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1. The Narrative Hits Differently For a Girl

Zoe Fenson ’09 • Writer/editor, Silicon Valley, Calif.

Major: Theater and dance 
> Diagnosed at 32

As a student, I wasn’t always the best at retaining the reading, or actually doing the assignments, or showing up to class on time. But I’m really good at picking up context clues in class conversations and amplifying what other people are saying. I’ve always gotten by on charisma and earnestness.

One semester, I had a visiting professor who didn’t fall for it. He thought I wasn’t doing the reading, and so he graded me accordingly. I didn’t understand why my usual MO wasn’t working; I didn’t know how to say, “I’m doing the reading. I’m just not retaining anything.” That class brought my GPA down just enough to disqualify me for high honors. I was devastated.

My father also went to Amherst, and he had a similar trajectory. We each wrote our undergrad thesis in two weeks of all-nighters and delivered it two hours before the deadline. We both missed the cutoff for high honors despite being recommended for them. He never had an ADHD diagnosis, but he came up with a narrative for himself of why he was the way he was: contrarian, stubborn, wanted to do things his own way.

I think he ended up applying that same narrative to me. One of the things I’ve been unwinding over the past few years is that the narrative that worked well for a boy growing up in the ’50s and ’60s hits very differently for a girl growing up in the ’90s and ’00s. I think he got a pass for those labels in a way that I didn’t.

I’m a really intellectual person and I don’t always have the capacity to turn that off. I interrupt. I monologue. I get carried away by trains of thought. I’ve never been particularly good at performing that feminine thing of making myself smaller.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in conjunction with treatment for an eating disorder. I distinctly remember the first day I took a medication that treats both. I was in the kitchen, I noticed that the dish drainer was full, and I emptied it. No stress, no issues. I was like, “Who am I?” It has not completely changed my relationship to the dish drainer, but it helps.

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2. The Feeling of Not Reaching My Potential Has 
Haunted Me

Angelica Oung ’03 • Energy reporter, Taipei, Taiwan

Major: Fine arts 
> Diagnosed at 26

Working as a journalist for a small radio station in Taiwan, I was messing up all the time. I was forgetful. I was on the verge of being fired.

I felt so frustrated with myself, and I fought to keep my job. I was diagnosed with ADHD and got on Ritalin and it was like magic—for a very short amount of time. I went from being a low-functioning employee to doing quite well. But after a while, I found myself back in that chair in my supervisor’s office.

Years later, I shifted away from journalism and became a line cook. I functioned well in that position, because I was always accountable in an externally motivated way. I describe being a line cook as playing a video game with your whole body. It was completely in the moment. I was never bored during a shift. I would get physically tired, but that was good too, because being physically tired was regulating. I was unmedicated, happy, focused. My career was going well: In less than three years, I’d gone from working at the worst bar in L.A. to being pastry chef at Michelin-rated Hinoki & the Bird. I thought I’d found some measure of peace in my career at last.

But then COVID happened. Being Taiwanese American, I figured Taiwan would be a better place to be during a pandemic, so I returned to Taipei to wait out the restaurant closures, with every intention of returning to the U.S.  
Then, bizarrely enough, I became Taiwan’s top offshore wind reporter. I started my own publication; I’m well-respected as an authority on energy systems in Taiwan. I know that’s in part due to my ADHD nature: I hyper-fixated on this topic and picked up so much information in a short amount of time. That might not have been realistic or feasible for other people. It was fun for me.

I’m getting a lot of external validation, but I also feel like I’m constantly letting people down. In journalism, you are accountable to editors and deadlines. You think, “Why don’t I work for myself?” And then you do it and realize, “I sawed off the log that was supporting my weight.”

I’ve grown a lot along the way, asking myself, “Who am I, really? What are my motivations? What is it I need?” I want to be more regulated. I want the ability to have more agency. I’ve been able to notice what doesn’t suit me.

The feeling that I’m not reaching my potential has haunted me for much of my life. The world doesn’t owe you anything for being smart. The world doesn’t care about your potential. The world cares about what you can produce. But you know what your potential is. So instead of sitting there feeling bad about the world not delivering your potential to you on a platter, shift to a place where your potential can be actuated.

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3. I Want People Not to Blame Themselves

Orlando Jones ’05 • Business development officer, New York City

Major: Religion 
> Diagnosed at 38

After an initial job at a construction company, I’ve been working at banks ever since. Bank work can be tedious: You spend a lot of time in spreadsheets and reading documents. As my workload increased, I found it harder to focus. I’d be sitting at a computer doing my work, but I’d also be researching random articles on Wikipedia, going down rabbit holes. I got my work done, but I spent a lot of time not doing what I was supposed to be doing.

I became intensely focused on hobbies and pet projects. I took up skateboarding, soccer, kickball and tennis. I’d be stringing rackets for three hours at a time, and I found solace in it, because it was a task where I could be in a flow. I’d become peaceful and relaxed, but when I’d get out of it, I’d be all over the place, with no structure to my days.

I started seeing posts online about common symptoms of ADHD, and I checked many of the boxes. I reached out to friends who had been diagnosed, and they’re like, “Yeah, you should talk to a professional.” For somebody who has undiagnosed ADHD, navigating insurance and the medical system to find a medical professional who can diagnose them is not easy. I talked to my primary care doctor, and they were like, “That’s not me. I don’t know who I can refer you to.” I thought that was strange. I finally talked to a specialist who told me I totally have ADHD and there’s medication for it.

You’re almost surprised with how simple and how much better your life is after you begin your regimen of medication. I was finally able to focus. Like many people probably, I had been compensating with large amounts of caffeine and physical exercise, things that would give me moments of focus but then would wear off, and I’d be at the mercy of my brain bouncing all over the place.

There’s a stigma in communities of color about being diagnosed with something like this. Part of it is born out of cost management. People might not have the resources to pay for consultations and medication. But also, there’s this idea that anything can be overcome with hard work.

So much of our quality of life is dependent on our ability to be efficient in the modern era, where we are tasked with so much responsibility, from our medical well-being to our financial future. Daily maintenance of your car, your house. Communication with others. All of that can be affected by undiagnosed ADHD.

As a person of color, I want to impress upon people not to blame themselves. Especially for communities of color—get your kids tested. Kids of color are falling through the cracks and not getting the help they need, because their parents or the community at large don’t acknowledge that these diseases exist—and they probably exist a lot in our community. I think many kids’ and adults’ lives would be better if they had a conversation with a professional about doing something about it. I’m lucky. I went to Amherst, and I exist in a community of people who talk about these things.

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4. My Entire Life Started to Make Sense

Kim (Rapson) 
Kensington ’85 • ADHD coach and licensed psychologist, Santa Monica, Calif.

Major: Psychology 
> Diagnosed at 44

After Amherst, I got a doctorate of clinical psychology. And then, in what I would later realize was a sign of ADHD, I was like, “I don’t want to be a psychologist anymore. I’ve learned what I needed to learn. I’m moving to Los Angeles to be an actress.” 

For years, I sought help for procrastination. The therapists were nice and supportive. We would talk about my family history and maybe some unconscious motivations to not be successful: fear of failure, fear of success. But, meanwhile, I didn’t get a job. I tried meds for depression and anxiety—nothing worked. I went to a procrastination specialist in the Bay Area and got hypnotized. Then, I went to Kinko’s and printed off three résumés and three cover letters: I didn’t do it again. 

I thought, “I’m a doctor of psychology; I’ve got to be able to behavior-mod myself into something.” I would show up at my therapist’s office with my behavior chart with stars and stickers and say, “This kind of thing seems to work for me.”

Finally a psychiatrist said, “You seem to have a really disorganized brain. Maybe you should get assessed for ADHD.”

People had mentioned this to me before, but the diagnostic criteria didn’t make sense to me. Everyone said, “You can’t have ADHD if you have a doctorate.”

Finally, I got diagnosed at 44. My entire life started to make sense. Everything turned around. 

By the time I got to that point, everything was terrible. I had $60,000 in credit card debt. I was behind on rent. I was on some really bad meds.

With ADHD, the cost of living is higher: We get tickets and late fees, we have spoiled food, our bills go to collections. And the shame is so painful. People ask, “Are you depressed?” Well, kind of, because I can’t get anything done. “Are you anxious?” Yeah, because I have no idea what’s in that pile of unopened mail and how expensive it’s going to be. And the self-esteem stuff: I’m smart, I have all the degrees and all the background, and here I am practically homeless. I went to school with these genius people who are wildly successful, and I’m still trying to do my dishes.

The only thing I could count on doing consistently was caring for my dog every day. So I started incredibly small: Can I exercise for a minute, and then feed her? Can I do dishes for five minutes before our walk? I made a chart; it had stars on it. It was ridiculously effective, and ultimately, I turned it into a workbook.

I had started to break the avoidance/procrastination pattern by rewarding effort, because outcome is beyond our control. Am I going to get a job? I don’t know, but I can control how many minutes I spend applying for jobs. I can measure success differently so that trying is a win. For me, the ADHD diagnosis released a lifetime of shame and gave me permission to create a life that would work for me.

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5. I Have Greater Compassion for All Involved

Ophelia Hu Kinney ’12 • Nonprofit communications, Scarborough, Maine

Major: Environmental studies 
> Diagnosed at 32

During the pandemic, a lot of the coping mechanisms that I had built up to compensate no longer sufficed. I work remotely, and I used to go to a co-working space every day. There was a level of accountability built into that, some social pressure to keep myself in line. When the initial novelty of the crisis of lockdown subsided, it became a struggle for me to produce, to stay focused and to be present with my loved ones.

I went to see a psychologist. I had a hunch, and she screened for a lot of different things. In the end, she said that the exam said I do have ADHD.

I can see now that a lot of my academic struggles and probably some of my social struggles when I was in grade school up through high school may have had something to do with undiagnosed ADHD.

When I first got to Amherst, I think it was hard for me to commit to social functions and activities and, honestly, to friendships. There were classes I didn’t take because I felt like I couldn’t do them.

I remember an accommodation that I made for myself. I was in an econ class with a really dry textbook, and the way that I got through my reading every night was to eat a piece of my favorite candy, Lemonheads, after every three pages. At the time, I thought, “Am I really so weak that I need to train myself with a carrot and a stick?” But it makes sense to me now.

Learning about my diagnosis has given me a lot more self-compassion. I worry that, in print, it will sound like I’m giving myself an excuse for my behavior, or for my inability to meet people’s expectations. But what I’m really doing is building accommodations that I need. A symptom of my ADHD is time blindness, for example: It’s difficult for me to know what time I have to leave the house if I have two errands to run. My wife, Hayli Hu Kinney ’14, helps me think through that.

ADHD has given me an understanding of how other people operate. If there are major differences in our operating systems, then I will have greater compassion for all parties involved.

With my close friends who have ADHD, there’s a level of compassion and a sense of fairness and justice. When it comes to conversations, we are more comfortable with what feels like riding a bucking bronco and being taken from one non sequitur to another. There is a willingness to go deep in a conversation from the get-go and not worry about what is socially appropriate.

The people I know with ADHD are extremely passionate about what they do. When something gives us so much joy, we just do it to death.

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6. Hyper-Focusing Is My Superpower

Alaina Daniels ’09 • Middle school teacher, New York City

Major: History 
> Diagnosed at 24

While I was earning my master’s in education at Smith College, our professor—a school psychologist—gave a lecture to our learning diversity class about ADHD. After the lecture, I went up to her and asked, “This is me. What do I do about it?” I spent the rest of my master’s program doing research on ADHD and wrote my thesis on it.

The past 12 years, I’ve taught and specialized in working with brilliant, multiply marginalized neurodivergent kids. Unfortunately, what label they get from the medical establishment depends a lot upon race, age and class, because access to culturally competent neuropsych evaluations is a privilege. 

As an undergrad, I couldn’t turn in my damn homework and almost failed out. I went to a psychiatrist and multiple psychologists. They’re like, “You’re depressed. You’re crazy or lazy or stupid.” None of them ever proposed that I had ADHD.

Getting on meds for ADHD, which I did at 24, is the second-best choice I’ve ever made for myself. (The best one was my gender transition.)

In grad school, people tried to send me to ADHD coaches. They would say, “Let’s make a schedule. Let’s color-code it. Let’s write a to-do list.” I don’t need that. I can do all of those; I have systems to prevent myself from losing my keys.

What I needed was support for the emotional impacts. I needed somebody sitting there with me while I wrote my papers. At its scariest, somebody typing while I talk solves the problem. That’s a strategy that I’ve used with my students.

I give coaching to my students (and their parents and my staff) who are neurodivergent. I focus on a combination of systems and emotional support by telling students, “We’re going to check your binder every week, and if you’re late with homework, we’ll do it together. I’m here to support you.”

In the past year, I co-founded Trans formative Schools, a progressive education program centering trans joy and social justice and where virtually all of our students and teachers are neurodivergent. I’ve been the one keeping our team organized. Like many ADHD people, it is much easier for me to executive function for someone else than for myself. If we’re talking ADHD superpowers, mine is my ability to hyper-focus. When I’m interested in the project, or during a crisis, I am locked.

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7. I Learned to Quiet My Internal Bully

Will Mateo ’11 • Asia Pacific Program manager, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, D.C.

Major: Religion 
> Diagnosed at 30

My whole life I’ve been like, “I’m so ADD,” in a sort of offhanded, self-deprecating way. One day I thought, “Wait, what if I actually am?”

I was always a curious student, but I had trouble applying myself outside of the classroom. My parents helped me compensate by being really involved.

My last year of high school, I started dropping the ball on important projects. I learned that I needed to be careful about overextending myself. As a result, at Amherst I avoided subjects and classes that may have been interesting to me but that I understood to be particularly demanding or challenging. Deadlines are extremely motivating, and so I would find myself pulling consecutive all-nighters. It all worked out, but it was stressful. More than it needed to be.

Fast-forward to my work life: I was unmotivated. I was experiencing self-recrimination and doubt. A combination of factors, including speaking with a therapist, finally caused me to say, “What if I am different? What if it’s not that I’m all of these negative descriptors that I’ve always told myself: lazy, unfocused, lacking motivation?”

After I was diagnosed, I spent the next few years learning about ADHD. When my son was born, I experienced a bout of depression and started seeing a psychiatrist. He prescribed an antidepressant, and that was the first time I had been on any psychiatric medication. That helped open my mind to the possibility. I felt better, but I didn’t feel less like myself. I think that was always my fear: that it would change me or change my personality.

Following that, we had some big life changes. We moved, I changed jobs and our baby became a toddler. I felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t understand how I seemed to struggle just as much as this toddler with controlling the way that I reacted emotionally. That was a wake-up call for me to look into treatment. I started taking medication for my ADHD and again found that it didn’t change my personality. It made my life a lot easier. It made me feel more in control of my emotions. I don’t feel any less creative, but I do feel more focused and present. With my son, I had started noticing how distracted I was constantly. It was a struggle for me to remain in the moment, and kids thrive on that connection.

I’ve also learned to quiet that negative, bullying internal voice that I think a lot of people with ADHD have. I finally feel like I’m better able to appreciate my strengths and not turn my shortcomings into reasons to dislike myself. 

All toddlers have ADHD traits. Exercising compassion toward my son has helped me heal decades of self-criticism, perceived rejection and failure. Having the diagnosis and understanding what it means for me has allowed me to excel in my career. It’s allowed me to carve out a really good path for myself.