ADD and Shame

Like any good girl raised in a Catholic home, I have a talent for guilt. The ideal of moral perfection is elusive, as is admittedly true for everyone, but the greatest guilt – really, my greatest shame – is for a lifetime spent struggling with the constellation of symptoms known as ADD. Largely because for most of my life I didn’t know I had it, and instead felt sure that I was fundamentally lazy, disorganized, and unmotivated.

In my early childhood, I was labeled  “gifted and talented”, which meant that I was expected to impress. I’d never been the type to bounce off the walls, and I’d always been able to concentrate under pressure or on topics that interested me.  The possibility of my having an attention deficit – a phrase not commonly used or even known at that time – was never considered. At this early stage, all that was required was to take and ace whatever test was placed in front of me, and this seemed like something I could manage. If I could just keep doing that, I thought, I’d be good enough.

But the older I got, the further I seemed to fall from what was expected. Not everything could be hidden by one good score. I was careless, disorganized, distracted. The difference between what everyone knew I was capable of and what I actually achieved became larger every year, and with it, my sense of shame. I wondered what was wrong with me – why I couldn’t get organized, plan ahead, prepare? It didn’t seem to be something I could do. I wasn’t enough. Not anymore. I felt I was – categorically – disappointing.

Then came the shame – overwhelming, oppressive shame. I wanted to cover the distance between what I knew I was supposed to do and what I was actually doing, but didn’t have the tools to do it, and that felt like my fault.

In college, friends dutifully sat each night in front of carefully highlighted texts and impeccable notebooks that summarized all that they’d learned with a level of organization that mystified me. I couldn’t stay on top of one of my classes, let alone all, as everyone else seemed to be able to do.

The distance between what I’d dreamt and what I’d done was wide, coloring my life with each action I didn’t take. A sense of my status as “failure” congealed in my mind, and that shame followed me everywhere.

And then, though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time, someone offered hope. They suggested I get tested for ADD.

I didn’t expect a diagnosis. I had felt so much shame for so long that I was sure the tests would show that I was fine, that I had no excuse.

And yet, as it turned out, it was true: I had an attention deficit, and a significant one at that. It only took this one, simple piece of information for my worldview to start to shift, and for my belief in my inherent flawed-ness to get its first real challenge.

It took a while for my perception of myself to change, and to recognize that what I saw as intrinsic inadequacy might just be a different way of interacting with the world. My diagnosis was my first hint that I might still have value, might still be able to achieve something, and that what I had previously considered to be fundamental personality flaws might actually be assets. It took this diagnosis to start me on the path to believing that something better was possible for me.

I know now that ADD and shame go hand in hand for many of us, especially those who have lived entire lives before learning this disorder’s name. But it doesn’t have to be our fate. Hope is a choice, and so too is the act of seeking help, support, and treatment. My diagnosis helped me make it.

(This beautiful, insightful essay was written by guest blogger Mary.)



Kathy Sussell is an ADHD coach who works with teens, college students and adults with ADHD. Kathy helps them with time management, planning and prioritizing, initiating and finishing tasks, organizing paper and objects and other life skills. Kathy is the co-author of, Managing Your ADHD: Tips and Solutions from A-Z. She is the organizer of the ADHD Women’s Meetup Group that meets every month in NYC. For more information visit her website: or email Kathy at

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