Brain chemistry doesn’t determine who you are

Nothing determines who you are but you


Collegian File Photo

By Garrett Jacobsmeier, Collegian Columnist

I feel like I had a better grasp on my own psyche right after being diagnosed in fourth grade than I do now. I was put in a room to complete a series of tests at the doctor’s office and after half an hour on a computer I was given a prescription of Ritalin and sent on my way. The simple explanation my mom gave made sense to me: people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have difficulty focusing, controlling impulses and not ever being able to sit still.

I understood I had problems with impulse control and staying focused. I fought with every teacher at school and my parents after school daily. At the time I was diagnosed with ADHD I had already been receiving special accommodations from teachers, taking tests outside the classroom with extra time and meeting with my homeroom teacher at the end of each day to “check in.” The fourth-grade version of myself simply accepted that I was “different” and moved on.

As I grew older, this rigid scientific idea of what ADHD was becoming less and less useful to me. The typical list of symptoms most people think of when talking about ADHD didn’t seem to fit with what I experience. Conversations with classmates at UMass greatly broadened my idea of the scope of experiences people with ADHD can have. I always understood that ADHD was deeper and more complicated than the definition most people have in their minds, only recently did I begin to consciously understand my relationship with it.

My ADHD has always been primarily tied to school. My misbehavior and refusal to do work during school caused me to be diagnosed, and the diagnoses made it easier for teachers to give me special accommodations in the classroom. My school had a system of accommodations for students with ADHD, and although I credit my behavioral improvement to outside counseling, these accommodations did help.

The accommodations I received for my ADHD were helpful but restricting. Once those teachers were aware of that diagnosis their expectations for my academic and social success changed. Instead of being held to the same standard as my classmates, teachers lowered their expectations for me as someone who needs more assistance. This had an effect on the way I thought about myself, and it changed my own personal standard so I always assumed I would be behind.

The Pygmalion effect is a term used to describe the way high expectations can influence better results. This was tested in the classroom by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in 1965. The researchers told elementary school teachers that a certain group of students were naturally gifted learners and monitored test scores through the year. These students were not actually naturally gifted, the experiment was designed to see if the teachers’ perception that they were would influence their scores. In the end students who the teachers thought were naturally gifted scored significantly higher than their peers.

There is no doubt in my mind that the expectations teachers had of me due to my ADHD influenced the way they treated me in class. Well intentioned teachers placed me in a box with other “different” students, influencing my own academic confidence. ADHD is complicated, not well understood and different for everyone who experiences it. When I moved to middle school I was told to take “academic support,” a class that was exclusively used to do homework during school, in place of taking a language.

Instead, my mom pushed me, having me take a language class instead. I would have been set back significantly academically if I was not pushed and forced to develop the study skills required to take a language class in middle school. It was harder for the students in “academic support” to develop these essential study skills because the school expected them to be behind instead of pushing them. I am extremely grateful my mom always had full faith in me academically and stepped in to push me forward when the school wrote me off as different.

Being told you have a mental disorder, no matter what it is, changes how you view yourself and the standard you hold yourself to. Back home, what was expected of me was determined by my parents and teachers at school. Here at UMass, students are expected to set their own personal standard, and having a mental disorder can change that standard.

There were times in my life where I blamed my brain chemistry for habits and mistakes that were completely my fault. As I continue to talk to people, listen to their experiences and strive to understand my own head, I make sure to check my standard. Nothing outside of your control determines who you are, not even brain chemistry.

Garrett Jacobsmeier can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @gjacobsmeier.