“I Made a Mistake: I Believed Other People’s Assumptions About Me.”
“My parents never told me I wasn’t smart enough to attend college, but they also never asked me about my plans for the future. Sometimes it’s not what we say or do; sometimes it’s what we don’t do that speaks volumes. And I heard them loud and clear.”
I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) at 9 or 10 years old — I can’t quite remember. What I do remember is sitting with suction cups stuck to my forehead and the doctor telling me to sit still. More than once.
I remember my parents coming to the school counselor’s office, the ADHD diagnosis being delivered, and the light going out in their eyes. I knew even then that their expectations for my life had lowered because they didn’t understand ADHD. They thought I was defective.
My parents didn’t connect that I excelled in spatial knowledge. I went from white belt to brown belt in martial arts in less than three years and I won awards in dance, but I didn’t do well in school and that was enough to tell them not to invest in me. The message came through loud and clear: I wasn’t normal like everyone else.
Because I didn’t do well in school, and my folks were not wealthy, they never encouraged me to go to get a higher education. It simply wasn’t important to them, and so I followed in their footsteps of dropping out of school and working. And work I did. I worked in call centers. I worked manual labor. I worked as a server and tried out other jobs in between. I worked away the years of my life when I should have been going to college and making friends my age. I worked while watching the friends I did have take trips around the world after finishing college or university.
I made a mistake. I believed other people’s stories about me — or I translated their actions, inactions, and reactions incorrectly. I believed that I wasn’t intelligent enough to get through college because my parents didn’t encourage me. My parents never told me I wasn’t smart enough to attend college, but they also never asked me about my plans for the future or proactively offered to coach me through learning skills. Sometimes it’s not what we say or do; sometimes it’s what we don’t do that speaks volumes. And I heard them loud and clear.
When I turned 33, and my daughter was 9, I forced myself to go down to the local community college. I told myself that if I could pass the mature student entry exam, then I would go to college. I did. I spent a year studying to become a community support worker and I graduated with an honors diploma. I worked the whole time, too. I remember the day I finished my practicum; I stood outside holding back tears because, even though I was exhausted, I succeeded and excelled at something that I didn’t think I could do. I could finally tell myself a new story about myself.
I now earn enough to own a car; I bought my first car three months ago. I am working my way through the graduated licensing program at 34 years old. I am proud of myself.
What I’ve learned is this: People with ADHD can accomplish the same things as neurotypical people, but we have extra barriers — not the least of which is people who won’t lift a finger to help us because they wrongly believe ADHD is a matter of will.
I have overcome the impulsivity that is the trademark of ADHD. I know this because I have balanced my budget and all my bills are paid on time. I have done it without coaching, counseling, or medication. I am always early to work and I keep my appointments. For adults with ADHD like me, these are major goals. The invisible things I do to make this happen take copious amounts of energy and organization, but my family doesn’t see that. My huge accomplishments are just normal everyday stuff to them.
At the time I received a diagnosis of ADHD, the condition wasn’t well understood. There was no Internet for my parents to study. Getting diagnosed with ADHD did me no favors at the time. Barriers went up left, right, and center — all of which had long-lasting consequences for my self-esteem and my life. I felt centered out and left behind. It took a long time to accept and embrace ADHD — and to understand that my journey was a private one.
I heard a parent speak recently of the experience of hearing her child diagnosed with high-functioning autism and how disappointed and sad she felt because the picture she painted for her child’s life was altered and it wasn’t ever going to look like her dreams. As the woman spoke, I imagined that’s how my mother felt when she heard my diagnosis and I felt angry.
Why? Why are you so disappointed and upset? You have no idea what the future holds for your child. Why are you disappointed about failures that have not come to pass — and may never happen? Will you lower your expectations for your child like my mom did? Will you now believe your child is incapable of learning? Your attitude can turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I have even heard the diagnosis referred to a ‘grieving process.’ What are you grieving? You are not a fortune-teller; you have no idea what life has in store. I can tell you this, though: if you take away your support, your child will surely have a much harder time succeeding. A parent’s love is stronger than any diagnosis. Encourage your child. Give them the same opportunities as everyone else. Never imply that they are incapable of anything. Never put another invisible barrier in their path; they have enough.
This short story about my personal experience is not meant to lay blame. My parents are human, and humans make mistakes. I love them and I forgive them for their ignorance. This story is meant to demonstrate how your outlook as a parent can affect your child’s lifetime outcomes. There are so many undiagnosed adults walking around with ADHD and autism. They are successful and have wonderful lives. Don’t let a diagnosis create barriers built of your worst fears.