I wasn’t officially diagnosed with ADHD until my 30s. My whole life, though, everyone knew I wasn’t like my neurotypical peers. I was always a little spacier, a little more socially awkward. My behaviors haven’t changed much since I was a kid, but my attitudes toward them sure have. I’ve learned to work with my disorder; I’ve learned that some things aren’t my fault. When I think of the awkward, confused kid I was, I want to reach down and hug myself. Being an undiagnosed ADHD kid is hard. I wish I’d known some things.
1. This is not your fault. You have a diagnosable, quantifiable illness, no matter what Tom Cruise and some pundits say. You are not neurotypical: Your brain doesn’t work the same way that other peoples’ do. That’s not something you can control. It’s not something you can change. You can work with it. You can get help with it. But your ADHD is not your fault. Its effects should not produce moral or spiritual blame. ADHD lapses are not a character deficiency.
2. Just because it’s an A doesn’t mean it’s your best. You can coast by because you’re smart, and because an A- still counts as an A on your report card. But you can do better. Don’t shrug your shoulders just because you got the grade without working. You need to learn to work as hard as everyone else. You can get all the questions right, if you study.
3. Learn how to study—and how to read. You don’t have the foggiest idea of how to study. That’s OK, but you need to learn. This will give you A’s instead of A minuses, and it’ll help once you get to college. You also need to learn to read: Everyone else does not skim vast parts of the text. You have to read every.single.word., without skipping back and forth. This is a skill that will take time. When you go to grad school, you will find that you can’t read Martin Heidegger in skims and skips.
4. It is not normal to spend math class playing with your erasers. Yes, Mr. Unicorn Eraser and Mr. Fairy Eraser can build a house together on your pencil case. But that doesn’t help you learn multiplication tables. Don’t tune out just because you don’t get it. Don’t stick to what comes easy and what seems interesting. You may need medication to help you with this one—or at least cognitive behavioral therapy. That’s OK.
5. There’s nothing wrong with meds. You thought your friend on Prozac was a freak. If you took Ritalin, you wouldn’t have to spend half of seventh period walking the halls while you pretended to be in the bathroom. Well-timed medication can help you, if your parents are behind it (yours wouldn’t be, but they should).
6. You are not a space cadet. You get called a lot of things: an airhead, a dumb blonde, spacey. You are none of them. You have a problem concentrating on things. These things include people and conversations. You have trouble remembering names, faces, and dates (especially for homework assignments). This is a symptom of your ADHD. It’s not a moral failing or a sign that you’re dumb.
7. You will lose things. In kindergarten, you lost your book bag while it was slung over your shoulder. You forget things, like lunch money. You lose locker keys. This is normal, and it will not go away (you’ll lose your debit card more times than you can count). It’s OK. You’re “ADHD normal.”
8. Social stuff is hard. You tend to burst out with something unrelated in the middle of a conversation. You interrupt people. Your contributions to a normal talk may be completely irrelevant to everyone but you. All this turns off other kids, and makes it hard to have friends. You can realize you’re doing this stuff and work on stopping it. It’ll make your life easier. But all this is normal ADHD behavior. It’s not because you’re an inveterate loser.
9. Structure makes it easier. When you’re in Catholic school, the homework books, underlining, and strict rules—down to what pen to use—may be annoying. But it will keep the worst of your symptoms at bay. Just writing down your homework in a designated book means you’re more likely to do it. Putting books in a certain part of your desk means you won’t lose them. This might be the easiest way to pull it together without professional help.
10. This all will get easier. One day, you’ll grow up, and people will call you “Luna Lovegood” affectionately instead of slamming you as a dumbo. You will get an actual psychiatric diagnosis and find out coping tips for your disorder. You’ll still lose your keys, and your phone, and your debit card, and you’ll forget garbage day, and you won’t hear what your kids are saying. But you won’t see these things as a moral failing. You won’t waste emotional energy on shame. You’ll know it’s your ADHD. You’ll roll your eyes. And you’ll keep on going.