First published in Medium‘s The Ascent on Oct 16th 2020:
It probably saved my life.
When I tell people I’m a ‘mature’ student — that I started my first degree at twenty-two — there’s a look of curiosity they tend to have. I can see the cogs turning in their heads, the mental maths whirring. Twenty-two is too old to have taken a gap year.
Sometimes they ask, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I answer honestly, or with placating half-truths. I ‘took time out to work’ — this is true, in a sense. I did get my first job, working customer services at a supermarket, shortly after leaving sixth form college. Or, sometimes, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do at eighteen’ — also partially true.
But here it is: the truth, minus the shame. I failed my A-Levels.
The ‘Bright but Lazy’ Student
I did well in exams, but never did homework. I was chronically late, and almost never remembered to bring everything I needed with me. I rarely (if ever) took notes in class. I had potential, I just had to apply myself. Some of you reading this may recognise this pattern, and some of you may live it.
I had undiagnosed ADHD, and was being crushed under the weight of neurotypical standards of functioning. Square peg, meet round hole.
Being without a diagnosis left me feeling like a ship lost at sea, battering against the rocks. I vividly remember being in primary school and having a teacher ask me why I wasn’t doing my homework. She really was trying to help, I could tell that she was hoping I would say some magic words, some perfect explanation of a problem that she could solve. I couldn’t.
“I forget,” I tried, but that wasn’t quite right.
“Why don’t you write it down in your homework diary and make sure you check it when you get home from school?”
“I forget to do that, too. And if I remember, I just — don’t do it. I don’t know why.” I remember how I felt in that moment, how frustrating it was. We shared the same confusion: I didn’t understand why the things other people could do with ease felt like an insurmountable struggle to me, either.
I didn’t have an explanation for myself, so I accepted the ones other people gave me: I was lazy.
I let shame find a home in me. Patterns kept repeating: I would struggle and fail to do work. It was impossible to conceptualise the future. Anything further away than the present moment seemed foggy and unclear, and so I would leave everything to the last possible minute, working myself to exhaustion to fulfil deadlines with caffeine as my closest friend. I berated myself every time. Why couldn’t I have started earlier? It felt like education was waging a war of attrition on me.
By this point, I had been depressed for as long as I could remember. Without anything else to blame, I blamed myself.
I did well in my GCSEs, getting all As and A*s. The pressure of deadlines forced my mind into overdrive and perfect clarity, and I was finally able to focus. ADHD is somewhat of a misnomer; for many people, it isn’t a deficit of attention at all — it’s an inability to regulate it.
I would spend hours on hyperspecific (and ultimately useless) Wikipedia pages chasing my latest niche obsession down the rabbit hole, but couldn’t spend more than five minutes in a boring class without doodling and zoning out. The people around me took this as confirmation that I was perfectly capable of focusing when I wanted to — I just didn’t want to. Children just don’t want to do homework.
The problem is, I did. More than anything in the world, I wanted to be able to come home from school, sit at my kitchen table, and do my homework.
Failing, and Failing Hard
It’s unfortunately common for people with undiagnosed ADHD to eventually hit a wall. Coping mechanisms hold you together with fragile thread, and there comes a point where it isn’t enough to keep all the plates spinning. Something has to give. For me, everything gave at once.
Since I was a child, I had held this anxiety within me: there would come a point where I would be found out as an imposter. Where my frantic night-before-the-deadline assignments were no longer good enough. People thought that I was ‘smart’ — but I wasn’t. There was something rotten inside of me: the sin of laziness, the lie of my intelligence. The sound of a clock ticking down to my outing as a fraud echoed in my head for years.
My two years at sixth form taking my A-Levels were a blur of academic warnings, missed homework, and deep depression. I wasn’t sure what I would do if I failed, whether I would survive it at all. The very coping mechanism I had employed to keep myself on task before, beating myself down so that the idea of failure spurred me into action, was now my undoing. I was going to fail, and I knew it. I had always known it. This wasn’t sustainable.
As exams drew closer, I confided in a friend about my looming failure. Having known me at school, she didn’t believe me. She reassured me that I was smart — so I’d be fine.
It’s something that seems so intrinsic to the structure of our education system: good grades mean you’re smart, bad grades mean you aren’t. You’re expected to go from secondary school, to A-Levels, to university. No one talks about what happens if you stray from that path.
I expected the world to end: plagues, pestilence, the whole nine yards.
Instead, I felt relief. I was finally off of the hamster wheel of education. No longer did I have to force myself awake at untenable hours, taking caffeine pills to stay that way. I was no longer anxiety-ridden at the thought of forgetting homework or assignments. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t Atlas, crushed beneath the weight of exhaustion and fear of reproach. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t depressed. It was novel, and confusing.
I got a job in a supermarket, and tried to piece it together. I now know that my depression, though real and serious, was not the root of my issues. I had mistaken the chicken for the egg (or vic e versa). I wasn’t doing poorly in school because I was depressed; I was depressed because I was doing poorly in school. Being expected to perform neurotypically without any accommodations or adjustments, and the shame of not being able to, nearly killed me.
Entirely by chance, I saw a list of symptoms online of ‘executive dysfunction’ — a term I had never come across before. I instantly recognised myself in it, and a niggling feeling started. I did some googling.
The Relief (and Grief) of Diagnosis
Eventually, I sought out a diagnosis. I was terrified of both options: if I didn’t have ADHD, I must be lazy. If I did — there was something wrong with me that couldn’t be ‘fixed’.
The referral took months, in part because they expected me to fill in a questionnaire and send it back to them. Of course, I missed the deadline, and had to be re-referred. But finally, I was there. The psychiatrist told me it would take two sessions to get through the diagnostic booklet she had in front of her. We finished it in one with time to spare because I spoke so quickly and so much.
It was official: I had a neurodevelopmental disorder. Oddly, they don’t sell a congratulations card for that.
I threw myself into research: watching lectures, reading journal articles, browsing forums. Everything seemed to click into place, and I understood. To see everything put into words — all of the things I had struggled with, the truth at the centre of all the shame I had been carrying with me — it was the perfect explanation I had been looking for.
Part of me was elated, hopeful, practically giddy at the possibilities this raised. Another part of me was devastated. I went through a tremendous period of grief, of mourning the person I could have been if I didn’t have ADHD. What would she have been like? Would she have been depressed like I was? Where would she be now? How much more would she have achieved by now, while I’m wallowing in my failures and working in a supermarket?
I felt cheated and bitter. Maybe if I had been diagnosed sooner, I wouldn’t have failed my A-Levels. I wouldn’t have had to grapple with the thought that my dreams were an impossibility. Why did no one notice? I was practically the poster child for executive dysfunction. But I was a victim of circumstance; women are much less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, and because I had always scored well on tests, it was clear to my teachers that it was a problem of won’t rather than can’t.
I don’t entirely blame them for thinking that way. Sometimes, when faced with the reality that you simply aren’t capable of doing something the way that people expect you to, it’s far easier to pretend that it’s a choice rather than something you can’t control.
Moving On, Moving Up
In the end, I decided I had to stop grieving and move on. With treatment, my dreams seemed possible again — I attended public lectures which reignited my interest in biomedical research, and it seemed suddenly so completely clear that I had to pursue it. I tried to bury the past, to forget the pain and trauma that trying to be neurotypical had caused me. The failure had left its scars, but I pretended it hadn’t happened — that it didn’t matter because I was past it.
I enrolled in an Access Course — a year-long qualification aimed at mature learners hoping to go to university. And I did well. With accommodations and medication, armed with an array of newly researched coping mechanisms, I excelled. I got into all of my university choices, despite having physical health problems on top of everything else.
It’s Okay to Fail
Lately, I’ve been rethinking my ‘failure’. For so long I saw it as a horrible injustice, a missed opportunity, wasted time — but now I’ve made my peace with it. Perhaps there is some other version of me out there in a parallel universe: one who was diagnosed earlier, or who wasn’t born with ADHD at all. But she isn’t me. And I wouldn’t want to be her.
If I hadn’t failed my A-Levels, I may not have been diagnosed with ADHD at all. I may have burnt out during university, which no doubt would have left far more damage in its wake. I may not be here. Ultimately, I can’t regret any part of it. I now know what I want to do — I’m confident that I’ve found my ‘purpose,’ and I’m all the more driven to get there now that I’ve lived with the fear of not surviving the journey.
When I was doing my A-Levels, failure didn’t seem like an option — until someone showed me that it was. The first person who ever offered any reassurance that it was okay to fail. My friend, Jess, was studying biochemistry at King’s College London, and I had told her about how difficult I was finding everything. She told me that plenty of people in her cohort had retaken their A-Levels, or were mature students from non-traditional educational backgrounds. It was a revelation; a speck of hope I hadn’t had before.
It sounds silly now, to say that I had never considered that as an option — but when you’re stuck in the education system, you can’t see the wood for the trees.
And that’s why I’m writing this. Without my friend’s insight, I don’t know if I would have been able to imagine a future after failure. But now I’ve done more than just imagine one; I’ve created it.
If you’ve ever doubted that it was possible, let me offer you the same hope that Jess offered me: I have just started my second year studying Biomedical Science at King’s College London; the university I’ve dreamt of going to since I was sixteen.
Being a mature student, a disabled student, a working student — all of these things have given me a perspective and range of skills that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Knowing that failure isn’t always a bad thing will make me a better scientist. Falling apart and putting back the pieces has shown me that I’m not lazy, and I never was.
I’m smart, and I’m resilient.
And so are you.