I think I always knew that I was not smart like the other kids in school; I was smart in the way that is not rewarded with advanced placement classes and straight A’s. My interests were extensive and varied; I played piano and cello, sang in the chorus, and performed in the theater. I was a skier, a figure skater, and a gymnast. I loved everything about school, except that I did not really feel like a member of the club.
Because of my talents in music and sport, I did not feel the full impact of an unremarkable transcript. At the time, my older brother’s difficulties overshadowed my own; he was diagnosed with ADHD in 1974, and then after failing eighth grade, he was sent to boarding school to get the help he needed.
An Internal Struggle, Externalized
I began my career in independent schools in 1988, but it was not until many years later that I realized I was drawn to the academic support field because of my own difficulties, not my brother’s. I knew what it felt like to try and not do as well as I thought I could or should. Many years of this internal struggle had eroded my confidence and seeded doubt about my ideas. At the same time, I compensated through sheer determination, denial, and distraction.
Then, last year at a local conference, I gave a presentation about students who struggle in school. A well-known psychiatrist was in the audience and, after my session, he approached me and said, “Laura, you do know you have ADHD, don’t you?”
My first reaction was to laugh it off and dismiss the comment out of hand. I thought, ‘After 40 years doing what he does for a living, he probably thinks everybody has ADHD!’ A few weeks later, curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to follow up with him for an evaluation. The diagnosis did not surprise me, but the sadness did.
I wondered what my learning experience might have been like if my parents and teachers had noticed that I needed support. One therapist told me it is normal for an adult who is diagnosed later in life to grieve over what “might have been.” While I cannot rewind the clock, I can use my new insight about how my brain works to help my colleagues understand and empathize with students who struggle in school.
Not only am I a member of the ADHD club, I am also a mom with a son who struggled with attention and mental health issues throughout his adolescence. Like the parents in my school, I understand the instinct to protect our children from judgment. I used to think that I would want my children’s teachers to know everything about their needs, but on an application for my son, when I came across the question, “Does your child have a history of learning difficulties?” I paused and wrote, “n/a.”
Grappling With Fear and Shame
The diagnosis of ADHD remains so mired in stigma and misunderstanding that even in support meetings with kind, well-intentioned adults, students are sometimes described as “slippery,” “adult avoidant,” “repeat offenders,” and “usual suspects.” Even though I know these comments are not meant maliciously, they hit a newly exposed nerve.
While I have spent the last year and a half making sense of my own diagnosis, I have been reluctant to tell people at work because I am afraid they won’t believe me or will think I am using it as an excuse. When I do bring up my own struggles, I hear from my colleagues, “Everybody struggles with attention and anxiety to some degree.”
The fear of being judged or misunderstood is real. As one student puts it, “The very name of my ‘disorder’ makes me feel as though I have a deficiency that sets me apart from people. I am attention deficit. Why couldn’t the name have been ‘imaginative surplus and enthusiastic gift’?” Another student wishes her brain could be more like a “quiet countryside, with every occasional thought racing along a lonely road, undisturbed.” For years, I wished I would get a bump on the head to knock the interesting part out, because I knew I wasn’t doing things like everybody else.
As someone who has worked in academic support for 25 years, I know a lot about learning disabilities and ADHD. In my role as a learning specialist, I help students organize materials and manage their time. For many students, these are basic study skills, but for students with ADHD, they are superficial band aids for the shame and embarrassment that come from having a messy mind. One student explains, “It’s like I have earbuds in my brain that are so tangled up that by the time I get them untangled, I don’t feel like listening to music anymore.” Another writes that her “mind feels like a traffic jam, every thought butting in, cutting others off, running red lights, switching lanes.”
Caring for Ourselves and Each Other
I know how my students feel because of my own experience. In faculty meetings, my colleagues seem to easily track the thread of conversation, but I can’t think as fast as people talk. I try to keep up with copious notes, notifications, and apps in my phone. But these strategies fall short when new challenges like hybrid learning are mixed in. Like many of the students in my school, when I am struggling with a project, I will double down and try harder.
After my diagnosis, I became even more determined to “beat this thing.” I was at my desk by 7 a.m. every morning, worked through lunch, and rarely paused for casual banter. But I could not keep up with the volume of work. I reached my breaking point when I could no longer concentrate.
To effectively serve my students and school, I had to give myself permission to care for myself. Asking for permission was even harder. I was embarrassed and uncertain about what to expect. After finding the courage to request a leave from work, I was overwhelmed by the support from my colleagues and family. Because of their support, I felt most empowered when I was at my most vulnerable.
If ever there was a time to ask for what you need, it is now. When everything is so uncertain, we need a safe space to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to be human. As we move into the next normal, I hope that we can maintain these safe spaces and empower each other when we are most in need.