Feeling Like You Do not Belong
As a child, I split my time between mom and dad – a typical arrangement for children of divorced parents in the 80s and 90s. I assumed that my parents’ divorce was due to a classic case of cultural overlap. How would they know that marriage expectations imprinted on their psyche from very different cultures – white British and black Zimbabweans – would not match?
Even I, “immersed” in the culture of my parents, have uncovered gaps in my own knowledge over the years. Whether I was returning to mom’s after a long vacation in Zimbabwe or dad over the weekend, I was doing my best to reset myself and play my hiring role as best I could.
But no matter what the attitude, I always felt like the weird one. I was either the lightest or the darkest person in every room. Like many people of mixed race, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I felt like I would be more comfortable elsewhere – if only I could find it.
This feeling of never really belonging was with me everywhere, and I attributed it to my dual origins. But over time, it turned out that this feeling was an important clue that eventually led to my diagnosis of ADHD.
The strange one out – everywhere
I was “shy” and “too quiet” even though I didn’t want to be. I just had nothing to add to the conversations around me, and I struggled to fake interest where I couldn’t connect.
[Take This Self-Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women]
I remember the excruciating experience of having to say hello to my neighbor while looking into her eyes. These were direct orders from Mama, who insisted that I repeat my tortured, inappropriate greeting until I understood it correctly. It was her way of preparing myself for a world that wouldn’t welcome me as I was.
After this experience I realized that I had to force myself to present myself to the world in a certain way – or to face the consequences. Unfortunately, the latter made my silence worse. I feared “getting it wrong” not only in Zimbabwe, where the language and cultural barriers were greater, but also in the UK. I passed hours without saying a word, waiting for the right moment. When I finally said something, I was often laughed at or insulted – I had said the wrong thing, at the wrong time, or at the wrong volume.
Speaking became more and more strenuous overall, so I fell silent. As I got older, my silence frustrated those around me, some of whom found it a personal affront.
My experience at school can best be summed up like this: ‘I get in trouble regularly even though I try to stay invisible’. The same teachers who yelled at me in class for heckling also wrote in my reports that I needed to say more. When I was told this, I often did not understand what I was doing wrong.
[Read: Is Your ADHD Causing Social Slip-Ups?]
But as one of a handful of colored children in my school, I would never avoid the unconscious (and at least in one case, definitely conscious) prejudice of my teachers. They thought I was insecure, rude and lazy – and attributed everything unusual about me to the most visible difference, my complexion.
So much of my misfortune at the time was immaterial and indefinable. Since I lived in a white world most of the time, even loved ones avoided the issue of race completely. During the terrible moments when insults and racist surnames were directed against me, I had no one to turn to. I swallowed it, firmly believing that it was me and my differences that were the problem. I hardly knew how to internally understand these experiences and feelings, let alone how to articulate them to my white family.
As for my black family, they just wanted me to be a “good” woman – decent, Christian, educated, financially wealthy, married to a man and raising children. (I managed to do exactly one of them). As a stereotypical “tragic mulatto” I have come to terms with being a certain disappointment for both families. I withheld important parts of my identity from either side and withdrew as it became too difficult to hide who I really was – who I really am.
Getting through as an adult
When I grew up, I sagged a little and leaned into my madness. I had spent my whole life switching between different social norms, customs and languages and I was exhausted.
I graduated, but I stumbled through academic life and barely got through with mediocre grades. I was unable to ask for help because the help I needed was both too elusive and too penetrative to articulate. The silence has once again prevailed.
But I’ve devoted myself to other tasks, like campaigning against human rights injustices. I’ve made great friends, also with other black women. Though I’ve felt on the edge for ages, our mutual understanding of certain struggles has created space for us to share without the tension of having to explain or deal with racial microaggressions.
During my 20s, I struggled to find a job that was both straightforward and interesting. When I was 30, I suffered from chronic pain, was constantly overwhelmed and failed to “grow up”. I’ve seen other mothers complain of “clutter”, but their houses were immaculate compared to mine. They sent their children to school with the right things, often while they were working full time; I hardly made any pocket money.
Finding support – and answers
Eventually I found a valued community in a peer support group of queer, disabled people. I felt more comfortable there even when I was the only member of the color. I assumed this was because they all understood and experienced systemic oppression, similar to how I felt as a QPOC.
A colleague in the group who heard parts of my story suggested that I read about ADHD. I initially discarded it completely. How could I have ADHD when I was generally calm and usually exhausted to the point of inactivity? I was more likely to stare at walls than to ricochet off them. Like many others, I assumed that ADHD was all about hyperactivity.
But I gave in – and when I did, a missing piece of the puzzle clicked into place. Certain sentences touched me a lot during my research, such as:
I can’t have people around because my house is such a mess
It’s like going through life with a hundred marbles; neurotypical people have a pocket to carry, but all you have to do is use your hands
I have so many ideas, but I never see them finished
and the one who really blew me away:
I keep wishing I was somewhere else.
All along I had attributed my longing to be elsewhere to the multiracial, dual experience. I thought it represented a separation between two cultures, or the effects of lifelong racial microaggression. But with my newfound knowledge of ADHD, I was forced to reassess it.
I went for an ADHD exam and spoke to the clinician about my childhood memories. Suddenly, all those moments when I had “failed” and felt different were riddled with ADHD symptoms – like the time I kept reading my book when my aunt’s kitchen was flooded. Needless to say, I was eventually diagnosed with ADHD – at 34.
Accept my neurodiversity and my dual heritage
My diagnosis helped me realize that ADHD was a big factor in my sense of difference, but it didn’t negate the experience of being black in a white world and white in a black world. It is impossible to extract the experience of being a different color than everyone around me from the experience of being neurodiverse in a neurotypical world. These, as well as racism and misogyny, which make impulsiveness and disorganization less acceptable to me than to my male colleagues, are part of my lived experience. I can no longer separate any of the experiences that made me, as I can separate the two halves of my inheritance.
At the time of my diagnosis, I had outgrown the need to play different personalities with my family. I accepted that my cultural and racial makeup should mix to make someone unique. Despite some sadness about how much easier my life could have been if my ADHD diagnosis had come sooner, I was able to forgive myself.
My diagnosis also showed why I connected so well with my disabled peer support group – many colleagues, like me, are also neurodivers. Our brains work similarly and there is so much that we don’t need to explain when we’re together – much like I don’t need to explain the experience of racial microaggression with my black friends.
My neurodiverse community is hilarious, compassionate, and comfortable. You accept me completely and together we celebrate our quirks and resilience. They made it easy for me to accept that the wiring of my brain is another special and glorious facet of my qualities rather than a defect, just as my black British friends taught me to be proud of my mixed racial heritage. And in both cases the longing for the always elusive feeling of belonging diminishes from day to day.
Mixed race & the feeling of not belonging: the next steps
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Updated July 14, 2021
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