It can happen in an instant. You get a phone call, turn on the television, or look into a lover’s eyes, and you know from that moment on that everything is different.
That’s what happened to me, but my life didn’t change with a phone call or an ultimatum. It changed one afternoon on my therapist’s couch.
That’s the end of the story though. Let’s start at the beginning.
A first diagnosis, and then a second
I was 7 years old the first time I was diagnosed with ADHD. Back then I was just a little girl with chubby knees waiting for my lost tooth to grow back in. It was 1991.
If you think people with ADHD face stigma now, it’s a walk in the park compared to what it was then. Kids with ADHD — and especially black kids with ADHD — were treated like outsiders. You were either unhinged and bouncing off the walls or one of those medicated “zombies.”
My mother was understandably scared and wanted to do what was best for me. She took me directly to my pediatrician, an older doctor who “didn’t believe in ADHD,” and told her the best thing for me was to give me additional responsibilities and structure.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
Fast forward another five years. I’m 12 years old and in a gifted class at my public middle school. The teacher, concerned with the gap between my capability and my productivity, had me tested for ADHD a second time — without my mother’s knowledge.
My mother was livid. As a black woman and a single mother on top of that, she faced stigma and discrimination on multiple fronts. And the relationship between the U.S. healthcare system and the black community is complicated; it’s not hard to see why people like my mother might be skeptical of doctors or diagnoses that are hard to understand.
Testing her child without her knowledge was a slap in the face, essentially saying that the state knew better than her what her daughter needed. She told those teachers in no uncertain terms that they were not to test me for another thing without her knowledge, and that they would never convince her to medicate me.
The rest of my school career, I struggled to maintain decent grades in the subjects I wasn’t especially good in (hello, mathematics) while excelling in the subjects that I couldn’t get enough of (history and English, I’m talking about you). Tutors, teachers, and even administration got involved several times to try to find out why I was having so many issues. It was a story that I had gotten tired of hearing myself: She’s capable of doing the work, but she underperforms.
Nobody knew what was wrong with me. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
I thought of myself as stubborn and lazy, incapable of completing even the most basic tasks. I never considered that ADHD was the reason I had such a hard time staying focused. I thought I was just a bad kid.
I stayed up all night talking to friends online and could barely stay awake in classes. Most of my time was spent in my bedroom, door shut, lost in a book or writing. I wanted to escape into a life where I wasn’t always in trouble for my messy room or my bad grades.
I dreamed of going to college where I wouldn’t have teachers and parents breathing down my neck, demanding a performance that I just couldn’t seem to give. I saw college as freedom, and I thought that it could solve all my problems.
Be careful what you wish for.
College and freedom were pretty great. I could stay up late, be messy, and show up when I was ready, and nobody called me on the carpet for it or told my mom how badly I was messing up. I even maintained a somewhat decent grade point average.
But the truth is, I was still struggling to get by. Cramming for exams at the last minute and staying up all night writing papers was burning me out. I felt like I couldn’t keep up. By junior year, I had reached my maximum stress level. Something had to give, and that something was school.
I’ll never forget how defeated I felt when I called my mother and told her that I just couldn’t do it anymore. I expected her to yell at me, to demand that I get back in there and make it happen. But to my great surprise (and relief), she understood.
Finally, after years of torment, I was out of school. I would never have to meet a stupid deadline again… or so I thought.
Adulthood is nothing but deadlines and milestones, and honestly, I can’t stand it. After college, I needed to find a job. I found my way into the health insurance field, where I made my money checking on doctor’s credentials before they could bill for their services. Over the years, my chronic stress had blossomed into generalized anxiety and depression, and the pressure of the workplace only made it worse.
I would sit for hours at work unable to concentrate, my anxiety ratcheting up to the point where it felt like my head was spinning. Before I knew it, work had piled up to the point that it was unmanageable. I was so far behind and overwhelmed by the amount of work that I felt paralyzed. I was too afraid to talk to anyone about it because I didn’t want them to know what a terrible job I was doing. I was too embarrassed to ask for help.
On top of that, I was barely sleeping. If I slept at all, it took hours to get there. And now that I was an adult living on my own, I realized for the first time that with no one else around to wake me up, I had a terrible issue with getting up on time. I was late or almost late for work every morning and always exhausted.
All of it — the stress, the anxiety, the embarrassment, and the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed — plunged me into depression. I started to isolate myself both at work and outside of work. I didn’t know what to do.
The pivotal moment
I talked to my boss and decided to take short-term disability to try and get myself on track somehow. That’s how I ended up on that therapist’s couch I told you about earlier.
But even therapy was frustrating. We had been working together for about two or three months, and yet my therapist seemed to be at a loss for how to help me. I told her about all of the areas I was struggling in — normal family problems, money trouble, bad childhood memories — but we weren’t able to find any strategies for helping me cope with the sense of dread that I woke up with every day, or to help ease the symptoms I was experiencing.
One day, during another of what I had begun to see as fruitless sessions, I mentioned my childhood ADHD diagnosis. The therapist, who I had thought of as a rather mousy and quiet woman, suddenly gained her voice.
“What did you say?” she asked, startling me out of my recollection.
“Um, at 7 years old I was diagnosed with ADHD, but… ” I stammered.
She stopped me mid-story and gave me a referral to see an ADHD specialist. She told me that I would need to see him before I could come back to her for another session. And that was that. The specialist confirmed my ADHD diagnosis, and we started on a treatment plan.
Changes for the better
Have you ever switched a light on in a dark room? That’s what it felt like once I got my diagnosis. Suddenly, I had a clarity of mind that I’d never experienced before. I was 25 years old.
As I worked with an ADHD specialist and learned more about my specific ADHD symptoms, the things I saw as obstacles before weren’t as challenging. Managing my time became easier. My house was cleaner than it had ever been, and as I was able to organize better. I became more reliable for my family and friends. Professionally, I excelled at my job in a way I had never done before.
Medication is one of the things that have helped me, but I’ve learned to invest in certain skills and habits to help manage my symptoms on a day-to-day basis. For me, learning better time management and documenting all of my appointments and to-do lists is crucial. Being able to have an awareness of what I am doing for the day, week, or month is a serious help.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve learned that ADHD is a part of me that I need to manage, not a set of character flaws that I have.
I don’t regret my life prior to diagnosis, and I don’t blame my mother for her choices in those early days. I understand where she was coming from. After the initial mourning period for lost time, I set about the business of putting my life back in order and becoming an advocate for other people in the black community who may, like me, struggle with getting the care they need due to stigma and skepticism.
I’ve become a better employee, sister, daughter, and friend. My diagnosis let me know that that I wasn’t a flake — I wasn’t lazy, stupid, or incorrigible. What I have is a disorder, one that takes time, patience, and yes, a little medicine to manage.
Living with untreated disorder for 15 years teaches you a level of humility and compassion that a normal life won’t give you. Being diagnosed was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I’ve been able to completely change the direction my life was going in and to create a life that looks more like the life I wanted to live.
NPS-US-NP-00306 May 2018