A good excuse

I was about 13 when I discovered I wasn’t normal.

It was the middle of the night after a party. Like most nights, I had crept out of my room for a snack, treading the hardwood floor in socks and leaning against the wall to take the weight off my steps. I was only a few steps into the hallway when I heard voices coming from the kitchen.

There’s something wrong with her, my mom said. I think something happened with the development of her frontal lobe.

She’s just acting like a normal teenager, my dad countered.

Earlier that evening, I’d poured Sprite into another kid’s bowl of vanilla ice cream. I thought it was funny. My mom thought it was a sign of a developmental disorder.

That comment from any other mother would be paranoid speculation, but my mom was a child psychiatrist.

I slipped back to my room unnoticed and googled ‘frontal lobe’ in bed. I read it was responsible for executive functions, social comprehension, voluntary movement, memory and speech skills. Frontal lobe conditions could cause severe complications like significantly impaired motor and language functions, but milder ones include impulsivity, clumsiness, anxiety, depression, disorganization, a short attention span and difficulty socializing.

Growing up, I had been different. Spacy and anxious, I struggled with bouts of low moods, sometimes suicidal thoughts. I usually had fewer friends than other kids and often felt disconnected from the ones I did have. I regularly forgot assignments and exams — teachers would pull me aside and tell me I had so much potential, if only I would do the work. I was beginning to see why.

That same year, I was diagnosed with ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder related to the frontal lobe. I was given an Adderall prescription and sent on my way.

When I told a friend, she seemed appalled. But you aren’t weird like that, she said, before trying to buy some Adderall off of me.

I knew what she meant by ‘weird like that’ — weird like that boy who sat across from me in grade 8 math, who had Fs on his report card and beat his head against the desk when the teacher yelled at him. I didn’t want to be associated with people like that; I didn’t want to be seen as less than.

After my diagnosis, little changed. Except for the Adderall. My dad was opposed to me registering for academic accommodations. He said they were a crutch I wouldn’t be given in the “real world.”

Throughout high school, I mastered last-minute submissions and on the fly excuses. I would rifle through my bag in faux confusion, pretending I’d lost my homework, only to finish the assignment under the desk while the teacher collected others’ papers.

Sometimes on exam days, I would see students with accommodations filing into a separate room for testing. I felt a sense of superiority as I struggled to complete exams and didn’t finish a single math test on time. But I still managed to get As. They needed help and I didn’t.


The summer after first year, I got a call about my auntie. She had stopped chemo a month prior and now her time was running out.

I flew back to Oahu as soon as I could. The cancer had reached her stomach, so she could hardly eat. Her skin stretched so taut over her bones, I feared her joints would pierce through. My family spent most days waiting, crowding her bedside in my grandparents’ home in Aiea. She passed away on an early morning in late June.

That morning, we took turns saying goodbye to her body, then stood outside on the concrete patio under the purple dawn, palm trees and telephone wires crisscrossing overhead, watching as people from the mortuary took her away. We stood apart, and those who cried did so in silence.

In those moments, I saw what it meant to live and die. Homework seemed pointless.

When I returned to university for my second year, everything was different. My grades began to slip and I stopped attending classes. When I did show up, I brought a small bottle of Alberta Pure. I withdrew froma course and considered dropping out entirely. My high school boyfriend dumped me because he “missed the old me.” I called a mental health hotline twice and met with UBC Counselling who referred me to a temporary therapist who told me to fix my sleep schedule and do sitting exercises. But no number of shoulder rotations could take things back to the way they used to be.

After missing several major assignments and an entire month of school, academic advising offered to grant me full concessions on the condition that I register with the Centre for Accessibility.

I had always resented the notion that I was disabled. I finished first year on the Dean’s List with another scholarship under my belt. In my opinion, I was more abled than some of my neurotypical peers. But this was a lifeline — I would have failed out of university without it. Finally, I relented.

I slept through my first scheduled meeting with the accessibility advisor.

But I woke up in time for the rescheduled appointment. I signed into the Zoom call between classes, balancing my laptop on the dashboard of my car in the Fraser River Parkade.

After a brief introduction, my advisor reviewed my accommodation options based on a short doctor’s note I’d submitted.

ADHD is difficult to manage and even harder to justify, both to others and oneself.

The CDC describes ADHD as a neurodevelopmental disorder that may manifest as “trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors ... or [being] overly active.” It’s hard to imagine how it can be life-altering, especially when compared to visible disabilities or more widely understood mental disorders, like clinical depression. This is compounded by simplified depictions and discussion of ADHD across social media, which frames the condition as a feature of a quirky personality.

In reality, ADHD can severely impact a person’s life with consequences extending far beyond messy rooms and ditzy dispositions. According to HelpGuide, women — who are often diagnosed and treated later than men — are more likely to experience symptoms including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. I still grapple with them.

Once, I lost a $1,000 scholarship because I didn’t accept it before the deadline. Another time, I forgot to wish my auntie Happy Mother’s Day, figuring I’d just do it the following year. She died a month later.

I could have avoided these errors in a few seconds — clicked “accept” or sent a three-word text — but I didn’t, and I can’t sufficiently explain why. My only answer is ADHD, and as my parents have always said, “that isn’t a good excuse.”

This past October, I experienced another rough patch, mentally. One of my classes refused to take late submissions, so I found myself applying for academic concessions through the Centre for Accessibility. In a somewhat scolding meeting, an accessibility advisor asked for proof of the episode. I was confused — what could I possibly prove?


Every night, I have to lie with the mistakes I’ve made. It leads to a suffocating self-hatred and the old thoughts return. Often, I wonder who I would be without ADHD — how much more I would have accomplished.

But I go back to the night I overheard my parents talking in the kitchen.

I wasn’t ashamed to learn there was something different about me. I was overjoyed to finally understand who I am.