The Ax Forgets…
I don’t need to close my eyes to recreate this particular memory. Even as I think about it, I can smell what my seatmate brought to school for lunch that day. It was Indomie and a boiled egg sealed in a stainless steel vacuum flask that was identical to mine. When she opened it, the aroma that slithered across my nostrils instantly upset my tummy and I was unable to eat the rest of my lunch. I was unaware that this discomfort would be insignificant compared to the pain I would feel in the coming hour.
“I don’t like people”. This is what I often use as a justification for my hermit-like tendencies and lack of desire to participate in social activities people my age seem to enjoy. If I am to be honest, these words are false. I like people, I have even come to find a good handful whose company I genuinely desire. The truth is that people terrify me, and this is because I don't seem to understand them. It is as though everyone was handed a script on how they needed to comport themselves, but I was absent on the day of its distribution. There are so many memories I could recount of how once I needed to interact with other humans, I floundered and flailed.
One of these was a particular day in my primary school. It was after our lunch break and I was still a bit uneasy from the smell of my seatmate's lunch when my Computer teacher walked into the class. She was a no-nonsense woman that probably stood at the proud height of 5 ft 5, but when you are as close to the ground as the ground itself, everyone is a giant. “Bring out your Computer notebooks!” she bellowed. This was routine. “Make sure you copy the note EXACTLY like my own” This was a new instruction, but I understood, at least I thought I did. Her relative towering height coupled with her general mean demeanor and wooden ruler always made it apparent that her word was law, so like the good student I was, I proceeded to retrieve my ruler from my pencil case and mirror her actions. I parted the page of my notebook into 3 equal sections. Once I was proud of the lines I had drawn with my pencil, I carefully wrote my note in my clearest and cleanest handwriting.
With practiced swiftness, she completed writing the note on the board and decided to roam the class in order to monitor what we were doing, she needed to make sure we had not deviated from her earlier instructions. As she moved about in the class, she paused behind me and peered into my note
“What is this nonsense that you are doing?”
I looked at her confused “It's my note ma”.
I did not understand her question, was it not obvious it was my note? Maybe it wasn’t. I showed her my name on the cover that my mother had written in beautiful and clear block letters that also denoted that it was the appropriate note for the class.
“Not that. I mean what are these lines you have drawn in your notebook madam?”
I was confused, so I hesitated “Um…”
“My friend, will you speak up!”
Even though people were hard to read, I understood sarcasm, it was the language of Benjamin and Gwendolyn on Ben10. So it was obvious to me that in that moment that I was not her friend, I was even too far from embodying the role of an acquaintance.
“You said we should write it exactly like you did ma”. My tone was flat and matter of fact, but my classmates laughed, years would pass before I would find out why.
“So you think you are funny abi?”
“No ma”. Fear had begun to creep into my tone but my classmates laughed again.
“Since you want to be a comedian, let's see if you are still laughing after this”.
I would like to go back in time and explain to her that comedians didn't do the laughing as that would hinder their ability to speak, and also let her know that no form of mirth existed in my body during her interrogation. I was terrified of her! Could she not see that my hands shook and my voice wavered?
She grabbed me by my ear and pulled me to the front of the class. Before I could ask what I had done wrong, she ordered me to roll down my socks and turn my back to her. The first lash of the whip hit and I screamed. She continued to whip me till blood rose to the surface of my shins and even a gentle breeze would make them sting. I did not understand what I had done that warranted punishment. I had followed all her instructions to the letter. After what felt like days, she stopped and told me to go back to my seat. My class was silent save my heavy breaths and attempt to suppress my cries.
When my parents came to pick me up at the end of school that day, my tears had not ceased. When they saw the state of my legs, my mother was furious and my father livid. My shins were raw, red, and hot. The pain reminded me of how I had burnt my leg on a pressing iron a few years prior. The final straw for my parents was how I cried the next morning saying I did not want to go back to school. I was a child that adored school. A compound with swings, a sandbox, books, and arts and the craft club? That was heaven until it became my hell.
There is this popular saying “The ax forgets, but the tree remembers” I was barely a sapling when she hacked away my love for learning, and desire to know. But that wasn’t all she took from me. She beat confidence out of me, she snuffed out my trust in my own understanding and replaced that with a hyper-awareness of self. That afternoon, my ability to go through life without second-guessing my every move was executed, and all because of a simple misunderstanding with a heavy helping of her projection of maliciousness. I was not mocking her. All I did was take her instructions literally.
Even when my parents changed my school at the end of the term to one where students were encouraged to express themselves without repercussions, the damage had already been done. The seeds of social anxiety had been planted on fertile ground and they grew strong in the constant watering of my self-doubt. This was not the first time I misunderstood or would be misunderstood, but it was the first I was punished violently for it, and unfortunately, it would not be the last.
More than a decade would pass before I would begin to understand myself and the reason behind most of my actions. There seems to be a code of conduct I am unaware of, so in order to fit in, I construct my actions and reactions based on my prior exposure to similar situations. Sometimes this is helpful, other times, the result is dastardly abysmal. No matter how much effort I put in, I still tend to stick out like a sore thumb.
It would be during the pandemic that I would come across the term Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I would read articles and consume videos about this and everything would click. The “She is a good student but is restless” comment that sullies all my report cards would now make more sense. My inability to be comfortable in stillness, and my random and spontaneous hobbies would all be explainable. It would explain why I didn’t have the script everyone else was given, I am simply built different.
I have come to forgive that teacher. I still hold space for anger towards her actions, but I forgive her. Mainly because I chose not to harbor a person whose face I cannot reconstruct and whose name I have no desire to recollect in my memory. But this got me thinking, how many children who are beaten for restlessness and punished violently for trivial misunderstandings are neurodivergent? How many of them do not possess the invisible rules society distributed?
The existence of ADHD is contested. Some people would argue that it’s not a real thing even after multiple studies and peer-reviewed scientific research. The first time I read about it, even after living my life, I convinced myself that maybe it’s not ADHD and I was just lazy. It would take time for even me to understand that it’s not laziness. Most of the people who speak freely about theirs are immensely successful! I read somewhere on the internet in an article on demonology (Don’t ask, even I can’t remember why I was doing that in the first place) that giving names to things makes their vanquishing easier. Even though ADHD has no cure, it’s manageable. Some people are medicated and others like me use systems that aid productivity.
In one of the many articles I read, it stated that women are underdiagnosed and a part of me died. Of course we are! How dare I think otherwise. This terrible thing is attributed to our “atypical presentations”, like we are the ones who socialize ourselves into performing normalcy. Imagine living undiagnosed and thinking you have failed. That you have failed at life and failed at womanhood. Imagine the women who cannot seem to function and are seen as disorganized and rough and confused? The ones we leave at the fringes of society who turn to terrible coping mechanisms because they have no other option? One of the characteristics of ADHD is an addictive personality. Couple that with spontaneity and a lack of tools, and you have a ticking time bomb.
My mother is one of the women who seem to find “traditional womanhood” easy. The cooking, cleaning, and organization of the life of her offspring seems like it is a gift bestowed on her by the divine. A gift that seems to have eluded me as when I make pancakes and eggs, I somehow end up an hour later with a sink full of pans and dishes! I used to attribute my failure at performing “traditional womanhood” to the fact that I am a filthy feminist. Turns out it’s more than that.
The DSM-IV recognizes that ADHD affects executive function and this (assuming I understood the text well,) is a thing that is mostly driven by the prefrontal cortex and is in charge of the connection, prioritization, and integration of functions needed for self-management. I won’t blame you if this part flew over your head. To make this easier, I will borrow an analogy from an article by Thomas. E. Brown but make it simpler. It’s like a choir with all the parts but without a conductor. Instead of hearing the wonderful harmony of the sopranos be elevated by the depths of the bass and the complexity of the alto, you get chaos and not the fun kind. The thing that helps ease the movement of day-to-day life is somewhat absent. This can manifest in many ways such as impulse control or the lack thereof, an inability to implement proper time management, a difficulty utilizing working memory, and a host of other very important aspects of life.
One of my favorite symptoms (can you feel the sarcasm?) is emotional dysregulation. The DSM-IV does not officially recognize this as a symptom of ADHD, but if my research (which comprises of lurking in comment sections and quote tweets, and consumption of academic material) has anything to say, it’s would agree. I don’t take criticism well, not that I think I am above question, far from that. The issue is that I see it as a personal slight against my existence. When what a teacher says is, “Irawo, you might need to be more patient so that you are sure you don’t make small mistakes.” What I hear is “You are a silly hyperactive goose that will amount to nothing as you refuse to calm down!” Imagine what this does to a person. I also don’t have an internal monologue, it’s a dialogue. No, I am not hearing voices. It’s me, meta analyzing all I do, say, and even think. This partly contributes to why I keep to myself. Existing in the vicinity of others requires an exhausting amount of performance.
Let’s leave that and get to the funner parts of this subject - depression and other comorbidities! I flirted with depression in my early teens but it made a home in my life when I left for college. I left Nigeria where I had some forms of coping mechanisms to the vast aloneness of America. I was around people and had some friends but I somehow managed to be profoundly alone. To complain was difficult because I was living the dream. I had jahnded. The exponential rates of depression and suicidal ideation amongst people in the diaspora is a topic unto itself that belongs to another rotation of the earth.
Some people have no idea what ADHD is and don’t understand it. To not be understood is a painful tragedy, but not having a framework for the comprehension of oneself feels like a death sentence. One fails to adequately answer the question “Who are you?” and why entertain a continued existence when failure seems inevitable?
I want to go back in time and hold weeping me, I want to tell her that she is precious and was unjustly punished, I want to tell her that she was misunderstood and that her teacher was wrong. But most of all, I want to let her know that this will not be the only violent reaction to a misunderstanding and that they will all be painful. That every single one will be excruciating, but she would be okay. I want to tell that little child whose enthusiastic love for school was stripped away that afternoon that she will be okay, but I cannot in good faith do that. Because to be honest, I am not sure if I am okay.