It’s been occurring to me lately – for some years now, but slowly – that the way I deal with my ADHD is very similar to the way I used to deal with my hearing loss (and I say “hearing loss” rather than “deafness” deliberately, here; it was about what I didn’t have and what I couldn’t do, back then, and that was it). I knew my ears didn’t work the same way as most people, and would never say I had typical hearing (that would have been dishonest). I’d even tell some people about it. I lived as if it were no big deal, something I’d figured out already, minimized enough that nobody would have to deal with it except for me.
Because I have no memories of being otherwise, I didn’t realize the magnitude of the difference between my hearing and typical hearing (it’s huge - my loss is severe/profound). Because my life had always been this way, I wasn’t aware how hearing loss inflected my life; unlike someone who grew up hearing and then lost their hearing later, I had no comparison point to gauge how this inflected my life. Because humans naturally adapt to survive, I had cobbled together strategies that worked well enough, but they were draining and solitary and hidden.
All these statements were true about the way I used to navigate my deafness, before it was deafness – when it was still “I can’t hear.” Something I can’t do, something I wasn’t, with no notion of what I was or might be instead. Strategies for living as someone with a frustrating, disappointing lack that must be overcome.
These strategies did work, well enough, for quite some time. It’s also an exhausting and limiting way to be. I didn’t ask anyone else to adjust to me, because I didn’t think that would be productive – I didn’t know how to ask that sort of thing skilfully, and if my request had been rejected, I would automatically assume I’d been unreasonable and/or just wrong to ask in the first place. I didn’t know how other people lived out this way of being, and I thought my set of tools for “dealing with it” were just fine – why would I need sign language? Why would I want to try hearing aids again after those frustrating expriences in elementary school?
In the past few years, the way I live as a Deaf person has dramatically changed. First is the fact that I live as a Deaf person now, not as someone who’s “basically hearing, but can’t hear.” I experience the world substantially differently than people with typical hearing, and that affects so much of who I am and how I live – and rather than being a negative, that’s actually a wonderful thing. I can articulate that now, and explain why. I can ask others to adapt to me, and have confidence that sometimes – often! – it’s the world rather than me that is being inaccessible, unreasonable, or presenting a stubbornness or lack of understanding. I have a much wider range of tools, and use them skillfully and situationally. I’ve seen how others use those strategies and tools, and when and where and why their choices may be different from mine, and when and where and why and how I want to learn from others (just because someone else “doesn’t need” interpreting in one situation doesn’t mean I should also be able to “get by” without it, for instance).
I live as a different kind of person. The question isn’t “how can I deal with this,” but – how do I live as who I am? How do I live as a Deaf person in a hearing world, with my Deafness not as something to minimize so it can seamlessly interface with hearing expectations… but as a sort of dance between the world and me, with both of us moving and adapting to fit each other? It’s still an ongoing adventure, but the change is marked, and I cannot imagine going back now.
In contrast, my ADHD skills are still in solitary “how do I fit the world without them knowing?” mode. Highly honed, “I’ve done lots of research on this” solitary mode, to be sure. Just as my “mainstreaming” skills as a non-hearing person in a hearing world were impressively detailed and adaptive and honed to their peak with relentless practice, so too are my skills as a non-neurotypical person in a world whose expectations can often be incompatible. It’s not that I don’t have skills; it’s not that they’re not highly developed. But they are still fundamentally the skills of someone MacGyvering what they could figure out by tinkering alone, for years, with spit and gum and duct tape and a ton of energy and intellect.
I’ve never formally requested accommodations for my ADHD. I’m not sure what would work, or how. I know what will and won’t work for me in the existing (neurotypical) world to a reasonable degree, and either bludgeon myself to meet it, or avoid it because I know I won’t be able to do it, or fake it. It’s hard to give up that strange comfort with the kind of pain and labor I’ve just always assumed was me, or would be part of my life, to experiment with different ways of addressing this that will have me fumbling like a child again. I know the process of learning for my ADHD has been and will continue to be a long and awkward one, just as I needed to learn to listen with my new cochlear implant (auditory input started out by feeling like a chaos of undecipherable noise and small electric shocks).
I know the first few conversations asking the world to adapt to me are going to be awkward. So far, I have been fortunate – I have a few colleagues and mentors who understand from prior and/or personal experience what it’s like to be an ADHD academic, and who have seamlessly shifted themselves to meet me where I am. That dance has happened – it has worked – because of their skill in doing it, not mine. I need to learn to recognize what they have done that’s worked for me, and how to teach those moves to someone who doesn’t yet know how to adapt to someone with ADHD. I need to learn how to advocate for what I can do and what I can’t do and how to adjust so the same goals are achieved, rather than hiding and trying to work harder so the interface I (eventually) present to others is the same as someone who is neurotypical.
I’m tired of saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over – not because I’m against apologies, or because I think the things I have (and do) apologize for because of my ADHD are always acceptable – but because I don’t want to come from the stance of hiding a brokenness as best I can, and then apologizing for the times I can’t plaster it over well enough. It’s not a brokenness. It’s a difference I’ve not learned to live with – and live as – at a level of skill that I’m satisfied with right now. That’s an important reframing.
I wish I’d done this work – all of this work! – much longer ago, when I was a child. But we didn’t know, and I didn’t know, and the resources weren’t there, and so many people start doing this work when they are older, too. And I get to be one of them.