ADHD makes you different, not defective

CNN
CNN

Editor’s note: Wendy Davis starred on the Lifetime television series “Army Wives” for seven seasons and recently guest starred on “Scandal” and “Criminal Minds.” As an adult, she was diagnosed with ADD and is now a national spokesperson for Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). The organization provides education, information and support for people with ADHD/ADD and their families.

Los Angeles (CNN) — A few days ago, I received an Instagram message from a young girl who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She was struggling in school and depressed since being diagnosed. She shared her situation knowing I had found a way to live peacefully with my attention deficit disorder, which gave her hope she could do the same. I was so deeply touched because her story is mine.

As early as the second grade, I knew something was different about me. I couldn’t sit still in class. It was torture for me. My teachers constantly requested I stop fidgeting, but I couldn’t. I was confused because other kids didn’t seem to have my problem.

Additionally, it was impossible to focus on my teacher and her lessons. My mind would float off with the clouds, way more interested in imagination than the reality of a boring textbook. School always paled in comparison to the vibrant world I created in my mind. The classroom was my jail.

The highlight of my day was recess, where I was a natural born leader. On the playground, I was somebody for one glorious hour a day. Then it was back to the classroom and my feelings of inadequacies.

My inability to sit still and focus eventually took its toll on my academic performance. If students couldn’t or didn’t keep up, they were labeled “learning disabled” and placed in a “special” class with other kids who shared the same shame. Regardless of your specific learning challenges, all students were thrown into one big class. I was mortified. It changed my mindset about my capabilities and who I thought I was.

I labeled myself “stupid” and set out to prove my theory right. I lost all self-esteem and self-respect. In fifth grade, I gave up on myself. I stopped learning and started surviving.

As my academic workload intensified, so did my self-loathing. I feared my deep, dark secret would be discovered at any moment. To prevent that from happening, I became the class clown. I developed skills to mask my inadequacies. For example, if I was asked a question and didn’t know the answer, I would simply crack a joke.

Although I seemed happy, my despair over my academic performance weighed heavily on my heart. My parents tried their best to support me and lift my spirits, but their efforts fell on deaf ears. I felt alone, hurt and by high school, suicidal.

Sports provide a turning point

Luckily, sports were an arena where I excelled and felt good about myself. I was a natural athlete, and my sport of choice was softball. My parents took notice of my ability early. They practiced with me daily, came to my games and even coached my Little League softball team. Often they taught me life lessons using sports analogies. They learned to speak “my language,” and it made sense. My tenacity, competitiveness and desire to win developed on the softball field.

By the time I reached high school, I was a softball super star! I still wasn’t a fan of schoolwork, but to play softball, I had to maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA. So, I did the bare minimum to be eligible for the team.

During these years, my inability to control my emotions became a major part of my struggle. My temper tantrums were legendary. I started hanging out with some high school dropouts and experimenting with drugs because I wanted to fit in.

Still struggling with the undiagnosed ADHD, I was a full-blown teenage jerk. Luckily my parents were on top of it and implemented a strict and relentless set of rules. It got ugly. I would scream obscenities at the top of my lungs. I rebelled and threatened. I tried the silent treatment. None of it worked.

My parent’s rules were set in stone like the Ten Commandments: no drugs, no loser friends and no dropping out of high school. I resigned myself to my fate.

All I could see was the finish line my senior year. Although my academic struggles still made me feel worthless, I stayed involved in school because as captain of the softball team, I was determined to see our team get to the state finals. We did make it, but were eliminated in the first round. Nonetheless, I was honored as an all-state softball all-star — a rare proud moment during my bleak high school years.

High school musical to the rescue

When softball season ended, I felt hopeless. I had no prospects for my future. College wasn’t an option because I could not imagine four more years of torture. On a whim and to procrastinate doing homework, I signed up to work as a props master for our annual high school musical. As I watched the performances from backstage, a small flame was ignited in me.

A few days later, I sheepishly asked my parents what they thought of me becoming an actor. Clearly concerned, they paused for a moment, then my father said, “You’d be great at acting.” My mom then chimed in sarcastically, “You can put all those emotions to work” as she winked at me.

That’s all I needed to hear. Acting became my new softball, my new passion. Suddenly the kid who hated school was going to college. My parents were overjoyed.

In college, many of my ADHD characteristics that had created so much grief in the past became assets. With my vivid imagination, I could believe wholeheartedly in the imaginary worlds portrayed in plays. I’m also very emotional and impulsive. While these may not be such great qualities in a corporate office, they helped me excel in the world of theater. By my sophomore year, I was on a full academic scholarship.

After I graduated from Howard University in Washington, I moved to Hollywood to pursue my dream of becoming a professional actor.

Finally, my questions had answers

Fast forward to 2009. I’m one of the stars of Lifetime’s hit TV series “Army Wives.” My early struggles in school were a distant memory. Life was great, except for one little thing — my daughter Kobi was a real chip off the old block. She was fidgety and had a tough time sitting still in school. Her second-grade teacher suggested Kobi get tested for ADHD. The results confirmed she had it.

On a whim, I decided to follow suit and get tested. My diagnosis: ADD. Finally my entire childhood made sense! I wasn’t happy about having the disorder, but at least now I knew I wasn’t alone.

I had a child to shepherd through the ADD landscape. I wanted her to thrive, not just survive like I did. I had to learn more.

I googled ADHD, and the first link to pop up was www.CHADD.org. Everything I needed to know was there, including critical information about how to be a powerful advocate for your child in school. It was a light at the end of a tunnel. The website gave me the information and tools I needed to best support my daughter and myself.

I contacted CHADD and spoke with several members of their leadership team. I was so impressed with their resources, their commitment and dedication to this condition that I offered my services to support them. In late 2013, CHADD asked me to be their national spokesperson.

I proudly accepted this important role to help people feel comfortable living with ADHD and let them know they deserve the opportunity to live up to their full potential. Early diagnosis and treatment greatly increase their chances of doing that.

I want to share one more message with the young girl who sent me that Instagram message and with others who are struggling with ADHD/ADD. (And lean forward because this is important).

You’re NOT stupid, broken or disordered. Celebrate the good, step over the bad and work around the ugly. Realize that those of us with ADHD/ADD have a skill that allows us to see the world through a unique lens. We are different, not defective.

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