People Said I Was ‘Special.’ Really, I Just Had ADHD.

The diagnosis that came decades later than it should have

People Said I Was ‘Special.’ Really, I Just Had ADHD.
I was a cheerleader for about two months when I was eight years old. It didn't take. Nothing did.

Originally published in Human Parts.

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 flatten myself across it, so people couldn’t see inside. 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 bright. I drew advanced connections in papers and class discussions. Teachers used my strengths to excuse my lateness, my inability to process verbal math instructions, my lack of everyday sense. It was all right that I couldn’t always move from one step to the next. They helped me. They could tell I was special.

In the sixth 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 my friends were going to the party. I couldn’t bear being left out, 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 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 with me each 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 laughed about fingering and blow jobs, their whispers 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 the competing feelings of what was happening. It felt like it happened on its own, but it also felt like I was doing it. 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 suggested I suck on candy or chew gum whenever I felt my throat closing. I worked through packs of Life Savers and gum, trying to keep my throat open.

Sometimes my lying let me create a reality that made sense.

There were other problems too. I couldn’t make eye contact with people I didn’t know well. I lied—a lot. Mostly I lied to cover things I’d missed, but sometimes my lying let me create a reality that made sense. In that reality, I finished things. In that reality, I understood little things, not just big things.Outside that reality, I was a kid who could discuss 19th-century literature but didn’t really understand basic processes others took for granted. I didn’t know why I couldn’t follow simple spoken instructions but could parse lines of Dostoevsky. 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. 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 up enough to actually shield me from my next mistake. The cough was gone, even though my throat still sometimes threatened to snap closed. I still couldn’t make eye contact, but people thought that was just a quirk of the bookish girl I was. I thought they might be right.

I still made connections, but they lived in my mind instead of a classroom. I kept reading. I fell in love with a good man and got married. 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 32, 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 lost things. I couldn’t finish things, but I often couldn’t begin them either. “The process of life always escaped me,” I said. When I was done, I shrugged, “Maybe it’s ADHD?”

She smiled and said, “Maybe in America it is. But that doesn’t exist in other places. 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 crisscrossed 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 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.

And then I couldn’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.

A “lack of behavior” — those were the words I’d been searching for since the sixth grade.

When I asked about the cough, she said, “You don’t have it now, 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, 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.”

She said, despite what my last doctor said, this is not mine to “embrace,” and it can’t be treated with mindfulness. “Inattentive ADHD is 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 the sixth grade. A lack of behavior is the thing I’ve always hated about 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 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 being 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. I hope.