Masking ADHD symptoms to go above and beyond (René Brooks’ story)
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René Brooks was diagnosed with ADHD three separate times — at ages 7, 11, and 25 — so she’s had plenty of “aha” moments.
When René was a child, mental health and medication stigma kept her family from receiving vital education about ADHD. But when she was diagnosed at age 25, she was ready to tell everyone about her ADHD diagnosis.
René started Black Girl Lost Keys to empower Black women with ADHD. She’s an advocate, a content creator, and the host of the “Life With Lost Keys” podcast.
In this week’s episode of ADHD Aha!, René unpacks her childhood ADHD diagnoses. She shares how she’d mask her ADHD symptoms, and how that led to anxiety and depression in adulthood. Also in this episode: Is ADHD really a superpower?
René Brooks’ podcast: Life With Lost Keys
From The Opportunity Gap podcast: ADHD and race: What Black families need to know
René: She said, "The meds don't take away the ADHD for a couple of hours. You still have it and you're still doing the same things you always did. It's just that now you're able to mask it even better because you've got one tool to help you move along, but you're not quite where you want to be, are you?" And I'm like, "Oh."
Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood. And as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment. I'll be your host.
Laura: Oh, my gosh. I am here with René Brooks of Black Girl, Lost Keys, the amazing René Brooks, content creator, advocates, Twitter, Instagram, podcasting. Hi, thank you for being here today.
René: Thank you for having me. It is a real pleasure.
Laura: My first question for you, René, is have your ears been ringing lately?
René: Every now and again they get a little bit ringy. Are you trying to say somebody is talking about me here?
Laura: I've had a few folks on the show recently and also some of my colleagues in the office who I told them "I am going to be interviewing René Brooks," and they flipped out.
René: Oh, so sweet. Thank you.
Laura: You're such a star. I mean, you really you got so much discussion around ADHD going in the community and we're just so grateful to you.
René: I am grateful to be here. I'm grateful, it's really been gratifying. It's been a long eight years of work now, so it's beautiful to see the direction that the conversation moving in. As you know, the community's changed wildly over the past decade, so, it is a completely different landscape we're dealing with. So, little like we've got the growing pains, but I think we're headed in a positive direction.
Laura: Right. I mean, you are such a pioneer in this conversation as a woman with ADHD and particularly as a Black woman with ADHD. When you first started speaking up about ADHD, I think, you know, after your third diagnosis — which we'll get to — what were the most important messages for you to get out there?
René: So, I definitely wanted to make sure that Black people knew there are other Black people with ADHD. Like, of course, we know that logically, but when you don't see them and you don't hear from them, they're out there somewhere and you don't know where they are, that's not really accessible to you.
So, I wanted there to be some kind of record of what at least one person with ADHD experienced while living life as a Black person. It was really isolating for me and in having conversations with family and friends, it was also difficult for them because I was also the only person with ADHD that they knew. How do you show people that this isn't a bad thing? That it's not frightening that I'm not wandering off to somewhere, that they can't reach me anymore unless they have someone who they can also see and go, "Oh, OK, so this is what this means."
Laura: What were some of the myths that you tried to dispel when you first got started?
René: Well, you know, of course, any time you bring up ADHD, the first thing that anyone ever thinks of, and it's so frustrating for all of us, is the meds. So, it was the controversy and the stigma around the medication, what it was going to do to me, how it was going to affect me long term, and having to dispel some of that. Because of course, at first, you don't even know whether you're going to try medication. That's a tool. That's a choice.
So, this shouldn't even be the first thing that people think of when they think of ADHD. But it's so often it is. So, it was the stigma around the meds. It was the stigma around dealing with any kind of mental health stuff as a Black person can pull you into a place of danger because we know people who were committed against their will, who've been experimented on by the medical system, who've had their children taken away.
So, to open up an inquiry into one's own mental health is also to invite the opinions of professionals who may not be culturally competent enough to understand what they're seeing and find something sinister in it and use that to penalize the person. So, you're taking a risk when you're treating your mental health.
Laura: I know you mentioned earlier a lot of growth in terms of the conversation and the community itself. What about around those two particular myths or the stigma that you brought up? You talked about medicine, you talked about mental health, the perception in the Black community. Has that evolved, do you think, or are we still, where are we?
René: I've not seen the conversation with meds shift as much as I would like to, but I think that's everyone's burden to bear. We're all pulling that along. I think any time there's something to sensationalize on a topic, that is what people are going to initially grab for. So, maybe that will always be a thing. I hope it's not. I hope one day someone can just make a decision about their medication or to not medicate without feeling like they're joining in some huge discourse that maybe they don't feel like they can identify with.
But as far as the conversation around being diagnosed with ADHD and the different ways that it affects you when you're a woman, when you're a person of color, that conversation I could not have asked for anything more. I really feel like there are so many new perspectives. There's so much more information. The accuracy of the information is not always perfect, but is anyone perfect when they're starting off? We just, we're growing as a community and I'm glad to see the directions that we're shifting in.
Laura: Yeah, I completely agree with both of those. I would love to see the meds conversation evolve more. I think in particular with the medication shortages that have been happening, the vitriol around medication is just, it's just nasty. And as someone who takes ADHD stimulant medication, that the battle every month of just getting your prescription filled is just brutal. For those of our listeners who don't know, you were diagnosed three times with ADHD.
René: I was.
Laura: At age 7, age 11, and then at 25. So, can we start at 25, actually? And then I want to go backwards. How does that sound?
René: 25 is my favorite because I think it says something that when I finally was able to make the decision for myself, I chose treatment. But also, so like, OK, we're going to stay at 25 because you saw I was about to jump into the past.
Laura: You know what? You do you, you tell the story how you want to tell the story.
René: You know what? It's such a jumbled story like all ADHD stories are. But like...
Laura: Buckle up, everybody. Yeah.
René: It's so, there was a dark and stormy night. So, I was 7 years old, my brand-new teacher, fresh out of student teaching and so had some really fresh training and knew what to look for in a child who might have ADHD, and correctly identified it.
And so, when my mother took it to my pediatrician, my pediatrician was right on the edge of retirement and was like, "Oh, this is just the new thing they're doing. They're trying to medicate children." The same scare tactics that were used all through the '90s. So, my mom was like, "Oh, well, OK. He told me to give her more responsibility. I'll try to create more responsibility for her." Do you think it worked?
Laura: No, definitely not. What kind of responsibility? What did your mom do?
René: So, like basic chores, you know, dishes and, like, dishes are a sensory nightmare for me. I hate them to this day. So, it was like, you know, I go to do the dishes, the water's too hot, then it's too cold, then there's icky stuff on. And it was just, it was a war our entire lives together. And it created a lot of misery where it didn't need to.
And if we had known that the issue was a sensory one, like my family, even though they may not have understood neurodivergence, they certainly understand giving someone the tools they need to do their thing, which was kind of at that point and moving forward, kind of the tone that it took, that push-pull civil war kind of feeling in the household.
Because now René is a person who's being given the tools that she needs in the form of more responsibility, but she's still not, we're not getting the performance out of her. So, now I'm doing what the doctor said. Do we now have a child with a need, or do we have a defiant child at this point? Defiant children get grounded, and things taken away. And then you've got the stress of that at school where you've got teachers who fall anywhere on the spectrum of agreeing with ADHD or not thinking that it exists.
And so, you've got various levels of frustration coming at me from various different places where you want to do well as a child. Children want to do well. They don't want to displease the adults around them. It makes them feel unsafe. So, there wasn't a lot of safety there.
Laura: What did that feel like in your house? I'm thinking about my own kids. I can't help it. You know, when there's that push-pull of such a smaller level of like, "I want you to do this." But you don't want to.
René: Right, and you want to be a good parent, too. So, like, I think part of this problem is we don't teach parents the difference between disobedience and defiance and struggle in a child.
René: Quite the right way, I don't think. So, then it taps into how a person feels about their values as a parent, "I am messing up as a parent because my child is not obeying me. So, now I need to crack down even further." And so, it became a very punitive environment for me, both at school and at home.
And I never felt like I was a good kid. I always felt like I had to perform in order for people to understand my intentions, which I think is a feeling that a lot of us can relate to with masking, like "Let me go above and beyond to show that I can be responsible and kind and pleasing and obedient and whatever it is," because you need approval, you need to feel approval coming from somewhere. And there's not a lot of approval for a child with ADHD whose ADHD is not being treated.
Laura: Right. It sounds like you developed some perfectionistic tendencies.
René: And I'm an eldest daughter too, so like eldest daughter perfectionistic stuff, ADHD stuff. It's been quite a hole to dig myself out of. You know, that need to perform, that need to be understood in exactly the way that I've presented myself. There's a lot of things to untangle there, and therapy has been a huge, huge, huge, huge part of that for me.
Laura: Oh my God, René, I recently went back just to re-unpack all of this because I get, I untangled it once and then I stopped looking and then I got tangled up again. But it's, I feel you, like it's just, it's palpable, right? That...
René: It's our life's work, isn't it?
Laura: OK, so 7, diagnosed but you're getting more responsibility.
René: I'm getting more responsibility.
Laura: And then what happened that you got diagnosed again when you were 11?
René: So, I hit middle school and like a lot of kids with ADHD, you're expected to have that executive function. My locker was crammed full of stuff. I couldn't hit any deadlines. I wasn't turning in homework assignments and I was losing things left and right. So, of course they caught it and we're like, "OK, let's do something about it."
And again, my mom was like, "Her pediatrician said, 'Absolutely not.' That's not accurate. There's nothing wrong with my child." I think the thing that's important to point out here is that neither of these times was my mother consulted before those conversations began, before any of that kind of testing, or evaluation took place.
And imagine that in conjunction with everything that you've learned about how people of color are taught when they're seeking mental health treatment. And it doesn't just look like you're trying to help my child with something, It looks like you're trying to build a case to start either medicating my child, forcing me to medicate my child, or worse, taking my child away.
So, it's just, it's a failure of the system. There should have been education for my mother on what ADHD was, what it looked like, and she would have been able to see for herself how it presented. I want to be really clear here that a lot of people hear this story, and I don't want them to walk away with, "Black parents are too obstinate to treat their children." That is not the story. The story is we're not equipping parents to make an educated decision about their child's health and a mental health concern that can impact their life for years to come.
And really, like in childhood, you're setting your self-esteem and the way you think about yourself for life. And when you can't do the things that you want to do and you feel like you're a bad person your whole life, you're setting yourself up for a depressed, anxious adult.
And that's just what I was by the time I got to 25 and my doctor was treating me for depression, and we got therapy services secured and they both agreed that we weren't seeing enough relief for where we should have been for the amount of time we'd been treating the depression. And so, we kind of floundered for a minute until I accidentally revealed to my therapist that I had been treated for ADHD twice. I didn't know what I was saying, and I just was relaying my story. I said, "Yeah, you know, they kept trying to put me on meds when I was a kid and my mom was like, 'Absolutely not.' So, that's pretty much all I know about mental health treatment as a child like that wasn't there for me."
And she said, "What did you say?" And I was like, "Oh, did I say something? Did I say something important there?" Like, I didn't know that, like, "Yeah, they've been trying to treat me for something or other since I was a child." And she was like, "So, she said, I'm going to stop you there." And she started writing down notes on her pad and I'm like, "Oh, she must think I'm way worse off than I thought I was." But turns out she was writing me a referral. There was an ADHD specialist in her practice.
She sent me down the hall, we did the evaluation, and then I came back. We did another couple of weeks of therapy, and I was able to return to work for the first time in six months. The fun part about this story, though, is that like I got diagnosed at 25 and that was in 2009. Nine years later, my mother got diagnosed with ADHD in 2018.
René: It's her. She had it.
Laura: It's hereditary. Yeah.
René: It's hereditary, and I think our story is a really important one because it shows what getting the proper education about ADHD can do to change hearts and mind if we really come at it with an open mind and an open heart.
Laura: The "aha" moment, was it in that therapist's office or was it when you did start to get treatment or both? Talk to me about that.
René: It was probably like, of course, you flounder back and forth at first. It's like, "Oh, maybe I don't have ADHD. Maybe I'm just all of these things that I've always been told that I am." And then I took stimulant medication for the first time, and it was an "aha" moment for me. It was like, "Oh. I feel like I can think clearly." It's almost like, if your glasses are really dirty, you can still see, but it sure feels a lot better to see when your glasses are clear. That's about the kind of difference that we're talking about.
Laura: That's a great analogy.
René: It's like, certainly sight is still possible, but if you want to be able to see with accuracy, you need to be able to clean the glasses. So, this just wipes the smears off the mirror for me so that I can see what was happening super clearly for the first time.
René: You know what? I wouldn't even say that was the "aha." The "aha" was probably when I started receiving coaching because of course, we think I've had such great success with my stimulant medication. Now I just need to go live my life. I don't need anything else. And you need so many more things and you know so little about how your brain functions and where you need to adapt.
So, coaching was probably the real "aha." We were working on how to manage my time and people who work with stuff all the time, they're not buying our crap. So, I'm going on and on, I'm like, "Well, you know, it doesn't really matter that I'm not on time all the time. Like, you know, I'm a writer, I'm an artist. We're a little loosey goosey." And she kind of quipped it me. It was like, Oh, she said, "The meds don't take away the ADHD for a couple of hours, René. You still have it and you're still doing the same things you always did. It's just that now you're able to mask it even better because you've got one tool to help you move along, but you're not quite where you want to be, are you?" And I'm like, "Oh, I guess it's not just me being artsy fartsy, huh?"
Laura: Yeah, totally. And one thing that I've heard you talk about before is that, you know, a lot of people like to say ADHD is a superpower. And I understand the sentiment of those, and I appreciate the positive spin on symptoms and whatnot, and I don't want to poo poo any of that, But at the same time, it's no, right?
René: It's not. Like what superpower takes you to the doctor? You know what I'm saying? Like, it's just, it's right there. The answer is right there. Like, it doesn't have to be a superpower in order for you to gain positive experiences as a result of working with your ADHD.
It doesn't mean that the way that ADHD shows up for you that are beneficial are invalid, like you don't need it to be a superpower to take pride in who you are still. So, I guess for me, whenever I hear that, it's like you're both depriving yourself of the ability to be human and raising the standard for yourself when you don't mean to. Because now you're not even a regular human. Now you're superhuman because you have a superpower. Doesn't that take grace away from you? And don't we need more grace?
Laura: Wow, that is really well said.
René: It's meant to be empowering, and I'm all for empowering people. I just don't know if it's empowering us in a way that's going to be helpful for us long term. Because if you're super, if you're elevated, you don't need help, you don't need resources, you don't need medication, you are performing better than other people are performing. And like, maybe I'm taking it too literally, but I also think you can still encourage a child to see their value and to find things that they like and admire about themselves without it being a superpower.
And in fact, I think being very honest with them about what their symptoms look like and how they can show up and where it can cause a challenge for them, and where it can help them, like it's deserved to know the whole story about themselves, especially like a kid that gets early kind of help. Maybe they grow into a place where they don't have some of the challenges with depression, anxiety, that kind of thing, that some of the people who weren't diagnosed into adulthood have.
Because when you have a host of angry adults and you want to do the things that they want you to do and you cannot and you don't know why, you start to accept the things that they say to you about you as truth, that you're irresponsible, that you're lazy, that you're not going to amount to anything.
And like I feel for parents because these are things that parents do, because they're trying to love their children and they're not being given what they can to really help their children in the way they want to, because their harshness is being done from the frustration of wanting your child to be able to be all the wonderful things that you know that they can be.
Laura: Right. And if we do what you're talking about, right René, which is let's give kids a full picture of their health, then they have more of an opportunity to say, "Here are the symptoms I struggle with," — going back to the superpower thing — "Oh, but I could hyperfocus with the right tools," I have, there are like little areas that we could call a superpower as part of this bigger...
René: Being able to have a child in a classroom who says, "OK, they're doing this. Here's what I need to do to make this work for me." Now you've got a child who's learning how to advocate for themselves when you have to step back and can't do it for them anymore. Isn't that what we want? Kids who can open their mouth and say, "I need this," and feel confident that they can ask for what they need and get it?
Laura: I highlighted something in the ADDitude article that you wrote that I've been referencing. After you got diagnosed at 25, your third diagnosis, so "Like a convert to a new religion. I told everybody about my diagnosis." Love that. Talk to me about it.
René: This is how it is. There's an excitement. It's like there, maybe the diagnosis is the real "aha." Because now, after years of asking, "Why can't I be on time? Why is my house always so messy? Why can't I seem to write the book that I've been trying to write? Why can't I ever have my outfit together in time to show up to the family event looking nice? I'm always run in behind the eight ball," but like you have a why. Here's why. And once you know why, you've got an opportunity there to get something different than the same thing that you don't want. And people with ADHD deserve to be able to effect positive change in their lives, just like everyone else does.
Laura: Did you get any pushback from anyone and your family?
René: Oh, of course. Then again, done out of love. Like "You're going to go get on these meds after we fought to keep you off. Why are you doing this?" And it's done with concern. "Are you going to be safe? Now you're navigating a system that we don't really have a lot of good information about. The information that we do have is all bad. How do we keep you safe? You're going to a place where we can't protect you." And I could not stop.
Laura: Right. Well, you were learning from your coach. What was like a mini "aha" kind of strategy that you learned?
René: So, you're going to laugh. I am a person with ADHD who was also raised by someone with undiagnosed ADHD. So, my mother's relationship with time became my own in the sense that my mother was on time for work and school. You have to be on time for those things. Everything else, you can color outside the lines.
And that's how I lived my life doing too. And I found out as I was moving in different spaces, as you know, as I was growing into my own adulthood, like, "Hey, are you saying everyone doesn't feel this way about time? Oh, wow. People really are super upset when you're like a half hour or 45 minutes late to meet with them. Like, maybe I should do something about that."
I did not know that I could not be on time until I was an adult. I thought I was in control of it completely. I was like, "Oh, well, I'm choosing not to be on time." And then once I tried to start being on time, I was like, "Oh, I cannot wake up in the morning. I can't seem to get out of it. Like, this is serious issues here. I've got to find a way to fix it."
Laura: Was the, I don't like the term time blindness, I find it to be a problematic term, but the term time perception was something that you struggled at times like as a kid as well. Is that right?
René: Absolutely. And still do, yeah.
Laura: What does that feel like? Try to describe it for people who may be doubters of this.
René: It's kind of like the landscape melts away and you're there with your activity or for me, if I'm concentrating really hard on something and that world's melted away, the sun setting and rising, a timer going off, like those are things that you can see and hear that might make you alert to the fact that time is passing. But if you don't have any markers, I might not notice for quite some time what time it is if I don't have any real reason to know.
Laura: And does it always feel like it makes time go faster? Or is it sometimes the opposite?
René: Oh, it's much slower. Like I grew up in a world where there were no fidget toys. You took a book everywhere. I would read voraciously. I could always escape into a book, which I think a lot of neurodivergent people do as well. A lot of us are very, very well-read. And part of it is because, you know, people are mean to you and you don't have friend, a book will be your friend.
Laura: Yeah. I was interviewing someone on the show a few months ago and we were talking about when you know something's going to happen and X amount of minutes, that you are unable to do anything else until that thing starts.
René: Oh, no, because if I start anything, I'll be settling into that activity mentally. And I won't like, if I'm doing the dishes for a few minutes before so-and-so comes, but I need 15 minutes before they get there to prep. If I don't set a timer, my stopping doing the dishes is going to be when so-and-so rings the doorbell.
Laura: Right. Yes, kind of on a different note, René, I know that you've talked about this as well, and something that a lot of guests on my show talk about is, after they get diagnosed or they have their "aha" moment, and you had three diagnoses, so...
René: Like extra "ahas."
Laura: You get extra credit. They have this, usually have this moment of kind of grieving and looking back at what was maybe lost by not being diagnosed or not embracing a diagnosis earlier in life. Curious if you could speak to your feelings on that. And then perhaps words of advice for listeners who are going through that?
René: I think the thing that I am most concerned about, was most concerned about, as I was learning more about ADHD, is that I could so clearly see the direct link between all of that messaging I received as a child and my nonexistent self-esteem. I did not have any. I had no boundaries. I was very, very deeply into people pleasing. I just wanted people to like me.
So, like for me, the grief was "What risks would I have taken and what kind of person could I have become if I didn't spend so much time thinking that I was a bad person and that I had to live my life apologizing for who I was? That's not something I should have had to wait until I was nearly 30 to undo.
Laura: And then for people who are in the thick of that grieving process right now, who are getting diagnosed later in life, as I did, frankly, and I went through this grieving process as well. What advice do you have for them or maybe some hopeful words?
René: The person who you could have become is not someone who you can gain access to, but the person you can become now is. And that's far more important than the person who could have been.
Laura: Wow. Did you just come up with that?
René: I did. Like I spent a lot of time think, like it's hard. That grief is heavy, and that trauma is real, and it really does feel like a slap in the face to learn. Either I didn't have to go through that at all, or I didn't have to go through it in that way alone with no support. That is a painful realization to find out. Like, it kind of feels like all of this for nothing. And it wasn't anything, like I think we learn valuable lessons, even in painful situations that we can use to make the life that we already have good.
I think it's really important to honor those feelings of grief, but I also think it's just as important not to get lured by the trap of thinking that the person you could have been is the person you should be focusing on, because you have a life now and you can make your life now a good one, not a perfect one, but one that you can be satisfied with and proud of. And I think we all deserve that opportunity.
Laura: Thank you. That's beautiful. René, tell me about your podcast. You're working on Season 2, is that right?
René: I am on Season 2 and I'm so excited. First of all, I wish I had known you all before because you could have told me "René, you need seasons because this is a lot of work," and like you can know conceptually that something's a lot of work, but until you're doing it, you're just like "There's scheduling. You have to think about what you want to talk about, who you want to talk to. Do you know the right person to talk to? Can you find the email of the person you don't know who you'd like to talk to? And even when you get scheduled, is everyone's day going to allow them to record?"
Like there's so many things to think about. And so, we got in there and we put up a great season, but boy, we were editing and poking and moving until the 11th hour. So, we took what we learned last season and we've got some incredible, incredible guests coming on. I'm very, very, very excited for you all to hear.
Laura: Anything that you can share? The podcast, by the way, it's called Life with Lost Keys.
René: Oh, thank you. It is. So, Life with Lost Keys is the podcast. We're focusing this season coming up on giving voices to people who have not yet been heard. Not that we don't want to hear from people who we always hear from and love to hear from. But it's time to widen that lens more and give even more people a chance to come step to the mic, so to speak. Tiffany Hammond, she runs the account Fidgets and Fries, her episode is going to be the premiere. She's got a book coming pretty soon. We're going to do yoga for an episode where...Oh, there's so much cool stuff.
And I'm thinking of adding in, we've been wanting to add an element in where we go try some of the popular mental health-y, wellness-y kind of stuff to see what it does. So, I want to do a float room. I've done a rage room and documented it. So, we'll be talking about that one episode, like this kind of things that we all kind of go, "Oh, I would like to try that, but I wonder what it would be like. I'll try it." I'll try anything once, come tell you about it, and you can decide if you want to try from there.
Laura: I'm really happy for you.
René: Thank you.
Laura: And I can't believe we went through this whole interview, and we didn't talk once about lost keys.
René: We didn't. Well, you know, sometimes that happens. It's funny. I don't lose them nearly as often as I used to. And I'm kind of like, "Oh, am I living life as a like, is someone going to expose me?" This woman's keys are not lost.
Laura: René Brooks, it has been so great to talk with you today. I'm so grateful that you came on the show.
René: Likewise. Thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure. I love what you all are doing and I can't wait to listen to more.
Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!" from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at [email protected] I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at Understood.org/mission. "ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine!
Jessamine: Hi everyone.
Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.
is executive director of editorial at Understood and host of the “ADHD Aha!” podcast.