“The Model Minority Myth Left No Room for My ADHD”
“If I wasn’t being shamed by my parents for my grades and apparent laziness, I was being judged at school for my weight… I felt as though I was a waste of the incalculable time and money my first-generation immigrant parents put into raising me. I felt unworthy — and worthless.”
In 2019, the Scripps National Spelling Bee named eight co-champions. Seven of them were Indian American. Maybe you didn’t notice, but I can assure you that I did — yet another manifestation of the cultural ideal that has peered over my shoulder, shaking its head in exasperation or despair, all my life.
You see, academic trophies do not line my shelves. My report cards were not a string A+s interrupted by the rare but very disappointing A or unspeakable A-. I don’t have my sights set on running a law firm, or software company. And sometimes this is still difficult to say out loud because, as an Indian American, I grew up under the weight of these impossibly heavy expectations — put in place by my parents and society as a whole — and I thought it was totally normal.
It was not. And neither was I.
Growing Up Undiagnosed
I grew up in an extremely competitive school environment, and my friends were all class-toppers. Whatever success I had was reliably discredited or downplayed simply because of my ethnicity. Success was the expectation.
Most of my relatives are doctors and lawyers, so consumed with this ‘Model Minority’ status that they openly criticized family members’ imperfections, both physical and mental. Before family gatherings, my own parents would coach me on the aspects of my life to highlight, and to ignore. “Make sure to mention that you got a National Merit Commendation to Sonal Auntie, and whatever you do, do not mention anything about your recent speeding ticket to anyone,” my mother would advise me, knowing that any mishap could mean judgment and isolation for an eternity to come. I would always oblige, as we both knew that I was always hiding something much bigger.
Throughout middle and high school, I struggled immensely to even pass my classes, let alone keep up with my peers. Every time my friends would bring out their report cards to lament that their 90s weren’t 95s , I’d feel my heart drop into my stomach and tears roll down my cheeks.
My entire life was a lie. On report card days, I’d come home and cry myself into a bag of Kit Kat’s or a bucket of fried chicken, and slowly but surely, it started to show. Not only was I secretly the dumb kid, I was (very obviously) the fat kid in high school. If I wasn’t being shamed by my parents for my grades and apparent laziness, I was being judged at school for my weight. I was told by several of my peers that I would be pretty if I lost a few pounds, something that really validated to me that I truly was a good-for-nothing Indian child. I felt as though I was a waste of the incalculable time and money my first-generation immigrant parents put into raising me. I felt unworthy — and worthless.
This perception led me down a dark and dangerous path. I hurt myself in a lot of ways and thought of doing things that I would never think of doing now.After graduating from high school, I decided to simply wait and see if I could find a light at the end of the tunnel. For the record, I am so happy that I did…
I remember the day I decided I wanted to get tested for ADHD. I was working on some coursework upstairs for my freshman courses, and I heard my mom jokingly tell my dad that, because he could never sit in one place, he “had to have ADD or something.” I immediately began researching ADHD and was floored by how familiar the ADHD symptoms and experiences felt to me. Later that month, I officially got diagnosed with severe combined ADHD.
Most people would be upset to learn they have been living with an undiagnosed, untreated neurological condition their entire life. To me, it was the best news I had ever received. After starting medication, my grades shot up, and I finally had the motivation to do something about my weight. However, as overjoyed as I was, I realized that the shame didn’t simply end there.
Neurological differences are not talked about in Indian culture. They are taboo. This meant that I was to tell nobody about my diagnosis, because even with that validation, I would face the same judgement and isolation maybe with a little more sympathy. But, finally, I was an adult and I realized that living in fear and shaming myself and my family was incredibly unhealthy. What’s the point of trying to fit in if, no matter what, people will always judge me?
I am now an active voice in my community — bringing more education and awareness to the topics of mental illness and neurodiversity. Though it was uncomfortable, speaking out has made a difference. My story has prompted several Asian friends and family members to get themselves diagnosed. I openly talk about my struggles on social media in the hope that my peers and younger followers will see that there is no shame in admitting that life rarely follows the clearly cut path they were told to follow.
I hope that, in writing this, I can help another little Indian girl (or anyone facing an adversity or unhealthy stereotype) who may feel as worthless as I once did. I hope that I can help her see that trying to live up to the status quo is pointless. Life is so much more than actualizing a stereotype or fulfilling someone else’s expectations. I hope that, together, we can all contribute to remodeling the model minority myth.
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