Brittany Duncan in her office

Crushing the Standard: How Brittany manages a full and creative life with ADHD.

Brittany is an inspiring individual who epitomizes Dreamzilla’s mission. She exemplifies in extraordinary ways how neurodivergent individuals can be their biggest, baddest selves by leaning into their talents and interests. She is a wife and mother of four and has mastered an impressive assortment of creative trades. At work, she is the director of human resources at an environmental services company, and has recently returned to school to study business administration and human resources management. Oh, and she does this all with ADHD and type 2 narcolepsy. It’s clear she is a superhero!

Brittany first began to expect that she had ADHD when she was in 7th grade but wasn’t officially diagnosed until two years later when she was in high school. With the diagnosis came relief, but also the feeling that having ADHD was taboo, as if society had placed a big, glaring label on her. She predominantly felt this pressure and judgment in school. She was often told that she just wasn’t “trying hard enough” or that she “just had to buckle down and figure it out”. For those who are neurodiverse, these utterances are commonly heard which causes feelings of inadequacy for not meeting neurotypical peoples’ expectations. Brittany spoke about how the education system can be very standardized, making it hard for neurodiverse kids to fit in, learn, and succeed. Even though neurodiverse individuals are completely capable of everything neurotypical individuals are, aspects of life, such as school, are often not catered to them leaving them to struggle and be misunderstood.

Perhaps this is why from a young age Brittany fell in love with working. She said, “Working makes me feel so productive, which was a feeling I never really felt when I was in school”. That’s why after graduating high school Brittany decided that the best next step for her was to enter the workforce rather than attend college. Post high school graduation she began working at an electrical distribution company. It was at this job where Brittany met her husband. Her husband had two kids from a previous marriage, and Brittany, having the big heart that she does, immediately took them in as her own. She was even able to identify that the youngest child was exhibiting symptoms of ADHD. Brittany said, “I saw so much of myself in him even though he’s not biologically mine. I knew exactly what was going on with him since he had a hard time focusing in school and completing his homework. It was one of those things that was meant to be because had I not been there his symptoms could have gone unrecognized.” A few years after marrying, Brittany and her husband had two more children.

In addition to having ADHD, Brittany also has type two narcolepsy; however, it wasn’t until her early thirties that she was diagnosed since her ADHD masked her narcolepsy symptoms. Brittany explained why this was. “ADHD and narcolepsy can have similar symptoms because with narcolepsy you’re always exhausted, and when you’re exhausted you can’t focus. And of course, one of the most common symptoms of ADHD is not being able to focus”. Before being diagnosed with narcolepsy, Brittany had several doctors tell her that the exhaustion she was experiencing was because she was a mom of four, had a full-time job, and lived a full, busy life. But Brittany had a feeling that there was something more going on than just normal exhaustion. So, she continued to pursue finding an answer. This patience and persistence paid off. “And then I finally had a doctor say, ‘This is more than just tired. Let’s look into this further.’ Sure enough, it was concluded that I had type two narcolepsy. Finding out I had narcolepsy was so validating; it helped make sense why I had such a hard time overcoming things, and that it wasn’t just my ADHD. It truly answered a lifetime of questions.” Because of this experience, Brittany is a strong advocate for pursuing answers about one’s mental health, especially for neurodivergent individuals since they often have comorbidities.

Brittany’s love for work and her robust work ethic has always been a significant part of her life. When I asked why this was, Brittany replied, “My entire childhood was full of people who loved their work and also happened to work with so many different trades. This really set the basis for the creative work I do today.” For instance, around the house her dad was an accomplished DIYer. Brittany said, “He would always let me help do everything and anything. From fixing the lawnmower to patching spots of drywall. From changing the oil in our vehicles to laying tile, he always taught me everything he was doing. Most importantly, he’d let me do what he was doing. I believe his teaching of handiwork is what really sparked my love for working with my hands and my interest in all types of trades."

Additionally, one of her grandmothers was a cake decorator who was always eager to show Brittany her work. Brittany recalled, “My grandmother was very creative. She would even take me to craft group at her church!”

Brittany’s other grandparents were creatively gifted as well. Her grandfather was a woodworker while her grandmother had a love for arts and crafts. “My pop would let me loose in his woodshop. As long as I was careful and safe, nothing was off limits. With him, I was able to make and build all kinds of things. And then I’d go inside to my Grammy, and we’d paint and decorate the piece I had just built. So, I’ve had a love of woodworking from a very young age, and I’ve carried it into my adult life.” Brittany’s love for woodworking has morphed into a passion for restoring antiques, namely furniture.

Antique Console

Alongside the creative inspiration her grandparents imparted on her, Brittany recalled that she was gifted an antique sewing machine when she was about eight. “No one showed me how to use it. I just began messing with it and I figured out how to work it.” When she was in high school, she took a sewing class where she discovered the critical need to understand the bare basis of not just sewing but all trade work.

Other trades Brittany has worked on over the years include knitting and crocheting, working with a Cricut™ machine to create vinyl logos or images, but her favorite is leather work. When I asked her why, she said, “Well, I have a horse, and I love spending my free time at the barn caring for her. But leatherwork is so unique from other trades since it requires using many different trades to complete a project. For one, leatherwork uses a lot of sewing skills like measuring, cutting, fiber work, and understanding how garments take dye. And secondly, it requires knowing how to use a lot of hand tools which I understand from woodworking.” Brittany’s favorite type of leatherwork is working on western tack for horses. “I think it’s my favorite because you have to follow the guidelines that keep the rider and the horse safe. I like having to carefully follow those boundaries, but I also like knowing that inside of those boundaries I have complete creative control.”

Even with the knowledge of several trades, Brittany wants to master as many trades as possible. Brittany said that this goal goes hand-in-hand with her neurodivergence since her brain is always looking for new tasks or skills to try. “When I see something creative or beautiful, I have to know how it’s made. Everyone’s always said, ‘You can do anything,’ and so I believe just that!” Brittany also shared that her and her family’s long-term goal is to have their own farm. She hopes that at the farm she can have a shop where she can enjoy all of the different trades she partakes in and maybe even offer classes for members of her community. “I love to share and teach what I know with other people. With my kids, I do what my dad did with me by letting them do everything with me since I want them to be able to do everything.”

Moreover, Brittany expressed how important it is for trades to be passed to future generations.

“If we don’t continue to practice trade skills and inspire kids to do them, these skills are going to be lost. That’s why I share my knowledge with everyone and anyone who wants to learn. I feel like I got to where I am because of the people in my life that took the time to show me. I want to do the same in return.”
– Brittany Duncan

Brittany mostly does commission projects for friends, family, and people in her community rather than wanting her trade work to turn into a full-blown business. She stated, “For now, I let things come my way. If I find it interesting, or I know I can make a difference than those are the projects I usually go for.”

When she’s not working on creative projects or pursuing new trades, Brittany is the director of human resources at Legacy Environmental Service, a company that is responsible for transporting nonhazardous waste and completes different forms of utility work such as trucking and hauling. The owner of the company at that time, Jack, initially hired Brittany as a part time bookkeeper, but it didn’t take long before Brittany began to take on more responsibilities. “I was beginning to do all of these different jobs and my ADHD brain was eating it up! I was learning so much. It was awesome.” One of the most heartwarming tidbits about Brittany’s career is how understanding her boss was of her ADHD. “Jack and I had a conversation about my ADHD, and he really listened. He understood that I worked best when I was left to complete a task, and he fully trusted that I could do it. From the beginning of working at the company, I knew I had a very special position and that it was where I was supposed to be. I couldn’t believe that I had found the perfect job.”

Brittany Duncan in her office

Over the years, the company has continued to grow and expand at a rapid rate. For a long time Brittany was responsible for many office roles such as maintaining accounts payable and accounts receivable, managing human resources, and overseeing safety and compliance. While at first there wasn’t a lot to each of these departments, now that the company is actively evolving there is a greater need for more office employees. When Brittany was approached about hiring more employees to take on some of her duties, she was asked what role she wanted to keep. She replied, “‘I really care about the employees. I believe that they are all really good individuals who have families. To me the best way I could serve the company is to be in HR because they hold everyone accountable and are the problem solvers.’” The position of director of human resources was then hers.

However, soon after assuming this position Brittany realized that there was more that she needed to know about the position to succeed. So, she enrolled in Strayer University, an online institution, to pursue a major in business management and human resources. Brittany is a big supporter of online college since students can work at their own pace and on their own time, two elements that are helpful for many neurodiverse folks to succeed. “Taking classes online has allowed me to take on what I can, which is important to me so I don’t overload myself.” Brittany is a current student at Strayer, and her Dreamzilla scholarship contributed towards her tuition.

Every neurodivergent individual experiences peaks and valleys because of their neurodivergence. Brittany shared that the biggest gift ADHD has given her is that she can do anything because she knows she doesn’t fit a standardized mold. “You don’t have to be standardized to be successful. I know I wouldn’t have gained as much knowledge of trade work as I have if I didn’t have ADHD because it has empowered me to explore all kinds of different trades.” When asked about how ADHD has made her life difficult, she spoke about how she can easily become overwhelmed. “It’s a constant battle,” she noted. One of the biggest coping mechanisms she employs to combat this is learning when she can and when she can’t. “This has been really important for me and my well-being. It’s something you have to teach yourself how to do, and then hold yourself accountable for so you don’t take too much on only to set yourself back.”

Finally, I asked Brittany how she is her biggest, baddest self and she replied, “Doing all the things and being a good mom.” She is empowered rather than defeated by how her brain works, and combined with the love of her support system, she’s unstoppable.

About the Author:

Alyssa Marchese

Alyssa Marchese is a recent graduate from the University of Colorado where she earned her bachelors in English creative writing. Alyssa was diagnosed with ADHD in her early twenties which ignited her passion for promoting the importance of mental health and neurodiversity awareness. She enjoys listening to audiobooks, knitting, and volunteering at a local animal shelter.

Author’s Website

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