Stock photo: Canva
Every day I wake up and put on a mask. I place its elastic form across my skin and feel it cover my brain in residue, a buzzing, slimy thing with a life of its own. I’ve had it since before the pandemic, before I even knew that I possessed it at all. While I put on my physical mask to protect myself from COVID, I also wore this invisible mask that I thought was just a normal personality; the “outside me” that hid my true, anxious, “less than” me. It was so second nature to hide the me who was a fraud that it never occurred to me that what I felt wasn’t a normal response to trying to live and survive.
Ever since I was young, I’ve been labeled a weird kid. At school I made friends, but I also faced bullying and there were a lot of people who just didn’t want to associate with me. When I was labeled a “gifted kid” in elementary school, a title that would follow me to the end of high school, I was passed off as less of a weird kid and more of a smart one. With that assumption came the incredible pressure to succeed, from myself and more so from my family and peers. I was friends with other “smart” kids, and not keeping up meant not being good enough. Fear of failure meant constant anxiety and my rigorous workload both piling on stress.
Maintaining relationships, playing the part of the goofy but intelligent friend, succeeding in school, and working ahead of my peers out of fear of punishment and disappointment – all of this crumbled slowly as I started at Boise State in the Fall of 2020.
When the pandemic hit in March of that year, my school workload didn’t change, but my in-person extracurricular commitments disappeared, as did my obligations of socializing face-to-face with my friends. I got used to going to work and coming home, spending time by myself while doing homework or playing Animal Crossing. I remember feeling slightly relieved when my graduation ceremonies, both high school and community college, were canceled due to the pandemic; not because I didn’t want to acknowledge my hard work, but because the thought of those giant functions was incredibly draining for reasons I couldn’t quite articluate.
Starting at Boise State, I was so excited to start my life of independence, where I could set my own standards of success for myself and finally work at a comfortable pace…right? Right??
As it turns out, spending a lifetime in a constant state of anxiety may have helped me keep up with my expectations, but it also meant that I didn’t know of any other way to live. Quarantine at home meant I didn’t have to worry about what I seemed like to others; it meant I could just exist as “weird” as the default. As I transitioned at mach speed back into semi-normal social situations and events, I became keenly aware of every step I took and every sentence I uttered as I interacted with all the new people around me; I had to work even harder at preparing myself to act normal. Normal meant successful, and if there’s one thing that I thought I had to be, it was that.
The difficulty I faced in my first year at Boise State opened a door in my mind that I hadn’t realized was locked. I’ve always felt like the world of people around me was given a script to read and I never got one; like I was always working extra hard to improvise the next correct line or step.
I was always confused when I’d be called lazy because I hadn’t done an assignment yet and or was told that I need to just stop procrastinating. How was I supposed to explain to them–without them thinking I’m crazy–that I wanted to do it, I just physically couldn’t yet? How do you explain that sometimes, when things are too much, that it feels like your brain is physically disintegrating? Having been diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a teen and armed with a Zoloft prescription all these years, I could tell that these things just weren’t that.
In October of 2021, in my second to last semester of college, I finally visited a psychiatrist. I knew that I couldn’t live like this anymore; I was constantly burnt out, hating myself for not being able to focus, and chronically fatigued from it all. I had an inkling of what I thought was going on, but I also was aware that many psychiatrists don’t take women seriously when they bring up certain conditions. During my appointment, the woman sat with me for over an hour as we screened for a plethora of ailments and divergences. I remember so clearly her reaction to my answers as she screened me for ADHD; her slightly furrowed brows on the computer screen telling me that what I’ve described sounds like ADHD, inattentive type. I almost cried with relief as I thanked her for taking me seriously. As we talked more, she told me that the reason I’ve been successful on the outside up until now is because of my intelligence and because of my anxiety from the pressure placed on me. I left the appointment feeling a little bit lighter and with an Adderall prescription.
Since then, I’ve continued trial and error of medications and started therapy. It isn’t as though this diagnosis suddenly made everything okay, but it allowed me a framework to reflect more kindly on myself and the power to understand my neurodivergent brain and work to create a life that suits me and my needs better. The world wasn’t built for people like me; it functions as a place for neurotypical people to succeed while working 8-hour days and maintaining countless friendships and somehow also doing things for themselves. As I see the world around us, inaccessible to so many people, I show myself kindness when I struggle through something that is seemingly no big deal.
I’m also able to surround myself with people who accept my differences and who support me regardless. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel bad about asking if we can turn off certain lights because they’re overstimulating; I’m not the odd one out for needing to watch television with subtitles on to help with auditory processing. My partner, often by my side, helps me remember that it’s okay to ask for help if I can’t do something because my executive dysfunction has decided I can’t even fill up my water bottle or make a meal. My friends here yell at me to not apologize when I say sorry because I can’t control a weird noise or if I can’t help repeating something out loud that just won’t leave my head otherwise.
The mask I put on everyday still sits in hands-reach wherever I go, and sometimes I put it on without realizing. Sometimes, the situation is just not safe enough to take it off, or I feel too much pressure to act a certain way to remove it. Masking serves to protect myself from the negative perceptions of neurodiverse people, and for a long time it was the only way I knew how to survive. For the first 19 years of my life, I wore it every single day, and until the pandemic I hadn’t known I was wearing one at all.
Quarantine and the ‘new normal’ of the pandemic, paired with the experience of moving across the country to begin my adult life, finally allowed me to see myself function without masking, and it was terrifying at first. And yet, somehow, it ended up being okay, because I’ve met new people that didn’t mind that I am incredibly awkward and sometimes say seemingly random things after being lost in my own brain for a while. I learned that there were people just as anxious about having mental health issues and being neurodivergent as I was. I found wonderful friends who don’t use my ADHD as an overshadowing of my intelligence and academic success; for once, I don’t feel like such a failure for struggling sometimes. As it turns out, that’s a thing that everyone does, even the smartest and brightest! Though it took me a long time to learn that, it’s an invaluable fact that I remind myself of over and over and over.
So, I take off my mask, the same way I take the physical one off when I return from a day of classes, and I learn to live as myself. It’s far from something I've learned, past tense, but something I will continue learning as I navigate this pandemic-stricken world and face unique challenges stemming from a part of me that I just had the chance to meet. Getting that ADHD diagnosis wasn’t some end all be all; instead, it’s giving me a point of view that allows me to grow and build empathy and compassion toward myself - the one person I refused to give that kindness to all of my life. It is an inseparable part of who I am and how I function, and I get to learn and choose how to positively move forward with it.
Vienne is a graduating senior at Boise State in the writing, rhetoric, and technical communications BA program. She is a community writer dedicated to mental health advocacy, queer issues, accessibility, and systemic problems. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, and spending time with her friends and partner.