A few weeks ago, I aced a test, which is generally the kind of thing that brings joy into my life. Alas, it was a test for adult ADHD.
This result has shocked and astonished my friends. Apparently everyone expected me to have been diagnosed in school (thank you, friends). Alas, I’m old enough that, back in my days, that kind of diagnosis just wasn’t an option. In my school, you were either “normal” and expected to behave and perform “normally,” or one of the special kids who had their own separate classroom where they didn’t really do any schooling. There was no space to be just different enough from the norm to need a little bit of help, or just some leeway to do things your own way. You were in, or you were out.
There was also a real stigma on being anything other than “normal.” I’m fairly sure that my mother would have rather drowned me at birth than be pegged as the parent of a child with learning difficulties. Hell, I didn’t even get my dyslexia diagnosis until university, when I started tutoring students with learning difficulties. My mom and my teachers were fully aware that I couldn’t tell left from right, that I struggled to remember which way round numbers were supposed to go (we wrote in cursive, so letters weren’t as much of a problem as long as I started from the right corner of the page), and that I occasionally picked up a book upside down and started reading like that without noticing, but they put it down to me not paying enough attention. It was something I would grow out of, particularly if aided by enough telling-offs and the ambient shaming that was the hallmark of a good old-fashioned childhood.
The ADHD diagnosis has shocked and astonished me, too. I mean… I knew that I’m faster than the average bear, that my motivation doesn’t work like other people’s, that I either hyperfocus or can’t focus at all, that conversations with me inevitably go off on wild tangents, that my energy levels have only two settings (“CHARGE!!!” and “none”), that I can be a teeny weeny bit short on the impulse control front… I knew that things that other people don’t find difficult, like sitting the hell down and watching TV, are serious challenges for me… But I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t put all these elements together, and I sure as hell didn’t see them as part of A Thing that I have, or rather A Thing that I am.
I also didn’t know that ADHD goes further; that it has a profound effect on my emotional environment – or, rather, what totally eluded me is that most people’s emotional environments are profoundly different from mine. From what I can gather, most people live in a painting, while I live in a neon sign – garishly coloured, and flashing on-and-off between blindingly bright and utterly black. It’s kinda pretty, and I enjoy it, but it’s damn hard to ignore. The bottom line is that the disconnect between how I react to emotional stimuli and how “normal” people react is due to the fact that I perceive those stimuli in a profoundly different way. We are exposed to very different experiences, even when, on the surface, we’re going through the same thing.
I thought everyone was stronger than me, more resilient, more immunised to the ups and downs of daily life. It turns out that my ups and down are just bigger, which is why they affect me more. That was an interesting revelation for me. Much like my dyslexia diagnosis, it has given me the opportunity to review how I measure myself against the world, kinda thang. Yeah, I find certain things infinitely more difficult than most people, but I can also do things most people can’t do. Way back when, I fell in love my dyslexia – not just to be resigned to it, because it isn’t going anywhere, but to actually be whole-heartedly glad that it’s a part of me. Now I’m learning to love my ADHD. I don’t know who I’d be without it.
Because I’m me, the diagnosis has also given me the opportunity to re-evaluate my internal mechanisms. I have new terminology and new criteria to play with, so I took my brain out of its casing and I am having a damn good look at it. The most interesting aspect of this exploration is learning to distinguish the things that are genuinely a part of me, and those that I’ve picked up en route. For instance, I got me some prime rejection sensitive dysphoria. Like it or not, it is a part of me, a direct result of the way in which my brain is wired. But – and here is where it gets fun – I also have a bunch of trauma from growing up in a fairly abusive environment. The combination of the two – being oversensitive to a particular stimulus and actually been smacked with that stimulus hard and repeatedly from infancy* – has given me a bunch of coping mechanisms, some of which are grossly counterproductive. Thing is, I can work towards changing my coping mechanisms, improving my habits, and reducing the impact of my trauma on my daily life, but the rejection sensitive dysphoria is never gonna go anywhere. I can do my damn best to mitigate its impact on my life, but I have to live with it.
Again, because I’m me, knowing that I live with it helps, a lot. The beast has a name. Now that I know that it exists, I can keep an eye on it, and maybe avoid it eating my goddamn face so often.
I find it interesting how often people caution others against embracing labels. They’re self-limiting. They’re depressing. They’re divisive. They give you excuses to be less than you could be. I mean, yeah, they can do all of the above, if that’s how you use them, but you don’t have to. You can use them to know yourself better, to learn what makes you tick, which is pretty fucking critical if it’s different from what makes everyone else ticks. Know thyself, yo. If you don’t, how the fuck are you ever gonna love yourself?
[*Conundrum: would the same environment have been abusive for somebody wired differently from me? How does one measure the seriousness of abuse, when its impact can vary depending on whom it hits? But that’s a headfuck for another day.]