I read a lot as a kid. I didn’t speak out of turn. People liked me.
Sure, I never knew where my school worksheets were. I was rarely able to turn in my homework on time. And yes, my elementary school desk was always a disaster. I used to pull myself against it, flattening my stomach across it so my people couldn’t see inside of it. Paper, crayons, pencils, and books spilled out onto the floor. It was embarrassing.
I lost things I couldn’t remember picking up in the first place. I couldn’t keep track of time, yesterday’s moments fusing to tomorrow’s expectations. I was very bright. Drawing advanced connections in papers and class discussions. Teachers used my brightness to excuse my lateness, my inability to process verbal math instructions, my lack of everyday sense. It was alright that I couldn’t always move from one step to the next. They would help me. They could tell I was somebody special.
In the 6th grade, there was an end of the year pool party for all the kids who’d gotten good grades. I was behind in school again but all of my friends were going to the party. I couldn’t bear being left out. I’d hate missing the pool but mostly couldn’t bear for them to know I wasn’t like them. The week before the party, I frantically searched for assignments I’d missed. I pulled worksheets out of the back of my desk, from the bottom of my backpack, found a few under my bed. I handed them to my teacher, crumpled and smeared. I was crumpled and smeared too. Maybe that’s why she said it was enough; that I could go to the party. I ran home from school, crying and laughing.
Everything was going to be okay. I was going to be somebody special.
People stopped telling me I was special around high school. Moving from class to class, teachers didn’t get to know me during the 45 minutes they had me a day. There were no allowances for a dreamy kid who didn’t know how to show up. After a few months, I stopped sitting in the front of the class. Letting the teachers see me there was dangerous. It just reminded them of my missed homework assignments. Sitting at the back of the class was dangerous too. The boys in the back of the class didn’t listen, they whispered. It was there I learned about fingering and blow jobs. They whispered, but it was always just loud enough for the people around them to hear. Sometimes girls blushed, sometimes they told them to shut the fuck up. I read books under my desk.
In high school, I started coughing. A weird, explosive thing unaccompanied by fever or congestion. My throat would begin to close quickly and I’d force air out to open it. Or at least that’s how I tried to explain it. My explanation never felt complete. It felt like it happened on its own and it felt like I was doing it. I didn’t know how to square those two things. It was disruptive. No one could go to school with that cough. It came and went for years. I missed weeks of high school. I was referred to ENTs who examined my raw throat. They didn’t know what was wrong. One seemed to think it wasn’t strictly physical. He didn’t tell my parents to take me to a therapist. He suggested I suck on candy or chew gum whenever I felt my throat closing. I carried around Lifesavers and Orbitz gum, working through packs of them each week, trying to keep my throat open.
There were other problems. I couldn’t make eye contact with people I didn’t know well. I lied, a lot. Mostly to cover things I’d missed. But sometimes I lied because it was a way to create a reality that made sense to me. A reality where I finished things, where I was headed to a college like the ones I read about in my books, where I understood little things, not just big things. It’s disorienting to be a kid who can discuss 19th century literature but doesn’t really understand basic processes others take for granted. I didn’t know why I couldn’t follow simple spoken instructions but could parse lines of Dostoevsky. I just knew it was embarrassing.
I checked the mail every day when I got home from school, grabbing as many academic warnings as I could before my parents found them. Some slipped through the cracks. I’d explain those away and promise to work harder. The others lived in the back of my dresser drawer, a collection that grew with the years. Once or twice my parents got a phone call from a concerned teacher, but mostly teachers barely knew my name. I am not sure knowing me would have helped me. Even if every teacher called, what could we have done? No one was sure what was broken. What do you do with a well-behaved, coughing girl who reads hundreds of books a year but can barely graduate high school?
We hoped it would get better in college. It didn’t. On my second academic probation, I realized I wasn’t special. I stopped lying. What was the point? The lies had never covered me up enough to actually shield me from my next mistake. The cough was gone, even though my throat still sometimes threatened to snap close. I still couldn’t make eye contact, but people thought that was the quirk of bookish girl. I thought they might be right.
I still made connections but they lived in my mind instead of a classroom. I kept reading. I got married. Not because I’d given up, but because I was in love with a good man. The next years were spent having babies, paying bills after I’d forgotten them, and telling myself my brain was increasingly scattered because I was a young stay at home mom. It was my last lie, but I didn’t know it. It was so easy to believe. I was disoriented in new ways.
When I turned thirty-two, I went to a doctor. I tried to explain my increasing pixelation. How unclear I was becoming to myself and others. I told her I lose things, I can’t finish things, I often can’t begin them either, the process of life has always escaped me. When I was done, I shrugged,
“I think maybe it’s ADHD?”
She smiled and then said,
“Maybe in America it is, but it’s interesting it doesn’t exist in other places, huh? They don’t have ADHD in France where there is a strong social fabric that cares for people. And in some cultures people with classically ADHD symptoms are considered holy. Really makes you think about our approach to the disorder doesn’t it. Maybe we are disordered and the ADHD brain is not.”
She didn’t think I should seek medication. She encouraged me to practice mindfulness and to embrace my special brain.
She was wrong about France. They have pretty standard rates of ADHD diagnosis. Even in my increasingly criss-crossed state, I wasn’t sure how symptoms of ADHD could simultaneously be a result of a dystopic American life and considered holy in other cultures. It was illogical, incoherent, an offensively reductive approach to cultural understanding. I knew that. But when I sifted through her wrongness, I still found what I’d always found. A person telling me that my reality was different because I was somebody special. Maybe they were right. I held on. I embraced a kaleidoscopic experience, accepting whatever colors and shapes came into focus. I tried not to fret about what existed outside the black tunnel that led to my view.
I can’t read books anymore. It was this loss, not the constant shame or disorientation, that finally pushed me to a therapist. Eyes averted, I told her about my scattered, shattered brain. About the cough, the crumpled worksheets, forgotten teacher conferences, the ongoing missing-ness of my adult life.
She gave me an ADHD test and asked a lot of questions. The appointment went over time. She said I have a pretty severe version of Inattentive ADHD. It’s commonly missed in bookish girls even though it manifests early. When I asked about the cough she said,
“You don’t have it now and so I can just give you my opinion. But I’d say that was a tic. Tics are common with this diagnosis. Your brain couldn’t process and so you developed a tic. Many of my referrals come from ENTs, they send me people with unexplained coughs and sniffs that are really tics.”
It’s nice to know that is what it was, even now.
She said, despite what my last doctor said, this is not mine to embrace and can’t be treated with mindfulness.
“Inattentive ADHD hard to treat with mindfulness because you’re not treating a behavior, you’re treating a lack of behavior.”
When she said that last part, I keened. A lack of behavior. Those were the words I’d been searching for since I was in the sixth grade. A lack of behaviour is the thing I’ve hated about myself since I can remember knowing myself. An inability to start, to finish, to find a path forward beneath the gorgeous shapes and colors spread on the surface of my mind. That there’s a treatment for it, and I’ve gone 35 years without it, is hard to bear.
The shapes can stay. I just need them to shift a bit.
A diagnosis isn’t a cure. I know a treatment isn’t like magic. It might not work or it might not work well enough. But I hope it helps me move, show up, have some…behaviors. I am no longer concerned about becoming somebody special. I can see that construction now as a lie people told about me, to me, to explain me. But gosh damn, wouldn’t it be nice to become me? I’d like to try me out for once. In a few weeks, I’ll meet with a doctor. We’ll talk about medications and therapy. It’s an appointment I’ll keep.