I Saw Myself All Wrong — I Wasn’t Stupid, I Was Smart
I cleverly concealed my ADHD and dyslexia — until I decided I didn’t want to, or need to, anymore.
I was a master of deceit.
I advanced with ease through the ranks of LEGOs, pinch-pots, and naptime at Temple Emanuel Preschool, but I couldn’t follow simple directions. No one could touch me in Mrs. Sacker’s second-grad Chess Olympiad, but jigsaw puzzles were impossible. I was always the best speller in class, but I couldn’t read a word. I was both the smartest and the “stupidest” person I knew.
In second grade, I was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. At the time, ADHD hadn’t become the umbrella diagnosis for every unnamed behavioral malady. It was merely four letters that had no significance to me. For my parents, however, it brought clarity to the questions of why nothing ever held my attention and why I couldn’t sound through words.
At eight, I didn’t know what dyslexia was. All I knew was that it had left me desperately hooked on phonics while the rest of my friends had platinum memberships in the Troll Book Club. My teachers were shocked at my diagnosis, because I had perfected the art of concealment. Sitting in the back of the classroom to avoid being called on was my favorite means of making my disability invisible. I unconsciously memorized all the words, so I would appear to deliver a flawless reading of Boris and Amos, unable to translate anything on the page.
Growing up with ADHD and dyslexia is like building a house from the top down: The roof is being completed and you haven’t even finished pouring the concrete for the foundation. Forget advanced calculus if you can’t master algebra and trigonometry.
As a child with dyslexia, I had to develop incredible compensatory techniques. For instance, words frequently eluded me in conversation. Talking to me was like playing a championship round of Super Password: I could describe the meaning of a word so articulately that I would put Noah Webster to shame, but I often couldn’t seize the particular word for which I grasped. As for my ADHD, I wrote everything down as soon as I heard it and proofread all my work intensively. In addition to the tools I used to build my academic home, science provided me with a layer of insulation for my house in the form of medication.
The construction of my identity was aided, in large part, by an experience I had a couple of years back. I was selected by an advisor to tutor Andrew, a 10-year-old boy struggling with ADHD. It was a perfect match: through six months of math, vocabulary, book reports, and science, I got to witness my own disability from the other side of the looking glass. Rushing, skipping, playing cute, cajoling-even ordering pizza to distract me from the work at hand-I had met my match. Andrew was a pro at the game I had spent my childhood perfecting. The kid couldn’t deceive me, though-it takes one to know one.
No one could believe how quickly Andrew began to dispose of his bad habits once I started working with him, least of all me. I had no idea that by witnessing his avoidance techniques and explaining to Andrew the tactics that had become second nature to me, I became more aware of my own power and intellectual prowess.
As Andrew’s grades skyrocketed, so did my own. My teachers began acknowledging me in class. I was invited to submit an essay I wrote on Madame Bovary in a school-wide competition. I made the honor roll. I had so completely forgotten about my ADHD and dyslexia that I was finally enjoying school without the pressure to prove that I was “challenged but still smart.” I was just smart, plain and simple.
I discovered that the image I had held of myself as the “stupidest person I know” was a distorted one. I had been living not in a home of my own devising, but in a house of mirrors. Each reflection offered a false version of me that I projected to the world. Now, however, I have no tricks up my sleeve. I’ve hung up my cape as the grand deceiver in exchange for loftier pursuits.
As for my house, I know I’m in good hands with the architect. She is finally building from the ground up.
Updated on February 25, 2020