True Story: Learning To Love My Adult ADHD

It’s a long walk to the nurse’s office between lunch and recess; if I get there quickly, before my friends notice I’m gone, then I won’t have to reveal why I’m temporarily missing from the cafeteria. If someone does catch me mid-journey, then I tell them I’m going to take my “allergy medication” — a lie. I’m really going to take my second daily dose of Ritalin. Why am I so afraid of telling the truth? Simple: I’m terrified that if my friends find out what I’m actually taking, then I’ll be perceived as any of the following adjectives: Slow. Stupid. “Special.”

I was diagnosed with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder, now commonly referred to as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD) when I was six years old. Unlike The Cut’s Rae Jacobson, who grew up asking herself “why am I fucking like this?” before being diagnosed as an adult, I had — even as a kid — full knowledge of why I was fucking like this. I was disorganized because of ADD. I was impulsive because of ADD. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut because of ADD. I was unfocused because of ADD. I had average grades because of ADD.

After my diagnosis, my parents promptly put me on medication — short-term stuff that would require a daily trip the nurse to re-up. Also, much to my humiliation, every school year began with my parents pulling my teachers aside and quietly telling them about me and my … special needs. In response, teachers, perhaps still unfamiliar with the term, cautiously treated me — a generally calm kid — like a ticking bomb that could explode at any moment.

I felt like a freak. As a child who generally preferred to fade into the background, any special attention from authority figures was unwelcome. So, I kept my “situation” a secret. After all, other than a doctor’s diagnosis and a daily pill, I seemed like a totally normal kid. Maybe messier than most, but no one had to know. If my friends found out, they might start treating me like the teachers who handled me with kid gloves and spoke in condescending tones.

You might ask, so what if people knew? Everyone’s got something. Who even cares? Why is this a thing? And all of that’s true. In the early ‘90s, though, the general population didn’t understand ADD the way they do today — and it would be a decade or so before kids started jokingly referring to themselves “so ADD,” bragging about their minuscule attention spans as they flip from one web browser tab to the next, and tossing back Ritalin to pull all-nighters.

In order to keep the prescriptions rolling in, I had to regularly check in with psychiatrists about “how I was doing.” They’d sit me down and ask me to play little “games” that would reveal new revelations about my behavioral patterns. In therapy sessions, regardless of how I was actually “doing,” I always lied and said the same two words till I was ready to vomit up all of that lunchtime Ritalin: “I’m fine.” Translation: Let’s just get through this hour so you can treat the kids who actually need help. Leave. Me. Alone. Different = Bad.

Eventually, by high school, I’d become so frustrated with myself on medication, which took away my appetite and made me feel like a zombie, that I stopped taking it all together. Every day, I’d tongue my pills and put them in my pocket. (Which of course I promptly forgot to empty. My career as a secret agent would be brief.) The experiment didn’t last long: With my focus down, my grades plummeted, and I felt so guilty that I broke down and confessed everything to my parents. They were (understandably) furious.

Though I was angry with them for forcing me to take stimulants and visit therapists, which only enhanced my existing insecurities and made me think there was something inherently wrong with me, I still craved their understanding. Surely they could see how inadequate I felt next to them and everybody else. A neat and organized life came easily to my family. My bedroom floor, on the other hand, was hidden beneath stacks of books and piles of clothes and CDs. Unlike me, my younger sister earned top grades sans help from tutors or learning programs. She never forgot to take out the trash or station herself by the sink to dry dishes after dinner.

I used to fantasize about what it would feel like to be “normal.” If I was normal, my friends wouldn’t teasingly refer to me as a “ditz.” I’d get better grades. If I saw an overflowing trashcan, it would occur to me to take it out. My sister wouldn’t resent me for requiring extra attention. I wouldn’t resent her for being the “easier” one. I’d be perfect.

It took me years to realize this, but without ADD, I might also be really, really boring.

With a little adult experience and a lot of hindsight, I see now that I needn’t have spent so much energy wishing to be “normal.” As I hit college and stepped outside of my childhood bubble, I met tons of new friends who had also been diagnosed with ADD as kids, plus many who went on to be diagnosed as young adults. Each had their own story, and each their own set of growing pains. Meeting them not only put my own experience in perspective (not to mention reconfigure my long-held definition of “normal”), but it made me feel more comfortable with disclosing my status. It really wasn’t a big deal. It never had been.

Like Jacobson noted in her essay, a lot of kids with ADD/ADHD end up becoming super-successful adults. Turns out, this so-called “disorder” makes you hyper-focused toward the things you love — something that’s worked to my advantage in my professional life as a writer. Sure, I’m still a little messy and impulsive (just ask the piles of of shoes in my closet), and I have moments of spaciness. Sometimes I have to put my foot in my mouth. But it’s nothing to hide or feel ashamed of anymore. What began as a secret, nay, a problem, has boiled down to a handful of funny quirks (don’t even ask about my short-term memory).

But the most important thing is, after years of wondering “Am I good enough?” and believing that my parents would only truly love me if I was “better,” I can see now that they do — and always have — accepted me for me, clutter and all. It’s time to let go of my childhood insecurities, forget about the nurse’s office, and embrace every last one of my deficits.