I have ADHD. I have a mild form of it, but it’s been enough to make life hard at certain points. It used to be my deepest darkest secret, and at the top of the list of the many things I would change about myself if given the chance. Occasionally, I’m still afraid to admit it. But lately, I’ve been finding myself completely unable to keep quiet about it more often than not. I recently realized that out of the many heartbreaks I’ve experienced, my experience with mild ADHD is what has given me the most emotional luggage. But why? ADHD isn’t life-threatening. It doesn’t harm you physically. In most cases, it’s one of the easiest disorders to deal with. My new summer job has prompted me to examine many of my thoughts and feelings. I’m a camp counselor, which inevitably brings back childhood memories. This has reopened some old wounds for me while helping to heal other ones. But mostly, it’s caused me to realize that my feelings are indeed valid. My ADHD is a part of my past, and my past has shaped me into the person I am today.
I remember my childhood in bits and pieces. It’s fuzzy, but I mostly remember just not being very happy a lot of the time. Before I knew it had a name, I knew that there was something a little bit different about me. I was always mystified by the fact that if told to “pay attention,” most kids were seemingly able to just do it. At least once a day a teacher would call on me, and I would ask for the question to be repeated because I had zoned out. She would angrily refuse, and ask me why I wasn’t paying attention like everyone else. Kids would laugh, and I would want to disappear. They all just seemed to think I was stupid. But really there were always just a million different things happening at once inside my head. As much as I tried to give my undivided attention to 2+2 and 4+4, I never could—it was frustrating, to say the least. I also was never able to sit still. Ever. At home, I did somersaults across the couch and paced the floors. At soccer games, I did cartwheels on the sidelines when I wasn’t playing. At school, I consistently swung my legs in my seat and drummed my fingers on the desk. Before I started grade school, I thought it was a good thing that I was so energetic. Being constantly in motion just felt natural to me. But I soon realized that adults seemed to think otherwise. While I understand how I may have been a bit stressful to deal with, I did have a few teachers who I still believe really crossed a line with their treatment of me. My first-grade teacher once made me play computer games instead of participating in a reading lesson, which is probably one of the worst activities for someone with an ADHD brain. I remember sitting in front of the screen for what seemed like an eternity, my brain fried and my eyes aching from the glare. When I asked my teacher why I had been playing for so long, she said it was because I was a distraction to the class. It was as if she believed that I was less deserving of an education than my classmates.
Fourth grade was the first year that I was allowed to participate in the school musical. It was also the year that I discovered my passion. But I almost didn’t because of my teacher, who wanted to pull me from it because she thought I didn’t have the proper attention span. Thank heaven my parents went to bat for me because acting ended up being the best thing that ever happened to my ADHD. It gave me a creative outlet and taught me how to redirect my energy. Onstage my jumps and jitters turned into an animated yet truthful character. My scattered brain became determined and hungry as I studied the Meisner approach and the Stanislavsky system. Throughout those hard years, theatre gave me something to live for. I now have less than three weeks until I move to New York City to attend The New School for Drama. My dreams are coming true, and I have no idea what my life would be like today if my fourth-grade teacher had gone through with her plan. Through theatre, I figured out that I learn best when I’m on my feet and engaging in active conversation, rather than just being parked at a desk. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, I spent most of elementary school genuinely believing that I was a bad kid. At my school, good meant sitting still, paying attention, and keeping your mouth shut unless called on. It didn’t seem to matter how kind your heart was or how creative you were.
In fifth grade, my parents took me to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I went along, no questions asked as to why. When I was in the waiting room, there were a bunch of pamphlets about ADHD. I remember reading the list of symptoms and thinking they described me perfectly. But for some reason, I never put it together in my head that I was being tested for it. I was in denial, so caught up in the idea that I had to be normal. Kids at school had already been spreading nasty rumors about me having a learning disability. It couldn’t be true. I wouldn’t let it be. The first few years after my diagnosis were the hardest. I started taking medication, and it was helping. I was also glad to have finally identified the problem. However, I struggled to come to terms with the label attached to me. I felt like I needed to keep my ADHD a secret. I thought that if I told anyone at school, all my friends would immediately turn against me. Having ADHD meant I wasn’t normal, and people who weren’t normal didn’t deserve to be liked. To my relief, I would soon discover that this wasn't entirely true. Towards the end of middle school I very slowly began to open up a bit more. And though there were people who judged, there were also many who were willing to listen. People who asked me to explain my struggle instead of shoving me into a box. It had to be close to the beginning of high school before I finally realized that having ADHD did not make me less of a human being.
I recently had a really good conversation with one of my coworkers. She’s an English teacher and was telling me about how she had a middle school student with such severe ADHD that he would compulsively pace around behind her desk during the lesson. Hearing this made me put my problems into perspective a bit. I’m really lucky that my ADHD is as mild as it is. I’ve gotten to the point where my symptoms are usually just inconveniences. I can focus enough to get good grades in school and achieve most of my goals. And though it makes me feel like jumping out of my skin, I can force myself to sit still. My medication works well and has had no problematic side effects. Not everyone with ADHD has these luxuries. So why is it that I carry so much baggage when my ADHD isn’t even severe? Why have there been days when I’ve left my job almost in tears after recalling childhood memories? Why do I burn with rage every time a classmate makes a snide remark about me not paying attention? Why am I enraged by the stigmatization of mental illnesses the way my friends are only by racism and homophobia?
Sometimes I begin to think that maybe my feelings aren’t valid. Maybe I’m just too emotional. But then there are always random instances that remind me of how much I’ve hurt in the past. Like the one time I made a pretty bad driving mistake and my dad called me stupid out of extreme frustration. He didn’t mean it and apologized incessantly, but he almost had to take the wheel because I spent the rest of the ride home convulsing with sobs. My dad continued to apologize for the rest of the day, and I forgave him. Everyone says things they don’t mean at times. Besides, my dad was the first person to tell me it was okay to be the way I was. Every time a teacher unnecessarily scolded me, and every time a kid taunted me, it hurt him ten times more than it hurt me. But our little quarrel still ripped my wounds right open again. Every time someone points out a stupid mistake of mine, all the memories of being thought of as stupid come flooding right back to me. And believe me, being thought of as stupid is degrading beyond words. There have been so many times when I have unnecessarily snapped at people who were just trying to offer me help. Every time I feel my intelligence is being insulted even in the slightest, I’m on guard, ready to defend it. Because deep down inside all of the love I’ve cultivated for the person I am today, I am still that hurting child.
My self-esteem issues continued long through high school and still continue today to a certain extent. Though I came to terms with my diagnosis towards the end of middle school, there were still adults who didn’t understand and friends whose jokes crossed a line. Maybe I have so much emotional baggage because my struggle with ADHD wasn’t necessarily a heartbreak like many of the other things I’ve been through. It was pain that accumulated over the course of several years. My heart was like a pin cushion, and every little instance of being considered less of a person because of my ADHD was like a needle that poked and prodded. Getting a time-out for not being able to sit still. Ouch. A girl in my fourth-grade class calling me “retarded” behind my back. Another ouch. A girl in my seventh-grade Spanish class yelling at me for not being able to focus during a review game. Triple ouch. My dance teacher publicly humiliating me in front of the rest of the class for not being able to focus during rehearsal. Stab. Crack. Shatter. By this point my heart has been jabbed a million times, and I am bled out and broken. I hit rock bottom before things ever got better. It took many fall-outs with friends and family and a brief wrestling with self-destructive tendencies to realize that I wasn’t supposed to feel the way I did.
I want the world to know I have ADHD. At first I wanted to speak up about it out of anger, but now I want to out of love and compassion for other people like me. Yet I find myself conflicted because I only want the world to know ADHD like I do. When I tell people who previously didn’t know I have ADHD, I still always feel as if I’m tainting whatever image of me they may have in their head. Even with open minded people, and even with my closest friends, the word “ADHD” feels a bit dirty coming out of my mouth. Kind of like the first time I ever accidentally said a curse word. Because I just can’t shake the fear of the stereotype that looms inside people’s heads. I really shouldn’t have to feel that way. Now that I have my symptoms under control, my ADHD fuels so many of the characteristics that I absolutely love about myself. My brain spits out creative ideas faster than I can keep track of them. I don't usually mind exercise because I can’t stand sitting still. I tend to get lost in daydreams so vibrant and tangible that it pains me to snap out of them. Most of the time, I don’t even think of it as a disorder. It’s just who I am. But what I know ADHD as is far different than the way society perceives it. So many people have been surprised to learn I have it, and I know exactly why. All they see behind those four letters are irritating school children who can’t sit still and never listen. I’m not like that. Aside from the fact that I’m not a kid anymore, I’m also smart, collected, and ambitious. ADHD isn’t me. It can’t be me. And it’s not. Because what I know ADHD is isn't what the world thinks it is. I was once that troubled child, but ADHD is deeper and much more complex than that.
There’s such a movement going on about mental illnesses not defining the people who have them. While I definitely won’t argue this statement, I feel a little bit different about my relationship with ADHD. I’ve been told that it shouldn’t define me at all, especially since I have it fairly mildly. But I personally feel like it does define me, just not in a negative way. The things that my ordeal has taught me have built me into who I am proud to be. I rarely judge others because I know what it’s like to be judged. I always believe that seemingly troubled people are good deep down inside, because I’ve been thought of as troubled. I’m also creative and spontaneous, which is just the way that people with ADHD tend to be. It’s taken me years to find my voice, but I eventually found it through the things that my ADHD pulls me toward. Theatre and writing are what I’m almost always daydreaming about when I can’t focus, so I use them to tell my story. I write plays and poetry. I read monologues and scenes. I make jokes about it. I laugh. I cry. I hug tight the friends who have shared the same experiences as me. I don’t need to yell at people or call them out for hurting me. There are better and more beautiful ways to avenge my pain.