All The Things I Can’t Do

This post originally appeared on my tinyletter, Where is my Mind?

When I was in 10th Grade (well, Sec IV) our English teacher asked us to think back to the point when we were younger, really really young, and we were confronted for the first time that we weren’t limitless. The first time we confronted failure. The first time time we couldn’t do something or were thwarted. I don’t remember why she asked us to do that, probably as some writing prompt or something.

Which example would I choose?

Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD means that you are told that you are wrong a lot. Like, try all the time. And you are constantly confronted with the reality that there are things you can’t do like everyone else, but you don’t know why. No one knows why. Your parents don’t know why. They ask you, even, why you did what you did or behaved like you did, and you don’t have an answer. Honestly, I could remember a time where I did feel like I could do anything, like I was limitless. Maybe in the pool (actually scratch that maybe, definitely when I was in the pool, and let me tell you when I realized I would never make Nationals, let alone be an Olympic swimmer…), but anywhere outside of the pool was a place where all I never knew was that whatever I was was defective in some way.

But, also being ADHD, I impulsively raised my hand, ready to share the most inappropriate story possible with my classmates. Thankfully, this teacher hated me (well, probably not hated me but had that general wariness about me and what I now know is my ADHD; this is the teacher who, when I volunteered to read something I had written out loud to the class, sighed and responded, “Oh, Lee, you always make your writing sound better than it is when you read it.”) and so she held off calling on me, giving me a chance to come to my sense and realize, huh, this is not a story you should tell in front of your classmates who already think you’re weird enough as it is.

The story was from when I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I had been sent to a special preschool that was designed to teach me to read before starting French Immersion school. In Quebec, when you were in French Immersion, your first three years (K-2) were exclusively in French. Many parents feared the delayed introduction to reading in English, so they sent their kids to a preschool like the one I was attending. It worked, and I was reading like a pro in no time. I loved books. I devoured books. I gulped down books in single bites. My parents were worried that I was reading too fast, and would often ask me to read out loud with them to make sure I was getting the words right.

Now, an ADHD brain (or at least mine) moves FAST. I read entire books not word by word or line by line, but page by page. My brain creates shortcuts like not reading someone’s name as a word but as instead as a symbol for that person. This has served me particularly well in my love for science fiction and fantasy – I don’t care how to pronounce their names, just that the name represents whichever character. But it doesn’t work well when you’re trying to read out loud.

Some of you might remember a series of books involving the main character Amelia Bedelia. Of course I loved Amelia Bedelia because she took everything literally and OMG HAS ANYONE DONE A DISABILITIES STUDY ON HER AS A CHARACTER? Sorry. Anyway, I probably related entirely too much to her character, and empathized way too much with her constant screw-ups, and I read every book with her in it. One day, my dad asked me to read it to him, and I could not for the life of me remember how to say “Bedelia.” My brain just froze. I couldn’t sound it out. I couldn’t remember how. I had no idea. Now, these were books that I had read and had been read to me (so I had heard it pronounced before) and asked for by name at the library and begged my parents to buy me, but at that moment, the word literally left me.

If the story ended here everyone would laugh and I could frame it as a reading wunderkind getting her comeuppance and realizing she needed to slow down and practice. The story ends with my father and I laughing over the mistake, and reading it together out loud moving forward, maybe with some light, 1980s-style teasing.
But the story did not end that way, nor is that the failure I recall.

Spoiler Alert: Trigger Warning – Child Abuse.

Instead, my father grew increasingly frustrated with me, with it boiling over into anger. He refused to help me, instead yelling at me to keep looking at the word and sounding it out and that I knew the word and how is it that I couldn’t read it, it was so simple. I got increasingly upset, and it ended with him carrying me, hitting me hard on the back, as I repeated “bedelia” over and over again through sobs. I can remember the sound that his hand made on my back, and then he would say, “again,” to get me to repeat the word I had forgotten how to read.

That would have gone over well in a room full of 15-year-olds. I’m sure it’s going over well right now with you as you read this.

This story also paints a much different picture of my father than the one I painted in my most recent blog post, about how my dad got me into “nerd” culture and supported me in whatever thing I happened to be obsessed with at the time. What can I say, families are hard.

This isn’t the story I meant to tell in this tinyletter, but my writing has this habit of running away from me. The story I meant to tell was that, for the first time in my life, I don’t feel bad about not being able to do things, or not even wanting to know how. For so many years growing up, I had to do all the things in order not to miss out (also, to not be home). It became a habit, and would leap from activity to activity, thing to thing, never really stopping. This is also a very ADHD behavior – my brain craves the new.

But as I got older, it curdled into something more insidious – it wasn’t FOMO, it was guilt and shame. I kept comparing myself to others and what they could do, what they did do, and always found myself wanting. I would beat myself up about not being a better cook, or not being able to knit or sew, or not being able to even run a 5K. I didn’t have a garden where I grew my own organic veggies (in fact I excel at killing plants), nor did I build anything, paint anything, make anything. All I ever had in my head was a list of things I couldn’t do for whatever reason.

And of course people will just tell you, if you want to, just do it! If you’re not doing it, clearly you don’t want to! Or, you’re just lazy! Or, you’re not trying hard enough!

These are things people with ADHD hear all the time. It’s a thing people with ADHD tell themselves all the time.

My self-worth was wrapped up in what I could do as compared with what other people could do. Exacerbated by gendered expectation, academia, and then motherhood, I never felt like I had done enough. And what I could do might one day inexplicably disappear like the ability to read the word “bedelia” so I had better cultivate other skills to compensate for that possibility. But I also would beat myself up when I absolutely sucked at those things and gave up out of frustration and embarrassment (which, by the way, I still don’t know how to spell, apparently). It was my fault I couldn’t do all of those things everyone else could do, my problem, my shortcoming, my brokenness.

So seeing my friends successfully complete marathons or grow gardens of beautiful flowers or paint pictures or sew beautiful garments or make wonderful meals no longer makes me long to be able to do those things myself. Or rather, I do, for a split-second and then come to my sense and say, NO YOU REALLY DON’T STOP IT. And I really, really don’t. I hate cooking. I don’t enjoy gardening. I physically can’t run.

Know what I like to do? Coach swimming. Write. Find one-of-kind experiences for my kids and my husband.

So that’s what I do.

And it’s not like I’m just giving up on ever learning and trying anything again. If you had told me even five years ago that I would enjoy makeup and spend a not-insignificant amount of time on YouTube watching make-up tutorials, I would have laughed in your face, but here I am, with more eyeshadow pallets than I know what to do with (also, an ADHD thing – go big or go home). I don’t know what else I’ll do as the kids get older and I have more time. I used to love to sing. I also loved to “act”. Maybe community theater. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll have time for yoga again. I’m by no means perfect, but at least now I’m striving for what I want to do, how I want to be.

I don’t wake up every morning and go to bed every night wishing I was someone else anymore, someone who wasn’t me.

I wrote and re-wrote this in my head, trying not to make it sounds like some kind of mid-life awakening: I woke up and I realized it was ok to be me! I mean, I literally did, but that makes it sound trite and cliché. Never in my life, though, did I ever think it was ok to be me. This is not uncommon, but the ADHD made it that much worse, because everything around you implicitly and explicitly tells you that you’re somehow wrong. I’m not wrong, I’m just different, and different is ok!

Still sounding trite and cliché.

Sometimes the obvious truths are the hardest to accept, to learn. If I started this with a total downer of a story (to put it lightly) it’s to say, this wasn’t easy, and I walk around wanting to shout, IT IS OK TO BE ME! DID YOU KNOW THAT MY ABILITY TO WRITE IS A SUPERPOWER THAT A LOT OF PEOPLE DO NOT HAVE? DID YOU KNOW THAT IT IS ALSO OK THAT I AM NOT AN ARTIST AND CAN’T COOK?

Which, I know I shouldn’t, and I don’t, so I write 1800+ word tinyletters instead.

Even this, to me, feels indulgent, but when it comes to mental health, it’s the small things that everyone else takes for granted that matter the most. Normal is relative. So while I know it’s normal to feel insecure and have FOMO and feel envy, for most people it doesn’t consume their very existence and identity. All those moments, large and small, that lead you to believe there was something wrong with you, to circle back around and be able to say, I’m ok?

Look, there are a lot of things I can’t do, that I will never be able to do, but maybe the proudest thing I can do right now is say that I’m ok and actually mean it because I literally never thought it was even possible. tinyletter

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