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4Creative’s John Allison on living with ADHD and the importance of asking for help!

Great article on John Allison, an Executive Creative Director at 4Creative, Channel 4’s in-house creative agency, who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a condition he has lived with all his life and which has had a significant impact on his personal life and work. Here he talks to Creative Review magazine about ‘coming out’ to colleagues and friends as suffering from a mental health condition, and the importance of asking for help if you are struggling!

There is a certain amount of irony involved in the timing of when John Allison was first diagnosed as suffering from a mental health condition. He and his fellow 4Creative ECD Chris Bovill were deep into work on the 2016 Paralympics ad, an epic all-singing, all-dancing film featuring real-life people with all kinds of disabilities, themed around the tagline ‘Yes We Can’.

“I was diagnosed at the time when we were on set for the Paralympics ad,” says Allison now. “So I was trying out my meds … and I was just off my face. Because when you first take these meds, your body has to adjust. And I was gurning. And I hadn’t told anyone yet, other than Chris. But by that point I was just like, ‘I’m just going to go with it’. Because now I knew that this whole thing was a journey, a learning process. And the nature of this shoot, I suddenly felt closer to the subject matter. So it was quite a profound way to go through the process.”

Now 39, Allison’s ADHD has had an immense impact on his life and work. Describing its affect on his thinking, he says: “If your mind is like an orchestra, my mind is just way out of tune because the conductor’s pissed off, he’s gone outside for a smoke, so it’s a cacophony.”

On a day-to-day level, the ADHD can cause chaos. “I’ve spent my life rushing into things,” Allison says. “Losing and breaking phones on a monthly basis. Wallets, house keys, cars. Leaving my bags on trains, getting on the wrong trains, losing my passport…. It’s a nightmare, it’s really stressful, and then you beat yourself up every time. And sometimes it’s hilarious! But you just go, ‘I want it to stop now’.”

The ADHD gifted Allison with a “fast brain”, but an inability to fully control his behaviour, which led to great anxiety. To some extent the advertising industry, with both its competitive atmosphere – which, certainly among younger creatives, might discourage any confessions of weakness or being unable to cope – and its tolerance of the ‘creative eccentric’ enabled Allison’s condition to go unchecked. “The way I see mental health, for me anyway, my ADHD was never a problem until it was a problem,” he says. “There’s so many benefits of it, it’s probably the best of all the ones to have. But I think there is a culture of enabling in the creative industries in regards to mental health.”

By way of an example of this, he says: “I’d go into the office and halfway through a meeting, I’ll get up and walk out and won’t realise I’ve done it, and nobody will call me out for it, they’ll all think it’s charming and eccentric. But inside I’m going, ‘fuck, why did I do that, why did I do that again? What’s wrong with me?’

I’ll white-knuckle — literally my knuckles go white because I’m trying to grip onto the seat or the table just to stay with it. Because if you’re in a meeting with the CEO, you don’t want to zone out.

“Or I get very emotionally overwhelmed – I go from 0 to 60 in any emotion, whether it’s happiness or rage. So I’d think, ‘oh my god, I’ve just shouted at that person, why have I done that? I need to manage myself better’. And I can’t because I didn’t know what was going on and what was behind it. So on one level, everyone’s going, ‘yeah, you’re the crazy creative’ and you’re playing up to it because they don’t see that as a problem. But inside you’re full of anxiety because you don’t know why you do these things. b You’re not in control of yourself. You don’t ever have a sense of who you are because you react so wildly differently.

“You would think that being in the creative industry is the perfect place to have a mental health problem, but in many respects it isn’t because it’s encouraged in some instances,” he continues. “And then when you become a creative leader, then shit really starts to happen.”

Allison’s first major crisis point came when he and Bovill became creative directors at the ad agency Fallon. “Back in Fallon I put so much pressure on myself,” he said. “I was struggling on all fronts, outside of work, in work. I had a relationship break up…. And I didn’t seek any help, I didn’t go and speak to anyone. I just threw myself into my work, and when I wasn’t working I was training for an Olympic distance triathlon.”

He was pushing himself, both physically and mentally, to extremes. “I was getting up in the morning at 5am, doing a 20k bike ride, coming back, doing the morning bottle for the youngest, then going to work, then doing a swim, and then going to the pub. My mate Miles said, ‘I didn’t burn the candle at both ends, I threw it on fire’. My brain was like this but because of the nature of the job and putting the work before everything…. It’s not advertising’s fault at all, but it didn’t help.”

He eventually got glandular fever and chronic fatigue. “When that did finally happen, [Fallon] were great, of course they were. But nobody knew how to help me. And I didn’t put my hand up.”

Ironically, Allison at this time was in fact critical of others who showed they weren’t coping, for whatever reason. “I was arrogant,” he says now. “I was like, ‘what do you mean you’ve been signed off for stress?’. You fear what you might become. The thing about disability and mental health issues is we can all experience that, there’s a possibility and a chance of that and yet we’re not very tolerant or sympathetic of it. So I remember being arrogant, and I didn’t want to admit any sign of weakness. I’m way more humble after it.”

Coping mechanisms

Still undiagnosed, Allison learned coping mechanisms to deal with the ADHD, but its effects only became more problematic when he joined 4Creative as ECD. “The minute you start becoming more of a senior leader and you have to operate in different environments, the pressure was unbearable because suddenly you can’t just get up and walk out halfway through a meeting or blurt stuff out,” he says. “You suddenly find yourself really restraining yourself and that becomes an exhaustion, a mental fatigue, anxiety. And then when you do those things, you’re really hard on yourself.

“I know most people will have experienced this in their life but I’ll find any meeting or conversation incredibly difficult because my mind just goes, my vision goes,” he continues. “I’ll white-knuckle – literally my knuckles go white because I’m trying to grip onto the seat or the table just to stay with it. Because if you’re in a meeting with the CEO of Channel 4 or whatever, you don’t want to zone out: whether it’s your boss, and also if it’s your team, and they’re coming to present something to you.

“It’s not because I’m bored but I’ve got a fast brain, I get it really quickly – not in an arrogant way, I’ve just got it – but you have to be respectful because your team spent a long time working on this. So that’s when I really started feeling it. Getting to 4, I really started to feel this pressure and exhaustion and stress of feeling I had to conform to this type of leader. And I can’t be that type of person.”

I think this is the thing that will change if people can just shake off the taboo and the stigma and go and see someone about whatever they’re dealing with

Allison was eventually diagnosed when a colleague recognised his symptoms after her son was diagnosed with ADHD. Going to see a specialist was a revelation. “Within two hours, he knew me as well as [my family and closest friends] – he could predict the way I would react in a situation. It was really overwhelming and hilarious and absurd. A huge relief.

“I think this is the thing that will change if people can just shake off the taboo and the stigma and go and see someone about whatever they’re dealing with,” he continues. “Just being able to have somebody play back to you that you’re not a broken machine, you’re not a weirdo, you’re ‘this’.”

Duty of care

He describes Channel 4 as almost the perfect environment to discover a mental health condition. “With Channel 4, you’ve got to lead by example,” he says. “So our workforce has to be diverse, and on-screen has to be diverse. So when one of their managers comes out and goes ‘actually, I think I might be a bit more diverse [than we’d realised]’, obviously their duty of care has been amazing. Dan Brooke [chief marketing and communications officer] has been an incredible champion for disability and b
diversity at 4 for years. He really has pushed through all kinds of work and initiatives. And I repaid their support by pushing up their management diversity quota by one!” he says.

Allison is aware that such a positive response may not always be the norm, however. “I’ve got friends who have mental health conditions or addiction, and the places they work haven’t been as supportive. I’ve heard some real horror stories, and that’s really disheartening…. It’s down to a culture of ignorance, and awkwardness as well.

“It needs bravery on both sides. If you’re struggling with something, you need the bravery to go out and learn about it and seek help. And you need the bravery of people [in return] to step up and go ‘right, tell me about it’, ‘what is it?’, ‘do I say this, do I say that?’, ‘will this offend you?’. But it also needs to take compassion on both sides. People need to be more self-compassionate. It’s a really tough industry, and you’ve got to go, ‘look, are you really going to put the work above your own sanity?’”

Alongside 4, in the background has always been Bovill, a perfect foil to Allison’s more erratic character, who he has been lucky enough to have as a creative partner for two decades. “I always joked that he was my full-time carer, and it’s a lot more true than we’d realised,” he says. “He’s constant, he’s a creative Terminator, he doesn’t give up and he doesn’t stop. He’s got so much patience. He’s really big, so once you set him in motion there’s no stopping him. And I’m more like a sprinter. I get tired and emotionally fatigued and bored and then I’ll wander off…. It’s kind of worked for us…. We are yin and yang.”

Playing to strengths

Since his diagnosis, he and Bovill have slightly adapted their style of working in order to play to their strengths. This may mean leaving Bovill, with his patient manner, to sit through meetings when they become endless, bringing in Allison at points of change and development, when he can specifically be useful.

There is also a recognition that Bovill is best at knowing when an idea has reached its zenith. “I’m very strategic,” says Allison, “but I can kill an idea by overthinking it. Because I can’t stop so I’ll just kill it. He’s just great at going, ‘no, that’s it, we’re making that’. When he goes on holiday, I have a nightmare because I don’t know when to stop.”

Allison stresses on a couple of occasions during our conversation that he doesn’t hold any answers to the best way to deal with a mental health condition, though he does have some methods that have worked for him. He ultimately decided not to take the medications on offer for ADHD, having found that CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)methods have been more effective for him, and it is clear that simply talking about his experiences has been hugely beneficial.

“I know a few creatives [with issues] and some of them are open about it and some of them aren’t but this very much feels like lone voices,” he says of the wider problem. “But if you look at the statistics of people who have mental health issues, let alone addiction, there is a huge chasm between the people who are open about it and the people who must be suffering…. I feel I’ve been banging on about this since I got diagnosed and it’s been great. It’s great for the team.”

Don’t overthink it

It’s also helped him become more understanding and empathetic to others, which makes him better at his job. “Having been through a bit of a process, if somebody comes to me with a problem, it doesn’t have to be mental health related, it could be anything, I’ve found that, although I’m clinically shit at listening, I’m actually really good at talking to people about their problems,” he says. “So it has made me a better leader in that respect.”

Allison is extremely conscious of the commonly-held fear that being diagnosed and subsequently treated may create changes, and specifically might mean that someone could become less creative as a result. But even there, he recommends opting for support rather than ignoring the symptoms. “One fear will be, ‘I don’t want to confront it, because it might make me less good and it might make me less creative’,” he says. “Well, just speaking to someone about it, that’s not going to change you. You can not act on the diagnosis if you want, but at least find out what’s going on.

“Coming out, talking about it, that’s just what I’ve decided to do, and it’s made my life immeasurably better, but other people might not be in the right environment to do that,” he continues. “At the very least, just knowing more about myself has helped. If people come to me for advice, I’d say ‘just go and see someone, don’t overthink it, just do it’…. Speaking from experience, don’t wait until the wheels fall off.”