Coming up on forty, and now having a child who’s a freshman, has brought a whole onslaught of high school-related memories. My quarantine dreams have included many a walk by my locker, missed pre-calculus tests, and echoes of snickering classmates behind my back. Yeah, I try not to let those years define me, not just because I had a truly unusual experience (a graduating class of 38 kids, yet still a public school), but because I really left the little town I spent the middle years of my childhood in and never looked back.
So, I thought what would be most useful would be a catalog of some of what ADHD looked like in the 90s for a kid who got (mostly) good grades and was generally considered a little odd, but likely never suspected as neurodiverse by teachers or counselors. The world has changed a great deal since then, and I hope that this helps for the curious, the co-diagnosed, or those looking for a connection.
1) Overwhelming anxiety. It wasn’t hyperactivity that disrupted class. My clearest memories of ninth grade involved lots of sweating. Nervous sweating through my turtlenecks. Upset stomachs. Tapping my legs constantly. Staring at the clock hoping for time to speed up so I could use the bathroom and check for any number of possibly embarrassing circumstances. Coming up with any excuse to not go to school. Especially if that day included gym class. My stomach issues got so bad that my mom took me to the doctor, and I had to get an, uh, sample, which was not only mortifying but also turned up absolutely nothing out of the ordinary.
Being in class, surrounded by my classmates, under flickering fluorescent lights, even in my truly tiny school, was an act of extreme stress, especially if the class wasn’t interesting to me or I didn’t have many friends to distract me. I now know that my stomach issues and sweating and feeling like I was going to pass out was all because of anxiety, and that anxiety was because of sensory overload. But I didn’t even know what that meant back then. Part of it was that I felt so fundamentally different compared to everyone else, but the other element was simply being forced to spend time doing things that didn’t interest me with people I was convinced didn’t like me (and hey, I was weird, and sometimes bullied, so it wasn’t just in my head). I doodled. I daydreamed. I read extra Shakespeare for fun. I filled up my notebooks with long, rambling stories to bide my time. I made worlds that I could live in, worlds I could control and be a part of.
2) Intense hyper-focus at home on my interests. My parents will attest to the fact that as a teenager, especially, I was constantly, “getting into things.” Yes, I did have a very prolonged Beatles phase. And a Ninja Turtles phase before that. Then a Lord of the Rings phase. But there are what I call “core interests” that transcend fandoms and trends. When I got home from school, and until I found friends whose interests better intersected with my own, I’d spend hours drawing, writing, or playing music. We had a huge drafting table in our family room, and I’d make super detailed watercolors of Yoda or Han Solo or hobbits. Hours and hours of time. Then, I’d rewrite my favorite books, like The Stand or make a novelization of Young Guns. When I moved on from that, I would learn more Beatles songs on the guitar, take up the accordion (no, really), or write my own music. Looking back, I realize this was to the exclusion of a lot of friendships. Musical theatre eventually linked me up with some pretty cool folks, but that was really an extension of my core interests. But these intense at-home sessions helped me cope with the stress of school. I still do this. But accepting my artistic distractions took a long time. I didn’t know many other people who could do all the things and I felt not proud or full of myself, though some would accuse of that simply because I could do the things, but very self-conscious.
3) Paralyzing self-doubt and self-loathing. I seemed accomplished, sure. My grades were good. I got into some pretty impressive colleges, took honors classes, starred in plays, performed in musicals, painted murals, wrote novels, and won writing contests. But so much of my work ethic came from a deep, dark place of bad self-esteem. I did (and still do) spend a huge amount of my time basically lambasting myself to get work done. I’m understanding this more and more, now, as one of the key ways my brain has decided to do its own interpretative dance toward motivation. Where neurotypical folks feel a sense of accomplishment with a flush of dopamine, I use adrenaline (fueled by my own self-hatred) to get myself moving. And when I “do the thing” it really isn’t satisfying. It’s onto something else.
This is an exhausting state to live in. And I’m still learning how to detangle myself from it. See, adrenaline is a finite resource, and even with some fancy dopamine assistance lately (store-bought is fine, folks), a lot lingers. My body image was terrible, and it’s been years of work to feel okay with myself. In high school, I developed young and, ah, enthusiastically, let’s say. I hated my body. I hated the way clothes looked on me. I was terrified of the way men and boys looked at me, too. My body felt like it wasn’t mine. We were poor and couldn’t afford expensive anything, so I turned that into a rather eccentric fashion sense fueled by thrift stores, which helped mitigate it somewhat, but still. I wish someone had told me to lay off the dashikis (I had no idea it was a West African heritage thing, I just liked the designs, okay?).
4) Serious lack of intimacy with others, both romantic and otherwise. I really, really like my personal space. The way people smell, the way they move, the way they talk, can be kind of overload for me — and that’s super common for ADHD folks. In high school, it was a weird combination of being fascinated with people (because they were like characters), but also not wanting to get too close because of sensory overload or discomfort. I never had even a remotely serious relationship in high school (but lord, I had plenty of crushes), and when things ever edged close I ran away. I remember breaking up with a boyfriend because he put his hand on my shoulder. Fun fact: My first kiss was on stage and it was seriously awkward.
ADHD brains put up a lot of barriers, and for me this was also painfully obvious in my platonic friendships. I wanted to be THE best friend, or not at all. I needed space, but I wanted to be included. I found so many of my fellow students’ interests like, the most boring ever. Even when I was invited to parties (before they turned to drinking parties, which is part of another post ) it was torture; I didn’t like when things got loud, or we watched really scary movies, or things just got out of control… or if they didn’t like what I liked. Suffice it to say, if it weren’t for social media I don’t think I’d have a single idea what most of classmates from high school are up to now. But I did marry my best friend who also shares most of my interests, and we got to know each other 100% online, so take that for what you will.
5) Connection with teachers more than students. Talk about another way to fuel the bullies! But to me, ever since I was old enough to walk from one side of a room to another, I found adults so much more interesting than kids my own age. And that was especially true if they were kindred spirits and shared my interests! English teachers, art teachers, music teachers, drama teachers… oh, these were always the best kind. Because we had a shared language. Art, for me, is really my first language. Stories help me make sense of the world and put things into order. So when I had experienced, enthusiastic teachers, who recognized me as someone else who loved their subject, that was the best feeling. No, it did not earn me many friends. But I wasn’t brown-nosing. I really did love the books we were reading in English, even if everyone else hated them. Some pieces of art really do move me to tears. As a result, I barely did home work or studied in school with classes and teachers I liked. If I liked something, my brain just soaked it up through lectures and cursory reading. If I didn’t, I would avoid it, or just get by on the dregs. When chemistry turned out to be math disguised as science, you can bet your bottom dollar I did not get straight As. Not even close.
6) Depression and a sense of disconnect from my classmates. I lost track of how many sob sessions I had with my parents, or attempts to convince them to home school me or send me away to art school. Now, I realize of course, this wouldn’t have helped the situation. Going to a big college certainly didn’t make me feel like I belonged (well, not until I met other people like me… and even so, we’re all very different), and becoming a “grownup” didn’t either. I watched high school happen. I learned to put on a happy face, learned how to deflect with sarcasm (particular shout-out to David Spade and Dave Foley for helping me perfect my approach), but I struggled with a great deal of depression. I just didn’t reach out for help. I channeled it into my painting and my writing and my other core interests. I learned how to cope because I had another language, and I had parents who never limited me, never told me to focus on one thing. I had freedom at home to be whoever I wanted, and I honestly think that took a huge burden off of me and helped me survive. But I also learned to bottle my emotions… and I’m still trying to figure that out now, too.
This is not to say that I had no friends and was 100% miserable. Of course not. But one of the things I’ve recently learned is the term “bad brain days” — and I had a lot of those in high school, and sometimes they lasted weeks or months. I have lots of good memories (mostly on stage or playing with my band), but the ones, unfortunately, that really stick, are the not so good ones. I don’t treasure those years the way that some folks do. I had so much going on at home, and in my head, that I really was more of an observer than participator.
And that’s okay. We romanticize high school so much in our culture. But our brains are all at different places, even if we’re the same chronological ages. It’s important we accept that what’s “the time of your life” for some person is just a waystation for someone else.
I’m actually pretty glad that my hyper-focused self learned to cope with my “core interests” in high school. I still do all those things today. My downstairs is currently a bit of an art studio. I’ve learned to play ukulele, mandolin, and a bit of banjo in the ensuing years. I, uh, publish books! Plus, I have an amazing career, a remarkable family, and truly beautiful friends.
Next up, I’ll be looking at ADHD in college and that… whew, that’s going to be quite the post. Let’s just say it’s a lot less about academics than it is about really, really bad relationships choices, and how ADHD certainly did not help that situation.