Katie Roper: Effectively masking since 1984

Picture of Katie with her dog.
Katie is a secondary Maths teacher at Bluecoat Wollaton Academy in Nottingham.

It is a little embarrassing to admit that, despite numerous training sessions on learning differences in my job as a secondary school teacher, it was a meme which first alerted me to the possibility that the ‘difference’ I had felt all my life was, in fact, ADHD. After all, I wasn’t an eight-year-old boy struggling to sit still, I was a professional and a parent, albeit one frequently overwhelmed and crippled by anxiety. I didn’t recognise myself in the stereotypical hyperactive child, but I did recognise myself in this meme, and in the other memes on the ADHD social media account. They were all so relatable, and the more I investigated, the more I related.

In November 2020 I was diagnosed with combined-type ADHD. Some people questioned why I wanted a ‘label’, but I had been given labels all my life. Looking through my school reports before my diagnostic appointment, I read that I was ‘lacking commitment’ and ‘very disorganised’ with ‘poor self-discipline’; having a medical ‘label’ to replace these perceived character flaws was welcome.

My diagnosis brought a mixture of relief and grief. The knowledge that my brain is wired differently helped me to better understand why I found so many things such a struggle. I remember seeing the title of the book, “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?” and it resonated hugely with me. I had previously come to accept that even when I tried my best, I simply couldn’t match the efficiency or achievements of others. I was saddened, too, that I had been misunderstood, even by myself, and that there was a reason why my best efforts did not always come to fruition.

Like many neurodiverse women and girls, I had developed elaborate coping mechanisms to counter the difficulties I experienced, which I now recognise as executive dysfunction. Although very academic at school, I was horrendously disorganised, but as an adult became hyper-organised in some areas of my life. People marvelled at how I never forgot a birthday, not realising that this was facilitated by an elaborate system of reminders, and the high level of accountability in my teaching career forced me to organise myself. The effort of doing so led to frequent burn-out and escalating anxiety; I would add everything to my to-do list then, unable to prioritise the tasks and struggling to focus on them, work inefficiently for long hours. The constant busyness of my brain was, and is, exhausting, and inevitably I would forget things or make mistakes, which only contributed to my sense that, even though I was trying my best, it wasn’t good enough.

Whilst friends and colleagues were supportive after my diagnosis, and keen to understand, many expressed surprise and cited my organisational skills and work ethic, and the fact I had been teaching for over a decade, as atypical of ADHD. This just confirmed what I had already come to realise, that women and girls are often effective at masking their difficulties and more prone to people-pleasing.

Masking comes at a cost, though; trying to conform to neurotypical expectations when your brain works differently is incredibly hard work.  I had been promoted to middle management but resigned my responsibility as the stress was too great. I switched to working four days a week – full-time teaching, together with its accompanying evening and weekend administrative tasks, is hard enough for any teacher, but trying to manage this alongside my executive dysfunction was untenable.

But ADHD has also driven me. I am passionate about what I do, and my desire to do a good job and to support my students as best as I can gives me the motivation to keep working hard; the same sort of motivation that I often cannot muster to undertake far more straightforward tasks, such as loading the dishwasher. As a teacher I am enthusiastic, exuberant and driven to make a difference, and that is ADHD at its best. The routine of school gives me structure, whilst the unpredictability of each lesson provides challenge, with no risk of getting bored. Teaching is also incredibly rewarding, and my dopamine-seeking brain is very appreciative of that!

Frustratingly, as my own prior ignorance of the complexity of the ADHD spectrum shows, stereotypes perpetuate and ADHD is not always well-understood even within education. Time pressures mean there is limited time for specific training on ADHD and, even when training is of high quality and considers the spectrum of ADHD symptoms, inevitably the focus of discussions tends to fall on ‘high profile’ individuals whose behaviours are more noticeable. Girls who are adept at disguising their difficulties and want to conform to expectations fly below the radar; I was one of them.

As a thirty-something woman in a professional career, I don’t fit many people’s perceptions of a person with ADHD. Whilst I haven’t advertised my diagnosis at work, nor have I hidden it, and most of my colleagues and some of my students are aware that I have ADHD. I have plans to lead a series of assemblies celebrating neurodiversity later in the school year and I hope that this will promote better understanding of ADHD and other learning differences. I also hope that our students, particularly those who are neurodiverse themselves, will appreciate the visibility of an adult and teacher who is neurodivergent and is proud to speak about it.

Being diagnosed with ADHD at thirty-six has been overwhelmingly positive. I understand myself better, as do my friends and family, and my husband now recognises that my tendency to leave tasks half-complete is not deliberate. I feel less of a need to ‘mask’ and will ask for help when I need support, usually when I am struggling to prioritise or need help getting started on an uninteresting task. I take medication which helps me enormously. However, I’m conscious that obtaining a diagnosis of ADHD is still more difficult when symptoms are more inattentive than hyperactive, and that this more often applies to women and girls. It is my hope that in talking about my experiences of having ADHD, people will recognise the spectrum of the condition, offer support for its challenges and celebrate its gifts.

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