My fifth-grade teacher was fed up. Every time it was my turn to read, I was, she announced to the class, “off in Ericaville.” She took a roll of string from her desk, tied one end to my wrist and handed the other end to the boy sitting next to me. “When it’s her turn, pull the string to wake her up,” she said. The class snickered.
She didn’t need to point out I was different. I knew. By third grade, my report cards sang an endless refrain of, “If only she would pay attention …” Teachers said I wouldn’t, but nobody considered that I couldn’t.
It wasn’t a matter of will. As a child, I wanted desperately to please my teachers, my parents and myself. But ADHD, as it was understood in the ’80s, and as it’s still sometimes misunderstood today, meant little boys who couldn’t sit still. I wasn’t spazzing out: I was sitting in a tree in my front yard, reading books for hours on end. If a brass band had walked by while I read “Little House on the Prairie,” I wouldn’t have noticed. Far from being “spaced out,” I had unlimited powers of concentration in those hours. But that, I learned later, is ADHD too.
Despite its name, ADHD is not a deficit of attention, it’s a problem regulating attention. Attention with ADHD is all or nothing. Today, it's considered a developmental disorder of executive function, which is the ability to set a goal and achieve it. ADHD tends to present differently in boys and girls. Boys are more likely to show the hyperactive kind (called “impulsive type”), the kind that disrupts class and gets the teacher’s attention — the kind that can get the wheels in motion for a diagnosis and some actual help.
Girls are more likely to present with inattention. The inattentive-type girls are the ones sitting quietly in class, daydreaming, not reaching our goals and growing a foundation of shame where our self-esteem should be. We’re the ones whose grades are usually OK, sometimes even pretty good, but they never match what our test scores suggest we could do. We are “checked out” — and a mild disappointment — but not one that rings the alarm bells. The only time we’re disruptive is when we slip into class a couple minutes late. (We were searching the cafeteria trash cans, again, after throwing away our retainer, again.) When we’re older, in high school, we’re the ones you think are smoking pot before school because, as my first-period algebra teacher told my parents, “Nobody could be that spaced out without chemical help.” I wish.
The girls with undiagnosed ADHD are the ones called “space cadets” by our “friends.” We’re the ones who learned our emotional survival depended on our ability to laugh at ourselves and to lean into our flighty personas as a defense. When defenses were breached, we learned to bite back. We didn’t learn enough about empathy, how it’s given and received, and how it’s necessary for being a whole person with healthy relationships, until much later in life.
I went to college after mentally strapping in for four more years of not meeting expectations. To fill a requirement, I took Psychology 101, where I first heard the term “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” And the symptoms my professor described fit me so completely I half-expected him to list my eye color and my outfit.
I collected every bit of information I could about ADHD and how to cope. I began to learn I had strengths as well as weaknesses, and that my ADHD could contribute to my strengths. I could focus like a laser in my favorite classes, cranking out papers in a couple of hours. I learned lecture halls were my kryptonite, so I gravitated toward smaller classes where I could read and write instead. I kept a color-coded calendar and made detailed lists. My collegiate existence depended on that list. Without it, everything would fall apart. Everything still fell apart occasionally, but less often.
I still struggled, but I was learning to forgive myself for it. Acknowledging something would be a challenge for me provided the leverage I needed to find a coping strategy. The grace I learned to give myself, not the color-coded calendar, was probably responsible for the seismic shift in my GPA.
Years later, when my child came home from first grade announcing he had “lost” his bookbag in the two blocks between school and home, I knew what to do. I didn’t accuse him of carelessness or demand explanations or yell. I’d been watching him closely, and I’d seen the signs develop over the past few years. Instead, we went to the doctor and got a referral for ADHD testing. (First, we found the bookbag.)
It had somehow never occurred to me to get tested myself until then. I’d never wanted the medication: By the time I learned about it, I’d already figured out my coping strategies and they were working well enough. I do, however, think medication would have been enormously useful to me when I was a kid.
Nevertheless, I thought, I might as well get the diagnosis, in case I do need medication or treatment in the future. (Also, and this is embarrassing to admit, a tiny part of me wanted to send my test result to my fifth-grade teacher, with a succinct message attached.) Although my son’s testing was covered by insurance, I was dismayed to learn that, as an adult, my testing would not be. After some consideration of the cost versus benefits, and watching my son go through the process and get help, I decided to do it.
When I was officially diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, I didn’t feel vindicated. I didn’t want to mail the result to my fifth-grade teacher anymore. I was just utterly unsurprised, and a little sad. It felt like so little, so late.
But it wasn’t too late. Since the day I learned what ADHD is, and is not, I’ve learned to embrace it and be grateful for the gifts it gave me. “Ericaville” has a lot going for it. I like it there — and rather than apologize for it, I make room in my life for regular visits. Another major gift ADHD has given me is empathy for my son, for all the so-called “space cadets,” and for everyone who sees or experiences the world a little differently. The world is a richer place because they, and their inner worlds, are here.
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