Written by Shena Vagliano Friday, November 11 2011I was 18 when I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). While that may seem rather late to receive a diagnosis, in reality girls have been much less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis at a young age compared to boys. As a result, many girls and women unknowingly struggle with ADHD, largely because of assumptions about what ADHD "looks like." While there has recently been an increase in attention paid to early diagnosis of girls, that does little to help the hundreds of thousands of women who missed the early intervention boat and continue to struggle in darkness. The key, from my perspective, is for those of us who have been diagnosed as an adult with ADHD to talk about our experiences and how our ADHD affects us.
Throughout middle school I was known as a bookworm who loved being in the library, but the reality was that I struggled with paying attention during class and while reading, so homework took me twice as long as my peers. By the time high school rolled around I knew that large classroom settings weren’t working for me, so I decided to go to boarding school where the average class size was around eight. But despite having a more intimate learning environment, completing my homework assignments continued to take me hours and hours more than the others in my class.
I remember going to the library to do homework with a classmate my freshman year. After about an hour of reading she turned to me and said, “I’m on page 120 – what are you on?” I lost my breath in that moment when I looked down to my page and saw the number 41. “Right behind you!” I lied and slammed the book closed.
I told her I had somewhere to be as I ran out of the library at full speed and locked myself in my dorm room. I sat in that room sobbing and pulling my hair out because I couldn’t understand why my brain didn’t work the way hers did. Why, no matter how desperately I tried, couldn’t I just do things the way everyone else did? No one else seemed to be struggling like I was, or at least no one was talking about it.
I never considered that my struggles in school might have been symptoms of a disorder until I went to college and for the first time met someone who was open about having ADHD. As he described how he struggled in school it was as if he was narrating my life – so I got tested and was found to have ADHD.
Getting that diagnosis was the best thing that ever happened to me because it validated my struggles with learning, and for the first time in my life I knew that it wasn’t my fault. But my excitement was quickly followed by my realization of the stigma of being labeled ADHD. I didn’t want people to think that I was not capable or stupid. So I did what so many people with ADHD do; I hid my label and told no one.Until I joined Project Eye-To-Eye.
Project Eye-To-Eye, based in New York, pairs kids with learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD with similarly labeled college student mentors to build their self-esteem, help them to value their own unique minds, and make them self-advocates. I joined Project Eye-To-Eye to change a kid’s life, and over the course of a year I saw my mentee Robyn undergo a huge transformation – a shy little girl who was hiding from herself and from the world turned into this outgoing ball of energy who took ownership of her learning disability and the strengths and weaknesses that go along with it.
What I didn’t expect was the impact the program would have on me. Being in Project Eye-To-Eye changed my life because it showed me that it’s OK to talk about my ADHD and my struggles in school. I started being more open about having ADHD. I started talking about it with my friends and with my family. I talked openly about what was hard for me. I stopped fighting and ignoring my ADHD and finally embraced it as an essential part of who I am.
My ability to be open about my experience has helped me immensely, and, now, as the head of communications for the national office of Project Eye-To-Eye, I work every day with the hope that more people will start sharing their experiences with LD/ADHD and help others see LD/ADHD in a positive light. It took me 18 years to encounter someone who was willing to talk about his struggles, to share his experience with ADHD openly. I’m just trying to make sure other women don’t have to wait that long.
Shena Vagliano is marketing and communications manager for Project-To-Eye, based in New York, the only national mentoring program pairing kids with LD/ADHD with similarly labeled college student mentors. Using an art-based curriculum, Project Eye-To-Eye helps children with LD/ADHD value their own unique minds, builds their self-esteem, and gives them the skills to become self-advocates.
Vagliano joined Project Eye-To-Eye in 2009 as office manager after graduating cum laude after only three years from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in May 2009 with a degree in international relations and a minor in political science.