I was never known as the brainy kid growing up. I went to a very competitive private school, and from a young age, I remember being measured by achievements in the classroom. When I was young, my teachers labeled me as average, and sometimes outspoken. As I got older, the statements became more memorable, “you learn like the boys,” “My eight year old son could write a better paper than you” (I was in ninth grade), “she needs to put more effort in…”, and my mom now admits that she just thought I was “lazy.” Nobody looks at a little girl who has been conditioned to sit still and thinks ADHD. Nobody looks at a black girl and thinks ADHD. It is easier for them to say, “she’s sassy,” “lazy,”or “just isn’t as smart as the other kids.”
I tried to express to my parents and my teachers the disconnect I felt between my abilities and my performance. I could stare at my school work for hours and get nothing done. During middle school, I would sit doing my work at night in tears, because it hurt me mentally to sit with it. The school told my mom that I was fine, and there was nothing to be worried about. The same school would send home off schedule progress reports, which my mom called “in notice of failing notes.” These always led to an argument between the two of us, where I would end up crying and refusing to eat dinner that night. My mom trusted that the expensive top tier private school I was in did everything in my best interest.
TW: mentions of suicidal thoughts
I spent my whole life, until very recently, believing that I wasn’t meant to learn. I leaned into athletics, because that’s where I was accepted. That’s where I could learn and grow without being cut down, and adults saw my potential. However, trying to regain all the confidence I had lost in the classroom was a large task. I worked hard in high school, gained some ground, committed to my dream school in tenth grade, but still was constantly knocked back down for my academic performance, choice of college, and time spent in school versus in the gym.
When I got to college, I finally felt like I was in an environment where I could thrive. While I was finally out of the pressure cooker of my high school, I kept the pressure on myself. I became a perfectionist, feeling like I had to prove I deserved to be on Earth. I went into every class, practice, and game feeling like I had to be the best, because I was told that I had the potential to be the best. My community back home had criticized my choice of a “second rate university,” so I felt like I had to get perfect grades to prove I chose somewhere where I could succeed.
I was a perfectionist on the court too. If we lost a game, I couldn’t eat after. I physically punished myself for every error I made in the gym. My habits became incredibly unhealthy my first season, in the fall of 2014. I was able to utilize resources from the school and the athletic department to start my healing process, but it didn’t do much at first and at times, I completely gave up.
Over the course of my freshman year, my perfectionism developed into deep depression. Anyone who knew me well at the time can tell you that I was a shell of myself, and frequently appeared as if there was no soul inside me. The emptiness and numbness became unbearable. I had internalized the idea that my existence wasn’t worth anything if I wasn’t excelling in every way possible. My body physically felt hollow, and I felt that I couldn’t live with the emptiness anymore. I had convinced myself that it would be easier to be dead than live feeling like I had nothing at all.
I would speed my car up on the way home from the gym with the hopes that I would lose control and “accidentally crash.” I would take up to fifteen times the recommended dose of over the counter medication in the hopes that maybe, eventually one of my organs would mysteriously fail. I would take walks at 2 AM on a Friday night in my pajama shorts hoping that someone would try and rob or kidnap me and kill me in the process. I did not want anyone to find me dead, but hoped that I could find a way to mysteriously slip away so that nobody knew I was such a coward that I needed to take my own life.
My family doesn’t talk about mental health, meaning we still don’t to this day. I have never talked to my parents about the pain I experienced in college, and I believe keeping this secret made my recovery so much harder. I am so grateful for the coaches and other staff that were in my life at the time that were my supporters with open arms to give me a hug or an office to cry in. I kept my struggle from most of my teammates, I was afraid they would see someone they looked up to as broken and fragile. I was able to put on a neutral face for my family and others so I didn’t let in on my little secret.
Just when I was at my worst, in fall 2016, I met with a new doctor. He listened to my concern and idea that I felt like my brain was failing me. He was the first person to believe me. Our team doctor refused to let me get tested for ADHD because I reminded her of her daughter “and she’s just really anxious all the time.” My new doctor instead wrote notes to the school so that I could have extra time on tests and accommodations in class. I was able to start working with learning support in the athletic department and made it through undergrad by the skin on my teeth.
I learned that I had spent so much energy all of my life trying to fight my ADHD symptoms, that I had no idea what it was like to relax and be myself. It took me a year or so, but I finally found equilibrium. I still was not able to take the medication I needed without approval from the team doctor. Despite being limited, I had a great senior season and made valuable memories with my teammates and coaches. I was able to have a professional volleyball career. After that, I finally got my own neuropsychological exam. After years of struggling and suspecting that I was different, I had indisputable evidence. My IQ is actually really high, and my processing time, organization, and response inhibition is actually really low. I am neurodivergent. I have ADHD as an adult.
Millions of children are diagnosed with ADHD each year. People assume kids with ADHD are the ones out of their seat all the time or talking out of turn. I have learned that ADHD also causes trouble in conversations, making friendships hard. Some kids and adults might be able to stay in their seat but still fidget, and struggle to retain information given to them. People with ADHD have trouble controlling their impulses and therefore, feel emotions with more intensity.
I still see the same doctor that helped me my junior year of college. We have been able to work together to come up with a combination of stimulants and antidepressants that keep me at my best. I no longer feel the need to be perfect in the classroom, instead as a doctoral student, I feel thankful to be alive. I was able to tell my mom about my ADHD diagnosis, and it was definitely hard for her. She felt like she failed me as a parent. I don’t blame her or anyone for what I went through. I’m instead glad that I did experience the emotional pain and survived it so that I can help others find their own strength.
After graduating from Maryland, Hailey went on to play professionally in Austria and Spain. Hailey is now a PhD student at Dusquene University where she assists with the women’s volleyball program. She also serves as a Head Campus Captain for The Hidden Opponent and runs her own mental health blog @mindsofmelanin on Instagram to bring light to Black mental health.