How Culture Affected My ADHD Diagnosis

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When most people think of ADHD, they imagine a disobedient boy who can’t sit still, responds, and gets bad grades in school.

When I was in school, I was the poster child for the stereotypical Asian nerd. My teachers described me as “studious”, “shy” and “well behaved”. My ballots were consistent A +, punctuated with occasional A- and unspeakably disappointing. I excelled at the violin and the piano. I even got the stereotypical Asian haircut and glasses to boot.

But when I was 20, I was diagnosed with ADHD.

How could the high performing Asian child have a neurological disorder?

The mask of the “model minority”

As the child of a Vietnamese refugee and a Malaysian immigrant, I grew up under the weight of incredibly high expectations. These were not only from my parents’ Asian culture, but also from the Australian culture I grew up in.

There was that myth of the “model minority” who claimed that all Asians are obedient and academically gifted.

I developed what I thought was an impenetrable mask. If you met me at school you would see the Asian girl manual that everyone expected me to be. What you wouldn’t see is the hefty price I paid to appear that way.

Model minorities are expected to be calm and well behaved. Whenever I expressed “excessive” emotions, I was ashamed, so I learned not to show them at all.

Model minorities are supposed to be very successful. Whenever I was successful I just thought it was a property of my race and not my own effort.

Model minorities are expected to be naturally studious. However, every mission desperately involved trying to channel my unbelievably quick thoughts.

My hand was shaking, my muscles were contracting and my heart was pounding, leaving me dizzy every time. I thought these feelings were normal and part of being a good student.

Emily’s intrusive thoughts would tell her “I imagine my ADHD” or “I’m smart, so I should be able to get over this”.(Provided)

“My mask has weakened without the structure of the school”

My mask first weakened when I finished school and left home.

With less structure and responsibility my ADHD seemed to get worse, but in reality it just lost the perfect prison that controlled my executive dysfunction.

By this time, I had internalized many of the expectations that others had for me. I believed that my academic success and my studious nature were part of my identity.

I received my very first B and it shocked me deep inside.

I had also started to explore romantic relationships and had a hard time dating. My emotional disruption made everything look like rejection, making me misinterpret situations.

My distraction and changing tasks kept me from being intimate. My sensory dysfunction made physical touch often difficult.

Throughout these experiences, I never had the language to communicate, let alone manage how I felt. I would often give in to my fear of rejection, abandoning my needs and finding myself trapped in toxic relationships.

I internalized so much shame, wondering why life seemed to work like magic for others and not for me.

Confront my impostor syndrome

Even though I knew something was wrong, I didn’t feel like I deserved support.

After a series of seizures, I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 20.

The psychiatrist told me that the combination of cultural expectations and fear of rejection for my ADHD was once enough to overcome my attention deficit. However, now with less structure in my life and more distance from this culture, my symptoms were more noticeable.

My initial feeling after being diagnosed was guilt and shame. Neurodiversity is so stigmatized in my culture. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone about my diagnosis and that would only shame my family.

I felt like I was a living contradiction, as if “being Asian” and “having ADHD” were mutually exclusive.

I struggled with impostor syndrome for a while. My intrusive thoughts were telling me things like “I imagine my ADHD” or “I’m smart, so I should be able to get over this” even though I would be surrounded by constant reminders of my symptoms.

You’re not alone

Healing seems different to everyone, but to me it was finding out that I was not alone.

I found online peer support forums where people shared their stories of mental health issues and recovery. It was there that I met peer helpers who had weathered their storm and had come back to join me in mine. I can’t tell you how much it helped me to hear directly from people who were like me.

My life took off at full speed after that. I finished my studies, got my first full-time job, and got promoted within the year. I have moved across the country on my own and have never felt so comfortable.

Just being Asian and looking ‘good’ doesn’t mean I don’t need help or deserve help.

If my ADHD were assessed and treated with my cultural background in mind, I might have received the support I needed. It is important that services and practitioners are trained to identify and support marginalized and minority presentations of neurodiversity.

Knowing everything I know now, there would be so much that I would like to tell my young self. If anyone reading this is also having trouble, I would like to tell you: you are not a dud for needing help. You are not too broken to get better. And you are not alone.

Emily Unity (she / they) is a lived experience consultant, software developer and multidisciplinary creator who aims to help design a world for everyone, regardless of origin, identity or neurodiversity.

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