Four Options

On paths forward with both racism and mood disorders

So, if you know anything about me, you know I tend to write about various tentacles of racism and how it interacts with other axes of oppression, particularly language and ability. My dissertation, my articles, and my book are all about all of this stuff.

If you know anything else about me, at least in the past year, it’s that I also have ADHD, and my exploration of neurodivergence has become a driving force in my work. In a way, after treatment and hard work, I have at least reached a point of acceptance with my ADHD. I no longer (1) ignore it or pretend it’s something else like I did all the years I was undiagnosed, I no longer (2) resist what I don’t actually have control over, but I also avoid the temptation to sort of (3) wallow in it and spend time online talking about what I can’t do — no offense meant to those who are struggling enough that that’s what they feel will help them, but it’s a vicious cycle for me to do the same so I don’t. I joined an ADHD facebook group and it’s pretty much all memes about how we can’t complete tasks. For whatever reason, that’s not how my ADHD manifests, and I get (most) things done, even if I have a tendency to make errors here and there that I often have to go back and fix. There’s still a lifetime of shame tied to my ADHD symptoms, particularly when I lose or forget something important, but I have accepted it as part of my identity and it will be along-term project to figure out the best way to live with it.

What I have still struggled to accept is the “mood disorders” I live with. I don’t particularly care to calculate whether it’s more anxiety or more depression — some days it’s one, some days it’s the other, some days it’s both, yay — but I’ve reached a weird and enervating place where I finally have to do what I’ve been trying to do with ADHD and just (4) sit with the reality of it being a lifelong condition.

My journey with mood disorders has been odd. I didn’t get any sort of treatment or diagnosis until my 30s, believing that my social struggles were my own fault for being “annoying,” which a lot of people have called me over the years for being a social try-hard. I understand now that ADHD (and race) left me isolated from my peers, and that I was always going to struggle to connect. But unfortunately, the two decades or so that I flailed socially are still a part of my brain. I have no way of knowing whether I was born predisposed to this sort of thinking or if the events of my adolescence and early adulthood were the true cause, and when I first sought treatment, I spent far too long just trying to figure out “why,” which is, uh, not the point. At the same time, as ever, I spent a lot of time online seeking community, and hoo boy, mood disorder social media is harmful trash. Not on purpose, I think people are struggling and looking for something, but if you spend more than a short period reading those message boards, it’s mostly people sharing really dark thoughts, and after doing that for a few months, I realized it was unhealthy and left it be. I was no longer ignoring or denying my issue, and I realized that making it my whole identity was not a good idea, and I was going to just accept it… until I got the ADHD diagnosis. It is pretty certain that, even if I was predisposed to such things, my neurodivergence (and race) was a significant contributor to the isolation that is exacerbated by mood disorders, and I felt such relief last year (which I wrote about here) that I honestly thought (foolishly) that maybe it would all just go away if I could learn to embrace my ADHD reality.

I was also under a ton of pressure at the time, writing my book, my dissertation, working full time, looking for a new job (the last of which gave me more stress than all the other things combined). I basically didn’t have time to ruminate, and I told myself I was going to take a break if I managed to succeed at all of it. And then I did. I finished school in four years, finished my book eight months ahead of schedule, finished up a bunch of other small projects I’d agreed to earlier, and got a job I really wanted. Suddenly, I had a lot less pressure, and I knew my body needed a bit of a rest, but unfortunately, because I was trying to resist/fight my mood disorders by focusing only on my ADHD during such a stressful time, when I got to take a break this summer, deliberately not over-scheduling myself at night like I’d had to when I was writing, all the rumination came back, and my refusal to accept the lifelong reality of what is either innate or so ingrained that it might as well be has left me fairly adrift this summer.

And this is supposed to be The Summer of Geo- I mean, Justin. I graduated! I went on a work trip and for the first time have found colleagues I really get along with! I’m good at my job! A small part of me assumed that my relatively unremarkable career was a part of my mood issues, which is true, but by extension, that same part of me assumed that if I were to resolve my career, it might go away, which is not true.

So I’ve been a bit withdrawn and irritable and impatient, it’s noticeable at home (though working mostly remotely means I can hide it at work), I’ve gotten into bad mental habits again and here I go back into treatment for I guess the fifth time in six years (though a couple of those therapists left for different jobs, to be clear).

And I guess I’m ashamed and scared and mad. Ashamed I couldn’t just “beat” it with achievement. Scared that accepting its permanence means I can’t really ever stop being vigilant about taking care of it (and myself, and thus my family) lest something occur. And mad I can’t fully enjoy things, like when I was a really good marathon runner but ended every race disappointed instead of being ecstatic and grateful I had turned myself into an athlete in the first place. I’m about to release a book that I really did write my damn self, which contains my own original vision and big, complex ideas. It’s the type of book I would have hoped to write years into my career rather than at an odd juncture where I’ve graduated but mostly left academia behind.

So anyway. What does all this have to do with racism, as the subtitle implies? Well, in my dissertation, I contrasted my own story with that of the people I interviewed, and I think it’s appropriate I do so here too. I think that what trips (white) people up about their potential complicity in racism is, among other things, the fact that you have to accept your role in harm, and that you may well be contributing to harm forever. It’s why you see so many white folks talk about “racists” with the unstated implication that they’re not the bad guys. I have a lot of thoughts about what white folks need to do about their own participation in racism, but one main thing is accept that it’s going to be a lifelong struggle. And for me, maybe it’s a bad analogy, but I feel that I have to take my own advice to white folks and accept the way my brain is. And yeah, it’s not fair, but neither is my income compared to folks less lucky than I am, nor is my athletic ability fair to folks who’ve tried harder than I did, or the fact that, for whatever reason, the neurological cocktail of my brain does NOT prevent me from executive function and I really get a ton of shit done while others aren’t able to. Fairness is imaginary. It’s no different in this sense than other chronic illnesses in that it’s something to be managed. And for me, I simply have to manage that as well as ADHD and it’s a lot, but if I don’t resist it, or ignore it, or wallow, I know I can live a good life, even if the highest of highs aren’t things I’ll get to feel because there’s always a small cloud in front of the sun. But if I know it’s there, and I don’t look it directly in the eye, maybe it won’t eat me. (That’s a Nope reference, go see it.) I think this may have always been my issue, chasing a mythical day where the cloud is gone, but the cloud doesn’t move. If I just accept a small cloud, it won’t grow like it does at the worst times. At least that’s the best way I can figure it out for now.

Story will remain unfinished for decades, but hopefully it can be enjoyable for me and everyone around me in the meantime.

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JPB Gerald

Dr of Ed. Racism/language/ability theorist and adult educator.