I feel strange being so open. It leaves me vulnerable. Exposed. Embarrassed. Ashamed.
This is the part where I tell you that I live with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.
This is also where I struggle to take off the hat I wear most often, the one I was wearing when I wrote the latter half of that last sentence, that of a graduate student studying clinical psychology. I, like many mental-health professionals and trainees, talk a big talk about reducing shame and stigma. About breaking down barriers and starting conversations that will help make our society a more welcoming place for those who struggle. I also know, first-hand, how absolutely (insert expletive of choice here) terrifying it is to disclose to a colleague, classmate or mentor the details of your diagnosis and history; even though, of all people, they should be the most understanding. Let’s not delude ourselves; we’ve come a very long way, but the stigma is still alive and well – even in the mental-health community.
But that’s not what this essay is about. This is me being honest, raw, jargon-free. Human. Stepping out of my comfort zone full of clinical case formulation and evidence-based practice. Writing this essay, when I should probably be writing my thesis. Sharing what it feels like to have progressed through almost 13 years of formal education, repeatedly being told that I have so much potential that I’m failing to live up to. How could such a smart and quick-witted little girl not just try a little harder, put in a little more effort? I could probably fill up this entire page with the plethora of terms that have been used to describe me: Lazy, hot-tempered, flaky, unpunctual, disruptive. Why can’t she just wait her turn!?
Fast-forward a few years, I’m 19 years old, and my study habits, consisting of rereading my illegible notes the night before the exam, are no longer cutting it. I was struggling, big time, and reached out for help. All those years of believing I was lazy, stupid, flaky and perhaps somewhat of a nuisance finally had a name and my world came crashing down. I skipped the denial, and went straight to anger. I was furious, filled with an all-consuming rage. How could teacher after teacher call my mother to complain about me, yet not one of them suggest to her that I may be struggling more than I let on? A flaw in my character, they reasoned, not my biology. I lacked what my ancestors would call sitzfleisch, literally translated from Yiddish to mean “butt flesh,” but loosely translated as the power to endure or to persevere in an activity. The opposite of ants-in-your-pants.
I can’t remember when my ire cooled. Probably somewhere in between my early efforts at a treatment plan, each one started but never followed through. Ironically befitting.
Shortly after the anger, I let myself be sad for a while. Not an all-consuming sadness, but a sort of mourning of missed opportunities and what might, or could, have been. The sadness didn’t last as long as the anger, though. Probably because I reached out for help, again, only this time to find what could work for me. I made changes and put in the work. I realized that asking for help is the opposite of weakness; it is strong and brave and unshameful. Not only was I able to, finally, feel like I was in the driver’s seat of my life, but my self-image changed, too.
All of those colourful terms, once used to describe my flaws, became my strengths. Might some call me flaky? Absolutely. But I’m also a bread baker, fire-pit chef, pasta maker, softball player, ski instructor, mountain climber, master’s student, neuroscience researcher, committed volunteer and soon to be amateur woodworker. The list goes on and on. I’ve been this way as far back as I can remember. And while I used to chalk it up to lack of commitment, I now choose to embrace it. I let myself get swept up in my childlike curiosity. I am passionately enthusiastic and approach each new activity at full-speed. Sometimes they stick; often they don’t. A jack of all trades, master of some.
I try to share my story as honestly as I can, its humour and triumph, but also the struggle and heartbreak. If my sharing helps even one person get help a little sooner, I’ve done my piece. I hope that in my lifetime sharing stories like mine becomes the norm, sans shame and embarrassment. Nobody is baking casseroles or wearing support ribbons just yet, but I am optimistic that we can get there.
I think a lot of my high-school teachers assumed I would fail or drop out of university. My lack of direction, or perhaps too many directions, proved to be rather worrisome for many who cared about me. One day I may put a stack of business cards reading Dr. Propp in the mail, not to gloat, but rather to show them that some stories (and annoying students) have happy endings.
None of this is to say that I don’t still struggle. Don’t confuse my candour with me having it all figured out. As you read this I’m probably five to 10 minutes late for wherever I’m supposed to be, I’ve likely already blurted out at least a few things I shouldn’t have, misplaced (okay, fine… lost) some important papers and have most definitely been distracted by the thoughts doing cartwheels inside my head. I still have days when I’m angry and sad and frustrated, sometimes all at once. But my restless spirit takes me on some pretty amazing adventures, and for those I am thankful. It’s a constant work in progress and at times tremendously difficult, but I’m finally enjoying the ride.
If you want more information about ADHD across the lifespan, check out the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada http://caddac.ca/adhd/
Some tips and tricks that I have learned:
- Find some mindful, enjoyable activities that help you wind down. If you don’t find this in practices demanding stillness, like meditation or yoga, explore less traditional options. Take it from someone for whom savasana is her least favourite part of a yoga class! I find I am most at peace when actively engaged in an activity like running, biking, skiing (ok… really anything sweaty and outdoors), woodworking (check out the Toronto Tool Library) or kneading dough. Those brief moments when you reach a state of flow are magical and oh, so beautiful.
- Try to get comfortable asking for help. I try not to book meetings first thing in the morning because I know I’ll be late; I’ve adjusted my workspaces to meet my needs; and if you ask me for a favour, chances are I’ll probably ask you to send me a reminder so that I don’t forget. Notice where you struggle and enlist others to help you succeed. In the process you may even spark some amazing conversations.
This story was originally published in the Globe and Mail (First Person column) on April 13, 2018.