneur learns to harness his restlessness and redirect it into creativity.

By Alexander Stein
Featured on Fortune Small Business

(FORTUNE Small Business) — In both my clinical and consulting work, I see a lot of the “double whammy”: when people contending with the symptoms of a problem also suffer from the stigma attached to having it. Some, though, fashion lives and careers that turn a potential liability – a mental illness – into a core element of their professional success.

“Tom Foyer” (a pseudonym) is the president of an 18-person disaster recovery company he founded in 1999. He has ADHD – attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – a condition finally diagnosed four years ago, when Foyer was in his mid-’30s.

All his life Foyer had trouble focusing: he describes himself as “fidgety,” with “tons of nervous energy.” Foyer hovered near the bottom of his class through high school and shook, rattled, and rolled his way into young adulthood, living out the textbook symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.

As far as he knew, this was just who he was.

And still is, in many ways – total transformations only happen in movies. But Foyer’s diagnosis was an important turning point: it linked a name and treatment options to his mysterious problem. With time, understanding, and hard work, his energy and distractibility can and have been redirected into productivity.

How? While Foyer’s journey has been tough, his story is not so uncommon. I think he’s a stellar “case study” to isolate key pivot points that make the difference between a disastrous life, and turning disastrous circumstances into business advantages.

Foyer has formed two crucial relations that help him keep his illness from compromising his business leadership: his bonds with his wife and with his psychotherapist.

In his wife, Foyer found someone who could talk to him about his difficulties without his feeling attacked or abnormal. She is able to notice and articulate how he behaves or responds in various circumstances, and sensitively help him become aware of it, too.

A few years ago, Foyer’s wife came on board the company as his business partner. Her business expertise complements and expands Foyer’s own skill-sets, but her presence on-site has another benefit: her personal understanding of Foyer and love for him is a stabilizing force.

Meanwhile, once diagnosed, Foyer began therapy and began to accept that many of his symptoms were evidence of a treatable disorder rather than “Exhibit A” in the case against his normalcy. That understanding lessened his initial concerns that taking medication (drugs are commonly prescribed for ADHD) would change his personality. Now medicated, he is less restless and more able to productively channel his energy.

“I know that others around me notice a difference, especially when I have not taken meds (occasionally),” Foyer said about his turnaround. “I often wonder what it was like to know and deal with me without meds … my exuberance was a bad thing, interrupting people in mid-sentence because I needed to be heard or get my point across. I now see that there is just as much power and respect by listening.”

Foyer says his condition has affected his business both negatively and positively. On the upside, he is expert at extreme multitasking, is not frazzled by crisis situations, and can see his way through an avalanche of logistical challenges. In wide-scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina, he must marshal and direct an army of helpers and interface with a cadre of responding agencies. At such times, his staff quickly swells to as many as 150 workers. His dynamic personality is an asset in such chaotic situations.

More trying for Foyer is managing his business and staff between alarm calls. Working at his desk, he says he is like a gantry-locked rocket waiting for launch.

Foyer admitted that, while never forgetting that his work comes from the suffering of others, he is actually happiest confronting the challenges of the post-disaster scenario. Is that any different, really, from the outlook of paramedics, surgeons, E.R. docs, fire-fighters or other first responders?

Foyer’s business choices make perfect psychological sense to me. His comfort in chaos, and his compassion for and effectiveness with trauma victims are, I’d say, directly connected to his life with ADHD. His early experiences struggling to conform to ill-fitting expectations shaped the ways his mind works, giving him an understanding of vulnerability and bedlam and sparking an interest in rescue work.

Prejudice toward mental health issues has relaxed considerably since, say, 1972, when George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate Thomas Eagleton was booted off the ticket after his depression became known. But even today, misconceptions and misgivings about psychology and therapy still keep plenty of people from getting help, or letting others know if they’ve sought it.

Foyer knows this firsthand. He was appalled when a movie star famously denounced women who sought psychiatric intervention for post-partum depression. And he vividly recalls being impressed hearing David Neeleman, founder and former CEO of JetBlue Airways (JBLU), proclaim ADHD one of his biggest assets: Neeleman credits the disorder with giving him the creative drive that pushed him to develop a new electronic ticketing system and other complex corporate initiatives.

Foyer’s business is getting paid to help others and clean up the mess when catastrophe befalls. But part of avoiding catastrophe in the first place is preparedness – both physical and mental. By facing his illness head-on and learning to work with its effects, controlling destructive ones and capitalizing on potentially helpful ones, Foyer is heading off calamity for his own company.

Alexander Stein is a psychoanalyst and consultant in practice in New York City. He is also a training analyst and faculty member of The National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis, and a strategic partner with the Boswell Group. 

Disclaimer: This column is designed for educational purposes only. Due to the individual nature of each situation, Dr. Stein cannot offer advice or suggestions beyond what is presented here. You should not rely on this information as a substitute for personal therapy, or construe it as the offering of a diagnosis or remedy.