HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Judith” is a pseudonym.
< Part One
I didn’t know why I couldn’t focus.
I didn’t have answers, just tears and shame and frustration that I couldn’t seem to make myself get things done. I was convinced that I had no self-control and that if only I could try harder, care more, something… maybe it would stop. (But probably not, so who cares.)
I would go to bed at night and math problems jumbled up with random digits would float around in my head; grey-ish white numbers on an endless black background… and I would want to scream and pound my pillow because I could never seem to get away from it.
My brain was numb.
I became continually tired and listless. “Privileges” were taken away—I didn’t care anymore if I never saw my few, kind-of sort-of friends that I tried to cultivate in my pitiful excuse for a social life. I didn’t care if they took away desserts. I didn’t care if I had to stay home from some outings. It seemed sort of embarrassing when I was threatened to be made to take my schoolwork with me when we would go over to someone’s house for dinner, but trying to get it all done in time was stressful and made me feel sick and mentally exhausted, so I resigned myself to the shame because I didn’t see any way around it.
I did get raving mad on the inside when my music lessons were threatened—the one thing that I actually enjoyed and people said I was good at—but nothing registered on the outside.
I cried myself to sleep several nights out of a week, but I couldn’t explain my feelings, and I was constantly questioning myself and swinging between giving up and guilting myself into more tiresome, useless effort.
Finally, eventually, I had scraped by until I had gotten through Algebra 2, barely getting a passing grade, despite the fact that I easily passed tests for concepts I had never studied when placing for college classes. My parents “graduated” me at 17, and I was told to either get a job or go to college.
Since I had no work history and no degree or training, I picked college—and the program that looked the easiest, didn’t take four years, and had minimal math requirements, anything that would just get me a job so that I could earn money and move out and not be around my mom any more.
I didn’t know how to function in society because I had basically been closeted away in a little pocket of Christian subculture until that point.
Interacting with other people was scary, awkward, and frequently embarrassing. I was still depressed and didn’t know how to express my needs to anyone; I didn’t know what exactly my needs were. I felt angry sometimes, but didn’t know whether it was justified or what exactly sparked it.
I got good grades, I tutored other students even, but I didn’t believe it when my professors told me I was good at what I did. After all, I was just opting for the easiest way out. Miraculously, I made it without a major public meltdown. Unless you count the time I cried unashamedly in the cafeteria because a creepy guy had asked me out and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back on that particular day. Or the time when I started yelling at my sister to stop telling me about how global warming was going to flood India, because I didn’t care. I had too many things of my own to worry about and was just barely keeping it together as it was.
Today, three years after having graduated with my measly little degree, I am not even working in that field.
I haven’t touched anything academic until very recently, because my love of learning was completely stripped away. I did what I had to do to survive, and spent my spare time watching the “stupid” movies and television shows that I never saw, hiding from society because I was too emotionally exhausted to deal with people. An avid bookworm in my childhood, I stopped reading anything except for brief stints where I would read the first chapter and then never picked the book up again.
I have read on the internet a lot—cathartic bits that helped me integrate my thoughts and feelings and put words to my hurts and angries. Things that helped me decide what was wrong and what was right about what happened. Things that have helped me learn not to beat myself up or be scared to do something new.
I still have a relationship with my family, albeit a “safe” sort of one—I see them once or twice a month as my schedule allows, but I keep my dreams and goals and personal life to myself. My parents presumably have no idea that I consider my homeschool career to have been hellish. They have not asked my thoughts on the subject, and I am loathe to bring it up unnecessarily. But if it did come up, I would want to ask: why?
Why did they make me waste those years of my life like that?
From their perspective, I suppose they do not think they “made” me do it—but why, why did they handle things the way they did? How bad did it need to get for them to decide to try something different than threats and punishments? Why did they not try a different curriculum? Why did they not make more effort to work more closely with me, instead of relegating me to work in the loneliest corner of the house on my own? Why didn’t they get me a tutor?
If public school wasn’t ever actually evil like I assumed they thought it was, why didn’t they send me there for someone else to hassle with? Why was the busywork involved in “preparing for college” so important that they let “preparing for life” slip to the wayside?
I still love homeschooling as a concept. I think it is a great alternative to public school and I currently plan to be involved in homeschooling in the future.
But I also consider my home school experience to be a valid example of how not to do it.
Judith, your story really touched me because I definitely had the same sort of attention disorder, and so much of your experiences mirrored my own. I am thankful that I think my parents handled it much better. At least, they were never verbally abusive about it… rather they ignored it and neglected the problem, which still wasn’t the best reaction, but it was still better than the alternative. I too struggled with math because of focusing issues; school would start at 8am every day, and I would sometimes still be working at 8pm in the evening. I thought I was stupid and I hated myself sometimes. I usually got decent grades, but only because the tests were much shorter than the normal lessons and problem sets, so I would be able to finish them before my mind had wandered off somewhere else.
I also find it frustrating that so few people seem to really understand how to deal with attention disorders. “Minimize distractions” is what I was always told by well-meaning people… and it absolutely backfired every time. I cringed when you mentioned being moved away from the window. What these people don’t realize is that some ADD sufferers actually need MORE stimulation, not less. We tend to disappear into our own heads when we are in an environment that does not stimulate us at all. As such, banning music or windows or snacks or coffee or breaks to walk around, etc hurts us much more than it helps.
My parents explained their reticence to dealing with my ADD in two ways. First, they were worried that if they had me diagnosed by a doctor, I would be prescribed unwanted medication and ordered to take it. If they refused, they were afraid that they would be accused of child neglect and I would be taken away or forced to go to public school. I have no way of knowing if those fears were in any way valid or if they were just pure paranoia, but I tend to think they were over-blown. The second reason they offered was that they did not want me to feel like there was something wrong with me, so they didn’t want to label me with a disorder. They feared that being told I had ADD would give me an excuse to give up and stop trying so hard to achieve. While I am very glad that I was never given free reign to slack off, I think that they could certainly have addressed my problem without conveying to me the idea that I was a hopeless case. I already very much felt that I was hopeless and stupid because I had NOT been told that I had a disorder that could be dealt with.
And I did deal with it. I have spent years learning how to deal with it. For starters, I learned to say “no” when people told me to get rid of distractions. Now, I always do school work with music on, I often sit in coffee shops or other public places where there is lots going on around me and I have a new environment to work in. I also often keep an IM conversation going while I work and switch rapidly between my work and conversation. It keeps me stimulated and engaged. I also drink coffee when I am working (apparently ADD sufferers are much more likely to develop a caffeine addiction…) and I get snacks from time to time. I get up and walk around in between my work and, if I can, I will even do my work while walking (for example, if I need to read a chapter of a book or memorize a list of formulas, I will walk down the street while reading aloud to myself.) I learned that talking aloud helps me learn much more than reading does. I stopped caring if I look a little ridiculous in public while I mumble physics equations to myself on the street. Sometimes I would set an alarm for myself every five minutes to help remind me to focus. Sometimes I would keep a strangely-shaped object in my pocket that would remind me to focus on work whenever I would absently start fiddling with it. In my classes, I would ask the professor if I could sit on top of my desk if I was spacing out too much. The change of position would perk me right back up and keep me alert and focused on the lecture. And I got out of it a Masters degree in Astrophysics, so I guess it worked out alright in the end. I have never been the top-performing student, but I am still proud of the achievements I have made
I am listing all of this in hopes that you might find some things among them that really ring a bell for you. You’re definitely not alone in your struggles. It took me a long time to feel comfortable enough to attempt all of these things, for fear of being judged or just out of apathy (since I assumed for so long that I was just born dumb). So few people are willing to openly admit that everyone just learns and works differently. It has been a huge breakthrough for me to learn how to work with my own mind (as frustrating as it is at times). I am wishing you all the best and want you to know that you are truly an exceptional young woman to have gotten through all of that. Thank you for sharing your story!
Thanks for sharing!! I have ADHD and some other learning challages. I went to public school – not much help there for me though. I am so sorry you were treated that way! I hope you have found what you are good at and what you enjoy. I home you can find you love for learning again! You are a brave soul!
Judith, thank you so much for sharing with us.