By: Emma Rose Ryan
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of Googling. Ever since I walked out of my last psychiatrist appointment with an Adderall prescription – and four more letters to add to the alphabet soup of acronyms categorizing my mind – my browser history has looked like this:
Google search: “ADHD”
WebMD: “ADHD: Causes and Symptoms”
Google search: “ADD”
WebMD: “ADHD: Inattentive Type”
Google search: “Executive dysfunction”
Wikipedia: “Executive dysfunction (disambiguous)”
Google search: “ADHD and Anxiety”
Drugs.com: “Adderall oral: Side effects”
And then, to calm myself down:
Google search: “Surprised baby eats lemon”
All of these searches, save the one about lemon-eating baby, led to fruitless ends. Nothing had changed since I first Googled these terms in the fourth grade. Sure, there have been a few tweaks here and there to the DSM-5, but even that stuff had been covered in AP Psychology. None of them explained how it took this long for me to get a diagnosis. None of them told me where to go from here.
Somehow, beyond cursory Wikipedia entries and obtuse webMD pages, I found even less helpful content. Google searches about “ADHD quirks” and “ADHD coping strategies” lead to support groups and articles for parents dealing with ADHD children. Dozens of websites – with names like “ADDitude” and “Active Beat” – exist to sooth bedraggled moms and dads. Mostly, the articles made excuses for brains like mine to parents who couldn’t understand them. I found maybe four written from the perspective of people with actual ADHD.
The think-pieces repeated the need for rules and structure. For sticks and carrots used in equal measure. I poured over three months of mommy blog entries from the year 2000, which detailed the saga of little Tyrone’s furniture-climbing habit. In it, Mommy was a courageous martyr who saved her son using a combination of clicker training and fruit snacks. Tyrone was broken, but not irreparable. No matter how many creative search terms I plugged into Google, I couldn’t get it to understand that I wanted to talk to Tyrone, and not his mother.
Clearly, the only way for me to get any useful advice from the internet was to pretend to be my own parent. I consumed dozens of bullet points and hundreds of ads. I read articles like Six Foods ADHD Kids MUST Avoid and Protecting Your Child From The “Cellphone Disorder” even though their titles alone made me throw up in my mouth a little. Each one drew me deeper into childhood memories and forgotten failures. After hours of searching, I wrote a parenting article of my own.
8 Signs Your Child Has ADHD
#1: Inability to Sustain Attention
“Hocus Pocus, gotta?”
“That’s right. Now, let’s try again.”
Dad watched as I kicked a pink and white soccer ball between my little cleats. His arms were stretched wide, his palms facing me as he stood in an athletic half-squat. He still had thick brown hair then.
“That’s good, Em. Don’t look at the ball, look at me.”
I was supposed to kick the ball off of the ground, at the garage door behind my dad, and score a point for my imaginary team, without looking at my feet. When my dad told me he wanted me to do all of that at once, I told him I knew I couldn’t do it. He insisted that I could, with enough focus, and he’d taken me outside to prove it.
As I nudged the ball between my feet, stalling, I felt a – by then, familiar – tightness in my chest. It told me that this kick would be like all of the others. That I would miss or trip again and again until the end of time. I thought about what it would be like to stand out there, in front of the house with my dad, for years and years. We would need to get coats and rain boots to accommodate the changing seasons. Mom would need to come out and bring us food. What would we do when she was at work? Would my sister Kailey miss me?
“Emma Rose! What are you doing?” Dad’s voice was booming, even outside. Without realizing it, I had stopped moving. The soccer ball was still between my toes, and I had been staring straight through my goalie father. He stood up straight and walked over to me. He put his hand on top of my head. “Hocus Pocus.”
“Gotta focus,” I answered.
#2: Existing Family History of the Condition
My mother was never diagnosed with ADHD. She was born in the 1970s, and – based on the way she and my family members talked – it was a time and place where neurodivergency did not exist. When it did, it went by different names. Some of my grandfather’s army buddies had ‘shellshock’. My aunt was ‘glum’ after her divorce, and my mother was a ‘space ace’. She was teased for not hearing people when her name was called. She perpetually lost everything from purses to her scrunchies. She’d fail tests because she’d misremembered the date, and she flunked papers because she’d written about the wrong topic. But for this, she was called ‘silly’, ‘forgetful’, or ‘scatterbrained’.
When I grew up to be a carbon copy of my mother in nearly every regard – her sweetness, her way with words, and her forgetfulness – I was dubbed the new ‘space ace’. It was a term of endearment. Know, reader, that I am so loved and lucky, but sometimes it made me feel more like a space alien than an explorer. When elementary school teachers started to call my tendencies by a different name – one that would involve doctors, initialisms, and medications – my mother remained firm in her belief that nothing about me needed to be fixed.
Mrs. Janas told a story at my third-grade parent-teacher conference that my mother has been retelling ever since.
I wasn’t focused in class one day. She said I was staring at the wall, not working on anything. When she asked me what I could possibly be thinking about, I told her I was trying to figure out a way to save the polar bears. I’m pretty sure I was telling the truth. That was the kind of inflated ego I had. I thought my mind was such a fascinating place that the answers to all the world’s problems must exist inside of it somewhere.
My mother recites the tale with pride, as if the anecdote encapsulates my essence or something. It paints a pretty picture, but it’s not a story I tell very often. I have failed to save a single polar bear.
#4: Avoidance of Tasks That Require Extended Mental Effort
Homework was painful.
It didn’t matter if I was spending the afternoon with Mrs. Kade, Mrs. Mayfield, or awful Mrs. Troy, the after-school care monitor. The pain was a constant. I remember sitting in kitchen chairs, kicking at the front legs with my heels, feeling like my chest was going to burst. The longer my eyes pored over the math problems and grammar exercises, the farther the pain spread. It made my head feel dizzy and full. I used to say that I, like Pooh Bear, felt too ‘stuffed with fluff’ to do any work. It caused my fingers to dance on the desktop, tapping out the rhythm of Disney songs. It made my leg bounce and my stomach turn.
The only way I could make the pain subside was to find a way to make my homework interesting. I would challenge myself to finish three math problems in a minute, or I would read my science textbook like I was Morgan Freeman narrating a nature documentary. Games provided temporary reprieve, but for the most part, there was no way to make an elementary school education as interesting as what was happening in my mind. I would get up from my chair and pace, do jumping jacks, or even walk to the bathroom for a change of scenery. I used to go into Mrs. Kade’s kitchen and open all of her drawers and cabinets just to see what was inside. I perused Mrs. Mayfield’s bookshelves and helped Mrs. Troy scold misbehaving children. I would talk to anyone who would listen about anything but homework.
Having a person around to nag me moved the process along, but I oftentimes exhausted my babysitters and parents with questions, tangents, and other diversionary tactics. My mother was by far the best at navigating my over-active brain. She knew how important it was to maintain an upbeat, exciting attitude about the work I was doing, but even she became exasperated with her own flaws after a time.
#5: Restlessness, Difficulty Falling Asleep
I wasn’t a kid who would cling to my parents, refusing to sleep unless I was nestled by their side. I had no interest in being unconscious when there was so much else I’d rather be doing. So instead, I played quietly with my mega blocks and Barbie dolls, or pretended to read my picture books. I’d stay enveloped in the little universe I’d created with them all day long. I never got tired of feeling so powerful. I wasn’t causing any problems. I didn’t break things, make noise, or even venture out of the confines of my room – but my parents weren’t satisfied with that. Their bedroom door would swing open at the slightest sound, and mom or dad would come out and sweep me off the ground and into bed, trying not to wake my baby sister in the nursery next door.
For a while, I’d test my parents’ resolve by getting back out of bed and turning my light on a second time. I would return to my pastimes, even more careful than before. That is, until one night when, instead of returning me to bed for the third time, my father stormed from his room to the kitchen. After a few moments, he appeared at my door with a step stool, and wordlessly removed the lightbulb from my overhead light fixture.
The intervention that quelled my insomnia for good came in the form of a beat-up silver CD player. Audiobook recordings of fairy tales played like movies on the dark walls of my bedroom until I drifted away.
#6: Emotional Volatility
I spent a good chunk of my fourth-grade year in the nurse’s office. I’d cut class, claiming stomach problems and headaches, and trot to the front office of my small school to sit on the pale blue waiting seat across from the school secretary, Mrs. Partillo. I remember her having a cute, bleach-blonde bob and a collection of pastel cardigans. This woman was about two years from retirement and she loved me. She’d chit-chat with me about my day, and I’d ask her about her hobbies and grown-up children.
Mrs. Partillo never asked me questions about why I was coming to the nurse’s office to chit chat. Maybe it was because she liked the company, but it was probably because she already knew the answer. She must have put together the fact that I always seemed to be in her office right before scheduled fire drills. I never told her I was afraid of fire alarms – not fire, just the alarms – but I’m sure my shaking and silent crying as we filed out of our old, cavernous school gave it away. Then there was the everyday issue of my relationship with Mrs. Gifford.
Once, Mrs. Gifford gave me a failing grade on a poem because I had not followed the rubric. When I saw the red marker ‘F’, I felt a gasket blow. I rose from my seat and, carrying my poem, marched out of class. I burst through Mrs. Partillo’s door and slapped my poem down on her desk.
“Do you think this is any good?” I asked, hot tears brimming at the corners of my eyes. My hand on the paper was shaking. Without a word, Mrs. Partillo lifted the paper to her bespectacled eyes. Once she was finished, she walked over to the intercom and buzzed up to my 4th grade classroom.
“Mrs. Gifford, this is the front office. Emma Ryan is here with us, she’s not feeling well. She’ll be back up in a few minutes.”
Once she had completed her call, she turned to me and asked, “Can I keep this?”
I wiped my eyes a little as I nodded.
Mrs. Gifford did not forgive mistakes. She kept a list of them in a small blue notebook that sat perched on the chalk ledge in the front of her classroom. On its cover, she’d written the word “OOPS”, and drawn a frowning face inside of the first “O”. Every morning after we said our prayers and pledged allegiance to the flag, Mrs. Gifford would list the homework assignments we should have placed in her mailbox before the start of class. When she finished reciting our various tasks, she would peer over her wire-rimmed glasses and stare into my soul.
“Who needs to put their name in the OOPS book?”
Ostensibly, she was asking the entire class, but everyone knew she was really asking Sean Martin and me. Almost every day, we both stood and made our somber trek to the front of the classroom. There, we would write our names, our missing assignments, and dates in sloppy cursive.
Mrs. Gifford made it clear that the mistakes recorded in the “OOPS” book lasted forever. “I’ve had the same notebook up here for the past eight years,” she’d muse sometimes, fanning out the pages to demonstrate. “I keep them in here so that when your parents ask why you’re doing so poorly in my classes, I can show them what you’ve been up to. When they see your name, written in your hand writing, well … it’s tough twinkies for you, isn’t it?”
My mother was not fazed by the “OOPS” book. When used as a visual aid at my parent-teacher conference, my mother refused to look at it. When Mrs. Gifford told her she’d keep putting me in the “OOPS” book until I was ‘properly medicated’, Mom told Mrs. Gifford that would be fine by her.
#8: Difficulty Remembering and Following Directions“
Mrs. Gifford pressed the start button on her timer and every pencil in the classroom jumped to attention. Our class was beginning our very-first-ever timed math test, and I was in the throes of full-blown panic. If there were two things I already understood to be weaknesses of mine, they were math and timed activities. Mrs. Gifford had assured us this first exam would be simple, almost unfailable.
“You will be asked to multiply numbers by either zero or one, meaning the answers can only be zero or the larger numbers being multiplied,” she explained.
I was so caught up thinking about why zero multiplied by a number equaled zero that I somehow missed the subsequent, finer points of her instruction. She apparently told us how long we’d have to complete the test, how many problems we needed to complete in order to pass, and whether we should be progressing in columns or rows. All I heard was the word “go”. I was paralyzed by fear and indecision for about half of my allotted time. When my hands finally caught up with my brain, it was too late.
When Mrs. Gifford called time, only a handful of answered questions littered my page. There was no rhyme or reason to my order, as I could not commit myself to working in either rows or columns. We graded the test together in class, and while I had answered every question correctly, I did not complete enough problems to advance to the next, more challenging exam.
“I assume you’re all ready for test B?” she asked, already handing out test B forms as she collected our graded papers. A few of my classmates giggled at the thought of someone not being able to multiply by zero.
After all of the fresh exam sheets were given out, Mrs. Gifford returned to her desk to begin entering grades. As my classmates chattered in the interlude between uncomplicated benchmarks, I stood and sidled over to my teacher’s desk. In a small voice, I explained to Mrs. Gifford’s pink manicure that I had not been listening to instructions. That I needed another copy of the first test, if it wasn’t too much trouble. That I needed a second chance.
Without a word, Mrs. Gifford rose from her worn desk chair and curled her blush-colored talons around my right shoulder. She marched me to the front of the classroom and turned my body so that I face the class. The room fell spontaneously quiet at the sight of my pale face and shaking hands.
“Emma,” Mrs. Gifford cooed, her tone falsely sweet, “I want you to tell everyone what you just told me.”
I was too stunned to cry and too ashamed to protest, so I acquiesced. I recited, unimpassioned, the same explanation I’d given to my teacher. I talked about my confusion about columns and rows, about my forgetting how long we had to complete the test. As I did so, I examined my classmates’ faces. Some of them looked like they felt sorry for me, or that they were at least suffering from second-hand embarrassment. A few of them looked pleased. Finally, the girl who thinks she knows everything has to admit she knows nothing at all.
Eventually, I ran out of words, and when I did, Mrs. Gifford allowed my silence to hang in the air. After a dramatic pause, she addressed the class.
“How many of you were able to remember and follow my instructions?”
Every hand in the room but mine ascended. Smiling, Mrs. Gifford peered down at me and asked with that cloying voice, “Emma, if every other person in this room could do it, why couldn’t you?”
I had no answer.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of daydreaming. More than usual. I imagine a childhood filled with stimulant medication, IEPs, and cognitive behavioral therapy. I picture myself holding a straight-A report card, kicking a winning soccer goal, and working diligently on a poem that adheres to each sentence of the rubric.
I can see that little girl so clearly. Mrs. Gifford would have loved her, but I kinda hate her guts.
It’s twelve years later and I finally have an answer to Mrs. Gifford’s question. It’s an answer I’ve been running from ever since that day, I think. ADHD explains so much about the girl I used to be and the woman I’m becoming. I suspect it’s the reason I write free-verse poetry but can still memorize a good sonnet. It’s probably the reason I love the loud, bossy, distractible kids in my improv workshops. ADHD might be the reason I failed college statistics and can’t multiply by sevens, but it also gives me the courage to write with abandon every day.
I still don’t know where to go from here. Even with a diagnosis, medication, and a little help from my friends, there are still days when every other person in the room can do things that I can’t. That will probably always be true. But I can’t shake the feeling that, with enough day-dreaming, I might just save the polar bears.