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Former ‘poster child for female ADHD’ decides her past won’t hold her back

By Molly Zametkin,

Afew weeks ago, after completing my last class of college, I Googled my name. I knew I wouldn’t like what I saw, but I did it anyway. Eight hundred forty-five Google hits later, I was having a panic attack about what prospective employers and graduate schools would find: my tainted online reputation.

Rewind five years. It’s my senior year of high school. I’ve been accepted to several colleges, and I’ve just come to terms with the fact that I grew up with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and finally begun to embrace the diagnosis as part of who I am.

Accepting that I had attention issues was a breakthrough for me. I had spent my entire academic career struggling with shame and stigma. I hated being labeled ADHD; it made me feel as if people would think I was hyper, lazy, unmotivated and unfocused, which simply wasn’t the case. I remember finding it hard to resist chatting with my classmates when we were supposed to be doing assignments, and I was always doing my homework at the very last minute, but I also remember my teachers telling me I was a “bright” little girl. I was creative, I liked to work hard and I got good grades. Yet even when people told me I was bright, it felt as if they were saying, “You’re bright . . . for someone who has an attention problem.” I truly hated having my teachers and my parents think I was abnormal or flawed.

During my senior year of high school, however, I learned that a family friend with whom I was close had ADHD and wasn’t ashamed of it at all. She was beautiful, popular and smart, and she freely broadcast the fact that she was living with ADHD and taking stimulant medications to treat it. Somehow, her open attitude relieved me. I began to think, “Hey, if she has ADHD and people still think she’s cool, no one’s opinion of me will change if I ‘come out’ with the fact that I have it, too.”

I was right. I was finally able to tell my friends and my lacrosse teammates that I had ADHD, and no one’s opinion or attitude toward me changed at all. In fact, in many ways, it made people understand me better.

Around the same time, my father (who happens to be an ADHD researcher) was contacted by the organizer of a National Institutes of Health forum who was looking for speakers for an upcoming ADHD lecture series. The organizer needed a specialist as well as a person living with the disorder to speak at the forum. My dad agreed to speak and suggested that I offer my personal perspective.

Several weeks later, I found myself in front of a large audience at NIH recounting my struggles and triumphs living with ADHD. Not long after the NIH forum, I was asked to publish the lecture in a scholarly journal, and I was contacted by a reporter from The Post to discuss what it was like being a young woman with ADHD. Until that point, ADHD had been more frequently diagnosed in young men, but interest was finally shifting toward women.

Suddenly, I was the poster child for female ADHD. My picture was on the front page of The Post’s Health section, and I was even invited to be a speaker at the Canadian Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder conference in Toronto. “Cool!” I thought, “I’m famous!”

Everybody knows

Fast-forward five years. I have just finished college, I’m working full time at NIH, and I am sitting in front of my computer screen gasping for breath as I realize that my name will always be associated with ADHD. The first hit for “Molly Zametkin” on Google reads: “At last attention shifts to girls,” and within the description the letters “ADHD” jump right off the page. Within the first three pages of results, 13 links using my full name are related to ADHD.

I think: “My future! Graduate school! Job applications! Future boyfriends! Everyone will know I had ADHD!”

Suddenly I am back to ninth grade, feeling completely stigmatized by my disorder. I find myself imagining that the next guy I meet will Google my name and delete my number after he realizes that I am so highly associated with a disorder some people don’t believe is real. My thoughts aren’t completely off base: I constantly meet people who think ADHD is an excuse for misbehavior and laziness. Kids with ADHD tend to be bright and talented, but without treatment they can also be at risk for underachievement, low grades, emotional problems, dropping out, car accidents, substance abuse and other issues.

Even though I am not experiencing any of those problems, wouldn’t everyone think I was?

Who I am

After doing some research, I found out that for a fee of $3,000 I could have a “reputation defense” company reduce my online association with ADHD by increasing the visibility of more-positive information, such as my job, my academic achievements, my lacrosse honors and my publications. But three grand: I thought, “Is it worth it?”

The fact that this company exists speaks to the common nature of the problem I’m dealing with. In this day and age, when the Internet is everything, can you really escape your past by paying $3,000 to have it digitally improved?

The answer is simple: You can’t. Twenty years from now, politicians will have to deal with old Facebook photos and comments that will taint their reputations in the same way that I worry that being linked to a stigmatized disorder may affect me. So I decided that in the spirit of the online reputation defense company, I should do everything in my power to increase the visibility of positive information about myself, and continue to succeed and achieve in ways that outweigh the fact that I grew up with challenges.

Today, in addition to working full time for the National Institutes of Health, I run my own house-sitting and tutoring business, and I work at a rooftop restaurant in the city on the weekends. I realize that I can’t change my past, and I definitely can’t change the Internet, but I also know that without adversity, I never would have worked as hard or as consistently to disprove all of the people who ever doubted me.

Having ADHD as a child taught me incredibly valuable lessons about the way I learn, the way I work and what motivates me the most. Even though I am no longer dealing with the problems or symptoms associated with ADHD (without any medication and the help of coffee, to-do lists and compulsive organization), I understand I will always be linked to ADHD because of the permanent nature of the Internet, and I can embrace the fact that it will always drive me to challenge misconceptions about the disorder.

Ultimately, I realize that your past is what makes you who you are today; and if someone has a problem with who you were in the past, they definitely aren’t worth making a part of your future.

© The Washington Post Company