I always had a love/hate relationship with the beginning of the school year. After a long summer away, I went back to the classroom hopeful that I had changed. I was an older, wiser, and more experienced student. Things would be different. They had to be. I was going to be able to handle everything on my plate and stay organized. But somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I would eventually get overwhelmed by my responsibilities and panic. I would go too fast on an assignment, forget to read the directions or get distracted halfway through reading them, miss something important, and mess up in a big way. The real me—the disorganized, bad at everything, stupid, lazy, incapable me—would show up and ruin everything. It was a cycle I had gotten used to creating for myself—set high expectations, fail to meet them, and prove I’m the worst.
It wasn’t just academics that were hard for me. I faced social challenges as well. I struggled to control my words and feelings. I was constantly saying the wrong things out loud or crying when my feelings got hurt, which happened a lot. I was very sensitive to criticism, especially from my teachers when they would call me out in front of my classmates. It felt hurtful and painful because I was already so hard on myself.
Back then, I didn’t know I had attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, also known as ADHD. I was in a constant battle with my brain, fighting against a neurodevelopmental disorder that hadn't been identified.
Even after I was diagnosed, it took me a long time to understand what it meant to live with ADHD. While managing ADHD is a big responsibility, it is also a gift and an advantage to see the world in a different way.
I really believe that ADHD is my superpower.
I really believe that ADHD is my superpower. I have a fast moving brain that pieces together information in a unique way, which means I have a special perspective. I can often find out-of-the-box solutions to problems at a very quick pace. I also have a strong imagination and I'm extremely innovative in part because of how my brain is wired. I am grateful to be able to see things differently and proud of what I've been able to accomplish.
Over the last few years, I've developed a few guidelines for myself that have helped me manage my symptoms and that I wanted to share with readers:
1. Be patient with yourself. One of my biggest challenges is that my ADHD went undiagnosed for such a long time that I was left with low self-esteem. Every mistake I made felt like proof that there was something wrong with me. After my diagnosis, when I started to learn more about how my brain is wired, I began to understand that being hard on myself wasn’t helping me succeed. All my negative self-talk was holding me back from being the best and happiest version of myself. Instead I needed to build myself up in my own mind. Somedays that still feels hard for me, and when that happens, I call someone who I can count on to give me positive reinforcement and encouragement. Part of being patient with yourself means having a plan in place for when you lose patience.
2. Take time to learn what works for you and set yourself up to succeed. Each person with ADHD is unique. We all have our own strengths and challenges. One of the first things I learned about myself is that I need silence to concentrate. I get very distracted and irritated by all different noises, including other people’s breathing. I can’t go to a coffee shop, even with noise-canceling headphones, and expect that I’ll be able to write or revise. Another thing is that I need to be comfortable in my clothes in order to focus. Something as small as an itchy tag can distract me from my work, because I become hyper-focused on how uncomfortable I feel. I also have a hard time getting started and transitioning from one assignment to another, which means that when I’m on a deadline, I have to be thoughtful about managing my time, setting alarms, and creating achievable goals. I’ve developed a lot of specific systems through trial and error that help me. The most important thing you can do for yourself is to learn what works for you. Think about what motivates you to keep going and what enables you to turn things around when you’re having a hard day managing your symptoms.
3. Be your own advocate. Once you know what you need and you start to realize how big of a difference small changes can make in your life, it gets easier to ask for accommodations, although it can be intimidating at first, especially if you don’t get a positive response the first time you ask for help. I recommend talking to a teacher, school counselor, supervisor, or colleague who you know is supportive of you and ask that person for advice about approaching others. They might be able to help you with that process or give you guidance.
4. Find your people. I spent a lot of time surrounding myself with people who mirrored back the negative feelings I had about myself. I liked hearing that I was right to doubt my abilities and not believe in myself, because self-doubt was comfortable, even if it was bad for me. The best thing I ever did for myself was to start surrounding myself with friends and mentors, and eventually bosses, who saw my potential and all the things that made me special and capable. At first, I felt like I was tricking my new friends into seeing my "great qualities," and I didn't actually believe that they were right about me. Over time, as they saw the real me and helped me with challenges that came up, I learned to see myself the way they saw me—as resilient and capable. When you don't value yourself, it can be hard to make friends who value you. But it's worth taking the time to search for people who get you and appreciate what you have to offer.
Alyson Gerber wore a back brace for scoliosis from the age of eleven to thirteen, an experience that led directly to her debut novel Braced from Scholastic.
Braced received three starred reviews, was a Junior Library Guild Selection, and has been nominated for state book awards in Oklahoma, Indiana, New Hampshire, Virginia, and South Dakota. Alyson’s new middle grade novel Focused, about a girl caught between her love of chess and her ADHD, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association’s Booklist.
Alyson is a graduate of The New School’s MFA in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. You can connect with her on Twitter @AlysonGerber, or via her website, www.alysongerber.com