The Death of the Tryhard

On the many things I no longer have to “white-knuckle” after getting an ADHD diagnosis, and the underlying implications of the privilege necessary to make these choices

The far sidie comic where a child is pushing a “pull” door and the sign says “school for the gifted.”
Me vs my brain and the world

Back in August, I was told I’d be returning to my office, and I started to stress out. Even leaving aside COVID risk with a young son at home, I got very anxious, to a degree that surprised me. I had been occasionally taking the subway to go here or there for several months and I was pretty confident I could stay safe and masked (and this has been true). I was assured my workplace would be more flexible about timing since I had to incorporate dropoff in the mornings. Yet I was still really stressed for reasons that weren’t really logistical.

Backing up a bit, a few years ago, in therapy sessions (privilege marker #1), my then-therapist and I had mutually come to the conclusion that it was likely I had a form of ADHD. Getting to this understanding had given me some peace of mind, and I started writing about it in my research and scholarship (all of which you can read here). Reframing my past experiences and social struggles as a legitimate impairment and a form of ableism had made me feel a little better, but we still live in a world where a lack of diagnosis creates a bit of a liminal state, and although I have no particular desire to inform my current colleagues (whom I don’t particularly trust), for the sake of any future jobs or professional and social relationships, I thought it might be useful to know once and for all.

As it turned out, what had started to stress me out about the office return was actually just being in an office at all. Again, not even just the COVID issue, but just being in a workspace with many side conversations and small talk and elevators and semi-strangers and ahhhhhhhhh.

I’d always just dealt with this because I never felt I had a choice, but having spent all this time away from the standard office, I realized my anxiety was tied to how hard I’d always had to try just to stay focused and friendly in such an environment.

So I went and I set up an evaluation. I have a lot to say on the process of doing so — much of which will go into my dissertation, actually — but suffice it to say that it’s rarely covered by insurance if you simply make the choice to get an evaluation yourself as an adult. Indeed, it’s pretty much only covered if you’re a child who needs a testing/school accomodation, and it’s pretty damn expensive otherwise. We were able to afford it (privilege marker #2), but this made me think about how many adults, particularly adults of color, are out there, unaware that they might have divergent way of processing the world, and suffering through the consequences accordingly. ADHD isn’t just the kid who needs extra testing time, or the boy who can’t sit still in class, because none of these things were true of me. It’s also emotional dysregulation, a deep fear of social rejection, difficulty blocking out background noises, poor short-term memory, an inability to be extrinsically motivated, and a whole bunch of other stuff they sure didn’t tell me about as a kid. You can imagine how these things show up in an adult’s work or social life, and how it can lead to isolation. It sure has for me, from time to time, and all of this recent global isolation has forced me to really recalibrate who I open up to and spend time with. Despite how common neurodivergence is, it’s still deeply stigmatized, and I may never fully shed the impression I received from my childhood peers that I was fundamentally annoying. At least now, I just don’t bother with people who would see me that way, but it took a few decades to figure that out.

I got the evaluation and was diagnosed. It was actually rather upsetting to talk out all the ways I’d built up coping mechanisms for things my brain simply does differently than others, but it was a relief not to think that what I’d come to understand about myself wasn’t actually untrue. This essay isn’t really about the diagnosis, though, so much as all the things I’ve done since then that represent the end of me trying so hard to match what I expect that people want of me, a gradual rejection of expectations that (privilege marker #3) I have the capacity to do, and, now, the confidence to stick to.

First off, once I figured out that background noise at work bothered me, I went looking for a solution for that. I did buy some new over-ear headphones, but I’ve been using those at home for a while so that wasn’t ADHD-specific, I just got a second pair for work. However, I did hear about a type of earplug that many neurodivergent people recommended because it helped them be less overwhelmed by background noises. I ordered them, and now, when I’m not listening to a podcast or something, I wear them all day long. Excess noise (particularly people having conversations at a middle distance from me) still gets under my skin, but with this, it’s much easier to focus on what I want to hear. (The company is called Loop, though this isn’t an ad.)

Second, I was headed towards my first in-person conference (which took place last weekend), and my usual plan would be to wear a button-down shirt and maybe a jacket. Now, I still like a jacket (because I like pockets), but another thing about ADHD is that, like background noise, it’s easy for me to be distracted by tactile and visual stimuli, too. Basically, if I tuck in a shirt, I’m going to obsess over how it fits and feels around my waist, and I’m going to fidget with it far more than I need to. But how can I present without a button-down? I don’t want to do some tech-bro hoodie stuff, even though my website has me in a hoodie…

So I decided not to be afraid of judgment and wear some comfortable but well-fitting sweaters. Additionally, I chose bright colors, because damn it I like bright colors and I’m done trying to fit what people expect. This is ironic to say when I gave presentations in facemasks, but part of “mask off” is I’m going to look more like the bouncy, bright colors inside my head from now on. Even when it’s cold out.

JPB Gerald sits in a brightly colored face mask, with a light blue sweater, and pink pants.
Me, avoiding the bad plenary speech.

A final, but perhaps most important aspect of this, is skincare. I’ve had acne on and off since I was a teenager. I had prescriptions back then but I kept moving and never kept up with them. I also get dark spots (see above) and my feet are dry. However many thousands of dollars I’ve spent on over-the-counter remedies in the last decade (privilege marker #4), it doesn’t really work so much as soothe the occasional discomfort. And my wife finally told me to go back to the dermatologist. Lo and behold he said I needed four (!!!) prescriptions, and they all work very well. All this time I was trying to white-knuckle my own body!

In a way, the diagnosis shouldn’t be necessary for self-worth and self-understanding. It sort of gave me permission to seek help and take care of myself in ways I’d long neglected. I was only able to do anything of this because we as a couple can afford it, although, truth be told, the OTC remedies and various struggles were probably more expensive in the long run, so I might actually be saving money. And were I not someone who is about to complete a doctorate, deeply interested in the intersection of racial, linguistic, and neurological minoritization, and prone to writing his thoughts out, I might still be white-knuckling everything.

I can’t do that to my son, though. Maybe he has it too. Wouldn’t be surprising. And whether or not that’s the case, I can’t be the father to him that he deserves if I don’t take care of myself. I knew that, broadly, but I didn’t realize how many ways I was just letting myself struggle out of some ignoble desire to prove I wasn’t lazy or annoying. And of course, I think about every racialized parent, and particularly every Black dad, who might not get the sort of support I’ve been able to find since I let myself accept professional aid, from the original therapy to the products that have been successful to the actual medical appointments designed to resolve such issues.

I write this because I hope it can be useful to others, who might not realize all the aspects of life that neurodivergence (and ADHD in particular) can impact, who might need some extra support so that the wonderful brilliance of minds like ours can be free to build and create in the unique ways that only people like us can. I hope, through all of my writing and my speaking and my teaching, I can continue to fight for, and alongside, the people in these communities.

I know that the world wasn’t built to listen to us, but that’s no reason we can’t have our voices heard.

EdD student. Race and language scholar. I love my wife, my son, my dog, running, NYC, subways, and the Yankees.