My ADHD has landed me on both extremes of the social spectrum -- I went from being a verbose and confident elementary school student to a shy and awkward teen. In high school, a therapist offered this explanation -- and gave my shaky self-esteem a welcome boost.
by Henry Greene
To this day, my last three years of elementary school remain the pinnacle of my professional and personal development. These were the years that I planned lunar landings with other ground-controllers in Woodbrook Elementary School's gifted program, basked in the praises of at least half of the school staff, and enlightened my fellow students with such artistic flagships as my one-man rendition of Homer’s The Odyssey and my 135-minute lecture on Marco Polo’s journey.
In the fifth grade, when a family move uprooted me from my familiar stomping grounds at an elementary school in rural Virginia and thrust me into a middle school in a posh suburb of Philly, all such antics stopped entirely. In my new surroundings, as I transitioned into my awkward tween and teen years, I began to harbor the quiet fear that, somewhere over the course of that two-hour move from Virginia, I managed to lose my brain in our rented U-Haul.
Beneath its quaint, red-brick exterior and lavish, spanking-new facilities, my middle school harbors two sadistic secrets. First, unlike the typical middle school, which begins in sixth grade, my school throws us to the lions as tender fifth graders. Second, in my experience, the school seemingly appeases the many therapists, psychiatrists, and physicians who are members of the PTA by endlessly flagging students to be screened for every psychiatric disorder in the book, which may not sound so bad in theory, but how they handle the diagnosed cases in practice is another matter.
When my lack of savvy with the football grunts and the Frisbee team was discovered during recess, I was promptly pulled from the playground in front of my gawking classmates, carted to the school psychologist, and issued a myriad of tests.
The upside of this was that my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) was discovered early on. The downside was that I was marched around the halls with what I dubbed “the boys club,” a group of nose-picking misfits with whom I was taught such valuable social skills as, “saying 'thank you' is nice,” and “smile when you ask the other boys to play.”
By the time I’m a sophomore in high school, my social skills reach an extreme low: I don't make eye contact with anyone except my parents. It's been going on for a year and my parents decide to sign me up for weekly therapy appointments for ADD/ADHD and social anxiety.
One day I'm at my regularly scheduled appointment when my therapist is trying to get me to elaborate on why I won't talk to any of the kids at my lunch table at school.
Staring fixedly at the Oriental carpet, I try to force out a few hesitant phrases in reply, but I can't.
In the periphery of my vision, I see my therapist -- tall, broad, and tan, and clad in a neon-green button-down shirt with one too many buttons undone -- reclining in his armchair with a self-satisfied expression on his face. I’m tempted to look into his eyes -- I want desperately to decipher his expression -- but I don't.
What must he think of me? He acts so concerned -- does he actually care? Or am I just another patient?
When he waits for me -- usually in vain -- to share my feelings, he balances his faux-leather loafer on his toe and swings it back and fourth like a pendulum.
Whenever I do speak, he looks at me intently, and if I ever glance up, he nods, as if I’ve reminded him of something he’s gone through himself. Ever since elementary school, not even my preoccupied parents have listened to me with such interest.
Though he speaks very softly and seems to have mastered a calm, concerned gaze, I'm intimidated. Finally, I manage to break my thoughts free and answer his question. “I -- I just don’t have anything to say to them," I reply. "Nothing. My mind is entirely blank.”
I wonder if he ever felt like this? No! He’s an extrovert. He’s too at ease with himself to have ever been like me. He's ended up as successful as he has because he started out as a normal person. And I don’t think any normal people spend their high school afternoons in a therapist’s office learning how to converse with others.
My therapist’s next comment reigns in the momentum of my thoughts: “Henry," he says, "honestly, I don’t think that a blank mind is your problem.”
Hopeful, my eyes dart up to meet his.
“What you have to realize, Henry, is that you have an extremely severe case of ADHD,” he says. “If anything is inhibiting you socially, it’s the fact that you experience too many thoughts too quickly.”
Typical of my neurotic self, I’d diagnosed myself with several complicated, and possibly comorbid, conditions earlier in the day. All at once I feel relieved that my reticence isn't the symptom of anything more serious than my hyperactive mind (a now familiar companion).
My therapist's insight contains another even greater relief: This is the first time since elementary school that someone has made me feel that, beneath all this gangly teenage awkwardness, there is at least some semblance of a personality.
Although my therapist seems to have faith that at least some neural activity has survived my transition to middle school, as I'll elaborate on in future posts, several more years pass before this awkward teen, nearly broken by ADD/ADHD, reemerges to a level of extroversion reminiscent of my elementary school glory days.