This summer, I went home to Michigan for the first time in two years. Arriving in Detroit and seeing how much the scenes of my childhood had changed, and how different I now felt in them, was a watershed moment. When I entered my old room, I rummaged through the shoe boxes containing all of the papers and awards I’d received from kindergarten through 12th grade. I smiled wistfully at the honor roll certificates I’d amassed as a child, including the Presidential Award signed by “Dubya” himself; I’d received it for scoring the highest in my county on the Michigan standardized test when I was 12. I felt proud, but also disconnected from that enthused kid from almost 15 years ago.
What really caught my attention were all of the assignments with doodles and sketches of Aang, Batman and Goku strewn all over the margins. There were scarcely any empty spaces left on them that weren’t occupied by a face or by some geometric pattern. But these doodles were ultimately bittersweet now that I understand what they were actually illustrating.
Among these artifacts of my past, I unearthed my elementary school report cards. All A’s, with the exception of citizenship: C.
“Moideen is a bright student, but struggles with staying on task.”
“Moideen has potential, but is easily distracted.”
“Student is a pleasure to have in class, but can be disruptive.”
As a student at UC Berkeley, my elementary school teachers’ remarks could easily be those given by the professors whose classrooms I’m in now.
My middle school report cards indicated the beginning of a gradual academic decline. A’s and B’s metastasized into C’s, and by the end of high school, D’s. I went from being the spirited preteen figurehead of the gifted students program to accumulating an unsightly 2.8 GPA in my senior year.
My family knew that my intelligence wasn’t reflected in my grades. My behavior was the problem — I wasn’t challenged enough. I was hyperactive and suffered constantly from a deficit of attention. The occasional encounters with my mother’s spatula (or impromptu sandal) and my father’s belt didn’t effectively quell my adolescent restlessness.
My South Asian parents may have deduced that I did have something like ADHD — characterized by chronically missing the school bus, unfailingly asking my teachers for extensions and scoring a D in my horrid trigonometry class. In our culture, a C is an unfathomable abomination only a bit above the letter D, or “he-who-must-not-be-named.”
As I matured, so did my reflexes, and I became able to effectively evade all of the swings of my mother’s spatula. I no longer registered my parents’ corporal punishments as a consequence of my disinterest in school. The consequence that hurt more was the unaddressed breaching of my potential.
I was somewhat aware of my erratic pursuits of dopamine and novel stimuli, but the problem was that there wasn’t a language in my culture to identify and to describe these issues, and certainly not in a healthy, constructive way. There was no accumulated body of knowledge in our collective consciousness to address my condition and potentially more serious ones such as major depression and severe anxiety, among others. Consequently, people in these communities — such as myself — often come to live in silent despair.
My mom was adamant in insisting that “there is nothing wrong” with me and that I could push through my surmountable afflictions. Therein lies the problem: the social and cultural stigma of perceiving mental health conditions as something “wrong.” The status anxiety of my immigrant parents meant that there couldn’t be anything “wrong” with their children.
In hindsight, had I been aware of the resources available to curtail the more consequential features of my behavior, I wouldn’t be as impacted by them today. If we don’t talk early on about the reality of ADHD and of similar conditions, they materialize in our lives in deeply problematic ways, especially as students: financial irresponsibility, unhealthy interpersonal relationships, secondary anxiety and preventable self-resentment.
Today, I’ve sought to liberate myself from the toxic judgments pervasive in my culture. I view my neurodivergence almost as a superpower. Batman and Goku were likely neurodivergent, and armed with the right means and attitude, they made it a powerful tool for creative greatness. I wish that my culture fostered this perspective, instead of unhelpfully dismissing me as an unruly child.
I want to be part of initiating a cross-cultural discourse around mental health. But even though I’m writing this column, I’m still negatively influenced by my culture’s stigma of talking about ADHD — or what others may perceive as a “disability.”
I’m comforted, however, in knowing that my vulnerability is likely shared by so many, even at UC Berkeley, a place where dialogue around mental health is encouraged and is so prominent. Although these conversations are still tough, my mom roots for me as I sit in the lecture halls of acclaimed professors.
However, if their lectures do grow unbearably monotonous, I will doodle in the margins of my notes — and now, my sketches of Aang are so good that it would make even Katara blush.