Once upon a time, I had occasion to meet someone who was in the witness protection program. (This may be an unexpected opening, but stick with me. I promise it has something to do with my experience with ADHD.) I met this person at a job where I had access to lots of sensitive information. This particular customer needed a lot of extra care, and if the details of her location and other identifiable information were disclosed, her life could be in danger.
I share this anecdote because that’s what I felt like coming out to the people in my life for the first time about my ADHD. Now I am not saying my life would have been in danger if I had shared the details about my life, but it certainly could complicate my relationships forever.
I was 25 when I had a breakdown that eventually led to my diagnosis with ADHD (my third and final diagnosis, but who’s counting?). It started with a depression diagnosis, which is not uncommon for women. Symptoms of ADHD in women and girls might go undiagnosed or be attributed to depression or an anxiety disorder. Missing a diagnosis can lead to a long road of trial and error for the women who deal with ADHD.
Fortunately for me, I just so happened to mention my childhood ADHD diagnoses to my therapist when I was seeking help for mental health issues. Thankfully, my therapist listened to me and set me on the right path to getting a proper diagnosis. The healthcare professionals I was working with were absolutely on board with me getting the help I needed to manage my condition.
My family though? Let’s just say it took some convincing for them to believe my diagnosis was accurate.
As a black woman, seeking help for both my depression and ADHD wasn’t exactly easy. The black community in the United States has historically had a complicated relationship with the medical community. From the Tuskegee Study and issues of informed consent to various experiments on black men and women during slavery, suffice to say that in the culture there’s a lot of mistrust of the medical community.
When it comes to mental health — forget about it. There’s so much stigma that the idea of even acknowledging mental health issues, much less seeking help for them, is unusual. There’s a lack of understanding around mental health, and so in my community seeking that type of help is often still considered letting someone “lead you by the nose” or manipulate you into thinking that the issues you’re facing are more serious than they really are.
In this line of thinking, depression is just another word for “the blues,” and you’ll get over it. And in spite of all this, there I was — a black woman in a therapist’s office for the first time — talking through my issues and getting help. On one hand, I felt proud and defiant, as though I had gotten something that my community didn’t think I was allowed to have. Bucking the system, as it were. On the other hand, I felt like I had failed. At the same time, I felt that I wasn’t a “strong black woman” — like I was a defective member of my community, or that I had betrayed them all somehow.
Due to those complex feelings, I did not share much with my family about my course of treatment. I let them know that I was going to therapy, and that was about it. When I began taking medication, the only person I called was my mother, but only because I was advised by my doctor to check in with someone close to me. “Why?” she questioned. “After all of the work I did in order to keep you off of medication, why would you take something like this?”
I didn’t talk to anybody else about my mental health for a long time after that. I didn’t want to be talked out of doing what I felt was best for me. I didn’t want to be shamed and guilt-tripped for making a decision to take charge of my mental health and work on getting better.
Like so many things in life, sometimes people have to see the unfamiliar in action before they can see its value. That’s what happened to my family when they saw me work through my mental health problems.
As I began the work to manage my condition, I became a better person. I was kinder, easier to be around, and less irritable. I began to succeed professionally again after a long time of experiencing work issues. In other words, confronting my mental health issues was so successful for me that even my family couldn't deny it. It wasn’t my words that convinced them, it was the results.
I still haven’t had a conversation about ADHD and mental health with many of my family members. Discussing mental health issues in a black household is taboo, much like politics or sex. It’s an ugly topic that we still sweep under the rug.
Although I’m a mental health advocate, and I blog extensively on the topic, I can still feel the skepticism among my nearest and dearest. It still embarrasses me at times to admit to them what it felt like to fall into a pit of despair so deep that I had to seek medical attention to help drag me out. And to admit that for the rest of my life I will still struggle with this — that my mental health condition isn’t a phase or a result of some bad life experiences. But that it’s an ongoing issue that will raise its ugly head when I least expect it, despite my best efforts to keep it at bay.
Just like many other black people with mental health conditions, I remain partially closeted when it comes to my family. I keep them somewhat at a distance because I don’t want them to be disappointed in me, or feel like I’ve failed them.
I’ve revealed the story of my ADHD and mental health issues to my family in bits and pieces. I’m not sure if they’ll ever really know the whole story, and the loneliness that creates is mine to bear. But maybe one day we’ll be able to have that conversation. For now, this is part of my narrative — something to dwell on in this long struggle to keep my sanity.
ADHD-US-NP-00020 JUNE 2018