Dread is a living thing; it seeps and curls like heavy smoke until it consumes everything. The weight, a constant passenger in my body throughout my school career. The buildings housed classrooms loomed over me like a sinister presence making my skin hum with anxiety. Fight or flight became a daily battle, and every day I made the conscious decision to fight. Today will be different. I would tell myself. Today I will win. But as I walked down the halls, my brain would go from a steady mantra to struggling in quicksand Tunnel vision would then set in and the sounds around me would merge into loud and overwhelming chaos. Sweat would cover my palms and my head swam, disconnected from my body. The cage protecting my heart and lungs would turn to claws squeezing out my breath. Unconsciously, I would scratch and rub at my forearms and neck to ward off the way my skin seems to crawl sometimes, trapped with no silver lining, no hint of the control I was so desperate to find. No one could tell me why my jitters never went away; or why they got worse in certain situations. I was constantly told: “it’s all in your head. Just put it out of your mind.” They said, “you’re just a bad test taker. You’ll have to work harder to succeed in life.” But work harder at what? What did they mean? The harder I tried to make my brain work, the harder everything seemed to accomplish. As time went on, every last ounce of energy became spent on attempting to act normal. Adults thought I was on drugs, and my friends thought I needed to be. Still, I dutifully went to class every day, only to run around to every teacher on the last day of my senior year asking if I passed. It would take me seventeen years to receive my high school diploma.

It’s a fact that youth with emotional and behavioral disorders have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. National reports reflect only 40 percent of students with emotional, behavioral, and mental health disorders graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 76 percent….(Chris Balow Ph. D.

Proving mine is not a unique story. Stigma is often regarded as a societal issue, but self-stigmatization is as prevalent of a construct and far more debilitating. “Research shows that knowing or having contact with someone with mental illness is one of the best ways to reduce stigma. Individuals speaking out and sharing their stories can have a positive impact.” (Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D.) Education on mental health needs to be addressed at a young age to prevent future generations from digging themselves into a hole they can’t climb out of.

The brain is a part of the body that we know the least about and every one works in unique ways. Mine has an inner monologue with a full range of emotions, seemingly separate from those living in my body, and the voice in my head talks incessantly. Getting my brain to focus for any length of time has always been a struggle because while I am trying to focus on the task at hand, my brain is thinking about, an epic painting I need to create, or an amazing story I need to write, and how I need to start making all my clothes because I would convince myself making them is more practical than buying them. The more skills I put in my toolbox, the more things I need to do, and they all need to be done now. They are cravings taking hold in my mind, festering until I accomplished or failed at them and not a lot was known about attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and the information that was available was wrong or incomplete. A majority of those who did view ADHD as a valid mental disorder believed ADHD only affected boys, leaving many who suffered from it to try and figure things out in isolation. According to a National Survey of Children’s Health from 2016 “3.3 million children aged 12–17 years have ADHD” (Centers for Disease Control; C.D.C.) and of those “about 3 in 10 children with ADHD had anxiety” (C.D.C.) as well. Inability to manage any of these exacerbates them creating a vicious cycle bolstering more emotional instability. The anxiety which plagued me in school grew, settling into constant nausea forming a brick sitting in my stomach. Both the school administration and my parents accused me of crying wolf when all medical tests came back normal. Twenty-five years ago mental disabilities were generally accepted as an affliction for adults. In an attempt to manage my own nausea I would eat less and less until I passed out at school in fourth grade. Later, in 6th grade, I learned I am also dyslexic. I remember asking the woman who tested me, “what does that mean?” She responded by saying, “sometimes words and letters will get mixed up. Just work harder.” No one told me what to expect or how to manage and live with any of the conditions that plagued me. Reading aloud in class had always been torturous, but the hindsight of knowing why turned the mandatory practice into a sick joke.

When anxiety takes hold, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and all non-essential brain function slows to allow your brain to focus on the fight or flight response (Harvard Health), making the effects of ADHD and dyslexia worse, which in turn makes anxiety worse. As an adult, words on the page still have a mind of their own, smearing together like paint on a canvas, and numbers are still little gremlins on the pages, laughing in glee as they rearrange themselves. People without dyslexia can’t grasp the reality of those who do. Often resulting in comments like: “just read more, you’ll get past it.” Then the favorite saying: “just work harder.” Someone once said, in bright tones, “you can get extra time on tests. Just tell your teachers! You can even go to the library if you’re nervous!” This well-intentioned person thought this was a helpful statement, following their advice would have led to a greater increase in my anxiety, suffocating me. Reading test questions aloud does help me when I am anxious (something librarians don’t look kindly upon) but advertising a perceived weakness in the social construct of grade school would invite bullying. Being a social pariah is anxiety-inducing whether one has a disorder or not. So I tried to work harder as people said, but what was I supposed to work harder at? I would try to concentrate more but would end up fidgeting instead. Lectures overwhelmed me because of my inability to split my focus between listening and taking notes. “Inattention, which makes the ADHD brain struggle to focus long and hard enough to get information into the brain in the first place, and distractibility, which moves attention away from the task at hand, conspire to make taking notes really tough.” (Judith Kolberg) When my mind gets overwhelmed, I retreat. Giving into distractibility, I would write my thoughts out on paper with the hope that doing so would help me concentrate. It didn’t. Instead, writing became both therapy and a distraction. My journals contained everything from doodles, to short stories, to complete essays with supporting evidence.

Eventually, my inability to manage my thoughts caused my brain to stop trying altogether. Disassociating became a coping mechanism. Doctors blamed my issues on puberty, while I was walking around like a zombie. Trapped in my own head, screaming, but was unable to control the shell my body had become. At 14 my mom took me to get on birth control. Not for contraception, but in an effort to regulate my hormones, but they made me worse. I stopped taking the pills because they made me worse.

All forms of hormonal contraception were associated with an increased risk of developing depression, with higher risks associated with the progesterone-only forms, including the IUD. This risk was higher in teens ages 15 to 19….” (Monique Tello M.D. MPH)

It is important to note this does not make birth control bad, only that those who choose to take hormone-altering medications must be monitored and not only aware of the risks but made to understand the signs and symptoms of those risks. It wasn’t until I was able to separate more from my family in my twenties that I realized my parents’ own mental struggles.

I thought about going back to school many times, especially since the idea of finishing high school represented healing for me in a way getting my GED would not. Unquestionably, getting my diploma would be a necessary step in my mental healing, but the thought of going back to school always brought with it an insidious panic, the kind that crawls beneath the skin and turns normal thoughts into dark, disjointed chaos. The final time was no different, except I clicked the “enroll” button before the panic could set in.

Over the next couple of days, I went through the process of getting my high school transcripts, only to realize when I got them, how bad they were. The dam holding back my emotions broke. I found myself on the floor of the shower, my body crumpled and shaking. The floor was the only support I allowed myself as I fell deeper into the dark corners of my mind. I let the water run down my face, washing away the endless stream of tears. I allowed myself to become hypnotized by the water circling and disappearing down the drain. Emotion formed a ball in my throat and the sobs could not be swallowed. When the ball melted over my chest, the relief was fleeting before re-solidifying into those familiar claws gripping my lungs. My wretched sobs turned to white-hot anger for having allowed myself those moments of self-condemnation. No. You aren’t a teenager anymore. I won’t let you go to that dark place because of unplanned classes. Usually, my inner monologue is either Anxiety or Muse; Pragmatic is a rarely seen personality for it. The hurricane of emotion which consumed me moments before stopped, suddenly and entirely. Either shock or the gut punch of hindsight, gave the hammering emotions pause as the monologue continued in my mind. You are beating yourself up over not having applied yourself and done your work your senior year, but my academic struggles didn’t start in high school. There are four years of high school transcripts at your desk. Four years in which the only change was the D’s went down to F’s your senior year. They didn’t start in 9th grade or with puberty, nor have the struggles ended. They have been constant, in and out of school. Pragmatic me followed up with a helpful 80s montage of memories, reaffirming the evidence in my transcripts. My kindergarten teacher and my parents discussed the struggles I was having with learning my letters, followed by a second-grade parent-teacher conference to discuss my poor reading ability. Struggles with long division in third grade culminated in the teacher calling me a dunce in front of the entire class. It was the first time I heard the word outside of a cartoon but it would not be the last time a teacher would diminish my intellect. But somewhere along the way, I changed.

If someone came up to me in high school and said, “I see that you’re struggling and I admire your courage for getting out of bed this morning. I admire you for replacing your pajama bottoms with jeans. I see you. I see you here and not ditching class, even when your friends try to persuade you to” I probably would have cried hysterically and kissed them! “The ability to recognize a mental illness has important implications as it can aid in timely and appropriate help-seeking, and ultimately improve outcomes for people with mental illness.” (Picco, Abdin, Pang, Vaingankar, Jeyagurunathan, Chong, and Subramaniam) In writing this article, I came upon the realization that my struggles with depression are situational rather than clinical; a distinction that felt huge. My anxiety isn’t a tightrope stretched across a ravine of depression. Depression is a cliff in the distance and work to avoid the edge. One of the ways I learned to manage my anxiety is by writing dark fantasy and horror. Writing stories that evoke anxiety, dread, panic, and hysteria, then controlling where those go, is salvation. School would always bring the same challenges. Knowing how I had changed and grown is what allowed me to go back.

Now, I recognize my compulsion for going down rabbit holes when I do research. Going at my own pace, rather than going at someone else’s pace, is key. Utilizing video lectures, and audio recordings, I can avoid splitting my focus between lectures and notes. Meditating, stretching, or taking a walk around the block helps my brain shift gears more smoothly when switching tasks. Creating a schedule of small achievable goals keeps me focused in ways that wouldn’t possible as a teenager. Setting small goals and achieving them gives me feelings of accomplishment, motivating me to move forward, rather than leaving me buried and overwhelmed. These changes didn’t only help with school. In my pursuit to turn writing into a career, one of the biggest advice other writers give is: “just write,” which is the same as saying “just work harder.” This advice is not inherently wrong, just not as specific as a dyslexic, hyperactive, anxious brain needs. Just as every piece of writing needs structure, so do I. I do need to “just write,” but I also need a focus and a time limit. Giving myself a tight but achievable time limit keeps me from getting sidetracked. Would knowing of my ADHD, dyslexia, anxiety, and being prone to depression have helped me at an early age? Would it have changed anything? Absolutely. These hurdles require skills that involve knowing how one’s brain works and why.

The tips and tricks I learned were hard-won. Discovery has taught me that I have a switch of sorts; not an on/off switch, more like a dimmer switch. Knowledge is how I cope with these challenges. I self-stigmatized, telling myself I had been lazy my senior year; or my struggles were due to puberty hormones. In my darker times, I thought I was crazy. No, this is not a list of excuses for why I never finished high school. This is a list of real challenges which are currently plaguing another child, all because of the stigma around mental disorders. It took sixteen years after my graduating year for me to learn to manage my mental hurdles enough to build up my confidence enough to go back. We can not continue to fail our children this way.

[I]t is very important to make mental health a top priority, because leaving a mental illness untreated has extremely negative effects on the person. Some specific examples of these direct and indirect effects are the condition worsening over time, physical health issues, financial problems, lack of job stability, prison, being taken advantage of by others, and suicide. (Milena Bimpong)

Which has also led to “a severe impact on the nation’s economy. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), untreated mental illnesses cost about $100 billion a year in lost productivity. Along with many other countries, the United States has a high population of both children and adults with untreated mental illnesses.” (Bimpong) The stigma around mental disorders opresses the flow of information from getting to the people who need it most. Today, we are far more knowledgeable in the science behind why these things occur and there are natural and pharmaceutical options to help. Though anxiety and depression are the results of chemical and hormonal imbalances, dyslexia and ADHD are not “disorders,” they only cause disorder when people do not realize that not all brains function the same. Dyslexia, ADHD, and autism are not disabilities, they are simply different ways in which brains function, and we who possess these skills thrive in other ways.

  1. Barlow Ph. D., Chris. “The General Status of Student Mental Health in Our Schools.” Illuminate Education, 8 Jan. 2020,
  2. Borenstein, M.D., Jeffrey. “Stigma, Prejudice and Discrimination Against People with Mental Illness.” American Psychiatric Association, August 2020,
  3. “Data and Statistics About ADHD.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Nov. 2020,
  4. Mayo Clinic Staff. “Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness” Mayo Clinic, 24 May 2017,
  5. Martinelli, Katherine. “Understanding Dyslexia.” Child Mind Institute, unknown,
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  7. Kolberg, Judith. “ADHD Study Skills: How to Take Notes” Edge Foundation, 2016,
  8. Tello M.D. MPH, Monique. “Can hormonal birth control trigger depression?” Harvard Health Publishing, 1 Oct. 2019,
  9. Picco, L., AbdinE.PangS., VaingankarJ. A.JeyagurunathanA.ChongS. A. and SubramaniamM. “Association between recognition and help-seeking preferences and stigma towards people with mental illness” Cambridge University Press, 8 Dec. 2016,

Bimpong, Milena. “Untreated Mental Illnesses: The Causes And Effects.” Princeton Review, 30 April 2017,