I wonder how much faster I would’ve grown up if I could’ve asked for help.
My dad’s entire parenting philosophy was physically disciplining me when I did something wrong. There was no room to question why what I did was wrong, or to say I didn’t understand. I wasn’t owed an explanation.
Up until my teen years, having a learning difference was as unacceptable in my home as saying you weren’t a Christian. My dad was a pastor. Veggie Tales and the Boys Bible were my go-tos for most adolescent questions. I was taught to believe that God would answer my prayers when I wanted to fix something in my life. I was not taught to ask the people around me for help.
As a teen, I learned I had social anxiety and depression before learning the cause of those issues. Today I understand that the cause was having ADHD, feeling at odds with everyone around me, and being unable to get help. It’s one thing not to understand ADHD as a concept, and it’s another to be discouraged from asking for help.
I only ever heard white kids say they had ADHD. Claiming something like that around Black kids would get you made fun of. Recognizing a brain or thinking difference requires you to accept that being different is OK.
But the Black community is taught to move collectively so that our wealth as a people is raised. Black kids won’t have room to exist outside of these lines. This means our nation has to answer for over 400 years of slavery and discrimination. We have to work to affirm Black kids’ humanity, in all forms. When there is room to be different, or special, we feel comfortable admitting we need assistance.
None of my siblings, parents, friends, and teachers could relate to not being able to hold a thought long enough to act on it. I drew murals in my notebook instead of paying attention in class because I was always dreaming myself into a world where I could speak what I felt and put words with my emotions.
I was taught to live in fear, so I retreated to my inner thoughts. Having the difference was only the beginning. Not having the language to explain what I was feeling led to my feeling even worse. My mind became overshadowed by everything that was wrong with me.
I grew up in Atlanta, seeing a large population of Black people sleeping on the streets. I watched our schools policed and our neighborhoods treated as breeding grounds for new properties. Bulldozers frequently tore down affordable housing and put up apartments and strip malls that catered to people with more wealth. People who looked like me had to fight for fair access to the most basic resources. Any vulnerability that a Black boy expressed represented a weak link in that fight.
My mother decided I’d do better in a school that fostered individuality, so I attended a private middle school. But in that mostly white environment, I was plagued by stereotypes about how I couldn’t be as smart or as capable as my peers.
It made sense as a Black kid in a mostly white school not to show confusion, and to disprove false stereotypes about my smarts. I had to know everything, and do everything right, to command respect. I won a poster board project in math class and was told by a pair of white girls that I only won because the teacher was Black, like me. As if I couldn’t have achieved that on my merit alone. The alternative to school with white kids was going back to a regimented school environment where I felt afraid to express my basic needs.
The church was where I was supposed to find answers. That was where you could fall on faith to believe there was an escape from the misery of your conditions. It was also the place, in my case, to learn that my sexuality was unacceptable, and meant God didn’t love me. I never had room to be myself, and trust in who he was.
My dad wanted to raise a strong Black man, but he distrusted the very institutions that might have helped, like schools and counselors. I was expected to move in strength and to never express vulnerability, because that spells weakness. It takes vulnerability to say that you need help—in anything, but especially a thinking challenge. To be vulnerable is scary, because being Black already puts you in a vulnerable position.
Zoom out to how the country thought of me, and my potential was whittled down to martyr, athlete, or rapper. Zoom in, and social biases made mental health a confusing challenge. Asking for help is embarrassing. And besides, all the resources were reserved for white people.
My responsibility was to be as much like everybody else as possible. To not accept that I was different. To avoid asking for help, or expressing vulnerability. To stay within the boxes other people put me in.
All of this, of course, ran counter to exactly what I needed to do.
I needed to listen to myself to learn who I was, before meeting the rest of the world. Unfortunately, parents and teachers make the rules for us. They’ve built the institutions that place value in faith over science, authority over open communication, discipline over learning.
The beautiful thing I’ve found about my generation and the one behind it is that we understand why this is problematic and how it leaves people behind. The world only changes around us once we choose to stand in our own truth. Until I learned that it was valid for my needs to be different from those around me, I wasn’t able to see my life change.
What’s normal for me may not be normal for everyone. But that makes it no less valid. Humanity comes in all varieties. Truly affirming my identity started with giving myself permission to know that I was OK. I had the power to advocate for myself, all on my own. We all can choose to take our own steps in affirming ourselves, regardless of the structures we are up against.