The Brooklyn BrainLady

teaching & learning, in a fancy dress

About five years ago, the ceiling fell in on me. I was sitting at a neuroscience conference dedicated to the theme of “Attention and Learning”. The keynote speaker was a bold and articulate Patricia Quinn, renowned expert on AD/HD. I was totally connecting her presentation to my own classroom and I was *psyched*: Weak emotional regulation? That’s totally Student A! Persistent struggles with organization? Soooo Student B!

Trouble was, when Dr. Quinn moved past the ages that I teach and into how AD/HD presents in high school and college-aged women, I stopped making connections to my own students so easily. Oh, I didn’t stop making connections, mind you, I just stopped getting so excited about it.

I grabbed my friend’s arm and whispered in a tone a little too loud, a little too alarmed,

“Oh my god! I have AD/HD!”

Ever the calmer of the pair, she leaned over and put her own hand on mine reassuringly,

“Oh, sweetheart, you didn’t know that?”

No, I didn’t know that.

And I didn’t want to. I just wanted to help the kids. I spent hours reading, connecting the dots from student-to-student, year-after-year, creating a mosaic of what a girl with hyperactive AD/HD looks like so I’d be more aware for my students. The book Understanding Girls and Women with AD/HD read like a memoir: the good girl with good grades who hits puberty and suddenly can’t keep up anymore and spends an inordinate amount of time hiding it, to the increasing detriment of her psychological well-being. In broad strokes, they are hyper-talkative, emotionally over-reactive, and often deeply concerned with how they appear to others.

No matter how hard I tried to create a picture of them, it was me and I couldn’t deny it.

The very students I had the hardest time seeing were those who possessed the same qualities I had been denying in myself: drama queen, attention-seeker, people-pleaser, perfectionist, crazy girl. I hated my impulsive outbursts, emotional tantrums and paralyzing insecurities. I hated time, to-do lists and expectations. I wanted to rage against the well-intentioned people who’d spent years helping me “learn how to act like a normal person.” The truth was I hated myself.

I always knew there was something “wrong” with me.

In our society, the female is the organizer, the manager, the neater of the genders. We keep everything together, and if we can’t we find dozens of fabulous ways of making it look like we do. I mean, have you ever noticed how many brands of concealers are being marketed? There are entire industries dedicated to keeping up appearances. That’s the message we’re sent from a very young age: do it, and if you can’t, fake it. Just don’t tell anyone.

So that’s just what I did: I’d stay up all night to finish projects at the last minute and they’d be perfect. I figured out every way possible to study while standing, moving or singing; novelty was my specialty. I’d slug down a week’s worth of coffee to sit still in my three hour classes; caffeine’s calming effect on me never once raised a red flag. In social situations, I’d developed an out-sized personality to cover for the fact that I couldn’t actually control my talking. That was “just being me,” and if you didn’t like it, tough. Sure, I was tired and lonely, but at least no one stuck around long enough to see that I didn’t really know what I was doing. And I never, ever admitted how exhausting “just being me” actually was.

Then I grew up, and missing deadlines came with things like late fees and credit trails. Being late came with poor evaluations and things like thirty students left in hallways. Multi-tasking came with car accidents and failing to realize how much I’d just drank in social situations. Attention-seeking behaviors came with garnering the attention of all kinds of people, and not always the good kind. The older I got, the harder it was to hide.

Weeks after the conference, I moved into my first solo apartment. That meant no roommate or boyfriend to take care of all the little things to do, like turning on the electricity. I spent the first night on the floor in the dark, crying by candlelight over all the things I didn’t know how to do, didn’t know how to manage. I watched gargantuan undertakings like having children, managing a household, and maintaining a healthy relationship vanish. Because that’s what adulthood for women with ADHD is like: it never comes alone. The depression and anxiety that ride its tails infiltrate every part of your life. The more I read, the more hopeless it became.

But I wanted out.

I dug into my notes from the conference and found Patricia Quinn’s e-mail address. I asked her if she knew of a psychiatrist who specialized in AD/HD for adults, if she could help me find someone who could help me understand me. She wrote back! I took a deep breath and picked up the phone. I made an appointment.

Answering his questions and filling out the rating scales was the easy part- I’d done that in my job for years. The hard part was how hand-tailored it all seemed to be, how much time and care he took with me, and how readily he seemed to understand me. It broke my heart, sitting in that chair and realizing I had gone 32 years without really ever being understood. The doctor closed the folder, folded his hands and smiled warmly, “Not only do you have AD/HD, but I’m surprised you made it this far. You must be very, very smart to have coped for this long. It must have been hard.” Hot tears fell so easily as I copped to all the ways I pretend I’m perfect so that people will like me, so I’ll have friends, so I’ll be accepted.

The trust forged in that initial meeting has since led me to be able to take some scary steps- medication, group therapy- and slowly but surely, things have gotten easier. Not perfect, just easier. I’ve embraced my quirkiness in a more genuine way, and let me tell you- authentic is the way to go. Life is so good, even when it’s hard. It’s actually fun to practice my strategies and see my own improvement! It’s made me a better teacher, a better model for honest self-assessment. I can’t ask students to admit what’s hard for them if they don’t trust that I’ve been there myself, that I get it. And boy do I…especially on the rare occasion when I’m running down the street trying to beat them to first period.

But I know they understand. And sometimes there’s just nothing better than feeling understood.

5 thoughts on “It’s Not Charming, It’s a Disorder

  1. Kris says:

    Beautifully written – thank you!


  2. Beth.. You. Are. Amazing… I LOVE this all… Your honesty and vulnerability, putting your heart out there, offering your experience strength and hope… I’m honored to call you family…. And you got me thinking now, cause everyone has always told me I have this too, and I always just brush it off as my personality or whatever, but the calming effect of caffeine (taking a nap after a few shots of espresso) and now I’m in a manager role at my job and I’m really seeing my focus (or lack thereof) and all of my notes, and every little thing I have to write down to remember…… But its just real neat you are doing this…and ALSO what you DO with those kids!!! Teaching them about their different learning and living abilities, to empower them and engender compassion for them SELVES AND each other!?!?! That’s SO amazing! So beautiful… And just on behalf of humanity I want to say thank you.


    1. Brian, I’m so grateful to have you as family, too. You are always the first one out of the gate to recognize people’s bravery and cheer them on. Having you in my corner is a blessing, and having another reflective soul to jump in there with is also a blast. I know it’s tough sometimes, but as you always say…WE ARE AMAZING! xoxo


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