“Compensation” shows itself as a consistent, gendered thread in my life story. Compensating for my other family member’s disappointments to make my mom smile. Compensating for the body I knew I wouldn’t stretch into. Compensating for disadvantage as a way of life. The skill saved me from the stigma of having an IEP throughout grade school. I was “gifted,” favored. That compensation found me in a position where my first year of undergrad, the world crashed around me when the words of a three page reading made no sense in front of me I
could not follow
lines of text
The words were stone cold on the page. My mother was not validated by my diagnosis. I had never had trouble with school like this before, always reading and writing above grade level. My report reads, “symptoms of ADHD actually began in the 4th or 5th grade.” About then I learned girls just aren’t as good at math. My skills stagnated then suffered. It was another way I wasn’t a boy. Classroom exercises that required quick math made me panic. I needed more time, always. Hands went up after about 15 seconds. Luckily for me, the newly implemented TERC math system awarded points for wrong answers if you showed your work and explanation. Still can’t long divide, still have to think hard with analog clocks. Historical years and calendars vex me. My validating refuge was in music, writing and reading.
I understood myself as a student through my mom’s urgent talks. There’s me surrounded with an elaborate lego wall next to the bookshelf and TV, happy in the world my hands shaped. I was a black girl. I had to try twice as hard to get half as far. It was imperative I be exceptional. I felt warmest when my hero educator mother could brag about me: her well-behaved, reader writer gonna be an architect or psychiatrist daughter.
I didn’t tell my mom until after months of researching and making appointments for an ADHD evaluation, that I found myself crying in the Office of Disability Services. The director sat with me through my shame and told me that it is common for undiagnosed girls hit a threshold where they can no longer compensate for their weaker skills in executive function. We named the wall I hit when school got hard.
My experience was textbook, I explained to my mom. Researchers and learning specialists have made a stylistic shift from ADD to AD/HD. It isn’t always visible, externalizing itself in boyish hyperactivity and impulsivity. Girls and women are underdiagnosed for ADHD and diagnosed later, missing the key to receive services in schools. We/they often have the inattentive type: quiet, spacey, imaginative, forgetful. Inattentive type makes a kid able to finish Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, its collectables and side quests in 24 hours, redoing levels after furious walkthrough searches. It makes a designated “smart” kid tune out when it’s hard or uninteresting. Quiet, polite black girl normally so good at school with an expected weakness in math and science does not arouse the same urgency. Girls with the inattentive type often exhibit “a working style that include[s] perseverance.” The warm and intelligent young woman who clinicians found was a pleasure to evaluate “often overcame her frustration” but she needed time.
There’s no one test for it. I threw myself into the battery of tests, interviews with the speech pathologist, a psychologist. This 10 page composit report is the most comprehensive health exam I’ve received. Over 10 hours of cumulative testing, a required meeting explained why they had me doing memory, drawing, writing, sequencing exercises and I cried when I got the report. On that page, despite the prick of seeing she she she her her her, I learned that I was dysthymic, anxious and another kid with ADHD.
There’s a way I cried: ugly, hiccuping, lost eyes, feeling seen in sharp focus in a way I could never have seen myself and scared. I met myself that way when Beasts of the Southern Wild put me into the space between being a daddy’s girl who learned fathers aren’t different from other men and here: binding with layered sports bras, being held by my partner who my dad didn’t have the language to see them as my novix or me as their boifriend. Nowhere to be but in between. I looked at the report then the same way I do now five years later. The person in this report was still me, my symptoms only legible when read through the syndrome of girlhood, but the need to fix pronouns burned.
My impasse was summed up as the discrepancy in my above average oral and verbal comprehension and below average expression. They put onto a page the feeling that made me stop writing, where my words moved too fast in my head and my hand never kept up, my sieve memory left me little to hold onto. But narrative comes up in the report as where I excel. I wrote about a time I was scared in a 10 minute exercise and they told me “her story was powerful in that her voice as a writer was present and her audience could identify with her story.”
I have a learning difference. Even though I am not a student anymore, my attention and depression are a bonded pair with woven lives. The knowledge forced a slow change in habits but forced me to have to build a new relationship with the ways my differences show up. They make me.
My voice is genuine to how I experience time and memory. There’s a beauty in how my memory timelines waver, flicker, popcorn, veer, loop. Moments previously rigid to linearity can play when memories sit next to one another like collage pieces.
Through rhythm. Through mining documents. Through quotation and reference. Through channeling the comforting swaddle of the stories that fed me through an adolescence hungry to have enough connection. Through living in the queer of my twenty-five year old self, he growing hair places the places she watched bitterly, sitting with the girl who is the core of the boi, we integrate her and him. He validates her so he may learn to love his truth. Memory can be shaped like Lego bricks before black kid primers clipped imagination. Even when not understood, sitting with a story is its own transformation. There’s no one way to get the whole answer, but there is a battery of tests one can do.
What does genre mean to you and how does it build/unbuild your work?
Genre is a really useful common language and how I name my spirit’s narrative cravings. Sometimes I look at poetic forms and need the structure of sentences in block text, across the whole page, comforting like the novels and story collections I devoured. The personal essay is one of my first loves. Sometimes I crave the way poets collapse moments by clipping tenses, resisting linearity. Those are the times my eyes can follow poetic form and resist the need for an answer. Genre is effective shorthand for how one renders words into a tribute to something indescribable.
After a while the words “genre” and “gender” look the same on my screen. My genre and gender journeys are mimicking one another in both annoying and exciting ways. In binaries, I am a shit, untrained poet but my prose favors vignettes and my fluid grasp of time, sometimes not long enough for strict prose submissions. However, I’m a great storyteller.
I hoped honoring my body’s need for change through medical transition, my gender would become coherent to me. Definitive. As I affirm him, he becomes fluid. Genre builds me because as much as I crave order and linearity, my words move through the bravery to play that poetic language breathes into me. I can trace my various influences across genres, but what comes out is really queer. My mentor said the essay is the body on the page. It applies to much writing. I am built and unbuilt by the same il/legibility of genre .