When I was 4 years old, my grandmother called me her little Professor, her 小博士. I was a fidgety kid who had to be tugged around, and the only thing that would make me sit down was a book. I would read anything and everything. I would read anything under the sun; cookbooks, encyclopedias, instruction manuals, it doesn’t matter. My grandmother learned English by handing me things to read and translate, and I was her pride and joy. I was a precocious child, and she was convinced I had a brilliant future.
But then I entered primary school. I excelled at everything except homework, but nobody knew why. I knew the answers, but I just… didn’t know why I wouldn’t do my homework.
And so, when I was in Primary 5, my form teacher, Ms. Pay, gave me detention every single day of the week for 2 years straight. I would head to her office every single day after we were dismissed. She couldn’t watch me like a hawk, so I would daydream constantly. I’d take breaks every 10 minutes to stare at the school’s greenhouse, count backwards from 1,000, and build elaborate robots with my stationery. Every day, I would trudge into her office and show her my completed homework before heading home.
Throughout my pre-university education, my teachers unanimously agreed on two things:
- Ash is very intelligent.
- But Ash just needs to do his homework.
I mean, I kept my grades up despite not completing a single assignment. When I was in Primary 3, I was one of 2 kids in my primary school to qualify for the Gifted Education Program. I made careless mistakes all the time, but would score 98/100 on class tests regardless. After my PSLE, I began to expand my horizons. I routinely qualified for academic competitions, spent hours every week on extra-curricular events, and participated actively in Model United Nations conferences.
Throughout 12 years of education, not a single assignment was completed on time. Every few months, a teacher would ask me in exasperation, “Ash, why are you… like this?”
I never had an answer. At some point, I had internalized a belief that I was a lazy child, and wouldn’t amount to anything despite my intelligence.
In the 2 years between junior college and university education, I didn’t know where I wanted to go in life. I loved History and Economics, and although I knew I wanted to pursue a degree in Political Science, I couldn’t articulate how I wanted to get there. So that’s why I spent the first 2 years of university in Accountancy. I was neither meticulous nor careful, but I was good at mathematics. After my first year, I made my mind up. I was going to transfer out. I started taking courses in Political Science, and that was where I met my senior, Cheyenne.
Cheyenne had ADHD.
Cheyenne had a brilliant mind and chatting with her was like drinking from a firehose. Yet, keeping up with her felt like the most natural thing to do. Isn’t it normal to have 3 conversations at once? Don’t most people have 66 tabs open on their browser? Cheyenne struggled with completing her homework too, and I thought that was perfectly normal. Doesn’t everybody hate doing homework?
When I told Cheyenne about my 2 years of detention and 12 years of incomplete homework, she gave me an utterly inscrutable expression.
As the semester went by, I gradually began to relate with Cheyenne’s struggles with ADHD to a worrying degree. In the meantime, my partner’s cousin, Jake, was diagnosed with ADHD, and she suggested I read up on its symptoms to better understand him. I started off with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and started leafing through reports and academic papers in between my Accountancy finals. To my surprise, I realized a lot of my childhood could be explained by the section on ADHD-PI (predominantly inattentive), and how I had built elaborate systems to manage these problems.
For example, a diagnostic criterion is “Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities”. How I managed this before realizing I had ADHD was to adamantly refuse to unpack and repack my schoolbag. I carried everything to school and everything back home. It was a perfect solution… but I did once lose my entire schoolbag after someone mistook 10 kg of papers and books in my schoolbag for an entire laptop. Another criterion was “Often dislikes engaging in tasks that require sustained mental effort”, which describes me perfectly. I enjoyed writing compositions and essays, and I loved solving challenging problems, but I hated doing my homework. I could only write essays the moment I received it, or a week after the deadline; there were no exceptions.
I brought my parents and a stack of report books to my first medical appointment, and the psychiatrist interviewed me and my parents separately. Together, we unpacked the stereotypical image of a brilliant but lazy student, to uncover a picture of a smart child who exhibited all 9 symptoms of ADHD-PI to a t. I wasn’t disruptive, but often overlooked details and struggled to remain focused during classes. I had absolutely no time management skills, and am often forgetful and prone to losing my belongings.
But I wasn’t lazy! I’d kept myself busy throughout my pre-university education, winning academic competitions and receiving awards at Model United Nations conferences. Even while I was getting a diagnosis, I was working full-time as an audit intern while negotiating a transfer out of Accountancy and into Political Science. I was consistently scoring Bs in Accountancy and I had failed a few exams, but my professors in the Political Science faculty could attest to my clear interest and passion for the subject.
It was undeniably clear that while I was definitely intelligent and very capable, I was also struggling with ADHD. I am twice-exceptional, and throughout my 12 years of pre-university education, my teachers unanimously recognized that I was exceptional at reading and learning new things, but had an exceptional amount of trouble managing deadlines and paperwork. I couldn’t plan ahead and prioritize where to apply for my college, so I was 2 years deep in an undergraduate program in a subject I had zero interest for.
It’s now been 3 years since my diagnosis. It’s thrilling to finally live up to my potential. I’ve always known that I was smart and a quick learner, but I’ve spent the first 20 years of my life doubting myself constantly. There always was a consistent gap between what I wanted to achieve and what I could realistically achieve, because being smart doesn’t cancel out my ADHD; being intelligent doesn’t cancel out my weaknesses in executive functioning and managing my attention. The performance gap only began to shrink in the last 3 years when I finally identified these weaknesses and began to work on them, through medication and through advice I’ve picked up from the ADHD community.
I won’t say that I’m a success story, but I will say that I am finally flourishing as a person. I now ace my classes consistently, and have received offers from prestigious postgraduate programs. Sure, my GPA is less impressive than other applicants, but look at all the other things I can do!
My family has gradually come around to my diagnosis and my transfer out of Accountancy, but I don’t think anybody’s prouder of me than my dear grandmother. I’ve tried my best to explain to her that I plan to get a PhD, but I don’t think she cares all that much. I can see it in her smile during my graduation ceremony. As far as she’s concerned, the world finally sees what she sees in me, her little Professor.