This post originally appeared on my tinyletter, Where is my Mind?
I used to joke with my friends that God put me together slightly wrong. My feet are flat, my arches collapse, I’m quite severely knock-kneed, my legs meet at a sharp angle at my knees, my hips are misaligned, my bottom ribs jut out like little ski jumps, I have a swoop in my lower-back, and my center of balance is completely off. My mouth is too small, so I have to have 4 teeth pulled to make room, and then braces to reset my jaw and straighten my teeth, although my jaw still locks at weird times because it didn’t really take.
None of this was enough to warrant any sort of drastic intervention. I went to a chiropractor for a while (that’s when I found out about my hips being misaligned and my center of balance being off), and had to do physio for my knees (which is where I found out that the angle that forms at my knees is not normal, as the therapist drew it out and called over all of his colleagues to take a look). I have to buy shoes with the proper support (and when I go to specialty running stores, again, whoever is helping me calls over all of his colleagues to gawk at how I can even walk at all given my flat feet and weak ankles). I can’t really run because it is just too hard on my body, and stairs aren’t my friend because of both my knees and my strange center of balance that causes me to tip forward.
My body was pretty good at swimming, however, that meant that despite being completely awkward on land, I was ok (most of the time) because I knew I was above-average in the water. Breaststroke was always a challenge (and is what ultimately forced me to physio) and now I can’t do breast kick because if I do, I won’t be able to walk for a few days. But my body also decided that I was going to grow large breasts at puberty, so that became another physical reality that made swimming more of a challenge.
I spent a long time resenting my body, how it was physically strange, how it grew, how it put on weight, how it held on to that weight, how it hurt, and not in a good way, when I would try to work out. Having swum and having coached, I know the importance of good versus bad pain. I can take my muscles aching and joint stiffness that comes with aging. I can’t take not being able to walk because my knees locked and my knee cap has wandered from where it should ideally be located.
No one gives me a hard time about this, not really. My husband gently teases me about my ankles that enjoy randomly attacking me, causing me to fall when standing sometimes, and I have gone back and forth about going back to physiotherapy to see if I can’t at least keep all this stuff from getting worse, and everyone would be ok with that, but at the same time, most people are ok with me just not running, walking a little slower, and always holding on to the railing when walking down stairs.
When I was a teen, and swimming, people tried to help me get better (see physio, chiropractor, special shoes). I was lucky because my dad’s insurance helped pay for much of these “extra” services. I did my exercises, more or less, made my appointments, and everyone supported, encouraged, and applauded these steps.
What I didn’t know then, what no one really asked me about, or knew anything about (or one could uncharitably say, cared about) was my mental health. I struggled to visualize my races, having literally no idea how long my goal time was in real time. When I would get out after races, I would have no concept if I had raced well or not, and my time was always a surprise. My mind would wander during races, and while I found ways to keep myself engaged during practice (I was the one who kept count, kept the intervals straight, and a bunch of other math-based calculations to keep us on pace), I was never really engaged in the swimming, if that makes any sense.
This of course was all a result of my lack of effort. I wasn’t trying hard enough. I had to just FOCUS more or harder or more intensely or something.
But it was my ADHD that caused those issues. Not to say that you can’t be a great swimming or athlete if you have ADHD (see: Michael Phelps and Simone Biles) but they knew they had ADHD and got treatment for it. No one ever offered me treatment, or even considered that my mind needed as much treatment as my body. No one ever said, oh you’re knees are locked, you just need to try harder, but they had no problem doing that when my mind was effectively locked.
I’m learning, and I’m getting treatment, but there are things that I will never do as well as someone without ADHD, even with treatment. Even with treatment, my knees are never going to be straight and my feet are never going to be not-flat. I’m starting to accept that reality, but I’m struggling to get others around me to understand that reality as well. Saying, I have ADHD so… gets me looked at like I’m just making up an excuse for whatever it is I am struggling with.
There has been something so comforting and revelatory about reading about ADHD and realizing that, yes, there’s a good reason why you struggled with visualization (time blindness!) and focusing in practice or during races. But short of making everyone around me read about the realities of ADHD, I don’t know how to get people to understand that I’m not making excuses, but that I have documented reason why certain things are really, really hard for me. That I’m trying, but “trying harder” doesn’t actually help, and can in fact be detrimental.
I always knew I wasn’t “normal”, both in a OMG I AM A TEENAGER AND NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME, but also in a, holy shit, my brain really doesn’t work the way my friends’ brains do so I’m not going to talk about what’s going on inside me because they look at me weird when I do, way. I see it in my daughter, too (while my son just plays video games and talks about lions and bugs and Mortal Kombat and either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care). We’re trying to make sense of a world that wants our brains to work in a certain way, and when they don’t, we’re put at fault.
I’m trying to square this circle by linking it (albeit problematically) to the (minor, really) physical limitations I experience; again, therapy and exercise will improve, but not cure, my knees and feet. Everyone looks at my knees when I point to them and say, oh yeah, wow, no wonder you fall a lot. But I can’t point to my ADHD and have people say, oh yeah, wow, no wonder you tell stories in a weird way and can’t pay attention in meetings.
(And this whole though-exercise erases the issues of a very real ableist society we live in for those with various level of physical disability, as well as allergies, and other mental health struggles. I know that. Maybe another day, another tinyletter.)
I am still able-bodied and I am seen as successful professionally and personally, so why is it such a big deal? Who cares if “everyone” knows and understands you have ADHD?
I want people to understand what happens when my effort meets the limits of my ADHD in relation to societal expectations. I’m good at so many things, and so desperately shitty at so many others, things that I know I need to do to thrive. It’s not because I don’t want to, and it’s not because I’m not trying, it’s because I literally can’t. I don’t engage in the same way, and it doesn’t look the same. My kids don’t react the way other kids’ react, and they can’t be taught (or parented) like other kids.
What looks like an excuse is actually a pretty good reason. We’re not great as a society of being able to tell the difference.