mask on, mask off by Alice L. '24
my used-to-be-virtual, and now post-virtual-but-still-neurodivergent life at MIT
I used to be a (slightly) strange child.
I once failed a hearing test because I named the pitch of the note being played instead of the ear in which it was played. I couldn’t have told you where “left” was, anyways, but it was easier to pretend I just misunderstood the directions.
I still remember a quiz I had about plotting points, where I labelled none of my perfectly plotted points and promptly got a 0. My mother laughed, called me a shrimp-for-brains, and asked when I’d grow out of it.
There was the year I read almost everything in the school library. The library was quiet, and “read every book in the library” was the kind of perfectly nonsensical goal that I could chip away at for months. I regretted this the next year when my next teacher assigned mandatory reading — and it couldn’t be a book you’d read before — and I was left reading about twenty picture books a month as a fifth grader.
There were the big and glaringly obvious moments of crustacean-brain, and then there were the homework assignments I forgot every week and the sandwiches I meticulously dissected every day and the feeling that I was a lizard-person trying my best to put on a human mask every few hours, but I’d grow out of it. There was going to be a day where I suddenly stopped being scatterbrained and started doing things the right way, and only then would I have Grown Up.
By senior year of high school, I felt pretty human…
…and then someone asked me out,
I liked to think that I had done a pretty good job of machine-learning How To Human Correctly. I no longer ate my sandwiches component-wise; I only hid in the bathroom and cried from Too Much Noise once or twice a semester; my homework was now digital and near-impossible for me to lose…but this was not a situation I’d encountered in the training data, so I asked him to define the romance-space in the same way you might ask someone to define a vector space.
…and I had to talk to my MIT interviewer,
She asked me to tell her something interesting about myself, so I told her how I could read backwards and upside down and mirrored, all at once; but more importantly, I still wasn’t really sure which way left was. I’d just failed a driving test because I had turned the wrong way, and the humiliation of failing in such an absurd way was still living rent-free in my head. We talked about a lot of lovely interesting things beyond that, but as the interview wrapped up, she mentioned the left-right confusion as probably the most unique thing I’d said in the few hours that we’d been talking.
…and I had to learn how to drive.
There are a terrifyingly large number of ways to die in a car, and a terrifyingly small number of ways to not-die in a car, and I’m still unsure why sixteen-year-olds are excited to get on the road. I was not. I’m still not. I failed the road exam three times, all for trivial reasons, and I felt more and more incompetent with each successive fail. I could do calculus; I could rattle on all day about the molecules I liked; I could manage a club efficiently; and yet, I still didn’t know how to stop making my scatterbrained little mistakes.
But I was 17, and I was just quirky, and one day I’d Grow Up and do things the way everyone else did.
I was pretty happy about not having to go anywhere when Covid-related lockdowns started happening.
On the various MIT-admit Discords, I’d found people who really seemed to get me — I’d finally found my fellow lizard people! Socializing on Discord was fun, and things were properly quiet, and suddenly I didn’t have to drive or make small talk or do any of the million mundane and just-slightly-unpleasant things that normal life entailed.
I lived with two roommates in the fall, whom I now affectionately refer to as plant-wife and bread-wife, and life was surprisingly happy for a pandemic-era semester. Sure, I forgot to turn in a pset or three, but that’s what P/NR is for, and I stopped thinking about my forgotten psets when we went wandering through sunflower fields and along beaches and amidst massive sequoias.
Maybe the forgotten psets always upset me a little, considering that they were always finished and un-turned-in; maybe I misplaced my phone so much that plant-wife started keeping track of my phone for me; maybe bread-wife jokingly asked me if I had ADHD, because I reminded her just a bit too much of her sister who had ADHD…
But among MIT students, am I really that weird?
At MIT, it’s not enough to be vaguely smart. It turns out you have to be smart and organized, and on most days, I kind of make a vague attempt at pretending to be smart.
Getting on campus didn’t fix my tendency to do psets and then forget to turn them in — especially when everything was online. Back when I had to walk into a classroom every day, the act of walking in usually reminded me to turn things in, but now, everything felt fake. Days, hours, classes, and psets blended into a homogeneous blob.
I’d watch 5 hours of biochemistry lectures straight, and then spend another 3 hours down a biochem-related-Wikipedia-rabbit-hole, and suddenly I’d missed three deadlines. I’d finish a pset, open up Canvas to turn it in, and get distracted by something else on Canvas…and miss the deadline.
Every time I screwed something up, I’d frantically try to compensate. I checked my planner compulsively; I set alarms on my phone; I’d still get distracted en route to doing whatever I had intended to do. I’d email professors apologizing profusely, but most had strict late policies and couldn’t do anything about my problems. I’d study harder to compensate for my low homework grades with higher exam grades, but then I’d accidentally skip over entire sections of exams and then hate myself for how silly it was to lose points that way. On one organic chemistry exam, I wrote “LEFT” and “RIGHT” at the top of my paper to ensure that I wouldn’t mix them up; unfortunately, I’d written them reversed. Some of my classes had exams where only the final answer counted; as someone who regularly makes careless arithmetic mistakes, having no partial credit on math and physics exams was new and horrifying.
Worst of all, I could just never compensate hard enough. Every time I almost pulled myself back to where I was before I’d forgotten a pset, I’d forget another one as I frantically emailed and crammed, and I’d slip just a little bit further towards dysfunction. I felt stupid and broken — because no amount of effort I put in seemed to fix these relatively “trivial” organizational issues — and I hated myself more and more, so bread-wife dragged me to MIT Mental Health.
“All your classmates were valedictorians too — have you ever considered that someone has to be below average here?” -MIT Mental Health hotline
I don’t want to compete with anyone. I’m not upset because I – horror of horrors! – no longer I didn't in high school, either. It's okay. Really. I’m frustrated because I feel like I’m failing myself — like I could be doing so much better, but my own crustacean-brain keeps sabotaging the rest of me — and I don’t know how to stop making my careless little mistakes.
Everyone’s a little scatterbrained sometimes, and it’s more evident than ever when most of the people I know are sleep-deprived. Even so, few people would say that the biggest barrier to getting a good grade is their failure to turn in a completed pset, or because they missed entire pages on tests, or that they lost 8 hours of their day in a biochemistry rabbithole. Grades aside, I don’t want to forget my laundry in the washer for two days; I don’t want to nearly set Pecker on fire because I forgot my bread in the oven; I don’t want to be hunting for my phone for the fifteenth time today.
I tried to get help. It took 6 weeks for me just to see a neuropsychologist, who diagnosed me with ADHD…and then vanished for… This likely isn't their fault, and it's just the reality of having a single person to deal with ADHD for the entire school. If only there were room in our 27 billion dollar endowment to hire a couple more psychiatrists so the wait time isn't weeks to months, but alas I tried to get support from S^3, who did arrange for me to have accommodations in the interim.. and then suggested that I should just lower my expectations and To be fair, I did talk mostly about my academic problems, but it's a bit of a weird critique that I was talking about my academic issues with an academic liaison. Why would I talk about my lost phone when I don't particularly expect S^3 to help me hunt for my phone in my room? I argued with people over email — who were understandably upset about the things I kept forgetting to do — but a few accused me of making the whole thing up to excuse my own academic shortcomings.
I spend a lot of time worrying about how I’m going to survive in a professional setting already. I spend a lot of time trying to minimize the negative impacts of my executive dysfunction. I spend a lot of time wishing that I could be the autistic savant that media so loves to portray, the kind whose neurodivergence makes them a quirky genius but has no negative effects on their life.
I wish people would understand that I tried then, and I’m trying now, and I’m sorry that sheer willpower isn’t always enough.
I went home and cried in romance-vector-space-boyfriend’s car, convincing myself that it wasn’t so bad to come back to Cambridge for my UROP.
As it turns out, it’s everything I originally loved about MIT.
I watched my supervisor sprint away mid-conversation to stop a particularly irritating but harmless alarm, and nobody commented on how weird it is to dislike noise. Instead of awkward small talk, people were willing to endlessly discuss biology and physics and mechanical engineering with me, and I really appreciated the time they took to teach me about random and interesting things. Sure, I’m a bit weird, but to quote my other-temporary-supervisor — aren’t we all?
I still make careless little mistakes sometimes — I once had to resolder a cable three times as I kept forgetting to put insulation on — but people laugh them off, and I try not to do it again. Sometimes I make really big and not-even-careless mistakes, and my supervisor’s response has always been, “We’ll fix it together.”
Not that I’d just cost everyone time and money, not that I was going to be a total catastrophe in the workplace, not that it was stupid and I Should Have Known Better and I’m Too Old To Be Like This…but that we’d fix it together.
I’ve spent nearly two decades trying to grow out of my “broken” brain. I’m starting to suspect that I might never do that…and I’m starting to think that it might be okay to live with it instead.
I don’t know how to start masking as neurotypical again. It’s funny how I can’t seem to put a metaphorical one on after almost two years of physically masking up.
I’ve just finished another semester, and everything is still a bit too loud. Social functions are overwhelming — there’s just too much noise, and too many eyes, and people are bumping into me, and I want to run away and scream. I haven’t been able to sleep much this semester, mainly because memories of last semester keep invading my dreams, and then I end up in a slightly unpleasant pit of sleep-deprived doom. I misplaced my phone again in the fridge last week, which left plant-wife theorizing whether there were benefits to refrigerating your iPhone.
But now I have Here's the template I made for my classes! It was made with MIT's classes in mind, but maybe you'll find it useful. To use, duplicate the template class already there -- you can input assignments into the schedule within that class, and it will sync to a larger masterlist in the main page. set up to scream at me an hour before every assignment is due — and I haven’t forgotten a single assignment this semester! — and eventually I’ll get desensitized to noise again, and I’m working on making small GPS trackers for all my commonly misplaced items. I’ve gotten mostly back to approximating “normal” people again. I don’t know if I’ll be the same approximation that I did pre-pandemic, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.
I’m still pretty good at the things I used to be good at: math, chemistry, baking-things, building-things, setting-fire-to-things…but I’ve also gotten a little better at the kinds of things that will probably never show up on a resume or in a job interview. I’m trying to learn how to work because I want to, not because I want to escape my problems, and it’s probably better for me to figure that out now than to grind myself to dust before I’m forty. I take more time to listen to people these days: I’d always thought of myself as fairly empathetic and a good communicator, but I’m sure my last S^3 dean thought that of themself as well, and I’m not sure that we were anywhere near the same page. I’m a lot less impatient with people, as a whole: who am I to judge someone for struggling with differential equations when my phone is chilling on a shelf in plant-wife’s fridge?
There is no version of my brain where I can neatly chop off the inconveniently neurodivergent part of my brain and still preserve the rest of me, but that’s true for almost everyone in some sense. I just happen to be somewhat good at combinatorics and somewhat bad at the trivial tasks that a lot of people get intuitively, but that doesn’t mean that I’m inherently more broken. Please give me a little time and grace while I do so, and maybe poke me if I forget to extend the same understanding to other people as well.
I’m not done growing, but I am done trying to grow out of my brain and into someone else’s…
…and hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to you in a year or two to say that I’ve grown into something as strangely charming as the 12-headed-jellyfish on my bookshelf.
- I didn't in high school, either. It's okay. Really. back to text ↑
- This likely isn't their fault, and it's just the reality of having a single person to deal with ADHD for the entire school. If only there were room in our 27 billion dollar endowment to hire a couple more psychiatrists so the wait time isn't weeks to months, but alas back to text ↑
- To be fair, I did talk mostly about my academic problems, but it's a bit of a weird critique that I was talking about my academic issues with an academic liaison. Why would I talk about my lost phone when I don't particularly expect S^3 to help me hunt for my phone in my room? back to text ↑
- Here's the template I made for my classes! It was made with MIT's classes in mind, but maybe you'll find it useful. To use, duplicate the template class already there -- you can input assignments into the schedule within that class, and it will sync to a larger masterlist in the main page. back to text ↑
- Please give me a little time and grace while I do so, and maybe poke me if I forget to extend the same understanding to other people as well. back to text ↑