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6 Words of Advice I'd Tell My Teenaged Self With ADHD

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Dear Teenaged Katie,

a sketch of a girl with long hair wearing a hat

Lately you have been starting to believe the joking jabs from your peers and even adults in your life, but I am here to tell you that you are neither a “space cadet” nor a “dumb blonde,” despite your hair color and all of the seemingly air-headed mistakes you make. Those mistakes are due to a neurological difference; however, the possibility won’t enter your mind until almost 10 years from now after the birth of your second child. You have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

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I know what you’re thinking — the only people you’ve known to be diagnosed with ADHD struggled with grades and behavior issues in school. And they were all boys. Because of this, you will never conceive it as a possibility. Unfortunately, that means you struggle through the next 10 years without any therapy or guidance on how to function with your condition.

Now, however, I can use this fictitious forum to give you a few words of advice (which won’t help you, but might help other girls like you).

Starting this very moment: Stop. Being. So. Hard. On. Yourself. Stop crying over Bs and Cs. I know you want that 4.0, and you’ll have it (thanks to weighted classes), but grades are not worth your tears. I know you tried your best and are disappointed that you “failed” (news flash: a “C” is not failing, it’s average). But cry over your breakups, fights with your friends, or your grandpa’s stroke, and never waste another lunch period in the bathroom crying over something as fleeting as one test grade.

Realize that when you get anxious before a test, when someone puts you on the spot, when you talk to a boy you like, when you do math, or when you confront your adversaries, your brain literally freezes. You don’t have access to your vocabulary or computational skills.

In those situations, take a pass. Breathe. Breathe deeply. And since you don’t know you have ADHD, after some of those moments you will cry in the bathroom out of frustration and lack of understanding. For if you had known, your teachers may have given you more time to relax and finish your tests, and you may have been able to take your math exams in a quiet, separate room. You could have had a 504 plan to help get those school accommodations.

Instead of beating yourself up, give yourself credit for succeeding despite the stress, late nights, anxiety and perceived failures. It’s actually why no one caught that you had ADHD. You did well in school because you adapted, even if it meant staying up studying ineffectively until 2 a.m., then setting your alarm for 5 a.m. to study some more when you couldn’t keep your eyes open any longer. You do fall asleep in class a lot. Your teachers will mostly be tolerant of this (or you hide it well).

The important thing to remember is that good grades do not negate an ADHD diagnosis any more than bad grades define it. You have ADHD and your brain focuses differently, and you will learn strategies to work through those differences.

You will figure out that you can write papers more easily with wordless music playing in your headphones. After your friend tells you about using notecards to study, your memory will be almost photographic for rote facts. Once you start outlining every word your teacher says in class, you will find a way to stay focused and everyone will want to copy your notes when they are absent. And that trick of making a list of conversational topics when calling a boy you like? Genius. It will definitely cut down on the awkward pauses.

You won’t figure out that your reading comprehension improves greatly with audiobooks until you are well past college, so there will be no hope of understanding a word of “Heart of Darkness.” Your friend’s dad will still mercilessly tease you about being blonde, and you will never be able to think of a good comeback because of your anxiety mind-block. And I am really sorry to say that you will still get in trouble at home a lot, because you won’t quite figure out how to control your impulsive temper or to remember what your parents wanted you to do (or not do, for that matter).

Try not to focus on your mistakes and realize that because you have this beautiful, frustrating condition, you will be creative. You will have innovative ideas to contribute in group work and class discussions. You will find comfort in art, music, photography, nature and friends. You will often notice what other people may not, which will make life rich and interesting. ADHD will not define you, but it will strengthen you. With relief, you will embrace ADHD at your moment of realization: What makes you struggle can also be what makes you great.

Follow this journey on for Elysium.

Originally published: April 8, 2016
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