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Pretty Hurts: When Accomplishment Downplays Your Mental Illness

Originally posted on Disability Acts!

I have always been smart. My parents would brag, to anyone who’d listen, that I tested college level in kindergarten. Reading a book a day has always been my favorite sport, writing essays to simple test questions seemed easy, and debating teachers on subjects to raise their blood pressure made me feel very Beyoncé. On the outside, I appeared to be an intelligent student that talked too much and let laziness dampen my potential. All these people constantly praising me and trying to hone in on my “gifts,” but they missed what was happening to me.

I cannot remember when I first realized that the panic and overthinking that rendered my smarty-pants superpowers useless had a name: anxiety.

A few years ago, I stumbled across “It’s Different for Girls with ADHD” in The Atlantic. I felt like Maria Yagod’s description of life pre-ADHD was a mirror to my own: “For the two decades prior to my diagnosis, I never would have suspected my symptoms were symptoms; rather, I considered these traits — my messiness, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, important-document-losing — to be embarrassing personal failings…” It was as if she copied from one of my many diaries started and forgotten about long ago, it shook me. This journalist — who also has ADHD — knew my whole life, the constant mess, forgetfulness, and class disruption. Each one of these appearing on my “Why Am I Like This” list. I never realized that not all those with ADHD might experience it in the same way. There have been numerous studies on ADHD, but like most things, a lack of attention to diversity caused others to be overlooked.

“These studies were based on really hyperactive young white boys who were taken to clinics,” said Dr. Ellen Littman, author of Understanding Girls with ADHD. “The diagnostic criteria were developed based on those studies. As a result, those criteria over-represent the symptoms you see in young boys, making it difficult for girls to be diagnosed unless they behave like hyperactive boys.” I was hyperactive, but not to the point of being uncontrollable — once I outgrew the terrible twos — but when it came to managing my everyday life, I struggled. Black woman lounging on a couch and working on a laptop (Photo Credit: Matthew Henry)“Often, if girls are smart or in supportive homes, symptoms are masked,” Sari Solden, therapist and author of Women with Attention Deficit Disorder said in an interview with The Atlantic.

She continued: “Because they’re not hyperactive or causing trouble for other people, they’re usually not diagnosed until they hit a wall, often at college, marriage, or pregnancy. A lot of things that are simple and routine to other people — like buying groceries, making dinner, keeping track of possessions, and responding to emails — do not become automatic to these women, which can be embarrassing and exhausting.”

My anxiety, brought on by the ADHD, amongst other things, manifested early. When I think back on projects I have started, stopped, or handed in embarrassingly late, I realize the common denominator was my analysis paralysis dancing with my anxiety. It wasn’t until I did a personal and professional development program aimed at finding my blind spots that this particular trait came to focus. Starting and finishing anything is a constant struggle — the what-ifs overwhelm me: What if I’m wrong and look dumb? What if I didn’t word it correctly? What if they accept me and I never live up to the expectations I’ve set for myself?

I remember sitting at the kitchen table, one night in middle school, well past 9:30 pm, my mom was baffled that I was still doing homework. She assumed I was playing around, but I could barely get through the required reading without 10 other things distracting me and kept rewriting paragraphs because I crossed out a word. That is how it was with any assignment or study session. I would try to get through the information given, but get delayed because I just needed to read the whole book, whether it pertained to the subject or not. One might say that is just curiosity and being efficient, but as an adult and a journalist, when you are working on an article, reading a book can be one more reason you do not write. Once I got to college, the stakes were higher, along with my anxiety. I was attending Howard University, where writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Isabel Wilkerson learned to shape our world with their words. I was not just hanging in the café with my friends, but future doctors, presidents, and entrepreneurs; my biggest fear was that I would not live up to “The Mecca.”

Although my parents never forced perfection, they made it clear that I was above average and could not get by with mediocre grades; they wanted to know I was trying. Now, I can’t lie, there were times when I was in fact being lazy and felt like going to The Diner with my friends instead of studying for a sociology exam. If I had the ability to study without sabotage from within, then it would have been less daunting for me, but I constantly felt the need for an escape. For the first time in my life, I had to teach myself how to study, and it was a mess. I would highlight whole chapters because I knew that the information would come in handy during a test. It never did. I would just get overwhelmed at all of the yellow, while my brain started to seize up.

I would joke that I had “ADHD or something.” I didn’t know how to be still, on the inside, or on the out. Just going to bed was a challenge, because I would spend ridiculous amounts of time replaying the day, month, hell, the last decade of my life, cringing and worrying if I had irrevocably damaged my relationships by laughing at my friend when she slipped on the yard. It was ridiculous. Then, once I had closed my eyes, I would wake up every few hours, because I just KNEW that I was going to sleep through my alarm.

Having to give yourself a pep talk in the middle of the night, when most people are in their REM, is annoying. You wake up tired, and it is even more impossible to concentrate when your brain is foggy. My friends have joked that I can fall asleep in the middle of anything, but it is really that I have only slept in three-hour intervals for an entire night. Even when I had seriously brought up the idea of ADHD, people would just dismiss my concerns. I don’t know if it’s the stigma about mental health in this country, the reluctance to trust doctors and medicine (from black people, namely), or the lack of education on the complexities of mental illness, but none of it worked to help me feel better.

When I was in my junior year of college, I starting seeing a therapist. We talked about my family and relationship issues, but I didn’t even have the wherewithal to say, “I think something is wrong with me,” until I started reading about anxiety. What started as me reading BuzzFeed articles like “wow that’s so me” turned into “wow, that’s SO me…” I wish I started therapy right away, but it took me about three years to find someone. Insurance is annoying, and if you want a doctor that looks like you, it’s going to take time.

For centuries, Black women have given their bodies, without consent, to further scientific and medical research. The world wasn’t going to benefit from my magical cells when I died from long-term exposure to amphetamine salts. I let my anxiety-fueled paranoia die out and scheduled an appointment, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made since applying to Howard. Black woman smiling in sunglasses and head wrap standing in front of a sign that reads, “You Are Beautiful.”Thankfully, I now have not one, but two therapists; one for talking and one for the medications. I have always been pro-therapy. I think we all need it no matter how “great” we are doing, but taking pills worried me.

So far, I like Adderall. At work, it keeps me focused, awake, nowhere near a “zombie,” which is how kids described taking the medicine when I was younger. I still struggle with the idea of pills — I do not want to take medicine forever, but I will if necessary. Like any chronic illness, there may be a need for it; I hope therapy, a holistic wellness program, and a healthy vegan lifestyle will allow me to keep a consistent low dose. Until my level of enlightenment (and coins) reach that of health and wellness guru HeyFranHey, I will be holding onto my prescription tighter than Trump’s sphincter every time he hears Robert Muller has another witness. It may seem ridiculous but I am thankful for ADHD —sometimes— it’s fostered my ingenuity, made me smarter, and considerate of those around me. Instead of focusing on the negative and what I may have missed, I’m proud of myself for getting the help I needed. J.K. Rowling wrote, “Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”

There’s a powerful peace in understanding who you are and appreciating the life you get to create for yourself.

If you are struggling and don’t know why ask for help, there’s no shame in checking in with your mind the same way you do your body.

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