Stigma Encountered Early in Life has an Undeniable Impact

When I was about 25 years old ADHD was added to the ever expanding list of my neuro eccentricities. This was unsurprising, both of my parents also have this diagnosis. For years it was essentially assumed that I had ADHD, but the issues related to my depression and mood disorder were more pressing and life threatening that my inability to sit through my film history class. When I left my doctors office post diagnosis I called one of my best friends who’ve I’ve known since the age of 5 (though we were sworn enemies until age eight). The conversation went something like this:

‘Hey Ala, they say I have the ADHD. I got this fancy new prescription so I can pay attention and whatnot.’

‘...Wow Stella. Well, that only took 20 years. Are you going to be able to sit through all of ‘Planet of the Apes’ now?’

‘If I could I wouldn’t tell you.’

...

When I was growing up ADHD was thought to be the illness of troublemakers. The kids who were causing disruption, picking fights with classmates, basically the kids who took up the most time were the ones who exemplified the ADHD label and I was not one of them. I was more of a window gazer; I was politely disengaged.

Throughout all of my schooling I have had a sense that everyone else has an instruction manual that I was/am missing. Even though I was only six I had an early understanding that I must be different and that being different was bad. Instead of asking for help or more clarification when I needed it I just slogged through lessons that I absorbed less than half of, and copied the lines from the chalkboard to my notebook the best of my ability. However, unlike the rest of my class I could not read so the words I was copying were totally meaningless. It didn’t matter to me that they were meaningless. All that mattered to me was that I got the happy face sticker next to my full page of lines like everyone else. All that mattered to me was that as few people as possible knew that I was different.

I went to a school that used something called “the whole language approach” to teach children to read. The technique is based on a holistic approach which dictates that you can’t really teach language in small sections but that it must be incorporated into a larger lesson and a child will intuitively develop language skills. The problem for me (and other kids in my class who couldn’t focus) was that never absorbing the individual lessons meant never developing the whole approach. So there came a point in my schooling where other kids started picking up books and reading and I was left floundering, ashamed, feeling left out and stupid. I didn’t want anyone to know so instead of admitting that I was struggling I got pretty decent at memorizing books as they were read to me and reciting them back. An essential skill in growing up knowing you are different is learning to disguise it. I was good enough at it that the severity of my reading problem (ie. near illiteracy) flew under the radar until midway through grade three when much to my dismay my parents started sending me to ‘special’ lessons.

The reading lessons, although very helpful and extremely effective, were the beginning of years of academic segregation. When junior high came about, and for the first time I was going to a real public school with real standardized testing, what little confidence I had built up in my intellect was totally destroyed. Though I was polite, creative, well intentioned and articulate I was described by my teachers in many letters and calls home as ‘the worst speller’ ‘the most disorganized’ ‘lacking motivation’ ‘totally out to lunch’... really whatever PC description my teachers could some up with for piss poor student. There is a huge misconception that people with ADHD symptoms just aren’t trying hard enough; the reality is that they are usually trying as hard as they can in about 100 different directions at once, and this was certainly the case with me.

Instead of thinking something alone the lines of ‘hey this seems like this is a good kid maybe there is a problem’ the guidance counsellor at my junior high decided the solution to this was to have me carry a large red visible clipboard from class to class that my teachers had to sign off on after every lesson putting checkmarks next to categories like ‘Was not disruptive’ ‘Made eye contact’ ‘Completed assignments’. There were 350 kids in my junior high school and the only other student who had to carry the clipboard was a guy a year ahead of me who’d been publicly arrested for stealing condoms from the local drug store. So in grade 7 the red clipboard became my scarlet letter, and instead of continuing to try and overcome my obstacles I surrendered myself to the idea that I must be stupid and simply stopped caring.

I checked out, and I pretty much remained checked out until I shot a roll of Kodak TMAX 400 ISO film in my first semester at arts school, and suddenly for the first time in my education something clicked for me. The way I was being taught made sense because I was using my hands, and literally creating something that I could see... Instead of my ADHD being a obstacle my ability to hyper-focus and tune out everything else during my 10 hours darkroom marathons gave me an advantage. For the first time I was actually naturally good at something. I began to realize that the problem had never been that I was stupid, or that I was lazy, the problem very simply was I learn by doing and my schools approach to teaching was ‘shut up and listen’.

I’m not writing this piece as a sob story about how hard school was because sob stories are boring. I’m writing it because there are tons of kids out there in classrooms right now who are feeling like they are worthless because the school system is trying to cram them into a box they don’t fit into. ADHD has a very high comorbidity rate with things like substance abuse, self harm, and depression... Having ADHD is super frustrating but it isn’t necessarily depressing. Being isolated is depressing. Feeling like you aren’t good enough no matter how hard you try is depressing. Going to a school everyday that teaches you in a way that is counterintuitive to your basic nature and then grades your worth upon it is depressing. Fact is that ADHD doesn’t limit people nearly as much as standardized testing and education limits people.

We fully acknowledge that there are different types of intelligence and learning styles in the adult world. So why are kids being subjected to a one size fits all education for the first 18 years of their lives when some of the biggest innovators of music, arts, science, and sports are also people with ADHD?