I vividly remember sitting in class one day in high school during one of my all too familiar afternoon zone-outs. I was daydreaming of who knows what when chatter in the hallway, about me, suddenly snapped me into hyper-focus. I felt my face temperature rising and my cheeks turning red in unison with the rapidly increasing levels of social anxiety as I processed the words being said about me.
“She’s so lazy. I bet she uses A.D.H.D. as an excuse to cheat with speed and extra time and get better grades. Lucky.” I immediately felt every single one of my academic achievements invalidated in the eyes of others. It was as if I was told right then and there that getting support meant I somehow had it easier, was given a free ride, or that my accomplishments would never be as “real” as those of my peers. I felt tears welling up as I tried to tone out their words without success. Of course this was the one time in my life when I found myself perfectly focused, preoccupied even, and absolutely unable to focus on anything but this conversation happening outside of my classroom. I was immediately forced to face my own self-loathing surrounding my issues with attention and I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me.
Lucky, they said. They think it is lucky to have to work extra hard just to be able to think or start any task at all?! It is lucky to constantly feel stupid, slow, and lazy? Lucky to hear people talk about you that way? If they had only taken the time to actually ask me what my experience was like, I would have told them that A.D.H.D. is like being forced to watch every single channel on television at the exact same time all the time without missing anything on any of the channels. It is experiencing constant inability to follow through on tasks no matter how badly the desire to complete or how seemingly simple the task. A.D.H.D. is feeling constantly fuzzy, foggy, or that something in your brain just isn’t wired correctly, a mental paralysis where successful initiation, completion, accomplishment of tasks often feels like a pipe dream. A.D.H.D. is constantly being told by teachers, “You’re smart … if you would only apply yourself.”
Successful initiation of almost anything that is actually important feels like this rose garden that you so desperately want to frolic in. You run towards it but crash into a wall of task inertia preventing you from reaching that safe haven of frolicking. You want to climb the wall to reach the roses on the other side but become paralyzed. It is not a matter of not wanting it. You try everything but just cannot locate the tools to climb the wall. You cannot move because your feet are glued in cement. You are stuck. The cement quickly becomes quicksand, and you watch helplessly as the wall gets taller. The scent of the rose garden quickly fades as you wrestle with feelings of being defeated and experience the now regular song of persistent hopelessness as you waste hours trying to get started on the wall. “Just climb the wall already,” others say, as if the inertia was intentional.
As I got older and more ashamed of my inability to be productive, I continued to wrestle with that same social anxiety I felt when listening to those classmates. What started as social anxiety developed into full-fledged generalized anxiety. With a surprising turn of events and a lack of other effective coping mechanisms, I found that anxiety would ultimately be the one thing to fuel me into action. I learned to rely on anxiety as a crutch to propel me into completing tasks. Without a sense of fight or flight, getting over that wall would be completely impossible. But if the garden on the other side were to suddenly catch on fire, putting others’ lives in danger, I could immediately act without thinking, becoming stronger, faster. Before even realizing it, I would have “climbed the wall already,” put out the fire, and finally made it to the rose garden where task inertia becomes task completion – all as unintentional as the initial inertia.
Once I learned more about A.D.H.D. and was properly treated for it, I experienced an indescribable sense of relief and emotional growth. It was the most amazing feeling to be able to just take care of things, like “normal” people can, a feeling that I will never take for granted. Encouraging words from family and friends, coaching for executive functioning deficits, treatment including therapy and psychiatry, and new ways of looking at how I operate, changed my life. It was the start of an evolving journey of finding environmental changes I could implement to create the perfect level of stimulation for me to function most successfully. A journey replacing years of internalized shame with discoveries of situations where my ability to respond in a crisis is valued, and where my A.D.H.D. is a benefit, not a curse. A journey to learning that challenges from A.D.H.D. are not failures to be punished but rather indications of additional opportunities to adapt the systems I have in place to help me to stay on track and thrive.
In addition to learning that a lifetime diagnosis does not need to dictate a person’s success levels, my experiences growing up with A.D.H.D. taught me the importance of not personalizing negativity from those around me, of having the strength not to view my own situation through the viewpoints of others’, and to always approach a person’s struggles or seemingly “bad behavior” with compassion. You never know what someone else is working to overcome. Empathy, the ability to be open-minded, and the importance of striving to only understand others’ behavior through their lens and not my own, remain a crucial part of my value system, a system I will continue to live by as I constantly endeavor to stop, smell, and reach the roses after breaking down the walls which come my way.
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