You’ve heard my story many times (if you haven’t, click here) but I think it rarely gets asked: How does it feel to be Black with ADHD? What makes it different? Are there any distinctive perspectives to understand?
It’s a complex experience to describe because there is no one Black experience. Most of the people who ask me that question seem to think there’s some list of qualities or characteristics I can list.
I grew up with a friend who was adopted and people would ask him how it felt to be adopted. It puzzled us. How does one feel about existing in their own normal? It feels like trying to define a color.
I can tell you the moods, emotions, experiences, and feelings the color might invoke, but I cannot define blue for you. Nor can I define Blackness outside of my own experience. But I can share mine and those who have had similar Black experiences can possibly identify.
Having said that, here are some of the emotions and experiences I’ve navigated while living with ADHD
Fear of the Break from the Norm
Navigating anything related to mental health is lonely. When I was first diagnosed with ADHD I was excited and I wanted to share that excitement with the people I loved. In return I heard:
“doesn’t everybody do that?”
“you don’t have that, you just need to ____ ”
“Stop letting those doctors drug you up”
“you’re going to get into trouble at work or lose opportunities if anybody finds out about this.”
Their fears weren’t entirely unfounded. We know what the world is like when you’re Black. We’re scrutinized and analyzed constantly. We’re still having to work twice as hard to get half as far.
Anytime someone is unique or stands out, some of our first reactions might be fear. We wonder what the diagnosis could mean for them? How could it increase the discrimination they already face?
I had those same questions, but I also knew that dropping the subject wasn’t the answer. Avoiding our mental health needs out of fear or lack of information hasn’t done us any favors. Trauma, depression, and anxiety seem a natural consequence of a life lived under systemic racism.
The misogynoir that many of the women in my family faced created an anger, a harshness in them that seemed to zero in on their girl children in particular. I believe we do what we can until we can do better. For me? Doing better was sorting through this question of ADHD and how it was impacting my mental health.
For many of us, I think it can be frightening for our family when we begin to sort through our trauma. As we relay our experiences back to them, they may be inclined to look at their own long-buried trauma. Better to silence you than to unpack that, right?
Navigating the White World Of Neurodivergence
On the other hand, in the very white world of neurodivergence, you’re welcome as long as you don’t expect to be respected as a complete human being. Those with impulsivity, difficulty regulating emotions, and RSD have less ability to disguise their racism. It’s ugly. You haven’t quite experienced racism on the internet until a mob of angry white people dogpile on you, completely hyperfocused on making you the target of their rage.
Women have been particularly difficult to deal with in that respect. They will track me across social media networks, mailing lists, and my website’s contact form, desperate and demanding because I’ve told them that their neurodivergence doesn’t excuse them from white privilege.
So where does that leave the Black neurodivergent? For me, I have been fortunate: I’ve always had the desire to create what I wanted to see if it did not exist. Today I am so encouraged by how many people I see doing the same. People like Tyla Grant, ADHD Babes, Rach Idowu from Adulting ADHD, Inger Shaye, ADHD John, ADHD Babes, Yakini from ADHD Love, Loucresie Rupert, MD, Roxanne Jarret, Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, MisWiredKE, Stacey Machelle from ADHD Is The New Black , Sandra Coral from ND Narratives, and more exist and cover a wider array of Black experiences than I ever could have dreamed of in 2009 when I was diagnosed. That these people do this work is a beautiful privilege to witness.
PS – if I know and love you and you didn’t make the list, charge it to my head, not my heart, and email me so I can add you in!
As I mentioned before, our community has its own culture and deviation from that can at times be met with sharp cruelty, a hazing designed to snap us back into line. Because neurodivergence is by very definition non-standard behavior, the Black Neurodivergent may often find themselves on the receiving end of cruelty in the form of ugly jokes, severe criticism, accusations about our work ethic, or our capability to be self-sufficient.
Many of us are expected to project an image of excellence at all times. We’re taught to be overcomers, to defy the stereotypes that are pressed upon us by outsiders. ADHD symptoms can cause people to minsinterpret our struggle as obstinance and malfeasance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Symptoms are just that, symptoms.
On top of the code switching and masking we often have to do everywhere, there is an additional layer of masking we perform within the community. It’s this need to display that we’re showing up and fulfilling the obligation to press the community forward: yes, we’re pursuing more. We’re getting another degree. Our homes are spotless. Our children obedient. Yes, we’re beating the odds, all of them.
If you’re not doing those things? The criticism, the shaming, and the shunning that we can experience can be painful. Being infantilized by the people we love can happen. Dealing with disrespect or not being taken seriously because we refuse to conform is a thing. To say that this adds to the stress of learning to live with an ADHD diagnosis is putting it lightly. Many of us come to our diagnosis with years of feeling insufficient, incompetent, and unworthy. We often question if our symptoms are actually symptoms or if we’re just looking to excuse our insufficiencies.
So we suffer in this prison of excellence or we become our real selves. Neither choice for the Black neurodivergent is without pain. It is the quintessential Sophie’s choice.
Living With The Loneliness
What do we do when we don’t feel we have a place to be comfortably? For many of us, we navigate the world of Black Neurodivergence alone. We live in fear that somebody will find out. I have met people whose families, life partners, and colleagues work next to them daily with no idea that they are struggling.
They take the criticism, the shaming, and the blaming without asking for a moment’s grace. On some level, and I know I have felt this in the past personally, I felt as though I deserved that treatment. After all, if my ADHD caused me to behave in a way that people found frustrating, don’t they have a right to air that frustration? Sure, they do, but it is important that any critique we level at people takes into account the fact that they have challenges.
So to avoid the shaming, to avoid the critique, to avoid what I saw as my own lack of excellence, I withdrew. I hid from the people who could support me, and the withdrawal led to additional challenges for me. I hid an abusive relationship. I pretended that work was going well when I was really afraid every day that I was going to make one more mistake that would get me fired once and for all. It was lonely.
For the Black Neurodivergent to survive, we have to stop splitting ourselves in two. We cannot continue to live in a world where our Blackness isn’t addressed within our neurodivergent communities. We do not deserve to live in a world where our friends, families, and loved ones cannot accept our brains working differently. Isolation is not the answer.
If you’re Black, neurodivergent, and reading this: I see you. I was you for a very long time. I cried, certain that nobody was ever going to understand. I worried that I was NEVER going to be good enough for the people who expected such amazing things from me that I never could seem to deliver. I felt like I might not ever be able to be a person who I could be proud of. Please, please hang on. There are so many places where Black neurodivergents are speaking out, where we can be heard, and where we FINALLY can get the support and understanding we need so badly. Come join us, meet me in the Unicorn Squad, or go see somebody from that wonderful list of creators up higher in that post! I’m thinking of you, and hoping for the very very best for you.
Until next time,