I think I was in second grade the first time my parents had a less-than-satisfying parent-teacher conference. “Annmarie is a really bright girl,” led my teacher, “but she doesn’t often show much dedication to her work and is constantly distracting herself and her classmates.”
To an extent, that’s fine when you’re a seven-year-old. It isn’t like any kid is expected to sit still and focus on her subtraction facts all the time. But while other kids seemed to outgrow their fidgeting and whispering and homework assignments got longer and more difficult, my parents continued to dread parent-teacher conference week.
“If I have to scold a group of students for talking during class, Annmarie is often involved.”
“Maybe you should check in with her to see that she’s getting her worksheets done more regularly?”
“A while back my students had to turn in a lab assignment and Annmarie’s was marked incomplete. A few weeks later she found the missing assignment, already fully done, in the bottom of her locker.”
Sometimes I’d be asked to accompany my parents to these meetings. We’d sit down with a teacher, one I probably really liked, and I’d have to try and explain why I never seemed to be able to get my homework in on time. The ends of my semesters were whirlwinds of last chances, and I scrambled to do multiple chapters of neglected workbook problems and writing assignments for partial credit.
Assignments got bigger and pulling together scraps to try and salvage my grades became harder and harder. No matter how many times a teacher would email me or my parents, no matter how many tear-filled post-report card arguments I found myself getting into with my family, nothing ever seemed to click into place for me. This was bigger than procrastination. I remember feeling like it must be an overwhelming apathy, followed by immense frustration, which I forced out of my mind with more apathy. Acedia, I remember a pastor calling the feeling once. I thought that if it really was so hard for me to get assignments in or focus in class, it must be that I’m just completely unmoved and unconcerned.
But I didn’t understand that. I liked learning and knowing things. Growing up, I used to beg my parents to let me bring my books with me into restaurants or family gatherings. My favorite part of trips to see my grandfather in Florida was getting to participate in his nightly Jeopardy! routine, and I sometimes even impressed him and my dad (two of the smartest guys in the whole world) by answering questions they couldn’t get right. I was really smart, and I loved being smart.
The first time I was tested for ADD, the room was windowless and full of boxes of crayons, stuffed animals, and posters of happy kids. I was a sophomore in high school, and I was a little embarrassed that I was seeing a “child behavioral psychologist.” The woman administering my test had me recite series of numbers and circle groups of images that had common themes like “sports equipment” or “zoo animals.” I took timed tests with single-digit addition. It felt a little unsophisticated to me, but I trusted that the procedures were sound. I passed all the tests with flying colors.
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” my admin said. “You just have to pay more attention to your homework. Have you tried putting your phone in another room while you study?”
So expel my phone I did. I sat down to do homework and then realized I needed to sharpen all my pencils. I’d get out my notebook and remember that I hadn’t written down the night’s assignment. I’d long since lost the syllabus to the drawer full of crumpled-up papers and miscellaneous office supplies in my desk. I’d decide I couldn’t focus on my uncomfortable school clothes and that as soon as I put on fuzzy socks, I’d snap into productivity. Or maybe right after dinner.
This was bigger than procrastination. This was constant frustration with my environment and myself, a restlessness that I never knew how to put to rest.
I graduated high school with a few outstanding papers, a few teachers who were happy we both just got the year over with, and terrific standardized test scores. I got into my top-choice college with a photography portfolio, or with some pretty varied extracurriculars, or maybe just with a really successful interview and an overwhelming amount of demonstrated interest in the school. It certainly wasn’t my grades or the faculty recommendations that I had dreaded asking for because I didn’t know many faculty members that I thought still had faith in me. In a lot of ways, I couldn’t blame them. Academically, I didn’t really have any faith left in myself.
My first year at college was a total whirlwind of exploring longtime passions and discovering new ones, of building friendships and constructing opinions and falling in love over and over with everything I was experiencing. When people asked how my first year was, it wasn’t difficult to light up and gush about my friends, my extracurriculars, and downtown Mount Vernon. When people asked about my classes, I had to get creative with my answers. The truth was, I was struggling pretty hard, and I didn’t know where to turn for help because I didn’t know what steps to take to try to help myself first. I felt lost and disorganized like I had completely lost my footing.
I never really found my grip academically. I finished the year drowning in guilt, totally aware that I could have done better. A few weeks into the summer, I got an email from the academic office letting me know just how badly I’d messed up. My GPA didn’t meet the school’s standards by a long shot, and starting the next semester, I’d be on probation indefinitely.
A lot was at stake—all the people I’d met and grown to love and the places I felt like I really belonged. I was embarrassed and really, really scared that I wasn’t going to be able to turn things around. How many times before had I tried to do better and fallen short no matter how badly I wanted it?
I hid the letter from my parents for as long as I could, but somehow these kinds of things always tend to find their way to parents. They were disappointed, of course—I had refused to show them my grades or even tell them when they’d come out, so they had no idea how bad it had gotten—but I was also surprised at how willing they were to let go of their shock and confusion quickly to team up with me and figure this out. (I shouldn’t have been surprised. My parents are living, breathing angels, and it’s not like they were ever on any team other than mine.)
This time around, I did a lot more research. I learned that ADD symptoms were really different in girls, especially when they were older, and I recognized myself in nearly all of those symptoms. Nearly every website mentioned how in women, it’s a lot more common to have the inattentive type of ADD, rather than the hyperactive kind that most people think of when they picture the diagnosis. I learned that ADD can manifest itself in chronically messy desks, difficulty managing money or time, low self-esteem, a tendency to be emotional and hypersensitivity to criticism, or taking on too many things at once. It’s easy for women to go years without being diagnosed, especially because they tend to feel like they have to “hide” how out-of-control they feel. I decided it was time to try and re-explore this possibility.
In the days before being tested again, I was astonishingly nervous. It felt strange to tell people this, but I was more afraid not to be diagnosed than I was to find out I had this problem. I didn’t want to again face the idea that I wasn’t held back by anything other than my own lack of work ethic, my own disinterest in organizing myself. It was so much scarier to me to think that after this process, I would still be left with more questions than answers.
The second time I was tested for ADD, the room was warm and full of dark wood with gorgeous black-and-white photographs of Chicago on the walls. The man who evaluated me was named Brad and had diagnosed my younger brother just a few months before. He and I immediately connected over a shared love of photography. I didn’t take any memory tests. Instead, he asked me questions about my life, my schoolwork, my relationships with myself and others, and any habits I may have formed with sex, drugs, or alcohol. He asked me about the things that frustrate me, my difficulties staying organized, and my impulses.
The weeks after my tests were long, and the idea that I was so close to finding out if this was the explanation I was looking for never really left my mind. School started, and I did my best right away to start reversing the behaviors that had gotten me this deep into the pit of (academic) despair. Finally, my parents were able to meet back up with Brad to talk about his diagnosis, and it was everything I’d hoped for. To put it simply: yes, I had ADD.
It was just as strange to be happy-crying about the diagnosis as it was to be scared I wouldn’t be diagnosed at all. But it felt like a weight had finally been lifted off my shoulders that had been there since those first parent-teacher conferences so long ago. Suddenly I was so much less of a failure. All of the things I had struggled with for so long didn’t have to be all my fault. It felt amazing to finally know that I didn’t have to completely blame myself.
Of course, a diagnosis isn’t a cure, especially for a disorder that I’m probably going to be handling for a long, long time. But it’s a huge step towards being able to improve, and it’s something I couldn’t be more grateful for now. Being away from home and my doctors since my diagnosis, it’s been hard to really figure out what next steps to take. I haven’t been able to get started on any kinds of medicine or treatment. But being able to be so much more aware of myself and understanding what to watch out for has taken me such a long way from where I used to be. At the very least, I don’t have to constantly be frustrated with myself anymore. I can forgive myself for the way I am and take steps forward with an understanding of myself that was missing for so long.
Image Credit: Annmarie Morrison