Inside the ADHD mind

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“I Have a Voice, Too: On Being an Asian American with ADHD.”

Self-advocacy is hard. As an Asian American with ADHD, it feels harder than hard.

I’ll be honest: My college years were an executive function disaster, thanks to my then-undiagnosed ADHD. It’s been three years since I graduated college, and now I’m preparing to apply for graduate school. My goal is to manage my ADHD and mental health so that I won’t become, as my partner so accurately puts it, the “screaming, headless chicken” that I was in college.

Maintaining my mental health in school will involve advocating for myself by articulating my struggles, seeking accommodations, and asking for help. I know all the ADHD and mental health lingo, and I can speak very convincingly. So self-advocacy in graduate school should be a breeze, right?

Wrong. I am an Asian American woman – a second generation Taiwanese American. This very fact complicates my ability to self-advocate.

American society has a deeply ingrained and very false notion that Asian Americans are uniformly smart, quiet, and obedient. This is the model minority myth.

[Read: “The Model Minority Myth Left No Room for My ADHD”]

Even in elementary school, without knowing the name for this phenomenon, I felt a constant, unspoken expectation to behave, ace math tests, and excel at piano. Because of it, I somehow managed to suppress my ADHD and present as “good” and “smart,” thus fitting into the model minority stereotype. Since I was doing really well, why would I need any help? At least, this was what society had me believe.

My therapist says that many things aren’t black and white like I often make them out to be, but rather, varying degrees of gray. I wish that our society could realize this too — especially regarding the systemic racism that plagues our country.

BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, which includes Latinx and Asian American communities. Forgetting to consider and include Asian Americans in articles, research, education, and clinical work of all sorts, including around ADHD, perpetuates the very racism that silences Asian Americans and renders us essentially non-existent in the American social fabric.

[Read: “How a Culture of Impossibly High Standards Denied My Mental Health Struggles”]

I’ll admit that my Chinese heritage and culture doesn’t help. Filial piety conditions us to obey our parents, elders, and teachers. We learn to keep our emotions to ourselves for the sake of the collective good, and we strive to save face with aggressive humility. These Chinese cultural values, however, don’t make me the emotionless, genius robot that American society often imagines me to be.

As I prepare for graduate school, I’ve been wrestling with the possibility that perhaps, contrary to everything my two cultures have taught me, being Asian and intelligent doesn’t mean that I don’t need or deserve help. I spent much of my life suffering intense, relentless anxiety to get myself through classes, my undiagnosed ADHD screaming for help while the model minority myth prevented me from seeking or obtaining it. For 23 years, no one knew about my ADHD, so I never received any accommodations or support for my struggles. This was neither healthy nor right, but it’s proving hard for me to believe that I deserve help after living in a reality without help for so long.

The concepts of “doing school in an ADHD-friendly way” and “yes, you can have help” are wholly new to me. I do plan on requesting accommodations in graduate school, but I’m terribly nervous about doing so. I’m scared that I will show up at the accessibility services office and be dismissed because I am too Asian, too fluent and well-spoken in English, and too high performing to “qualify” for accommodations and support. I’m afraid that my ADHD struggles will be dismissed because I won’t articulate my difficulties strongly enough, due to my lack of experience with and significant anxiety around requesting accommodations. Sometimes, I even worry that I’m imagining my ADHD, even when I’m staring at my ADHD evaluation papers and the constant reminders of my ADHD in everyday life.

I have some time, if graduate school applications go well, before I can expect to begin this process. Until then, I’ll be continually reminding myself that, contrary to the belief that Asian Americans are docile and silent, I have a voice that I can use to speak up for myself and my needs. Unfortunately, I can’t expect everyone to see and accept me as I am, but I can do my part to support myself by building my sense of self-worth and confidence in my voice bit by bit, one day at a time.

Learning to advocate for my neurodivergent, Asian American self is a long and slow journey, but I am making progress. Each day, I am more able to believe that my well-being and sanity matter; that learning in a classroom doesn’t have to involve intense and relentless anxiety; and that, however intelligent and accomplished I am, I am a feeling and imperfect human being, just like everyone else. I, too, need and deserve love, care, and support.

Click here to watch a video (produced by the author) that  further explores the  intersection between ADHD/neurodivergent and Asian American identity.

On Being Asian American with ADHD: Next Steps

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Updated on April 26, 2021