ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactive disorder) was something relatively unknown in the society and country when I was growing up decades ago. It was only in my early thirties, that through researching some health related symptoms that I came across Wikipedia on ADHD that I realized I had many of the traits of ADHD.
ADHD is not a mental illness or personality disorder. It is now believed that ADHD is a bioneurological genetic disorder related to brain development. It is not something that a person can snap out or grow out of it.
I would like to share my personal experience in this article, on how growing up and struggling with many of the symptoms of ADHD. And without having a name of my symptoms for most part of my life, what are the adjustment, sometimes maladaptation that I had (and sometimes still do) to cope with this disorder.
The social economic environment and parenting plays a role
From experience, I can tell you that the environment that an ADHD child is brought up plays a role in how the child is able to cope with the disorder.
I grew up in a middle class family- we are not rich. Both my parents worked, especially my mom who worked very hard to raise us. I knew from a young age that education was the key out of poverty. This was told to me multiple times by my mom- who got an education (equivalent to completing high school) and enrolled in a nursing college. While her stepbrother, who was brilliant and top student, ended up mixing with a bunch of house painters, skipped his Standard 6 exams and basically led a hard life working as a housepainter with a family of 5 kids to feed.
We had no financial backing and if I had wanted to survive, I had better get through my education, preferably get a degree that opens up more door to better jobs. So the human instinct for survival would provide the inner motivation for the ADHD child to force himself/herself to study.
But I feel sorry for kids nowadays with ADHD because there are a lot of factors working against them. There are just sooooooo much of distraction. It’s tough. really tough. The internet with social media, YouTube, Netflix, sophisticated video games. The distraction….. a normal child can put down the game console but a child with ADHD who are really into the game may react with violence or uncontrolled anger.
Another thing is that parents who are usually busy working tried to compensate for their guilt by giving the best to their children like gadgets and overseas holidays. So it does not give the child the willpower or inner motivation to overcome the constant distraction to do their homework, to get things done to work towards a long term goals.
Honestly, if I was growing up in the internet era, I cannot imagine how I would be able to graduate with all these distractions. And if I grow up in a well to do family with absent parents, I would turn out to be a totally different person. That is why I understand and feel for these group of people.
Getting through the education system was a real struggle
When I was in elementary school, my grade performance was below average. I just did not know why that I did not understand what the teacher is trying to teach in school. When the teachers asked me questions, I often don’t understand what they are asking about.
I remembered one of my teachers told me I was really untidy, leaving my hair down where all other girls with hair longer than shoulder length were required to tie up their hair. But I did not understand her instructions and she was angry with me. She took it as an act of rebelliousness, which was not. So my standard 1 teacher would complaint to my standard 2 teacher and so on. I know because each new year, the new teachers already had prejudice against me.
It did not help that the school was one of the schools were most of the students were children of managers, engineers, corporate bosses or ministers. Most were chauffeur driven to school either by their parents or a driver. Whereas I was this untidy girl with worn out school bag and shoes.
My mom who went and collected my report card noticed my grades were suffering. Despite her exhaustion from working all day, she decided that she needed to take time to teach me. But her methods were something considered to be wrong but it worked. She did not believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the child. She had this book where she would write down English words for me to memorize for spelling. She told me to study and memorize them and she would question me after work.
I was out playing and did not do as I was told. The first time she let me go with a stern warning. The .second time, she was very angry. She took out a rattan cane, made me kneel down before the house deity’s statue and rain a few stripes of the cane.
You can betcha that the next time I sat down and made an effort… well I managed to memorize a few words. I did not manage to get all the spellings correct. The touching thing she told me was that she did not expect me to get everything right but she was okay that I had at least tried my best. She also sat down and taught me simple maths which somehow I managed to pick up easier.
As part of the education, we also had to pass our national language which is the Malay language. I don’t know about other children, but for me, learning language out of a textbook literally sucked the life out of me. It was immensely boring. All the theory.
My mom could not teach me the Malay language as she was not proficient in that language. But I became good at expressing myself in Malay because many of my classmates were Malay and I loved listening to Malay songs. Also, when I was standard six (on the year of my exams), I had this kind lady who taught us Malay language who was hardworking. She gave us daily homework and wanted us to do well. I noticed I got motivated and inspired when there are people who have faith in me. Same for you…. you need to find what drives you to want to accomplish something.
Still, most of the teachers looked down on me, a misfit messy awkward girl who did not seemed to understand simple instructions. I had been told a number of times that I was stupid and few times that I would never amount to anything. Those words hurt me to the core and for a long sometime, I believed them.
Until today I am not sure how I did it but somehow, I managed to score straight As in my standard 6 exams. I just felt that in life if you say something mean or curse a person who did not deserve it, the opposite would happen. By right, I should be sent to a good secondary school based on my results. But due to their prejudice, they posted me to a high school that was well known for its gangsterism. Only 7 students out of the few hundred students from my school were posted to this gangster school….and the others all had bad academic results.
My mom was worried. She wanted to go to the Education ministry to appeal. But something in me decided that I want to start fresh in a school that nobody knows me and therefore would not judge me. I begged her to let me go to the school. She finally agreed because I was able to get to the school through public transport whereas the other high schools had no convenient buses to reach there.
It turned out to be the best. Before starting school, we had to sit for an entry exams so that the school authorities could figure out which class to place us. I was like a little blur. I did not know there was an exam or perhaps I was not paying attention to what they said. So I never studied or prepared for the exam.
Since that school were notorious, most students performed poorly. I ended up in the top 3rd class. It kinda suited me. Half of my classmates had connection with the school gangsters as most came from troubled or broken families. Half were okay and quite well behaved.
Ironically, I had a greater sense of belonging in that gangster school. No one judged anyone else because everyone seemed to have their own sad story. Most of these kids were traumatised, that was why they behaved the way they were…..but that time of course the education system did not have this figure out.
In that gangster school, I felt happier, relieved and more free. I wanna say in a rap style that…’Yo I wanna let ya know that gangsters actually have ethics and principles ya know’. The teachers were not judgmental because they also had to teach in the weak class consisting of kids with disciplinary problems. Our class were considered well behaved compared to most of the classes.
(Note: Most of my friends turned out well today even though academically some of them did not do well…eg some migrated, some have their own business and others hold high corporate position. No bad coming out from gangster school heh).
By I was about 15 years old, my mom started to have chit chats sessions with us whenever she came back on morning shift or on her days off. On reflection it was probably advice from her colleagues at work. Like after work no matter how tired she was, she would make tea for my brother and me. We just sit down with tea, coffee or milo with cheap biscuits and chatted. Slowly both my brother and me opened up to her and tell her about our day. But it was only when my brother was in his twenties that he admitted he was fighting almost daily in school because he stood up to the bullies. My brother went to a different high school…. it was supposed to be a good school. Go figure.
Because the teachers were non judgmental and not mean, also I had a small group of friends, I was finding motivation to study. But I figured out that I learned things differently from other kids. Perhaps you can apply some of the adaptions that I have.
a. Mathematics, I had to keep practicing, doing lots and lots of homework. I had to work 10x harder than my friends. Practice practice till I develop the skill.
b. English- my mom enrolled us in a public library and borrowed books for us to read. I also listened to lots of English songs.
c. Malay language– I read Malay newspapers in the library. At night while studying, I tune in to my favourite Malay radio channel and sang my heart out together with the Malay rock ballad guys…their style of singing were like Chicago or Air Supply. Mind you, this is while studying other subjects like History or doing Maths questions coz those subjects sometimes can bore the daylights out of me.
Note: If you want to know more about these songs, over the years I’ve translated some of my favourite Malay songs into English lyrics because I hope the rest of the world would learn to appreciate the beauty in the lyrics of these songs…you can check out at this section at my other blog.
d. Commerce and entrepreneurship– I loved this subject very much. So it was not an effort. Even though I did not realize it then, but when studying this subject, I was hyperfocusing. I started to develop the ambition to start my own small little business so my brains were absorbing the knowledge. I consistently scored As in this.
e. Science– At first I tried to memorize the facts and equations but failed. We had no science channels in TV then that make subjects like this interesting. When I study this subject I had to talk and explain to myself a lot…. use a lot of imagination. For example, while studying the digestive system, I had to visualise strongly in my mind the whole process because I could not memorise the facts. And then repeat again when I forget. I had to work very hard to understand because if I don’t understand, my brain could not retain the information.
f. Geography– I imagine myself in their country. If I study about their climate, I imagine how it is like and then picture how the wind and elements operate that made the landscape and conditions the way they were. Had to use a lot of imagination.
g. History– keep reading the facts like what happened in 1845, etc etc. And then weave all these series of little facts together in a story. Till today I have very bad memory so I had to compensate with using a lot of story telling. I had to make myself like the subject by using self pep talks.
h. Art and drawing– I am hopeless in drawing. No amount of practice helped so I had to take tuition class for this. I really thought I was not creative but I discover in my late teens that I am creative, just that not in drawing and design. So if you cannot draw, it does not mean you are not creative.
When I was 18 years old, studying for my pre university exams (STPM), were the toughest. I was in Science stream. By then, I had to take tuition classes for physics, mathematics and general paper (Pengajian Am). Because of a deep fear of failling and the fact I was lucky to have known my best friend who studied hard and constantly motivated me. Also, I got by listening to songs from Mariah Carey (Hero) and Andrew Llyod Webber’s opera plays. It was Andrew Llyod Webber’s album called Starlight Express, a cassette I had bought which I had constantly playing on my earphones while studying.
Starlight Express was the story of a bunch of different trains…. steam train, diesel train, bullet train who got into a race. It was a story told from these train’s point of view as if they were alive. Rusty, the steam train was technically supposed to be the weakest and slowest train and by right, it would not make it. In the song below, it talked about Rusty’s doubt because he was so disadvantaged. He wanted comfort, for someone to just take him away. I had felt then that that the song spoke straight to my heart:
Only you have the power within you
Just believe in yourself, the sea will part before you
Stop the rain, turn the tide
If only you use the power within you
Needn’t beg the world to turn around and help you
If you draw on what you have within you
Somewhere deep inside
Starlight Express- Only you…. this really offered me comfort
In the end, guess which train won the race 😉
Take away from lessons:
If you have ADHD, you gotta realize you retain and use information very very differently from other people who don’t have this disorder. It is difficult for you to work towards long term goals like the other regular homo sapiens out there.
Understanding that you learn things differently: Where your friends can memorise and throw out facts, your ADHD brain, due to problem with working memory is not able to do so. But it does not means that you are stupid or lazy. You just got to find creative ways to learn. Yes, you would probably need to work harder… for example I become a better writer because I read tonnes of books…. it is a harder route but once you have that skill, you tend to be better and more eloquent than most people.
Find a way to like what you are doing: Often, there seemed to be a inner rebelliousness going within the brains of an ADHD person. You not only fight and have arguments with others but you fight a lot with yourself. It is important to convince yourself to learn to like what you are studying so that your brain would cooperate with you.
Goals: ADHD folks are time blind. So long term goals and vision of something into a distant future does not work with a person with ADHD. You MUST break down a long term goal into a series of small goals and set short term deadlines. For example you have 23 chapters in biology that you need to study by end of the year. So you break it down in each month. Get a monthly planner and plot till certain dates what chapters you need to complete . The timeline must be realistic.
Motivation: you would also be motivated differently than others. You gotta find your mojo and the drive that would make all these superhuman effort worthwhile. For me, it was seeing the sacrifices of my mom and wanting desperately to make sure I do not have to suffer a life of poverty. Even though I realized now it was wrong, but at time the people who looked down on me or I perceived were doing so… I wanted to prove them wrong.
Rewards: A reward system needs to be in place. Motivate yourself with little rewards whenever you feel you have accomplished something. Till today, I still give little rewards to myself when I am able to get something meaningful done without getting distracted.
And finally for parents with ADHD child:
Honestly, unless your child wants to enter a profession where professional qualification is required such as being a doctor, accountant or engineer, then he/she does not need to excel academically.
My sincere advice is to take up a course in an area they love…. be it Business Admin, graphic designs, or whatever topic that they have interest in. Because if they study what they love, with enough motivation and their natural hyperfocus ability (you would see that ability in their skills of playing video games non stop), they would be able to sail through.
Don’t ever force them to study something that they do not want but what you want. Unless you want to further kill off their self confidence and possibly cause them to suffer anxiety or depression. The way the education system flow is very much against the ADHD brain.
You would know very well that we literally never applied what we study in school into our working life. I had a degree in Applied Science minoring Management ….but I came out to work in the corporate world. Even with the business management knowledge-it was of no use in the real working world. But, a degree or a Masters is useful just to get you that first job.
During my corporate life, I have came across many colleagues who are skillful, intelligent and capable but they were not able to get that far ahead because…. they don’t have a degree. They had less bargaining power for promotions or job changes because minimally for a Manager’s position, most reputable companies requires a degree holder with job experience. Even though they can rise up the ranks with just their work performance, they could not easily change to better company. Yes, life is unfair because just a mere paper qualification puts these talented individuals at a disadvantage. But it is a fact in the working world and spending that additional 3 to 4 years is worth it…. and while your kid is at it, let him/her study what they love and have fun before they need to leave your nest to face the challenges in the real world.
So my advice based on my experience… yes, pursue higher education. Study and graduate with minimum a college degree. Focus on graduating. But don’t look at the scores too heavily because academic qualification is never an indication of one’s success in life.