Invisible Weights - The Importance of Diagnosis

Monday, March 8, 2021

Invisible Weights - The Importance of Diagnosis


Going through school with an undiagnosed disability is like running a race with invisible weights strapped to your ankles. You run as hard and fast as you can to stay with the rest of the runners, probably even harder and faster, but while the rest of the runners aren’t breaking a sweat, you’re out of breath and on the verge of collapse.

“But those weights will surely make you stronger,” I hear many parents say, trying to find a silver lining on behalf of their struggling child. 

However, you don’t know the weights are on your ankles. When you look around, you decide that the reason you’re struggling must be a result of your inadequacy. The weights can make you stronger, build resilience and character, but what’s the purpose of such an exercise if it’s not being utilized properly? In order for that child to thrive, they first must see the weights.

I was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and a severe anxiety disorder at the age of 21. I had gone through all of my schooling up until that point with weights strapped to my ankles, while being told it was my own fault if I wasn’t as fast as the rest. As far as my parents and teachers were concerned, I was a good student. I got good grades, I was polite to teachers, and I didn’t misbehave. What they didn’t see, however, was how I would break down crying in the bathroom between classes, how I had to dig my nails into my bloodied palms during class to distract myself from overstimulation, and how I regularly contemplated sticking needles into my ears so that I couldn’t be bothered by frightening noises anymore. The worst part of it all, though, was the fact that I couldn’t see the weights. I thought that, above all else, I was a failure because I struggled so much to do what my peers seemed to do effortlessly. What good am I as a person, I thought, if I can’t even sit still in a classroom without buckling into a panic attack?

By the time I was diagnosed, medicated, and accommodated, I only had one semester of college left to go. I wasn’t expecting such a radical difference in my experience, but that final semester was far and away the best one in all my years of education. I no longer struggled to stay in the classroom, I could ask questions and get involved in subjects I didn’t even care about (which was a foreign concept to me until then), and I didn’t have to take absences out of fear that I would intentionally crash my car on the drive home. I got straight A’s in all my classes, and my senior thesis, a short animated film, was voted best in show at the end of year presentations. Despite this, I don’t feel pride when I look back at how well that last semester went for me. Instead, I feel disappointment at how much easier my schooling experience could have been, and how much I could have accomplished if someone had told me about the weights sooner.

The weights did make me stronger. I’m resilient, introspective, and empathetic in ways I wouldn’t be without them. But, I’m also tired. Decades of telling myself that I’ve failed as a person don’t go away overnight, no matter how I try to prove the opposite. I can’t help but mourn for all the happiness I missed out on, on all the confidence I’d have now if I didn’t have to fight tooth and nail to hang onto scraps, and for a childhood that didn’t make me feel like a burden.

A diagnosis doesn’t make the weights go away. It does, however, tell you they’re there. What you and your child can do after that is up to you, whether you medicate, go to therapy, seek accommodations, or even just talk about what it means. No matter what, though, you can’t begin to work with a problem that you don’t know is there. Disabilities can even be a benefit to children in unique ways, and give them unique strengths. For example, ADHD has a fun little side effect called “hyper-fixation” that allows a person to, as the name implies, hyper focus onto a particular task, and usually allows them to perform that task very quickly, efficiently, and diligently. I have learned to utilize this tool myself in my freelance work, which allows me to complete work for clients in days that may take another artist weeks. I was only able to do this, though, through the use of appropriate therapy and medication, which can only come after the proper diagnosis.

Children with disabilities can and will thrive when they have the right tools at their disposal. You as a parent are not stifling or discouraging your child by getting them diagnosed, and a diagnosis is not something to be feared. It is far more dangerous to run with those weights without knowing about them, than to be told they’re there so you can use them to your advantage. 

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