When I Don't Feel Smart as a Ph.D. Student With ADHD and PTSD

I am in a Ph.D. program, so everyone thinks I am smart. Even my cohorts tend to look at me that way. It’s true, I can be intelligent, and I possess many gifts, but the way I got those was an alchemical process of trial by fire in my childhood. I live with ADHD and PTSD that I manage with medicine. Still, there are times my illness is stronger than the drugs or my desire to do well in everything I attempt. When this happens, I become lost.

When my ADHD is symptomatic, I can read a page and not remember or retain a word. So, I read it again and again. When this doesn’t work, I turn to notecards or notes I can come back to when I can make sense of the words on the page. The same happens with writing in this state. It’s hard to string one sentence together let alone two, and writing a paper is clearly out of the question.

The problem is, in school at this level you are given deadlines to finish work, and any variance is frowned upon — even if you have a disability that prevents you from learning in a particular and accepted standard way. My institution knows I have ADHD, and once I had a doctor write a note requesting time I was allotted for an incomplete, as all students are four times a year. Nonetheless, I felt it was a failure on my part because I want to be like everyone else.

I don’t want to live with the challenges of my mental illness. I go to school to change the trajectory of my life and remove myself from any disability support. That’s what you don’t know about me. I am working hard not to have to deal with the stigma of always having to explain why I can’t run as fast or jump through the hoops other can. Still, everyone at school thinks it comes so easy, and I am so smart without seeing how hard I struggle and how much I doubt myself and fear I am never quite good enough. Sure, they see me as a little different and weird, but they think that’s where the genius is.

I’m also 50 and have been dealing with ADHD and PTSD since kindergarten. I always thought I would come to accept it, or I would outgrow its reach. I still feel like a kid again each time it catches me, and I feel “stupid” again. I know I am not after all this time, but that little voice is alive in the feelings which always pass through, leave, and then I am intelligent all over again.

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Thinkstock photo by Avo SB.

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