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Growing up with ADHD: An interview with René Brooks

ADHD advocate René Brooks shares her experience of getting diagnosed with ADHD as a child, but not getting support until she was diagnosed again as an adult. Listen to her story.

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René Brooks was diagnosed with ADHD twice during her childhood. But stigma and shame kept her family from learning more and getting her the right support. So when she was diagnosed with ADHD for a third time at age 25, she decided to take control of her own journey. 

In this episode, René unpacks her experiences growing up with ADHD. Listen as she explains: 

  • The impact of delayed intervention

  • What she wishes the adults in her life did differently 

  • And why it’s important to build support systems for kids with ADHD

Related resources

Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. And there's a lot that families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Welcome to Season 3.

Hey OG family, welcome back to another episode of "The Opportunity Gap." Today's show is about growing up with ADHD. ADHD is a common condition that's caused by differences in the brain. Some people with ADHD mainly have trouble with focus, but this learning difference can impact other skills, including managing emotions.

ADHD isn't a matter of laziness. It's not a matter of willpower. It's much more than that. And today's guest is here to debunk that myth and share her journey. So I'm super hyped to welcome René Brooks to the show. Welcome, René. Welcome welcome, welcome.

René: Hey, Julian. Thank you.

Julian: Oh, I'm so glad you're here. She is amazing, listeners. She's not only an advocate, she's a content creator. And she's the host of Life With Lost Keys podcast. She's a black woman with ADHD, and she's committed to silencing the shame and empowering kids and adults with ADHD. I really believe, I truly do believe that her experiences can help parents and educators better support kids with ADHD. René, welcome to the pod.

René: Thank you so much for having me. It's a wonderful thing to be here with you today, Julian.

Julian: Of course. So let's get into it. We're talking all about growing up with ADHD, and we know that growing up with ADHD is vastly different for every single person. So René, can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to grow up with ADHD?

René: Absolutely. For me, it was always hearing that I wasn't performing up to my potential. Dealing with teachers who were frustrated by that and thought I was challenging them maybe, by not doing the homework or keeping up with the lessons, but always having me answer in class because I knew the material. It was having to put up with my mother's exasperation too.

It was always having to be pulled into a meeting. My mother was a big fan of the meet-and-greet with the teachers, and if things weren't going smoothly in the classroom, I might get pulled out of one class to be in a meeting with three other teachers to find out, "Hey, what the heck is going on with this girl? And why isn't she performing up to snuff?" So, there was a lot of frustration and embarrassment on every side of the problem.

Julian: Do you feel like you were bored?

René: Yes, in some subjects I was bored and that was the thing that people always wanted to know. "Is she just bored?" And the answer is not quite as simple as just boredom. I think I was bored, but I was also understimulated. But I was also, you know, some classes you just don't like. And when you have a challenge like attention deficit disorder, you're going to not pay attention in those classes because they can't pique your interest.

Julian: Got it. Thinking about just the way that you describe your teachers and sometimes mom, and how she would feel a certain type of way about your progress in school. Can you go back to childhood René, and describe how did childhood-René feel about all this? What did it feel like to be labeled "challenging," or to have all these questions about your progress in school?

René: It was embarrassing for me. I really, really disliked it because I just wanted to... I just wanted to do the things so that they would stay out of my hair. Does that make any sense?

Julian: That makes total sense.

René: Nobody wants to be seen as " the problem child," you know?

Julian: Yeah, yeah. And I think it's important for our listeners to just hear the feelings attached with the labels that sometimes we place on our students and/or our children. And here René is explaining that, just wanting to be seen, and how sometimes that might equate to how she felt about herself, like the idea of self-esteem really plays into that. I'm wondering if you could go back to that time. Would there be something you'd want the adults to do differently?

René: Yeah. I would want them to approach me as if, not as if I were an equal, but as if I was not just a problem to be solved. As if I was a human who a conversation could be had with and not just "What do we do to make her perform?" And the funny thing about it was, they knew that I had the ability, because I was also in gifted and talented classes at the same time, so they really...

Julian: Oh, so you were twice exceptional? OK

René: I was twice exceptional. So, the idea back then in the 90s was always like, "Oh, they're twice exceptional. Give them more work or challenge them. They're not being challenged enough. They're bored. Stack some other strange stuff on top of there so that they can perform."

Julian: And that's interesting because there's a much larger contingent of students now who have the dual diagnosis. Right, like having ADHD and also having gifted as a part of their IEPs. And so, you're seeing like this kind of mixed bag of a situation. And it's interesting that the adults might have attempted to challenge you. But in that same time period, you might not have felt like you had the support you needed.

René: I did feel like I didn't have the support I need. I'm glad you brought that up because, when they designate a child as gifted — or at least I've been out of the school system for quite some time right now, but in my experience — it was like, "You're gifted, why don't you just do these things?" And it wasn't that simple.

Julian: Right. It's never that simple. It's never that simple. René, I want our listeners also to hear about how, in your lifetime, you were diagnosed with ADHD three different times: when you were seven, when you were 11, and when you were 25. Can you talk about that? How did that come about?

René:What happened? Yes.

Julian:Yeah. For real? What? What happened?

René:The stigma was the real issue for me. My mom was not having it at seven. She knew people who were being put on meds and according to her, these children were like zombies and it just wasn't something that she was willing to entertain for me. For some reason, she equated having ADHD with having to be medicated, and she was not trying to hear or learn anything about ADHD at that point.

So, when the second time came around and of course, in middle school, they caught it because there's such a difference between the way you handle a middle school child versus how you handle an elementary school child. There I am trying to deal with a locker and making it to classes on time and getting the homework done and dealing with those different sorts of responsibilities.

And they evaluated me for it again and were like, "Hey, she has it. And she, again was like, "Absolutely not. There's nothing wrong with my child. She's in gifted and talented classes." She took me to my then pediatrician and the pediatrician said, "She's bored, give her more responsibility," which we know now is absolutely the wrong thing to do. And so, there I was, surrounded by support, but it wasn't the right kind of support.

There were people in my corner who genuinely wanted me to succeed, but they weren't going about it the right way.

Julian:And so, how did you come to being 25 and where did that come into play?

René: So at 25, I was working at a job that I loved. And then one day the novelty wore off and I just couldn't do it anymore. And I got really depressed and took some mental health leave from work. And I was laying on the couch at my therapist's office one day, and I just so happened to mention, "Yeah, they thought I had ADHD back in the 90s, but my doctor just said to give me more work."

And my therapist stopped me in the middle of a session and sent me down the hallway to book with the ADHD specialists who worked in her practice. And the rest is all she wrote. That's how we ended up here. Because she saw what kind of help I needed and sent me to a person who could help me.

Julian: Wow.

René:It was an accident.

Julian:Well, nothing's ever by accident. I'm a firm believer that things happen in the time and space that they're supposed to happen. You know, one, I want to applaud you for being really clear about your story. I know that it's not easy to share how this journey, it took a long time to get to a place where you finally felt like you got the diagnosis that you needed.

I'm interested to know, you know, just thinking about all those different time periods — whether it was at seven, 11 and 25 and even now — what do you think the type of help was that you needed? Like, what kind of help do you think would have been helpful for you?

René: Someone who knew about ADHD sitting there with me, teaching me about the way that my brain worked. Because instead of internalizing messages about how my brain works differently and I needed different tools, I internalized things like "I was lazy," "I was careless," "I was not willing to apply myself to do the work." Because when they said those things, of course I was trying my hardest to get those things done right and didn't know why I couldn't.

Julian:And so, now that you got that diagnosis, you went down the hallway. You got the diagnosis. What does help look like now?

René:Oh, help now looks like being able to call somebody and just say, "Hey, I'm having a hard time getting through this. Can you sit with me on the phone while I work through this thing that I'm struggling with?" or saying, "Hey, mom" — who is one of my biggest supporters and always has been — I don't want to make it seem like she wasn't before. She just was misguided in the way that she gave the support. But I can call her now and say, "Hey, you know, I've got this thing coming up. I need a reminder call ma. Can you go ahead and call me back in an hour and just make sure I'm off doing the thing?"

Or I know that I need to set those things up for myself. So, for our appointment today, I have a reminder that goes off at an hour before, 30 minutes before, 15 minutes before, or five minutes before I'm at the time up. That sounds excessive, but I can get caught up in whatever else it is that I might be doing until it's time to meet up with you and never make the meeting, because time blindness will take me away. So, it's knowing what works for me now.

Julian: So this new René that got the treatment, this new René that got the support. Did it feel liberating to finally have some answers?

René:It felt liberating, and it also felt incredibly frustrating because I didn't have to go through some of the things that I went through. Some of those meetings with teachers were embarrassing. Like, I used to crochet in class because it helped me concentrate, and my mom caught wind of it and was so mad at me. Some of the teachers were so...

Julian:Mad for crochet?

René: They were. That was a scandal. That was quite a meeting that we had, and it was an innocent thing and it helped me concentrate.

Julian:So, I have an eight-year-old daughter and she just learns how to crochet, and I've probably spent about $200 at Michael's in the last couple of weeks because we keep getting yarn, and she uses crocheting as a way to help her focus too.

René, I got to be honest with you, I am sitting here. I'm just really digging everything I'm learning about you. I think you're an incredible person, and what I admire the most is how you've chosen to take your experiences as a black woman with ADHD, and you could have just kept it to yourself, but you decided, "No, let me let me create a community. Let me get people together."

And I think especially for our folks, that's something that we do. We bring people together. And there's so many of our black women out there looking for answers, like trying to figure out what can they do. And you found some. And so you decided, let me share my knowledge with others.

So, can you tell our listeners all about Black Girl, Lost Keys and the motivation behind it? Which, by the way, the road trip episode, folks. Amazing. Dope dope dope dope dope. My favorite one, but I digress. Let's go into Black Girl, Lost Keys. Tell us about it.

René: So, I started Black Girl, Lost Keys in 2014 because I was looking, when I got diagnosed, for a resource with black and brown people at the head of it, and there was nothing. And that was in 2009. So around 2014, I was looking for it again and there was nothing. And I've always been a good writer. Like I said, the English department dragged me through high school.

And so, I thought, if there's nothing here, then what I lack in knowledge, I can learn more. But there needs to be something here. There needs to be somebody sharing their experience. Because this is bananas.

Julian:It is bananas.

René: So, I decided to start it because there was no one out there talking about the black and brown experience. And it just seemed a shame. And I'm — you know, I don't consider myself to be the only black experience that I could talk about — but I'm pretty average black woman living in America.

And if there was nothing and I've got the talent to write, it only made sense that I take it and use it to help the other people around me so at least there was something so they didn't feel like they were all by themselves. And so after I started that, little by little, I built it into an audience that, oh gosh, there's a ton of followers now. There was nobody at first.

I used to write about everything that came to mind, and now I mainly focus on teaching other people different things about ADHD and the common challenges. So, it's a little bit less about my life and more about their lives and what they might need.

Julian: Got it. What do you think is your proudest portion of Black Girl, Lost Keys? Like, out of all the experiences you had through the writing, through the podcast, through the digital resources, and all that. What are you most proud of?

René: I'm just proud that I was able to do it at all. But if I had to pick a moment that I was most proud — not last year, but the year before — I got to fly to Dallas, Texas and give a keynote speech for the International ADHD Conference, and I got a chance to bring my mom there. They wanted me to do an hour speech. I did it in 20 minutes and there was not a dry eye in the house by the time I got finished speaking, and it was just... to be able to do that with my mom there.

Julian: With mom there. That's that's full circle right there, right?

René:What's even more full circle, and another thing that I'm proud of is that my mother was diagnosed with ADHD. She has it.

Julian: Wow.

René: Can you believe it?

Julian: Wow, that is wild. I mean, and again, you know, things work in the way that they're supposed to work. And I just think it's amazing that you've been able to use your platform and share so much information. And people don't realize when it's coming from somebody that's living it and experiencing it, It just hits different. As a black woman, especially, there's a certain language in a way that black women can only communicate with other black women. So, the fact that you've chosen this platform to communicate, I just applaud that, I applaud that.

René:Thank you.

Julian: And I'm so glad that you've chosen to do it. For our listeners, I'm wondering, are there any resources that you've found that are super helpful? Just, you know, some quick things that you'd like to share that anybody could reference?

René: Yeah, for sure. If you're living with a child or you yourself have ADHD, there's CHADD (that's Children and Adults with ADHD), and if you are an adult with ADHD there's ADDA (that's adults with ADD). Both of those are nonprofit resources that exist and are solely there to help people with ADHD. They both have groups. They both have webinars, all kinds of things to put information right at your fingertips and help.

Julian: So, we heard that's CHADD and ADDA, CHADD and ADDA. We'll make sure to link those in the show notes. Thinking about the shared experience of being a black woman with ADHD, something that you also did is you created a support system that really impacted you, because you weren't doing this by yourself. And you've been able to create this system.

And I know that so many of our listeners out there — especially, you know, our black moms are parents of black children with ADHD out there or our teachers of black children that are out there — they're wondering, what's the first step in building these support systems that you were able to create? What do you think is one of the first steps that people should take?

René: Honesty.

Julian: Honesty. Say more about that. Say more about that.

René: Because a lot of people come into this and they don't want to admit that they have the ADHD, or they don't want to admit that they need as much support as they actually need, or they don't want to be honest about the type of support that they need. You can't get help until you are clear about articulating the kind of help you need. Does that make sense?

Julian: 100%. The first step is always admit that there's something going on. I don't want to label ADHD a problem. It's a difference. It's admitting that there is a difference happening and that extra or different support might be needed. That's the important part.

René: And that difference is causing problems for us. So, it's OK to say that ADHD isn't the problem, but the challenges that it can throw in our way is definitely problematic from time to time.

Julian: Exactly. On this podcast, we talk about the stigma of ADHD and other learning and thinking differences in the black community and how, especially with the older generation — your mother and my mother, probably similar age-groups — there's a very specific experience that the older generation had with special education.

And how we have to reclaim what we rightfully deserve, which is a high quality education that includes all of the accommodations and modifications that come with having a learning and thinking difference. I think this work that you're doing is unpacking some of the stigma that goes along with it, and empowering black women specifically, and embracing all of the learning and thinking differences that are out there.

René: Thank you. That's exactly what I was trying to do. Just make a space where everybody could feel comfortable and come talk.

Julian: Now, any resources specifically that you mentioned CHADD and ADDA, but anything specifically that — and again, I say my podcast in general, we specifically focus on the intersection of race and special education — for you, any specific resources that are most effective in helping black and brown kids with ADHD to navigate and thrive?

René: Let's see. There's people doing that work now. There's a lady named Torrian Timms. She runs a place called Sistas With ADHD, that supports. My friend Inger. She runs the page Black Women With ADHD, that supports as well. And there's a friend of mine — I'll see if I can get you that info, because she's a coach that works with children specifically — and I want to make sure I've got her information right.

Julian: Well, please shout them all out because we'll link as many resources as possible. I think it's really important that any time we have a platform, we call out all the positivity that's happening across the country. And that we're not working in silos.

We're all working together with the same desire to build positive outcomes for our children. And so, everybody that you know is doing good work. Let's make sure we shine them out and make sure that we inform our listeners who they are.

René: Oh, it will be a pleasure. Absolute pleasure.

Julian: René, I could talk to you all day long. I wish I could, but they give me a time limit on this. So, I just wanted to say a big thank you. I just appreciate you. I appreciate the work you're doing. I appreciate the journey that you've gone on. I appreciate your candid honesty.

It's not easy getting on a stranger's podcast and sharing your life story, but you chose to do that, and I cannot be more grateful. So before I go, I just wanted to again extend my extreme gratitude for you to join us. Thank you.

René: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure, Julian, and I'm so glad that we were able to push through and get this thing recorded.

Julian: Listeners, OG family. Before we go, I want to make sure that we share a few resources with everybody. First, please check out — and I'm being serious, I'm a big fan of this podcast myself — René Brooks' podcast. It's called Life With Lost Keys, and it is hilarious. It is a great listen. I could listen to it all day. She's a much better podcast host than I am. So, check it out please.

Also, follow her on social media @Blackgirllostkeys. You can follow her on social media @Blackgirllostkeys. She also referenced CHADD and ADDA, and Understood will have a host of resources on our episode page that relate to ADHD. René Brooks, thank you so much.

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Tara Drinks, edited by Daniella Tello-Garzon. llana Millner is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show for the Understood Podcast Network. Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.


  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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