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I was in fifth grade when I was diagnosed with Inattentive-type ADHD, along with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder).
I can still vaguely recall the gray-colored room that was the psychiatrist’s office and feeling a peculiar mix of emotions that day.
On the one hand, I was relieved to have been picked up and taken out of class that afternoon, but on the other, I didn’t understand why I had to explain or justify how my mind worked to anyone, much less to a stranger in formal attire who seemed set on prescribing me stimulants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI).
As far as I knew, I was different, but felt fed up to the neck hearing about how that was a negative thing. So, when the appointment ended and my mother and I were dismissed, I made sure to give the doctor the sourest and most disapproving look on my way out. Evasively, she had asked me whether or not I wanted a piece of candy to compensate for the boredom I felt sitting there.
Instantly, my eyes fixated on her gaze and narrowed. I pursed my lips as I shook my head and walked out the door feeling half the size I did when I arrived. In that moment, I felt small and patronized during and after that appointment, as though someone had dressed me in a clown costume and stuffed me in a sparse, white room, gawking at me through tiny observation windows. I wanted to speak, to defend myself and ensure that they knew I was perfectly logical and sane, but no one could hear me behind the thick walks.
By the age of 12, I felt done with being told in a multitude of ways—some subtle and others not-so-subtle—that there was something inherently wrong with me. After all, I was already more than well-aware of this on my own, having gone to the local library on enough occasions to read about ADHD in books, in an attempt to better understand the complex workings of my mind.
Nearly every book I read about the condition made me wonder whether I would ever succeed, get good enough grades to attend college, and morph into a competent adult. Sometimes I cried while reading them, wondering whether having this diagnosis meant my brain was damaged.
Besides that, I felt like an utter disappointment to my teachers, parents, and to myself. I struggled with math, had difficulty remembering homework assignments and instructions, lost and misplaced many things—including my notebooks—and was introverted, sensitive, shy, and labelled as a “daydreamer.” Distractions, no matter how innocuous to other people, were sometimes far too compelling for me to ignore, and my emotions for better or for worse, could be intense.
Yet, in spite of feeling like an alien in a human world, a part of me suspected I was also gifted, albeit in ways that were not as easily recognized nor understood in the school system. For one thing, I was an extraordinarily perceptive child who seamlessly picked up on all kinds of nuances. I possessed a keen understanding of other people—sometimes noticing things about them before they did—and was kind and empathetic. In addition, I had a lively and vivid imagination, which kept me entertained for hours on end, and was endlessly curious about things above my grade level.
In fact, when I was five years old, my primary school teacher branded me as a divergent thinker, and as I later on discovered, remembered me as such even 10 years later when she saw my mother at a grocery store and stopped to say hello.
“Oh, I remember Sarah,” she assured her. “She was such a divergent little thinker.”
After my mother returned and told me what my former teacher had said about me, a resurgence of confidence emerged from the frozen flatland that encompassed my internal landscape, and finally, the buds of self-appreciation began to take shape.
Suddenly, the sun shone through to embrace the parts of me that floundered and shrunk in the dead of winter and shivered in the cold as I looked at humanity, with envy, from behind a glass window. Finally, someone had seen me, and moreover, pointed out the good in me this time—the pearls in me that were hidden somewhere beneath the rubble of all my scattered parts.
Also, it was interesting to note that the same teacher who gave me that compliment was also one who just as effortlessly noticed my challenges and commented, all those years ago, that I appeared to be “spaced-out” and had difficulty following instructions. Keeping both of those assessments in mind, my previous hunch regarding ADHD being a kind of curse as well as a blessing in disguise was also confirmed to me, and thus, a persistent curiosity and desire to understand my mind in all its glorious and messy totality ensued.
I now more formally understand ADHD to be a richly multifaceted type of neurodivergence, with three main subtypes that each have their unique manifestations yet nevertheless share some distinct commonalities rooted in executive dysfunction—or, more casually—in a faulty “management system” in the brain. With glitchy executive functioning, it is more difficult to prioritize all kinds of things, including thoughts and emotional experiences in the moment, to meet overarching goals, organize your space physically and mentally, and keep information in mind while using it and control impulses.
Those of us with ADHD tend to react to whatever is in our focus, and generally speaking, whatever we’re focusing on—whether relevant to what we’re told we are supposed to be doing or not—feels spellbinding. Furthermore, because we have a primarily interest-based nervous system, those things are mostly ones we find most compelling—for whatever reason—as opposed to what other people and society insists should be important in the here and now.
When we take interest in a specific topic or task, we can shift into a state of intense hyper focus and have a difficult time shifting back into neutral and detaching or pulling ourselves away from it. We don’t have strong enough internal “brakes,” and subsequently, our minds move faster than our capacity to self-regulate when the iron strikes hot, regardless of the fact that we know what we should do, focus on, and how we should behave.
We tend to live in the present, with all tabs and registers open simultaneously, which in turn triggers four or five other thoughts, ideas, and emotional sensations, obstructing the already more delayed future from our direct line of vision. Obviously, this can make it more difficult to set intentions without becoming sidetracked or to hold information in your short-term memory without unconsciously pushing it out in order to make room for additional incoming stimuli, which also begs to be processed in the immediate moment.
And yet, as much as this executive dysfunction and excitable nervous system can seem like a handicap, I have also experienced it as a unique and precious gift. I have discovered that for each ADHD-related challenge I have, I also possess an equal or greater strength. For example, I experience some intense emotions and am particularly sensitive to real or perceived rejection, criticism, and disappointment from others. Sometimes I take these things in stride, but when I am particularly flooded or overwhelmed—and depending on the day—I can really feel myself take them to heart and find it difficult to fully “snap out of it” until up to a few days or even one week later.
However, I am also hyper-aware of the feelings of others and respond to their needs accordingly—usually with a surplus of empathy and compassion. Time and time again, I’ve been told by those closest to me as well as by strangers I talk with on the distress lines I volunteer on that they feel unconditionally understood and accepted by me. When I find the good in others, I am generous with my compliments and tend to open their eyes to their own potential.
In addition, my strong emotional reactions to other people, words, and events also fuel my passions and inspiration and general enthusiasm for life. When someone or something strikes a chord in me, I give my undivided attention. In other instances, I spill those emotions out on paper and paint images through words that connect me with an audience and vice versa. I also research various topics of interest until there is nearly nothing left to learn about them and soak up the information like a sponge in little to no time.
Finally, in a slightly similar vein, becoming distracted has also made me a keen observer with a deeper connection to presence. In college, we were asked in an assignment to sit in a crowded area and write down what we observed in that space as part of learning about qualitative research in the Social Sciences. I ended up writing page after page, filled with colorful notes that nearly turned into short stories about each of the people in the room based on of what I had observed.
Moreover, “tuning out” has indirectly provided me the opportunity to “tune back in” to myself and download all kinds of novel thoughts, ideas, and insights that I otherwise might not have had if I had been listening to others. Sometimes those ideas and insights have even paid off in one way or another.
All in all, I wouldn’t trade my mind for any other, regardless of any challenges it has presented to me throughout the years. My mind works differently—not incorrectly, and some of those differences are gifts that keep on giving or have led me down paths that have offered me a more interesting perspective. I’ve also developed a more robust sense of humor to compensate for the times I seem to “mess up,” like the time I accidentally drove past the window at a drive-thru and forgot to pick up the tea I had ordered because I had too much on my mind in that moment. Or the times I press a number for a floor in the elevator and accidentally get out on the next floor due to not paying attention and pontificating over deep topics like an absent-minded professor. (Then, I look around me wondering: hey, how the hell did I end up here?).
I believe it is necessary to identify and then harness any hidden gifts, cultivate a sense of humor, and count the blessings that come with a neurodivergent mind—because, whether we see them or not, they’re there—for the greater good of oneself and perhaps even humanity.
On that note, check out this video for a more positive spin on the realities of possessing a unique mind: