This is a story about shame.
When I was around 9 or 10 years old, I stole a classmate’s assignment notebook and passed it off as my own.
My classmate—let’s call her Jennifer—was like me, in that she was a very bright girl who always had the answer and did well on tests. She was UNLIKE me, in that her hair was always tidy, notebooks organized, always had the right school supplies, had beautiful handwriting, and most importantly, ALWAYS HAD HER HOMEWORK DONE.
My ADHD brain could not bring herself to do homework. Especially at age 9.
So the context around my theft was this:
I hadn’t been doing my homework.
My mother met with my teacher and agreed that I needed to keep an assignment notebook.
An assignment notebook was duly procured. I filled it out for a day or two and then abandoned it (figuratively or maybe literally–I may have lost it).
So time went by, and the teacher tells my parents that I’m still not turning in homework.
“Whattt????” says Mom. “Where’s your assignment notebook?”
“Um, at school,” says me.
“Hmm,” she says. “Bring it home tomorrow!”
Do you notice the COMPOUNDING nature of this issue? I hadn’t done my homework, so I was in trouble with my teacher. Teacher told my parents, so I was in trouble with them. Then the adults all got together, and made a plan without consulting me. The plan required the same type of skills that doing homework requires–Executive Functioning skills. So of course I was not able to follow through on the plan. And my trouble compounded.
This is all happening in the EIGHTIES in KANSAS. So nobody had any mental model for what ADHD was, or for what Executive Dysfunction was. The only explanation for my undone homework was laziness or cussedness or, my favorite, a profound, spiritually-disfiguring character flaw.
Okay, so imagine Little Emma–she’s nine years old. She’s in trouble with all the important and meaningful adults in her life. She’s pretty sure she’s DEEPLY, INNATELY FLAWED.
She needs to get her hands on an assignment notebook! And it needs to be a COMPLETED assignment notebook, to show that she’s been following the plan the adults set for her. She knows stealing is wrong. And she is absolutely not a skilled troublemaker/misbehaver/liar/thief. But she manages, somehow, to steal Jennifer’s assignment notebook.
I have no memory of actually doing it. What I remember is looking at it after I had stolen it, and being AMAZED at how gorgeous Jennifer’s handwriting was. How beautifully neat her columns were, marching down the left hand margin of each page:
At 9 years old, I didn’t know what ADHD was. It would be another 7 years before my mother came home and said, “There’s this thing called Attention Deficit Disorder, and I have it, and these other people we know have it, and probably you have it too.” And it would be another THIRTY-ONE YEARS before I started taking it seriously.
But when I looked at Jennifer’s beautiful assignment notebook, I knew that this, THIS, was a feat that was far, far beyond my capabilities.
Long story short: I got away with it. My mother looked at the notebook and bizarrely, instead of saying, “This cannot possibly be your work,” said, “Okay, so you’re clearly keeping track of your assignments.” Bless her! Somehow the missing homework had assumed less importance than the notebook.
Next day I looked on impassively as Jennifer tore her desk apart looking for it. We weren’t best friends, but I liked Jennifer. She didn’t deserve this. I kept my face neutral and died a little death on the inside.
Imagine 9-year-old Emma, realizing that she’s not only DEEPLY INNATELY FLAWED, but is also a THIEF. Truly, a BAD KID.
I keep asking you to imagine Little Emma.
Because imagining her has been such a key part of my journey toward loving myself.
Can I forgive her?
Yes, I can, and I do, and I shall!
Forever and ever until the end of the Universe,
I send her love.
She’s a kid, in a terrible, impossible situation, making the best choices she can.
If you’re an adult with ADHD, you have a LIFETIME of these types of experiences.
Trying to fit yourself into a culture made for neurotypical brains will break you.
It will give you a million reasons to feel ashamed.
To doubt yourself.
To conceal your true nature (that’s called masking, if you don’t know).
To believe you’re DEEPLY INNATELY FLAWED.
Chances are good, by the time you grow up, you are a champion masker.
You’ve had YEARS of practice, pretending to be normal.
Chances are good, by the time you hit your 40s or 50s, you’ve worked out a bunch of systems that work for you.
Not all the time, because Executive Dysfunction does not go away.
But mostly, you can muddle your way through.
Like many of my ADHD clients, you may have “muddled your way” through a very successful career.
A full life.
Here’s what you can’t muddle through:
The feeling that any minute now you’ll be found out.
The inability to take a compliment or own your achievements.
The anxiety that it could all come crashing down.
The fear of failure.
The inner emptiness that a person gets when she needs to mask all the time.
And the chronic overwork, burnout, and health problems that follow in the wake of all of the above.
You feel me?
If so, please know this:
These things can be shifted.
Here’s what it takes, in my experience:
You need to RUTHLESSLY COMMIT to self-love.
You need a regular practice of self-forgiveness.
You need to start giving YOURSELF, NOW, what you needed BACK THEN.
The path of self-love is simple, but not easy.
You will need help along the way.
I’ve had many helpers, but sharing this story, and the self-love I have around it, are the result of receiving stellar coaching.
If you’re an ADHD woman who is ready to feel more full than empty.
To feel more pride than shame.
To feel more resourceful and less anxious.
Make it easy for yourself–send me an email.
If you’re reading this and recognizing yourself, please know that the person you are, flaws and all, is FAR MORE MAGNIFICENT than any mask you could ever put on.