Writing: the gift my ADHD gave me
For as long as I can remember, I have always felt like an alien.
For decades I thought it was due to the prelingual deafness that I’d acquired through bacterial meningitis at 16 months old.
The fact that I spent my childhood at my family dinner table like an outsider, silent and observant of the group conversations I could never participate in — save the odd interjection or summary from a considerate relative, usually my father — set the tone in perpetuity for an intellectual development that deviated from the familial norm.
My affluent English upper-middle-class family, close-knit in attitude and culture, couldn’t have known, or understood. With three sisters and no brothers, we were predominantly female, innately artistic, in love with imaginative dressing, and even a bit nuts. Naturally, we thought we’d covered all the bases. Doesn’t creative self-expression feed the soul?
But nobody reckoned on me.
From an early age, it was clear that unsupported primary education was not an option, and I was sent to a partially hearing unit (PHU) instead. A visiting teacher of the Deaf later determined that I had to attend the “best Deaf school in the country” — the so-called Mary Hare Grammar School for Deaf Children.
Indeed, after my mock entrance exam for the school my mother was called into the PHU office, where she was told she was raising a future President of the Oxford Union. (Of course that didn’t happen, but you get the gist.)
In my first year at Mary Hare as a boarder, I won a literary prize. In my first term I won plaudits for my cinematographic painting of female African slaves in shackled agony, inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots TV series. Propitious though these beginnings were, I didn’t win another school prize until I left.
I was an inconsistent student. Teachers loved my penchant for storytelling, my poetry, my studious painting, and the way I illustrated biblical readings in my textbooks. Yet they were confounded, again and again, by my persistent tardiness, impulsivity and distractibility.
“Good morning,” one chirped to me in passing following school assembly.
“Why do boys have nipples?” came the answer. I was 15. By the time my bemused teacher had explained the biology, my mind was already somewhere else.
Another signed me up to Physics O level, convinced I had the makings of a brilliant physicist. I rewarded him by averaging the exam, and failing the resit. Those moments of blinding clarity that he’d witnessed in class were just that: blinding clarity. By no means did they reflect a latent talent in the subject.
I had few friends at Mary Hare, and tried to run away three times. I got into fights – once with a ratio of 5:1. (I survived that one with no bruising. My Hulk-like rage, provoked by their wilful destruction of my treasured doll and other belongings, made me untouchable. I escaped punishment only because someone caught the bullies chasing me down the drive in broad daylight.)
I couldn’t understand why I felt so out of place, so often socially rejected. My Deaf peers had very quickly found the beginnings of a steadfast, mutual bond that lasted decades. Why couldn’t I join them? I began to have suicidal ideation, and tried to confide in them about it. They must have interpreted it as snobbery, because at teatime they sat at the table of eight, conspicuously shunning me.
It must be my background, I surmised. But when I came home for the weekend, I was excluded once again from family conversation. The first time this happened I burst into tears, unable to describe the cultural wilderness that obscured me from both worlds.
I continued to excel in English and art. This was a complete mystery to me. Profound deafness had presented barriers to learning throughout my entire compulsory education, as well as barriers to communication at home. Indeed I’d suddenly lost more hearing just before starting Mary Hare, aggravating my alienation. In an effort to turn that around I had to rely on my own peculiar brain, and hyper-focus on mastering my writing.
Mary Hare cannot say they nurtured this with pride. My mother had told them of the inexplicable drop in my hearing — yet they labelled me a daydreamer, and verbally abused me for not listening despite the clunky amplification headsets we had to wear in class.
The brutal fact is they expected me to conform to the same homogeneous, neurotypical, pseudo-hearing ideal that they set for everyone else. In all honesty, oralist Mary Hare wasn’t much different from mainstream education.
Of course I hoped to avoid such heart-wrenching memories repeating themselves in future once I’d left school. But the many broken friendships I have suffered in the decades since prove to the contrary. Social exclusion by your own peers, despite sharing a culture and community with them, is exceedingly bad for your mental health — especially when you have at your disposal an exceptional gift for writing.
(I know I’m blowing my own trumpet. I only do so by way of stressing how hard I worked at it, how much effort I put into exercising tact and sensitivity — and how many times I failed regardless to maintain the friendships I valued so highly.)
Which is why formal diagnosis with inattentive Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) last June, at age 50, was such a major breakthrough for me.
I am convinced that my condition is inherited; ADHD is 75% genetic. It would be unwise for me to speculate in public who else in my family might have it too, although to be fair, they have not had the same painful experiences that I did as a prelingually deaf person. As far as I can tell, they’re all managing themselves just fine.
But I am Deaf, both culturally and medically. Nobody can take that away from me. I also have inattentive ADHD, my art which I still practise, and my writing. I remain fond of my family and their quirks, and hope they can come round to mine eventually. I have no need to punish myself anymore for being an alien – because in proclaiming my neurodiversity, I have finally found my tribe.