A look at how people perceive -- and stereotype -- those with ADHD, and the reality of living within and beyond mental health labels like "normal" and "crazy."
by Frank South
“Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” - Groucho Marx
“I’m concerned that you are possibly misrepresenting yourself, or at the least exaggerating some small problem for dramatic effect.”
It’s the end of an exhausting three days of passionate self expression and concentrated listening at an autobiographical writing and critique group, where I just read my story about living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) earlier in the afternoon, when this perfectly nice, soft-spoken middle aged woman, who didn’t say anything after my reading, pulls me aside and accuses me of lying about who I am.
“I mean you obviously don’t have any mental disability so pretending you do, could be seen as disrespectful of those unfortunate people that really do suffer from mental problems,” she continues.
I’ve seen that “worried mom” look on my mother’s face every day growing up so I know what’s going on here, no matter how much psycho-babble code this well-meaning lady is tossing at my face like wet confetti.
Thing is, growing up, when I got caught lying as a kid, most of the time I confessed, took the punishment and moved on. But I pretty much gave it up around sixth grade because day to day it was way too hard to remember what was real, never mind a bunch of junk I made up.
Of course there are always exceptions -- on our second date I told Margaret, my wife-to-be, that a mule kicked out my front teeth when I was working on a dude ranch in Colorado. That sounded a lot more impressive than getting bridgework after a swimming pool accident.
But the point is, these days as much as humanly possible I’m all truth, all the time. So I don’t know how to respond to this woman who’s keeping me from getting in my car and going home.
Her eyes are wide with concern as she touches my arm. “Frank, I listened carefully to your comments on other writers’ work including mine, and everything you said was so well thought out and succinct,” the woman says.
“Oh, well, thanks...”
“The point I’m making isn’t really a compliment though, you see. During this weekend I’ve noticed that when you’re not acting out your ADHD material, you are very normal, calm, and perceptive.” At this point I admit I am staring at her open-mouthed. I dig my car keys out of my pocket and immediately drop them on the gravel driveway. I pick them up, unlock my car door, and throw my bag and bedding in the back seat. I don’t want to talk to this person. Her assumptions about me and mental illness, learning disabilities, and basic human nature are so skewed and push so many buttons that I think I may short out and scream at her at the top of my lungs to get the hell away from me before I rip her head off and suck the blood from her corpse -- but I’ll be damned if I’m going to play to that stereotype. I like stereotypes with more soul and romance.
As I’ve written previously, I have “Middle-aged Man Interrupted” fantasies, but I avoid the Angelina Jolie sad parts. So, I don’t scream.
I explain as best I can that, yes, I do listen carefully, but if you notice, I almost always give my comment last in a group conversation so that I can organize my thoughts and rehearse my comment in my head a couple of times. Then when I have to speak in public I go right through it, calm and collected.
But if the conversation starts going back and forth I back off and stay quiet, unless I’m around folks who know me and are used to my impromptu mangled sentences, malaprops, lost thoughts, names, and ideas, stammering, and back-flip subject-jumps. Over the years I’ve worked hard at developing ways to keep that part of me hidden when I have to -- like the careful construction and rehearsal before speaking gambit. It’s something I figured out after realizing that when I was acting on stage with a script I’d memorized, I didn’t lose my train of thought or stammer. So in certain situations I can write little plays in my head, rehearse, and then act like what’s considered a normal person. In the end I’m not angry with my acquaintance from the writing group. Whatever her trite preconceptions of ADHD or other comorbid conditions, she’s just buying into the “normal act” I play out there.
I believe that those of us with any sort of mental or physical disability have developed myriad coping skills to deal with daily life in ways that help us get by as just people. After all, despite whatever challenges each of us face, that’s what we are and in the end, that’s how we want to be seen. Just people.
Have you ever encountered mental health myths and stereotypes? How do you cope with them? Share your insights in a comment below.