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“I Pinned My Struggles on My Mixed-Race Background. Then I Was Diagnosed with ADHD.”

All this time, I had ascribed my longing for being elsewhere to the mixed-race, dual-heritage experience. I thought it represented a disconnect between two cultures, or the effects of a lifetime of racial micro-aggressions. But with my newfound knowledge of ADHD, I was forced to re-evaluate.

Woman staring off into distane leaning against a reflective surface

As a child, I split my time between Mum and Dad – a typical arrangement for kids of divorced parents in the ’80s and ’90s. I assumed my parents’ divorce was due to a classic case of crossed cultural wires. How were they to know that the expectations of marriage, imprinted onto their psyches by vastly different cultures – white British and Black Zimbabwean – wouldn’t match up?

Even I, “immersed” in my parents’ respective cultures, unearthed gaps in my own knowledge over the years. Whether I was going back to Mum’s after a long holiday in Zimbabwe, or to Dad’s for the weekend, I did my best to reset and play my setting-appropriate role as best as I knew how.

But no matter the setting, I always felt like the odd one out. I was either the lightest or darkest person in any room. Like many people of mixed race, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I had a feeling that there was somewhere else I’d feel more at home – if only I could find it.

This feeling of never quite belonging followed me everywhere, and I ascribed it to my dual heritage. But over time, this feeling turned out to be a major clue that eventually led to my ADHD diagnosis.

The Odd One Out – Everywhere

I was “shy” and “too quiet,” though I didn’t mean to be. I simply had nothing to add to the conversations around me, and I struggled to feign interest where I couldn’t connect.

[Take This Self-Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women]

I remember the tangibly torturous experience of having to say hello to my neighbor while looking her in the eye. These were direct orders from Mum, who insisted that I repeat my pained, inadequate greeting until I got it right. It was her way of preparing me for the world that wouldn’t welcome me the way I was.

I realized after this experience that I had to force myself to present to the world in a certain way – or suffer the consequences. The latter, unfortunately, actually fueled my silence. I feared “getting it wrong,” not just in Zimbabwe, where the language and cultural barrier was greater, but in the UK too. I’d spend hours without saying a word, waiting for the right moment. When I finally said something, I was often laughed at or chastised – I had said the wrong thing, at the wrong time, or at the wrong volume.

Speaking overall became more and more onerous, so I defaulted to silence. As I got older, my silence frustrated those around me, some of whom viewed it as a personal affront.

My experience in school is best summed up as, ‘Regularly getting in trouble despite trying to stay invisible.’ The same teachers who shouted at me in class for an interjection would also write in my reports that I needed to speak up more. When I was told off, I often didn’t understand what I had done wrong.

[Read: Is Your ADHD Causing Social Slip-Ups?]

But as one of a handful of kids of color in my school, I was never going to avoid my teachers’ unconscious (and in at least one case, definitely conscious) biases. They assumed I was unconfident, rude, and lazy — attributing anything unusual about me to the most visible difference, my complexion.

So much of my unhappiness at the time was intangible and indefinable. I inhabited a white world most of the time, so the topic of race was avoided entirely, even by my loved ones. In the horrible moments when slurs and racist epithets were directed at me, I had no one to whom I could turn. I swallowed them down, fully believing that I and my differences were the problem. I barely knew how to make sense of these experiences and feelings internally, let alone how to articulate them to my white family.

As for my Black family, all they wanted of me was to be a ‘good’ woman – tidy, Christian, well-educated, well-off financially, married to a man, and raising children. (I’ve succeeded at exactly one of these). The stereotypical ‘tragic mulatto,’ I resigned myself to becoming somewhat of a disappointment to both families. I kept important parts of my identity back from each side and withdrew myself as it became too difficult to hide who I really was – who I really am.

Getting By as an Adult

I cut myself some slack and leaned into my weirdness when I reached adulthood. I’d spent a lifetime code-switching between different sets of social norms and customs and languages, and I was exhausted.

I got a degree, but I floundered through academic life, barely scraping by with mediocre grades. I was unable to ask for help because the help I needed was both too elusive and too pervasive to articulate. Silence won over once more.

But I did pour myself into other pursuits, like campaigning against human rights injustices. I formed great friendships, including with other Black women. Although I felt eternally on the periphery, our mutual understanding of certain struggles created space for us to share, without the tension of having to explain ourselves or navigate racial micro-aggressions.

Throughout my 20s, I struggled to find a job that was both straightforward and interesting. By my 30s, I was suffering with chronic pain, constantly overwhelmed, and failing at ‘adulting.’ I saw other mothers complain about ‘mess’ but their homes were immaculate compared to mine. They sent their kids to school with all the right stuff, often while working full-time; I barely earned pocket money.

Finding Support – and Answers

Finally, I found a valued community in a peer support group of fellow Queer, disabled people. I felt more comfortable there, even when I was the only member of color. I assumed this was because they all understood and experienced systemic oppression, similar to what I felt as a QPOC.

A fellow member of the group, hearing parts of my story, suggested that I read about ADHD. I dismissed it entirely at first. How could I have ADHD when I was generally quiet and usually exhausted to the point of inaction? You were more likely to find me staring at walls than bouncing off them. Like many, I assumed ADHD was all about hyperactivity.

But I gave in – and when I did, a missing puzzle piece clicked into place. Certain phrases resonated hard with me in my research, like:

I can’t have people around because my house is such a mess

It’s like going through life holding a hundred marbles; neurotypical people have a bag to carry them in, but you have to just use your hands

emotional dysregulation

I have so many ideas but I never see them through to the end

and the one that really blew my mind:

I’m constantly wishing I were somewhere else.

All this time, I had ascribed my longing for being elsewhere to the mixed-race, dual-heritage experience. I thought it represented a disconnect between two cultures, or the effects of a lifetime of racial micro-aggressions. But with my newfound knowledge of ADHD, I was forced to re-evaluate.

I went in for an ADHD assessment, and spoke to the clinician about my childhood memories. Suddenly, all the moments where I had “messed up” and felt different clicked with ADHD symptoms – like the time I carried on reading my book as my aunty’s kitchen flooded. Needless to say, I was eventually diagnosed with ADHD – at 34.

Embracing My Neurodiversity and Dual Heritage

My diagnosis helped me see that ADHD was a huge factor in my sense of difference, but it didn’t negate the experience of being Black in a white world, and white in a Black world. It’s impossible to extricate the experience of being a different color from everyone around me from the experience of being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world. These, as well as racism, and the misogyny that makes impulsivity and disorganization less acceptable for me than for my male counterparts, are part of my lived experience. I can’t separate any of the experiences that created me any more than I can separate the two halves of my heritage.

By the time of my diagnosis, I’d outgrown the need to play different personalities with my family. I accepted that my cultural and racial makeup blend to create someone unique. Despite some grieving for how much easier my life could’ve been had my ADHD diagnosis come earlier, I’ve been able to start forgiving myself.

My diagnosis has also revealed why I connected so well with my disabled peer support group – like me, many fellow members are also neurodiverse. Our brains work similarly, and there’s so much we don’t have to explain when we’re together – much the same way as I don’t have to explain the experience of racial micro-aggressions with my Black girlfriends.

My neurodiverse community is hilarious, compassionate, and comfortable. They accept me fully, and together we celebrate our quirks and resilience. They’ve made it easy to accept that my brain’s wiring is another distinct and glorious facet of my attributes rather than a defect, just as my Black-British friends taught me to feel pride in my blended racial heritage. And in both cases, the craving for the ever-elusive feeling of belonging is decreasing every day.

Mixed-Race & Feeling Like You Don’t Belong: Next Steps

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