Mental Health Awareness Month – Soraya

My upbringing is what you would consider a typical Nairobi middle-class one; I went to good schools, participated in sports and clubs, was considered a good student all through my academic life into university, got a job and settled into “grown up life”. I had done all the things and checked all the boxes, but still, something felt off.

There’s probably a point in time that I would have told you that I considered my life normal by all accounts, but the fact is that I probably just thought that everyone was having the same experience that I was. There are some things that I had come to accept – that I was somehow more emotionally sensitive than others for one – that I thought were personality traits, or more accurately, character flaws. But it was something that I thought I would outgrow, or that I would have a better handle on it the older I got.

Adults around me identified me as a “gifted” child from early on; I had a natural insatiable curiosity, started reading when I was quite young, and would enthusiastically inhale any book I could get my hands on. I would get good grades in school, and teachers would sing praises of my great potential. But that was just about it; they would quickly grow frustrated when they realised that at best, I was a B student, and they considered my daydreaming and distractibility as great impediments to me achieving said potential. Year after year, every end of term, my report cards would have a variation of the same message – “… could do so much better if only…”.

And I would try; my intention wasn’t to be naughty or disrespectful, I just couldn’t help it when my mind was distracted, or when I had the impulse to say something out loud, or when my fidgeting was annoying others. Again, I thought this was normal. I just thought everyone was better at controlling themselves than I was. As I got older, people were more and more unforgiving of my quirks. It wasn’t cute anymore, it was annoying, and I was a young adult now, so I just needed to stop acting that way.

I always thought that I couldn’t change because there was something deeply flawed within me. I was always anxious or panicked because I just couldn’t keep up with my peers, and that was somehow my fault. I took the feedback that I was getting from other people as further signs of my failure or inadequacy, so I did my best to hide the annoying parts, and figured that if I pretended to have my shit together, that somehow it would all fall into place. Looking at other people, that’s how it seemed to happen, so it was only a while until I eventually caught up, right?

So I just got on with life, but I never ever felt like I was doing it right. Everything seemed considerably harder to me, and things that I would see my friends doing with ease! I struggled with organising my time, keeping up in class, and general motivation in university, because the change in structure and routine from earlier education was extremely jarring for me. When I started working, I often struggled with starting and completing tasks, estimating realistic deadlines, and basic corporate culture and nuances. I worked obsessively with lists and notebooks, jotting down even the mundane during meetings for fear that my attention would fail me, or that I wouldn’t have enough information to boost me over the getting – started hurdle. And I grew more and more frustrated, because it didn’t seem to be getting better – the older I got, the more I struggled, and the easier it seemed to get for others.

I was depressed, experiencing heightened anxiety on a daily basis, constantly feeling like a failure, and spending a lot of time self – medicating, and so I decided to seek professional help. My doctor gave me a couple of assessments, after which I went back in to discuss the results. ADHD. I.. What??

You see, I have a psychology degree. So I had a rough idea of the possible outcomes, but ADHD was nowhere on my radar. I think I even laughed it off, because I honestly didn’t see how I – a 30 year old black African woman – would possibly have ADHD. But then I started to do my research, and every one of the symptoms was eerily familiar to me. The impulsiveness that characterised many of the decisions that I had made, time – blindness and my ability to lose hours at a time, and the emotional dysregulation which aptly described my tendency to become frustrated easily, have outbursts, or experience severe mood fluctuations. I discovered that “lazy” and “unmotivated” were just words that people used to describe what is at the core of ADHD – executive dysfunction which affects the ability to start and finish tasks, recall and follow multi-step directions, stay on track, self-monitor, and balance the basic demands of life. Pages and pages that finally described me.

As I read more, went to therapy, and talked to other ADHD-ers, one thing became abundantly clear; I wasn’t struggling for lack of trying. In fact, we try so much harder to complete tasks that take little or no energy for others. The permanent mental exhaustion, the constant anxiety especially around work or other performance – driven tasks, and the emotional rollercoaster that is navigating life with a neurodevelopmental condition. These are all parts of the Neurodiverse experience that many do not have to contend with.

There was a sense of freedom in finding out that my brain has certain limits, and that it will never function as “normal” brains do. In some ways, it functions even better. But having that awareness was a huge first step in the journey that is accepting my beautiful ADHD brain as it is. Not as something to be fixed, not as a failure of willpower or a flaw in character, but as something to be understood, cared for and loved.

It’s been a little over 2 years since I got my official diagnosis, and I still feel like I learn something new about ADHD every day. I’m still very much in that trial – and – error phase of figuring out what best works for me, and I’m learning to be gentle with myself as I go. I’ve found incredible support and community online – honestly, finding out that I wasn’t alone has been the real medicine – and I’m curating spaces where I can speak openly about my experiences. So I guess I eventually figured out that I wasn’t “normal’, but I’m absolutely OK with that.

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