My therapist suggested I talk to my inner child. I thought she was joking – but it changed everything | Anna Spargo-Ryan

Growing up, Anna Spargo-Ryan was taught she was naughty and lazy. After an adult diagnosis of ADHD, she’s revisiting that kid – and together they’re rewriting history

I have a memory of being six years old and reading all the books for the school year in one day. I was stoked. I’d inhaled them, engrossed in fantastical lands and magical beings and moralistic endings. When I was done I ran to my teacher. I was full of words, eager for him to recognise how clever I’d been, how good at reading, how conscientious. As I chatted about the characters I’d met and the places I’d been, he slammed his hand on the table.

“Just sit down!” he bellowed.

I remember the way those words felt as they sliced through me. I wasn’t clever or good or conscientious. I was bad. Annoying. I had got it wrong.

As a little kid, I was in trouble a lot. I was like a cat that’s always underfoot; in people’s way, saying something stupid, being too much. Fine, lots of kids are annoying. But it was so at odds with what I thought I was doing: from my child perspective, I was trying really, really hard. I remember the feeling of watching other students, teachers and parents, and trying to understand the easy way they seemed to interact with the world. When I mimicked it, I usually got sent into the hallway instead.

I never had any idea what I had done, except that it was The Wrong Thing. I didn’t know what lesson I was supposed to learn and the harder I tried, the more disappointed the adults seemed. As I sat in the hallway, thinking about six-year-old things, I noticed how it hurt in my body that they didn’t like me. A tightness was forming in my chest. I thought about the words they used to describe me and filed them deep inside. Lazy. Selfish. Naughty.

As the years went on, I developed a reputation for being hard to be around. I was clever but difficult, and always in detention – usually for disrupting the class, being too loud, not handing my work in on time and answering back. Anger burned my bones. I acted out on purpose, to meet their expectations.

I didn’t remember why I believed I was bad. I only knew that it was true.

The way we’re taught to think as children stays with us long after we finish school and forge careers and start families. It becomes the foundation on which we build our identities. “My teacher told me I was lazy” becomes “I was lazy” and, eventually, simply “I’m lazy”. These words turn into core beliefs. The inherent, fixed elements of our personalities.

Our little selves are still in there, being yelled at to sit down.

A lot has been said recently about ADHD. Some legends have made hilarious tweets about how it’s a fad, possibly just a way to get legal amphetamines. So clever! It’s definitely easier to navigate the entire mental health system and pay thousands of dollars for a diagnosis than to ask your mate where people buy meth now.

I was diagnosed with ADHD only last year, aged 38; like many other women of my age, I sought a diagnosis after my children were diagnosed. When I read about what they might be experiencing and how to support them, I recognised myself immediately. Difficulty focusing. Hyperfixation. Disrupting the class. Talking too much. Failing to finish tasks. Getting in trouble. Being bad.

A Kind of Magic by Anna Spargo-Ryan is out now.

I reread old school reports. Anna could do well if she put her mind to it. Anna is only enthusiastic about subjects she finds interesting. Anna is not living up to her potential.

I saw that kid in the hallway, face wet, trying and failing to understand what she’d done wrong. And I understood there had always been a reason.

I’d been in therapy for decades, but I had a new psychologist helping with my anxiety who was teaching me about my young self. I talked to her about how I felt in the present day (afraid, tired, hungry, tired, angry), and she helped me draw links between those feelings and what happened when I was small.

Then she encouraged me to talk to that little girl.

Like, to have an actual conversation.

“That’s stupid,” I said, pretending to be a rational person who’s not in constant dialogue with her cat.

“Try it,” she said. “What would you tell yourself?”

I tried it. From my therapist’s couch I found, in my memory, a small blond child alone on a schoolyard swing. She had been booted from class to “calm down”, so she was twisting up the chains and then letting go so they would spin her around. The air was cool. Autumn. Through the window, she could see other kids painting bright colours on to butchers paper.

I imagined myself sitting next to her on the other swing. Why are you out here? I would ask, and she would say, I’m naughty, and the chains would clang as they unravelled.

But what if, I would say, I knew you were trying your best?

No one had ever said this to six-year-old Anna. They had only ever told her to be something different. I felt something click in my chest.

After I had used up all my therapist’s tissues and gone home, I kept visiting this past self. I found her in classrooms where everything seemed too noisy. I found her hiding under the bed from people who would yell at her, panicking about report cards, forgetting her homework. I found her yelling, crying, laughing, wishing she could be somebody else. This anxious, bound-up kid fighting every single thing in her life.

I poked my head under the bed. I know you’re trying your best, I told her.

Over months, I grieved for that little girl. I became a weird “Time Traveler’s Wife”, creepily visiting a tiny, new human who was trying to make sense of the ridiculous complexities of human society and expectation. I apologised over and over: I’m so sorry they made you feel you were worthless; I’m so sorry I kept letting you believe it was true. I told her about the present and how much I wanted her to get there.

Then this other thing started to happen: the past became less familiar. Memories are peculiar, changeable things. The old pictures I had stored morphed into new ones. The words that had taken hold of me in my childhood floated loose in my body. Lazy? Selfish? That didn’t describe me at all.

The longer I sat at the genesis of my identity, the closer I came to who I really was as a person. As I spoke to my young self, my present self changed. Fear became acceptance. Resentment became forgiveness. Anger became love.

As adults with ADHD or anxiety or other brain situations people don’t understand, we carry around a tremendous burden. It’s a trauma, the self-belief that everyone’s mad at us, that we deserve to be in trouble, that we’re always just not trying hard enough.

But the truth is, the framework we were given to create our identity was faulty. It contained adult language that dismissed our reality. We embraced and embodied value judgments and structured our lives around them, even though they have never described us.

Now, as more and more adults are diagnosed, we’re working through some shit. There’s sadness, distress, grief, regret. God it hurts. But after that, there can be something else. Our six-year-old selves can still hear us. There’s comfort. There’s understanding. And there’s a recognition of who we were the whole time.

• A Kind of Magic by Anna Spargo-Ryan is out now through Ultimo Press


Anna Spargo-Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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