Regaining focus


Salma Ali

“It wasn’t that I wanted the title of “girl with ADHD”, but that I wanted to have an answer. An answer to why I struggled academically where others didn’t and why I felt like my thought process never matched anyone else’s.”

It’s 3:15 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and all I can taste is blood.

For the past hour I’ve been bouncing my leg and biting my inner cheeks as I race to finish my human geography test. The words on the page look scrambled and I am nowhere near finished. In the midst of my panic, the testing timer rings.

I stand up, turn in an incomplete scantron and ask my freshman Humanities teacher to be excused. I head toward the girls’ bathroom sink and feel the stress I had been holding in all day slowly release.

The test is over.

Though my stress had subsided, the blood in my mouth had not. I lean my head in close to the sink and spit. I wait, then spit again. The school’s automatic faucet made my relatively minor injury look like a scene from “Psycho.” I wipe my mouth and clean myself to the best of my abilities before walking back to my classroom.

At the time, I didn’t know why I felt the way I did. All I knew was that taking timed exams made me anxious. That this severe anxiety caused me to shake in my seat and tightly clench my jaw.

Throughout elementary and middle school, no one noticed that anything was wrong with me. I was placed into the GT program early on, always got straight A’s and according to my teachers was, “a pleasure to have in class.” If any problems were noticed, they were viewed as trivial because of my good record.

Despite this, I spent my freshman year constantly questioning my own intelligence. I was failing tests and quizzes. I was failing to comprehend the information. I was a failure.

I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I was “gifted and talented.” I was “one of the smart ones.”

Since I can remember, I have always been the last person to turn in a test or quiz, but before high school it never mattered. I was always met with an A when grades came back. Despite always being easily distracted, I had never had this much trouble in school. These traits of mine were slowly becoming detrimental.

There came a time in early December of 2019 when I hit a breaking point. I knew there was no way I had lost all intellectual capacity over the course of a few months, so I went to the school counselor and explained my struggle. That was the catalyst to the long and arduous process of getting me help.

Through loads of paperwork and meetings with school officials, my mom and I were able to get me placed on an academic plan known as a 504. This allows me accommodations like extra time while testing, a private area to take exams and other minor modifications to regular school routines.

I started seeing a therapist every week who specialized in academic stress and anxiety. After months of speaking and working with the school’s diagnostician, district psychologist and my therapist, I finally had an answer. In February of 2021, I was informed that my stress and anxiety stemmed from ADHD.

Finally having it in writing was an immense relief. It wasn’t that I wanted the title of “girl with ADHD”, but that I wanted to have an answer. An answer to why I struggled academically where others didn’t and why I felt like my thought process never matched anyone else’s. I wasn’t crazy after all.

Receiving a diagnosis and talking to a therapist didn’t magically solve all of my problems. There are still times when class conversations move too fast for me. Times when I have trouble gaining the motivation to begin assignments or think cohesive thoughts. However, it was how I acted upon this information that truly helped me.

Self-advocating and communicating my needs was one of the best things I did for myself. Acknowledging my issues allowed me to develop healthy coping mechanisms and deal with my symptoms during stressful times. To get the help I needed, I had to vouch for myself and speak up about my issues, because no one understood what I was going through more than me.