Most Improved: How A Diagnosis Freed Me of Shame

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By Lydia Oliver

It is the springtime of my first year in Girl Scouts, and I am at an Honor Court meeting eating cake and potato chips — but absolutely none of the dip or pizza that was offered to me, because these items had textures that I had personally outlawed. This was a party of paper plates and moms congregating and laughing at plastic tables in the elementary school library, where one alpha among the moms, usually a woman with feathery streak-dyed hair that tapered at her neck, held a microphone, and called out the names of the girls in Troop 721 to claim their latest badges of the season. These tokens of girlhood triumphs were petal-shaped, iron-on patches that were designed to complete the flower pattern on the teal smocks that were indicative of a Daisy-level Girl Scout.

During this final Honor Court of the season, “awards” were also doled out to each girl in the troop at the end of the day– these were sweet gestures to make each scout feel special and to acknowledge their accomplishments from over the past year. Sheets of colored paper with our names printed big and official, our troop leaders’ signatures scribbled at the bottom. As a budding over-achiever with an addiction to authorial recognition, nothing in the world could have been more beautiful to me. My heartbeat was in my throat as I watched my troop sisters shyly accept their superlatives. “Most Kind,” “Most Brave,” “Most Funny.” Puffy, light-up tennis shoes shuffled on a rainbow rug. The problematic grammar of the superlatives made me nervous, but only slightly distracted me from the moment.

“This girl scout has come such a long way since she started with us,” my troop leader began, holding the final sheet of paper in her French-tipped fingers. “I think we all remember our first meeting of the year, when we made maracas…” She eyed the other mothers of the troop with a grin, and scattered laughter rose from the parent table. I felt the color drain from my face. I began to tug at my loose badge-petals.

“She was so upset about all the paint getting mixed together! The blue paint is all in the red paint, and I can’t get my brush clean, and mine looks HORRIBLE!” my troop leader mocked in a high pitch, the scouts beginning to laugh as well now, turning towards me with gapped-tooth grins.

“There were other times too–making friendship bracelets, baking cupcakes. Things just had to be perfect, or she’d have a total meltdown!” More laughs and notes of agreement. At this point, I have peeled an entire section of blooms from my smock. “But she’s been doing so well lately! She’s able to have fun and actually SMILES now!” She looks around the room with so much satisfaction it’s like Juliette Gordon Low founded the Girl Scouts just for this purpose, to teach awkward girls to smile. People around me begin to add clapping to their laughing.

“I present this Most Improved certificate to Miss Lydia Oliver!”  I try to smile through the embarrassment and hurt, but it just looks like a wince. Several moms tug at me on my way back to my seat, big smiles and teasing tickles. The flowers on my smock look like they’ve been pulled through a gust of wind, half of my accomplishments from that year balled up in my fist.

Later, my mom will be proud of me, tacking the certificate on my bedroom wall. She will claim that it’s the best award that could have been given out–that I’ve made progress. But now I’m not sure that the honor of being the “Most Improved” girl was as much of a recognition of my willingness to face the things that upset me than as a way of encouraging me to not act upset.

The certificate was really praising me for my willingness to be more passive, to quiet my discontent. When paints start to get mixed into a rotten brown soup, or when eggshells fall into cupcake batter, or when a friendship bracelet breaks and the letters of your name burst and scatter across the room, don’t let the people around you know that it makes you feel like you can’t breathe in enough air or like there’s a knot of snakes in your belly. Just be like the other kids, who, for some bizarre and unknown reason, can shrug off or even enjoy the chaos and discord around them.

Growing up, it was a lot of work to keep my composure and let things roll down my back the way everyone thought they should. Occasionally, I would get overwhelmed and act out. It was exhausting for everyone I was around, including myself. The thing is, I desperately wanted it to be easy. I wanted to be able to eat anything at any restaurant or family dinner without my food sensitivity causing issues. I wanted to be able to play with other kids without feeling on edge. I wanted fun to feel natural and enjoyable, instead of something I had to work at to feel slightly comfortable in. Something that I feel like the adults in my life did not pick up on was that my sensory triggers, emotional dysregulation, and rejection sensitivity were not choices.

Instead of getting me in front of a child psychologist, or even just accepting my boundaries as they were, I was told that I was not trying hard enough. If only I’d just let go and be happy, I would overcome the obstacles that I had supposedly invented for myself. I didn’t understand what that meant–to let go. This phrase implies that I had a choice in how my brain processed information, and the stress was something that I held onto out of habit and cowardice, when it felt like the stress wasn’t letting go of me. What’s more, today I feel like the adults around me would not let go of their expectations of how a happy and healthy child behaves.

Now, at 24, and having just recently been diagnosed with ADHD, I have more ideas about why it was that the adults in my life struggled to understand my behavior. Why the texture of pasta was enough to make me scream in fear. Why the simple task of cleaning my room was a week-long project for me. Why sometimes I had to run out of the house and just jump and jump and jump on the trampoline for hours until my brain stopped feeling like a beehive that had been whacked with a baseball bat.

Perhaps my behavior would have been easier for adults to understand if information on adolescent girls with ADHD had been more readily available. But back then, ADHD was mostly associated with boys who struggled to stay seated during class. No one in my life knew that ADHD in girls is more likely to present as being socially anxious and overemotional. This type of ADHD is affiliated with daydreaming and forgetfulness, and is widely underdiagnosed because “ADHD symptoms in girls are often thought of as characters of a girl’s personality rather than ADHD,” as Keath Low describes in his article for Very Well Mind.

Instead of being thought of as a child with a neurodivergent brain, my struggles with adapting to the world around me labeled me a drama queen, a girl who was too sensitive for her own good, who couldn’t handle her emotions. Given the rise of female influencers on apps like TikTok and Instagram coming forward with their own stories of how their ADHD was unrecognized, I’m not alone in that feeling.

I think that growing up in the South had a hand in my compulsion to hide my symptoms as I grew older. In the miniscule, largely Southern Baptist town that I grew up in, everyone knew each other, their parents, their kids, and which football team they cheered for. The concept of therapy or mental health were not widely discussed, and often scrutinized. In many cases, anything that could not be handled by a Bible or a leather belt was suspect and unnatural–and being a girl added another facet of complications. I was insufficient at hiding my feelings and biting my tongue, which seemed to be a virtue of many of the women I grew up around. After years of embarrassment and shame for not adequately concealing my anxiety, I learned to keep it to myself as best I could, letting it rage inside of me. Eventually, I became unable to recognize the anxiety for what it was, and it became part of my identity that I constantly battled with.

Like the many other young women who have made this discovery later in life, having the words to describe what I’m feeling and how I process the world around me is incredibly validating. As an adult equipped with strategies I’ve learned in therapy and a plan to begin the proper medications soon, I feel like I’m starting to gain the control over my life that my child self was lacking, both around others as well as with myself. I can advocate on my own behalf when I feel my boundaries being tested, and I have a better understanding of how and why my emotions can become so volatile, providing a better grasp on my internal conflicts. While I still struggle with the day-to-day issues associated with the disorder, I can at least let go of the shame I had held onto and make a path of improvement focused on my health rather than what is expected of me.

Lydia Oliver holds a degree in English Literature as well as Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies from Agnes Scott College. She’s a writer, editor, and dog-lover from Birmingham, Alabama.

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