The author at 18, apparently having conquered a small pile of dirt.
Dear Teen Me,
ADD is a real thing. You have it, it’s going to go undiagnosed and untreated, and nobody will ever cut you any slack for it. Let’s get all that on the table right up front. It’s why things that seem pretty easy for lots of other people are impossibly confusing to you. It’s why deadlines are terrifying. It’s why your room is a mess. And, it’s why your life for the next few years is going to be defined largely by other people’s disappointment in you.
Heads up: you don’t suck at everything. It just feels that way a lot of the time. You’re going to turn out all right, and do some pretty fantastic stuff. You write at least five novels. No lie. And I’m not talking shitty one-draft vanity projects you keep in a box of notebooks in your closet. All five novels get published. Rave reviews. There’s a movie deal. An audiobook. For three days you are an honest-to-God bestseller on Amazon. Keep all of that in your head, because we need to talk about how you’re going to get there.
First of all, you’re going to hear many variations of the phrase “not meeting potential.” Pretty much every adult in your life is going to have this view of you. Teachers, parents, relatives, employers, and so on. By now you’ve already figured out you are smarter than the average bear. So have they. And that carries with it a whole assortment of expectations that seem completely reasonable to your elders, and utterly nonsensical to you. They are never going to get tired of telling you how much better you should be doing, and none of what they are asking you to do will make any sense to you.
Try to keep the following in mind:
Most of them, maybe even all of them, are telling you these things because they genuinely love and respect you. To you, it will always sound like scolding. In their heads, it sounds like mentoring. A huge proportion of their frustration with you comes from that disconnect, and their inability to see it.
When they talk about your potential, they are measuring something completely immeasurable, and they have no idea they are doing that. They think they are responding to data like developmental benchmarks, test scores, and observational evidence. It turns out that stuff only accounts for an absurdly small fraction of who you are and what you can do. They are not wrong to say that people as smart as you are can do things better than you have been doing them. But they are absolutely wrong to believe that intelligence alone can quantify potential for success, especially for narrow definitions of success (remember, five novels – hang onto that).
So, yeah, lots of adults and authority figures are going to say the same exact unhelpful things to you, over and over, in chorus, and then blame you when their guidance fails to produce the results they want.
And then someone finally figures out the right way to say it.
You’re going to have a French teacher. Maybe you’ve already met her. Her name is Ellen Minor, and you take French 2 and French 3 with her in 10th and 11th grade. You don’t take French 4, even though it’s offered, and even though she teaches it, and even though you think she’s pretty great for a teacher. You don’t take it because foreign languages are not intuitive for you, and because you have cultivated an interest in the performing arts over the past three years, and there is no way you can fit it in your schedule and still take drama and music.
And you don’t take it because you think you’re no good at French.
Ellen is going to be disappointed in you. By that point, disappointment will be pretty much the defining quality of your relationships with teachers, and you will weather it. But her opinion will matter to you, and in the course of discussing your decision not to take the class, you are going to make an offhand remark that she thinks you’re just lazy. I don’t remember why you say that. Maybe it’s to pick a fight so you can defend yourself. Maybe it’s a moment of self-deprecation (there will be a lot of those), and it’s to give yourself permission to hate yourself again. I don’t know. But it does turn out to be the right button to push, because what she says next will completely change your life.
Horribly unflattering picture of me, and in terrible condition, but totally worth including because that’s Ellen in the middle. (Also pictured: Ann Brown, whom I have sadly lost track of)
She’s going to say, “I don’t think you’re lazy at all. I think you work very hard until you find something that doesn’t come easy for you, and then you give up.”
I… wait… what?
Yeah. That’s the moment. Because here’s the secret about ADD: it doesn’t hold you back from anything. It just means you have to push harder to accomplish whatever it is you need to accomplish. It means you have to want it more.
Here’s what was happening to you that whole time, right up to that moment:
You accomplished a lot. That should be obvious, but somehow it isn’t. Your parents and teachers didn’t think you were smart because of some theory or prophecy. They thought you were smart because you did smart things. You were reading at a college level by the time you got to middle school. You blasted through math like it was nothing. And you did those things because they came easy for you, and you enjoyed them, and you got caught in an ease-skill-joy-work-reward loop. Adults said you were brilliant, and you believed them. But the second your distractibility kicked in and slowed you down, you got the not-meeting-potential smackdown.
Like I said, ADD is a real thing. Your difficulties are going to be random and profound. It will be frustrating as hell. The trick is to stop worrying about how good you are supposed to be at whatever it is, embrace the fact that some things are going to require more time, effort and dedication from you than they will from your peers, and never give up.
You’re going to get into Wesleyan. That’s awesome! The bad news is college is going to be incredibly difficult for you. It’s going to take you five years to earn a bachelor’s degree in a field you do not end up pursuing. You are going to graduate in the bottom quarter of your class. That’s going to feel like failure to you for years, until one day you suddenly remember that people who graduate in the bottom quarter of their class from Wesleyan are called WESLEYAN GRADUATES. Wear that badge, pal. You’re totally going earn it, and you will probably work harder for it than a lot of your classmates who graduate ahead of you (not all of them, obviously, but many).
You’re going to be a teacher. That probably sounds insane to you right now, but it’s true. You’re going to get certified to teach math, and then later, on a dare, you are going to add English to your credentials.
You finally get diagnosed at 30. At first, you will treat it like a dirty secret, and honestly I can’t really blame you. People you work with, other teachers, your friends and colleagues, are going to say the following things about ADD right to your face:
ADD means Ain’t Doing Diddly.
PS: Quit biting your nails.
I wish I had a Ritalin dart gun.
No wonder these kids are so hyper; Ritalin is a stimulant!
You will smile politely, fuming inside, thinking you will never be accepted if anyone finds out you are being treated for the same thing they mock so freely. Eventually you will figure out that you can do a lot more good for your kids if you just shrug off the anxiety and put it out there. You will have students who treat their diagnosis as a get-out-of-work-free card. Tell them you have a music degree, you teach math and you write successful novels, and tell them exactly how you pushed past the ADD to make it all happen. It will make a difference, I promise you. They need you to be that example.
You’ve got this, buddy. Now get out there and write some books.
Future Edward Aubry