October is Learning Disabilities and ADHD Awareness Month, so I want to make you aware of my story.
When I was seven, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. As of 2011 CDC statistics, (hyperlink: https://www.additudemag.com/the-statistics-of-adhd/) more than one in ten children in the United States from ages 4-17 have received the same diagnosis. ADHD is, in fact, one of the most common learning impediments.
That doesn’t make it easy, being one of the one in ten. I was lucky. Not only did my parents both share the same diagnosis, my mother was a psychiatric professional who actually knew a thing or two about the disorder. Unlike all too many ADHD kids, I grew up being told not that I was bad or lazy or a ditz, but that I had a brain that was wired differently than most people’s brains, and that it was not just ok but a good thing. My parents reminded me that many of the greatest minds in history have shown symptoms of the same thing that kept me from focusing in math class. Einstein was incessantly disorganized. Leonardo Da Vinci rarely finished a project. JFK demonstrated hyperactivity and impulsivity. If my brain was wired incorrectly, then it was, at least, in good company.
Still, it sucked. Despite learning to read on schedule with my peers, it took me far longer to develop the focus it took to apply that skill and actually finish a book. Despite having a natural talent for math and science, I lacked the methodical style of thinking that it took to see me through classes like chemistry or calculus, eventually driving me away from STEM altogether. Despite being an excellent student, I rarely did my homework. Even with every advantage—not just my understanding parents, but also the advantages afforded by being middle class, white, and relatively able-bodied—I struggled, growing up with the knowledge that, no matter how hard I tried, I was going to keep drifting off in math class, and I was going to keep not finishing projects or remembering to clean my room. I swung constantly between feeling like I was moving a million miles a minute, unable to slow down, and feeling like the world was spinning out of control while I stood paralyzed by worry and frustration. The loneliness of an ordinary young adulthood was compounded by the sure and certain knowledge that I really wasn’t like everyone else. That I really didn’t fit in.
Like all disabilities and mental health disorders, ADHD is widely misunderstood. Children grow up hearing about how “kids these days” are being medicated for no reason. How doctors hand out pills like candy to any parent who doesn’t want to deal with normal childhood rambunctiousness. How, “in the old days,” we just called those kids lazy, and they shaped up or they washed out. Children don’t get to hear about how “kids these days” are actually receiving treatment for something that, up until quite recently, they would have had to struggle with in silence. How far more children receive behavioral therapy—with or without medication—than receive medication alone. How, “in the old days,” those same children were frequently subjected to abuse to curtail behavior they couldn’t understand or control, and frequently died young, be it in an accident or due to substance abuse. Children do not hear the real narrative about this disorder, and they suffer for it. I suffered for it.
There was only one author, when I was growing up, who told stories about ADHD. Perhaps, we could equivocate and say that there are others who—knowingly or unknowingly—told similar stories without ever actually giving a name to the thing, but in the end, subtext is not the same as representation. The first time that I ever opened a book and saw a character who had the same diagnosis as I did was when, in the fifth grade, I opened The Lightning Thief. It was Rick Riordan’s first book, and though he would later go on to become one of the most influential authors writing for kids today, in that moment I knew him only as the man who had finally given voice to the constant frustration of being a kid who couldn’t seem to fit the mold, no matter how hard I tried.
Riordan wrote that book for his son, who has both ADHD and dyslexia—two learning disabilities which co-occur in startlingly high numbers. He recognized the absence of stories about and for kids like his son—like me—and he decided to fix it. That would have been enough for me. Reading a book in which a character so much as said the word ADHD in a way that wasn’t meant to mock or deride would have been enough for me. But Rick Riordan didn’t stop there. He gave Percy ADHD and dyslexia, and then he gave Percy a story that validated both those things. A story that said that not only was Percy actually a hero despite them, but because of them. ADHD is rendered not as just the thing that makes it impossible to sit still in class, but as the thing that gives the young protagonist an edge on the battlefield. Dyslexia isn’t just the thing that made it hard for Percy to read Shakespeare. It’s the thing that helps him read Ancient Greek. Riordan doesn’t take away the struggles that come with Percy’s disabilities—he still does struggle to sit still or read Shakespeare, and his symptoms aren’t swept aside or magically cured when he discovers his destiny—but he doesn’t turn them into tragedies, either. They are facts of Percy’s life, both good and bad, the same way that ADHD is part of mine.
This, too, would have been more than enough. I could have lived off of this book for a long, long time. But Riordan didn’t stop with Percy. He created other characters, a whole race of them in fact, who were just like Percy. Not just in that they shared his half-divine parentage, but in that most of them also shared his diagnoses. Even the brilliant, studious Annabeth shares Percy’s struggles and frustrations. These children represent, in some important ways, all children. There are disabled demigods and queer demigods and demigods of color. When Rick Riordan created Camp Halfblood, he didn’t only create a place for Percy and the other children of the Greek gods. He created a space for me, and for millions of kids like me. We, who had never seen ourselves in the pages of a book, were told we were not alone in our struggles and that we could share in the demigods’ triumphs.
Unfortunately, Riordan is among the few who tell these stories for kids with learning disabilities, and so I continue to struggle to find those parts of myself represented anywhere. But this isn’t just about my struggles, and I don’t tell you them to gain sympathy or because I’m still angry about the things I was told as a child, though I am. No, this is about trying to offer that real narrative, to show how desperately it’s needed. This is about the struggle that millions—over six million, to be specific—of kids and teens face every day, and the fact that they go so terribly underrepresented. This is about giving a voice to the little girl who thought she was broken, and telling her that maybe she’s not broken. Maybe, just maybe, she’s part god.
By Podcast Producer Christy Duprey