Young fashionable slender girl in autumn coat and boots. Comics sketch style. Black and white hand drawing.

“You’re smart, and do well in school. You don’t have ADHD”.

If I had a penny for every time I heard that I would be rich (well maybe not rich because I’m in college, but I would be able to pay for my tuition).

ADHD isn’t always the kid who interrupts the teacher, gets up in the middle of class, and is failing school. Attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder can manifest itself differently in different people.

I’m the inattentive type (which often goes undiagnosed for longer). I have always assumed I had ADHD, but I was only diagnosed and put on medication four months ago. I am a junior at a four-year university, and I am majoring in nursing. Yes, I am in college. Yes, nursing is a hard major. Yes, I get good grades. Yes, I do have ADHD. What people don’t see when they only look at my grades is the amount of work I put in to get those grades.

When they ask me how I did on the test and I tell they I got an A and they respond “see, you didn’t fail, you don’t have ADHD…” When they see me with my hundreds of flashcards and tell me “see, you study, there is no way you have ADHD…” They don’t see how long it takes me to make those flashcards (and how many breaks I take while making them. They don’t know I have to make the flashcards because once they are done I can walk around and study, eliminating my problem of not being able to sit still).

When they see me sitting in lecture looking at the teacher and assume I’m paying attention, there is a lot they don’t see. They don’t see me struggling and failing to stay focused for that two-hour lecture. They don’t see me recording the lecture and then having to re-listen to the parts I didn’t catch in class because I was counting the ceiling tiles, or listening to the student in the back of the class clicking his pen. They don’t see me playing with silly putty to keep my hands busy in an attempt to focus on what the teacher is saying.

When they see me sitting at the library for hours and assume I’m “studying,” there is a lot they don’t see. They don’t see that when I am re-listening to the lecture I have to take breaks every 10 minutes and walk around because I can’t sit still for that long and I have to get up. They don’t see me rewinding the lecture because all of the sudden I realize I have just zoned out for 10 minutes and have no idea what I just listened to. They don’t see that I’m at the library for five hours on a Saturday when it’s a beautiful day outside because yes, it will take me five hours to read 40 pages because most of those five hours will be spent distracted by the students walking past me, the girl in the room behind me tapping her foot, the light above me that flickers every five minutes, the flushing of the toilet.

When they see how I have color-coded my binders and my agenda so every class has a specific color associated with it, they assume I am the perfect student. When they see my organized room with a specific place for everything I own they assume I’m a neat freak and have my life together. What they don’t see is what would happen without this system (and even most of the time with this system). They don’t see me realizing at 1 a.m. I have an assignment due tomorrow. They don’t see me showing up to class with the wrong binder. They don’t see me searching my room in a panic for 20 minutes because I lost an important piece of paper. They don’t see me in tears because I lost my ID for the fourth time this year (and we have only been in school for a month). They don’t see me frantically searching for my car keys because I forgot I have an interview in 20 minutes (but luckily I set a reminder on my phone), but my keys are not in their designed spot in my room.

When they see me taking notes in a meeting and tell me, “you don’t need to take notes. Why are you such a goody two shoes?” they don’t know that yes, I do have to take notes. I have to take notes because I won’t remember anything that was said in the meeting. They don’t see that my “notes” are pages full of doodles because when I doodle it’s easier for me to pay attention to what the speaker is saying.

When they tell me I’m lazy or tell me to just focus they don’t see how much it hurts. They don’t see that I am already beating myself up on the inside. They don’t see me frustrated and crying for losing everything all the time. They don’t see me yelling at my brain to just read the darn page and stop listening to the girl tapping her shoe. They don’t see me wishing I could just be like everyone else who can go out on a Saturday because they finished their homework already.

When they read this article and tell me, “well you had enough attention and focus to write this article… you don’t have ADHD,” they don’t see that I’m doing this instead of my homework because I hyper focused on this and my brain won’t let me keep reading my textbook until I finish this article.

So yes, I am in college. Yes, I get good grades. Yes, I am a nursing major. And yes, I have ADHD.

Image via Thinkstock.

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As I walk into Target, I immediately see gigantic back to school signs and can practically smell all of the #2 pencils. I see kids with their parents going over their school supply list, making sure they got the correct number of notebooks and folders and the right brand of markers.

The kids look happy and excited, and so do their parents, quite understandably. Without realizing it, I’m staring at them and smiling, too. I can’t help it. Seeing the bright smiling faces of today’s youth excited about going to school makes me happy.

But my smile quickly fades as my 7-year-old lets out a sigh and asks, “Are we done yet?”

My child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and for us, the words “back to school” create quite the opposite effect. Instead of excitedly counting down the days until the first day of school, my child has been crying every day as she sees the X’s on our calendar getting closer and closer to the start of school.

My child is very smart, and I’m not just saying that because I’m her mother. My child talked in full sentences before she could walk, and she hasn’t stopped since. She says some of the most profound things I have ever heard and has an incredible way of thinking outside the box. She’s one of the most imaginative and creative people I know.

Although her teachers have recognized these characteristics about her, they’re not going to be measured, graded or accounted for in school. She isn’t going to get A’s in creativity or thoughtfulness, that’s for sure.

On every single report card last year, my daughter’s teacher commented that she needed to know her math facts better because she took too long to answer them. Despite spending extra time doing math drills with my child and getting her a tutor, she still wasn’t able to answer the teacher’s math facts as quickly as she would have liked.

It’s not that she didn’t know the answer, and it’s not that she didn’t know how to solve the problem. Kids with ADHD have a difficult time focusing. They were born with these magnificent minds that allow them to think about several things at once. With time, hard work and patience, they’ll learn how to manage and organize their thoughts to give their teachers (and as an adult later, their bosses) what they want.

I wish I could tell you exactly what type of management that would be, but ADHD affects everyone differently, and so the management will be different for everyone. (For example, my husband has ADHD, and what worked for him as a child doesn’t work for our daughter.)

What breaks my heart is knowing that my daughter tries her absolute best in school, but because of the way her mind works, she may be regarded by her teachers and classmates as unintelligent, lazy and even disrespectful. And if they see her that way, I’m concerned that maybe she’ll start believing it and ultimately begin behaving that way on purpose because it’s the easier route.

I would never describe my child as any of those words, but that’s because I understand her mind and behavior. If you’re lucky, your child may get a teacher who actually understands how ADHD affects children and will be willing to make accommodations for your child. If that’s the case, consider yourself blessed. For the rest of you, your mamma bear claws may have to come out, and you’ll be fighting every day to get the teacher to understand your amazing child the way you do.

You will always be your child’s biggest advocate. Never be afraid to speak up and ask for the help your child needs and deserves.

My child goes to a small private school and will enter the second grade this year. These second graders have been at this school together for two whole years now and have already formed their own little cliques.

My daughter is hilarious and can be a lot of fun to be around, so kids tend to gravitate to her at first. However, if my daughter keeps interrupting them or gets upset, these kids leave. They don’t know she has ADHD or what ADHD is. They don’t understand why she acts the way she does, and at that age, they’re simply too busy being a kid to try to understand.

Fortunately, my child’s best friend “gets” her, and I absolutely love her for that. For the kids who do stick around, they discover my daughter is an amazing friend who they can always count on to put a smile on their face and isn’t afraid to stick up for them. They find out she’s definitely BFF-worthy.

With a new school year, comes homework. By the time my child gets home from school, she’s drained. She has just spent seven hours at school trying her best to get her brain to focus in order to please her teachers and fit in with her classmates. And now the teacher is requiring her to do math worksheets, language arts worksheets, spelling and 20 minutes of reading.

What I have learned to do to keep my child interested, engaged and stimulated during homework is to turn it into a fun game for her. You name it, I’ve probably used it. From moving around Shopkins toys as math counters to me using a ridiculous Maleficent voice (her request) when quizzing her on her spelling words, if it makes her happy and gets her to do her homework without tears, I’m down.

As time goes by, though, what has previously worked sometimes doesn’t cut it anymore, so I have to think of new ways to make homework fun. Yes, it can be time consuming and never-ending, but so is parenting. This is what my husband I signed up for seven years ago when we decided to become parents. 

After school is over for the day, I usually see other moms rushing their kids off to soccer practice or a scouts meeting. My daughter has actually been begging me to let her join the Girl Scouts. But instead of taking her to a scouts meeting, I need to take her to child psychiatrists to discuss her ADHD medication and child psychologists for behavioral therapy sessions.

I also need her to test wiggle seats and fidget toys to see what’s going to help her stay focused. I need to send emails to her teacher, asking how she did at school that day. I role play with her in pretend social situations to help her become a better friend. I read her books about other children with ADHD, hoping she will relate to the characters and learn from them. I research all I can about ADHD.

I am busy worrying about her. I am busy loving her. In other words, I am busy being her mother.

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I flake on people and hangout sessions. I go home a lot on the weekend. I seclude myself. I wander off to escape the stimuli. I’m not a solid friend. I’ll ask you to repeat what you just said two more times, seemingly like I’m not paying attention. People have called me out on it time and time again.

It’s not apathy — it’s the way a lot of our brains are built. But that’s OK.

A “flaw” in my chemistry is not a flaw in character.

Two summers ago, I was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD. I never thought I’d be sitting here writing this. I thought everyone was like this — I thought everyone functioned the same way I did. Until, my life suddenly spiraled out of control, and I realized this is bigger than a few symptoms.

Let me break it down. ADHD is classified by three types — hyperactive-impulsive, inattentive, and a combination of the two. Hyperactive is likely what you picture when thinking of ADHD: having trouble staying still. Inattentive, however, is different. Pretend all the thoughts you think are written on a chalkboard in your brain. For example, people without ADHD might have a certain function that filters out, say, 90 percent percent of all the stimuli the brain could potentially think about. The other 10 percent gets written on the chalkboard, and that represents the actual thoughts the brain thinks. People with ADHD don’t have the same function that filters out the 90 percent of stimuli that comes at them; therefore, all 100 percent of the stimuli might go on the chalkboard and is thought about all at the same time. Is that possible? No, and that’s why I speak really fast and in fragments, because there are nine times as many thoughts in my head as the average person.

It feels like there’s a constant, loud radio static I can never turn off.

It’s the clumsiness, and the continual busyness of thoughts. My brain is always talking. Words are repeated over and over in my head, and it doesn’t ever stop. There’s a constant song or beat that doesn’t make sense stuck in my head. I talk way too fast. I can’t form sentences well. I sound like a broken record when I talk. I can’t stop moving my hands. I take three times as long to finish anything, from assignments to getting ready in the morning. I wake up four times every night from my thoughts. I have to build in time to get distracted. I’ll forget appointments, classes, and simple tasks if I don’t write them down. I hear you speaking, but I can’t make sense of it fast enough. I need you to repeat what you just said. I can’t remember where I parked my car.

What you don’t see is the overcompensation for a disorder I never knew I had my whole life. What you don’t see is the 16-year-old high school student who was in school from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., took three AP classes, worked a part-time job from 5:30 to 11 every evening, and spent every night up until 3 a.m. working on assignments for classes I couldn’t pass, because I didn’t have enough time to think when taking tests. It’s sad that I didn’t realize there was a problem when my father was waking up to start the next day when I was going to bed and getting maybe three hours of sleep a night.

Fortunately, there is a bright side. High-school me realized not every class valedictorian had to become a doctor, historian, or brain surgeon, so I’ll never have to attempt to focus on a class equivalent to AP Chemistry ever again. College me realized I can make a living doing whatever it may be that sets my heart on fire and makes me want to get out of bed every day.

The plus side? It’s where my creativity comes from. By nature, I’m 100 percent the most logical person you’ll ever meet. Myers-Briggs type? I’m the one you’ll come to for solving a problem in the quickest way possible. However, when my ADHD first began to peak, there was an increase of me diving into the creative abyss. Research suggests that people with ADHD generally fall more towards the creative side as well. It’s why anything creative is my outlet, since it exercises and frees my brain from all of the distraction the world has to offer.

I’m learning to lean into things that free my brain. I’m learning to lean into the things that make me feel freed and refreshed. I’m learning to replace the time spent on my phone with spontaneously exploring a city, visiting the humane society to pet cats, and walking through the local art museum.

I’m learning to work on it. I’m learning it’s OK to talk about my ADHD, even though I don’t fully understand. I’m learning to become a better friend. I’m learning to follow through with plans. I’m learning it’s all right to ask someone to repeat something they said or to ask for help. I apologize not for who I am, but how I’ve handled myself.

I’m learning to accept and love the way I’m scientifically made and work to better myself. I’m learning not everyone is the same. We are all made unique and differently, and the differences are strikingly beautiful. These are the cards I’m dealt with, and I’m going to make life strikingly beautiful as well.

Follow this journey on Nicoletillotson.com.

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I sent my youngest boy off to kindergarten today. I thought I might find some relief in this. He is my “busy” child. My days with him are spent performing various forms of “redirecting.” We are exhausted by the end of the day and often times on the verge of tears.

As I helped him into his pajamas last night, he began to ask me the typical questions of a child about to enter the world of academia.

“Will I have to bring my school supplies home with me every day and then back to school again?”

“No, bud. They’ll stay there.”

“But what if I have homework?”

“You will bring home the work that needs to be done at home, and we will have everything else you need, right here at home.”

“What if I have to cut some paper?”

“We have scissors here, honey.”

“We do? Where?”

“Well, I’m not going to tell you that right now. I will get them for you when we need them.”

“What if my teacher yells at me?”

“Now, why would your teacher yell at you?”

“Because I’m bad. I’m always bad, and what if she hates me?”

Wait. What? Never had I ever gotten the impression that my son felt like he was a “bad kid.” Yes, he is probably (definitely) reminded of what the household rules are and why we must enforce them, pretty regularly. Yes, he probably (definitely) spends more time in his room than his siblings do. (Time spent thinking about why we cannot throw a bat across the yard when we strike out. Or why we cannot close the drain and then leave the water to run from the bathroom sink until the ceiling below said bathroom starts dripping on mom’s head. Sometimes he’s sent to his room because he is screaming at the top of his lungs because the guy he picked to win in American Ninja Warrior did not in fact win today.)

Despite all of this, we have never told him we thought he was “bad,” or even what he was doing was “bad.” In fact, my husband and I make a point to do everything we can to not respond in a negative manor when, for instance, his little sister walks into our room with a Sharpee mustache and pointy eyebrows. (Cue, “well meaning” parents responses claiming, “If that were my kid…”)

We have rewarded him with stickers and cotton balls for all of his good behaviors and acts of kindness. We remind him often of how much we love him and how lucky we are to be his parents. But, still. He sees himself as a “bad” kid. Hearing those words made my heart break for him.

He’s so young and already displays the signs of self shaming that comes along with the long list of ADHD struggles. My little boy, with his big blue eyes and tender heart. The boy who covers his little sister with his own blanket when she falls asleep on the couch on movie night. The boy who cheers for his older brother at his baseball games yelling “Yes! Great hit, Max!” The boy who sings “Wrecking Ball” into his toy microphone while dancing around his room when he thinks no one is watching. My funny, sweet, caring, thoughtful boy, thinks that he is deserving of “hate” from his soon-to-be teacher.

I watch him as he walks away from me toward the enormous doors of the school. (When did those doors get so big?) I can feel the tears forming in my eyes as he slowly blends into the swarm of children flooding through those doors. He is hidden, in part, by his giant backpack along with the older kids who tower over him. He never looks back. My brave little man. I know how nervous he is, but he marches on in to a whole new world. A world that, I hope, will embrace and accept him for who he is. A world that, I hope, will see the kind and loving boy who once ran full speed for two whole blocks to his brother when he saw he wiped out on his bike, just to make sure he was OK.

I walk back to my car, and the tears are now falling freely beyond my control. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” my daughter asks.

I try to compose myself, and I clear my throat to try and gather together enough words to form a comprehensible answer. “I’m just going to miss that boy so much,” I manage to get out between unexpected sobs.

She looks up at me with her sweet and understanding eyes and says, “I know, Mommy, he’s my best boy. I will really miss my good boy.”

Oh, how I hope the world will see what we see.

Follow this journey on Hackrack.

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I was the girl who stared out the window.

I was the girl who cried at the drop of a hat.

I was the kid who had an anxiety attack and nobody knew what it was.

I was the girl with the most black marks on the good kid/bad kid board.

The shame of watching those marks being made by my teacher still sit with me to this day. I still feel like that kid with the most black marks in class.

I didn’t misbehave; I was actually well-behaved, but I was extremely forgetful. I would forget my gym clothes, my musical instrument, my homework and that permission note my mum needed to sign.

The school tested my hearing because they thought I might have hearing loss. Why? Because when my name was called, I didn’t respond. I was away in dreamland.

My teacher said, “She is there in body but not in mind.”

All of this carried on through school. As a teenager, my behavior was monitored with a microscope. I stopped going to school when I was 15.

I couldn’t do my homework at home. I impulsively hit my siblings out of frustration and immediately regretted it. I fidgeted and wriggled in my seat. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t wash myself properly. My mother had never heard of ADD, and her frustration with me equalled to stern discipline and punishments, but they never worked. I was a “problem child” who did whatever she wanted. The kindest thing ever said to me as a teenager was that I “was a free spirit!”

What does it look like now?

On the outside, it might look like I’m a “flaky” friend who just can’t get it together and jumps from one job/project/idea/career choice to another while dropping everything else. On the outside, it might look like I don’t care about my friends or family because I forget their birthdays, and I don’t have any money to buy presents. On the outside, it might look like I am a selfish friend, daughter, sister and girlfriend. That I just don’t care enough.

“Why can’t she just focus and do something with her life?”

“Why can’t she keep her home clean?”

“Why can’t she get a job?”

I stare into space at home and jump from one thought to another.

The place is a mess. I’m afraid to answer my phone. I keep the curtains closed in case somebody calls and I pretend I’m not there.

I can’t hold down a job because I get frustrated so easily. I create enemies where there are none because I can’t handle stress properly. I’m late, I don’t have any clean clothes, I didn’t give myself enough time to shower so my hair is greasy. I forgot to brush my teeth.

I put that utility bill aside and forgot about it, so now I’ve been disconnected and I have to spend the winter washing myself in the sink with a kettle.

I forget to respond to text messages, so my friends assume I don’t care enough about them to respond in a timely manner. They stop calling and texting.

In 2015, I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 35. Everything made sense. I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I could explain my difficulties and be heard. But on the outside, I am still that “flaky” friend, the “messy, moody” co-worker and “inattentive” girlfriend.

I’ve been through a lot in my life because of being undiagnosed, and it had a massive impact on my mental health. I have had depression and anxiety at varying levels of intensity. The anxiety is quite bad now, but at least I know why I am having difficulties. Since diagnosis, it has been a slow road to being easier on myself, trying to create routine and getting the help I need. Medication helps me feel clearer in my mind, and I look forward to therapy, where I can deal with the negative views I have about myself and deal with the low self-esteem. There are only so many times you can get back up and brush it off and start again before your spirit starts to show signs of cracking and breaking.

This is a message for those in my life who still see me as that person who just needs to try harder: I have been, I always have been and I will never stop.

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On a bright cold day in April 1993 or thereabouts, I was in an elementary school computer lab populated by a ragtag assemblage of low-end Macintosh LC’s and rather more quaint Commodore Amigas and 128s. I sat hunched over in my miniature ergonomic chair, mouth agape, entranced by 256 vibrant colors of edutainment diffused across a 12-inch monitor, poised to make history on a microcosmic scale.

My game of choice was Word Munchers, a Pacman clone designed to impart basic grammar skills upon jaded schoolchildren. See, you controlled this little monster, and you had to make him eat words that conformed to specific vowel sounds, or words that were only adjectives, or words that rhymed with other words and so forth. The specifics aren’t important. What’s important is that on that day in April, after two hours of hyper-focused gameplay, I beat the game. I was in the first grade, and I beat the entire game on the fifth grade level.

I tell you this not to brag, but to say I have no taste for self-aggrandizement is a grievous understatement. I recount this story because, as pathetic as it might sound, beating that inconsequential game on that bright cold day remains the apex accomplishment of my entire life. For one fraction of a second, I was open to options I had never before considered. Everything seemed within the realm of possibility. I know it sounds reductive to posit that my entire self­-image could be based upon a single incident from my childhood, but on that day I cast a shadow from which I’ve never been able to fully emerge. There’s no way that I could ever live up to my own grandiose expectations.

Last year, at the age of 28, I was diagnosed with ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Contrary to the unfair stereotype of a child with ADHD being a malcontent who revels in kicking the backs of chairs and assailing other people with various calibers of Nerf ordinance, growing up I was always exceptionally deferential to my elders. I was quiet, calm, unassuming and stable. Somewhat akin to Martin Prince, though lacking his social cachet. At least that’s how I was for the first few years, before I burned out.

For me, having ADHD is like using a color wheel without the little spinny top part — I have the advantage of being able to see all of the colors at once, but I’m at a distinct disadvantage in that I can’t discern which colors are best suited for one another.

My perception ends up unified. I see the past, present and future all as one. I simply can’t navigate. I can’t command my mind to go where it needs to go. It’s not that I can’t focus on anything, it’s that I feel compelled to focus on everything all at once. Or one precise thing to the detriment of all else.

I can make conceptual connections and empathize with other beings in ways that many neurotypical people can’t or don’t want to, but I’m barely functional in almost every other regard.

I lack the ability to delay gratification, too. I’ll put off anything I am doing,­ no matter how important­, if I think there’s something I can do in the immediate moment to help someone else. I do it even if that help is not really needed. I might spend hours or even days intensely focused on perfecting a cookie recipe if I feel there’s even the slightest chance a plate of perfect cookies might cheer someone up. All other concerns become secondary and tertiary.

My capacity to make decisions, at least in a timely manner, is severely encumbered. I’m felled by an abyss of contingencies, all of them equally ­weighted, suffused with infinite possibility.

This form of paralysis has wreaked havoc on my ability to successfully complete a great multitude of work over the years. It doesn’t matter if I am faced with jotting down a brief reflection on a subject or engaging in an extensive literature review — when I sit down to write something and consider the limitless options before me, I become enmeshed in my endlessly tangential thoughts.

This becomes especially apparent to me whenever I attempt to engage in any form of deep reading. It takes me a very long time to finish a single book, and as a consequence I feel innately dull. It’s impossible for me to read more than a paragraph at a time without stopping to ponder for hours, or staring at the wall for days. I’m a dilettante — an imposter. I’m constantly vigilant lest others find out and feel compelled to discount me altogether.

Emotionally and intellectually stupefied. Exhausted. Untrustworthy. A flake. A disappointment. I’ve internalized these perceptions. They are part of me. I have brown hair, green eyes and I am a complete screw-up.

As I attempt to salvage some semblance of self-­respect from my formative years, I’ve come to understand in many regards I hold myself to impossibly high standards. If I create anything I perceive to be less than perfect or ideal, I tend to take it as a failure, unworthy of being shared. Years ago I wrote a letter to the editor in which, upon publication, someone erroneously changed my use of the word “averse” to “adverse.” There is literally not a single other entity in the universe who could possibly care about this, but it still bothers me immensely my name was attached to the misapplication of a word.

I understand the fallacies inherent in what I’ve just said, but I nevertheless can’t surmount them. Perfection is illusory and the relentless pursuit of it is innately self-destructive. I would never hold anyone else to the same unattainable standards to which I hold myself. I would do everything within my power to find the beauty in others’ work — to encourage tenacity. Why can’t I afford myself the same courtesy? Because to do so would constitute self­-pity. Egotism. Naval gazing. It would be distasteful. Logic has no bearing on my self-concept.

I suppose everybody has a set “person” they feel they’ve become. Some people mold themselves into this person but most elect to have others do it for them. We’re all shaped by forces greater than us. After a while this personality becomes hardened and stringent, like the shell of a cicada. We become afraid to molt the shell because the process leaves us naked and vulnerable to the world.

I don’t like what I’ve written. It’s laughably maudlin, serious, my anecdotes are too personal, too specific, too boring. I haven’t said anything others haven’t said more eloquently a thousand times before. My writing is redundant, inelegant and not remotely transcendent. Nevertheless I’ve chosen to share it with you in the hope that doing so will allow me to finally emerge from the shadow of my 7-year-old self, or break free of my spent cicada shell or whatever other metaphor you might see fit to employ. I write to accept myself for who I am. I will never be the world’s first fire-­fighting cyborg clown to be appointed Secretary General of the United Nations, and I need to be OK with that. I am OK with that.

Real People. Real Stories.

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