It’s the day after my therapy-induced epiphany about my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) and social anxiety. But back at the high school lunch posse, little has changed. It’s a lovely spring day and my group -- mine not because they have any claim to me or I to them but because they mostly leave me be -- has decided to sit in the cafeteria’s outdoor courtyard for the first time since autumn. Of course, no one has informed me of that. But after 20 minutes of stumbling vainly around the indoor cafeteria whilst precariously balancing my overburdened food tray, I am able to put it together.
My anxiety-addled ADD/ADHD mind is whirring as I approach them. I have a routine when we sit at the indoor table. There is always one seat left open for me. It is in the far corner of the long, rectangular lunch table. There, in this little niche, I’m allowed to sit quietly with my head down, and I’m granted refuge from the most direct and cutting mockery.
Although mockery is par for the course for such a gawky, pasty-skinned wallflower as myself, no one lavishes upon me hostile, vaguely disgusted remarks as generously as Liz, the girl whose own appearances are meticulously groomed -- complete with a spray-on tan, cover-up, and thick blue swooshes of eye shadow. (Somehow, her makeup-facilitated ruse passes her off as pretty while I'm the one who is so worried about fitting in that I haven't made eye contact with anyone in a year.)
The first day I’d sat with this clique, on the first lunch hour of sophomore year, I had innocently grabbed a seat that happened to be next to Liz. She welcomed me by waving over her brawny boy-toy Stephen who'd been sitting comfortably across from her just moments earlier.
“Hey ... uh, sorry man," he said to me. "This seat isn’t for you. I forgot that I sit here.”
“There’s no way I could’ve stomached my lunch with that much awkwardness next to me,” was Liz's not even hushed reply.
Though comically clannish in retrospect, this social assault hit my sophomore self like shell shock. First I refused to make eye contact with Stephen and Liz, then anyone at the table, and eventually anyone but my parents.
Ever since this first day, my sophomore self begins to imagine their probing eyes scrutinizing me -- quivering knees, watering eyes, and all. It's all I can do to shovel my plate of macaroni and cheese down my tight throat every day.
Though Stephen played a part in the assault that nearly destroyed me, over the course of sophomore year, I learned to be grateful for the barrier that his bulky maroon sweatshirt places between me and Liz. That sweatshirt -- along with Stephen’s complete indifference to my presence -- has been my sanctuary all winter. He’s granted me the privilege of being allowed to duck my head (bashfully) behind his bulky mass, scarf down my food, and scamper out of the cafeteria unnoticed and unharassed.
Out in the courtyard on this lovely spring day, I’m naked without Stephen’s protection. Awful things could happen. What if I have to sit next to Liz?
When I arrive at the posse’s headquarters, everyone's all circled up tightly: There isn't a single opening for me to wedge myself inside of, there isn't a rectangular table with a quiet corner for Carl. If I want to sit down, I’ll have to ask someone to move. Which, of course, I don't do, given my yearlong strike against making eye contact with anyone (except my parents and now my therapist, all of whom at least understand some of my ADD/ADHD ways).
Like a stalking cheetah, I noiselessly circle the crew -- too busy in their own world of conversation to see me -- searching for something vaguely resembling a space to sit. And I find one: a two-foot gap where I have a shot at wedging my tray inside, craning my neck into the group’s circle, and pretending I have friends.
There's only one problem with the space: The sprawling expanse of my gangly body is now directly behind Liz’s Abercrombie-adorned torso.
I close my eyes and pray quietly that in this peaceful patch of earth I can eat my lunch unnoticed. I ease myself into the space and wait for the volley of muskets the firing squad could shoot at me any minute.
When I feel the reliable thump of my tray against that two-foot space of ground and no one says anything, I think I am safe. Then, just as I get situated, I see Liz’s blond head twist towards me.
She’s standing up and beginning to turn around. She must be trying to get out of the circle and walk to class.
As her blue, mascara-lined eyes meet mine, she jumps.
“Ack!” she screams, her carefully manicured feathers momentarily ruffled. My presence has caught her -- and everyone else -- by surprise. Poise regained, she turns to her friends and says, "There is some sort of ... person behind me." She sneers with an expression of mock horror.
“At least it usually stays out of the way,” she adds. Back on the path to her next class, the tail of her skirt swooshes by my mortified face.
Just a few minutes earlier, I was basking in the solace my therapist had given me by simply believing me to have a pulse and, what's more, a personality! But being labeled “it” -- something I’d be loath to apply to a family pet -- is the last thing my still-struggling self-esteem needs.
I’m 19 now and that moment still ranks as one of the top 10 worst in my life.
Any hopes I’d been fostering about unearthing some of the personality that I’d buried in elementary school were set back at least a year. And frankly, the excavation is only now in full swing.
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