I have long been an advocate of normalizing talking about mental disability as openly as any other disability. I do this on social media and encourage others to do the same. I’ve shared my journey in fits and starts but I’m not sure I’ve ever really put it all in one place. So along with talking about the tools I use or how I actually accomplish things I’d like to talk about the journey itself. I think the most important piece of my journey is how, as an adult, I finally got a diagnosis and how it changed my life.
I am going to post about things here that are hard for me to talk about, things I’m ashamed of, and what it actually took for me to finally see the medical professional that took me seriously. Maybe my journey, in all it’s gory detail, will help someone. Maybe I’m just screaming into the void. Either way it’s time I put all of these things into one place. I don’t hide any of these things so if you know me in real life then none of this will be a shock. My past is not pretty and I have made lots of bad decisions. This not my autobiography and I’ll be editing myself to keep it from being such. This post will only cover the highlights of things related to my ADHD and the eventual diagnosis. Honestly, sticking to that will be the hardest part of writing this.
My memory of childhood is a patchwork but there are some things that are very clear. This may or may not be related to ADHD but it’s something I wish were different. If some of this seems disjointed it’s because I don’t have the details to tie it all together. This is especially true for grade school which is where my journey really starts. My experience is unlikely to match with most folks. I was in private, religious schools for most of grade school and junior high then I was homeschooled prior to it being acceptable. These two things made it more difficult than it had to be.
According to my mother I had taught myself to read while I was four years old. Not memorizing books that had been read to me but able to read simple books I had never seen before. Of course I can’t validate this with my own memory but it does illustrate that I would have been considered ahead of the developmental curve. That’s an important bit of context for how the next twenty of so years went for me. The private schools I attended tested our reading speed and comprehension using machines that had rolls of paper with stories/essays/scripture/articles on them. They, supposedly measured how fast one could read and the questions afterwards measured reading comprehension. I would always place well above the rest of my class on speed and comprehension both. I also didn’t remember anything about what I read an hour after the test but they never looked at that.
School was always in cubicles and we had small American flags we could put into a hole above our desk if we needed help. These were very similar to modern office cubicles.
This picture could have easily been from any of the three or four “Learning Centers I attended from first grade through seventh grade. Students in this environment work independently and grade their own work at a station in the center of the room.
If you got something wrong you would return to your cubicle, correct the answer, and raise your flag so a supervisor could come validate your correction. Corporal punishment was used if you cheated. Uniforms were strictly enforced. It was in this environment that I first experienced the self loathing that is so commonly associated with ADHD. You see they knew I was “smart” because of the reading tests they administered so any failure in the Learning Center had to be because I was lazy, not applying myself, rebelling, or any other reason they could come up with to explain why the person that stood head and shoulders above the rest on their completely unscientific reading speed and comprehension tests wouldn’t be excelling in the classroom.
We didn’t have a teacher as such, they were supervisors. They didn’t need to know the material as they had answer keys for everything. There was no mechanism for getting any more information than what was presented in the workbooks (PACEs). In fact asking questions about the material or wanting more information was frowned upon. The whole system was built on conformity and that aligned with the churches who hosted these schools as well.
My parents were part of the Word of Faith movement and apparently deathly afraid that I’d learn evolution and other things that contradicted scripture so religious schools were the only option. When I was struggling in school I was taken to the church elders, anointed with oil, and prayers were said to bind the spirits of rebellion. It was obviously rebellion because I couldn’t sit still at all. I couldn’t absorb the information in the thin workbooks even on subjects that interested me because it was all so superficial that I was never able to develop any connection that would allow me to focus.
Math was the worst subject for me. I could muddle through most of the others. I was even passably good at English because I have always been decent with grammar and spelling. This particular brand of “education” didn’t include any real writing so I didn’t experience the horror of writing papers until much later. But math was utterly confounding. All the rules were presented but never explained beyond them being fact. There was no context for any of it. Sure, following the rules would have resulted in the right answer, it’s hard to put a “Christian” spin on math regardless of how hard they tried but it’s really easy to teach it incorrectly.
My constant fidgeting, from shaking a leg to messing with everything on my desk landed me in the principal’s office at least weekly for corporal punishment. They really believed that my “rebellion” could be beaten out of me. Now I am luckier than some as corporal punishment was limited to three “pops”, through the clothes. I know other folks who went to religious schools that did much worse. I was told that I was rebellious, would never make anything of my life, and that if I didn’t learn to behave properly that I would be expelled and my parents would be disappointed in me. Furthermore I would end up homeless and on drugs.
Never once was a learning disability considered by the schools or my parents. How could someone so smart not be able to learn in school? After all it couldn’t be the fault of the environment, the material, the supervisors, or anything of the other ridiculous things that an ACE school required. It had to be me, the student. They looked at my ability to read and learn outside of school, on subjects I was interested in, and that only solidified their belief that the fault had to lie with me. I wasn’t taken to therapy, I was taken for more prayer. I wasn’t placed in a program that might adapt to my learning requirements, I was paddled. I wasn’t given the tools I needed to actually learn, I was labeled a rebellious child.
All of these things had a profound effect on me that lingers to this day. As I write this I am forty-eight years old and the most vivid memories of my childhood are of being treated like this by those in authority over me in the school environment. Children take things to heart and by the time the type of private school I attended changed I had internalized all of these things and begun to make the predictions about my life come true. I had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it but I did know that those in authority, those that claimed they were experts, thought I was a failure so that’s obviously what I was.
To be clear, I don’t hold any ill will against my parents for this. I have forgiven for everything years ago. My home life outside school stuff wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t horrible. Corporal punishment was reserved only for the worst offences and even though we now know that it shouldn’t be used it was still a common practice at the time. I believe my parents honestly tried to do what they thought was best for me and their opinions changed over the years and they did make changes. That doesn’t excuse anything but it did help me forgive them.
Mental illness isn’t really a thing in the Word of Faith movement. It can all be explained by spirits and if you aren’t cured by praying then your faith wasn’t strong enough. It’s an insidious religion and yet it’s very attractive. I see people caught up in it still today. The WoF movement is very likely to blame for my ADHD not being diagnosed until I was in my thirties. I have forgiven my parents but I still have yet to forgive the con artists who fed them the lies that led to the schools I was subjected to, the lack of a diagnosis for my ADHD, and the punishments I endured.
In my next post about my journey I’ll cover more ground from a chronological perspective but I think this post is already long enough. I hope that me finally writing out my story like this helps someone. Even if it doesn’t there’s a lot of catharsis for me.
Be kind, practice love, remember to hydrate…