One Question Quiz
A collage of characters from books, including the Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Sherlock Holmes and Anne of Green Gables.
Anne Shirley, aka Anne of Green Gables, aka maybe Anne with ADHD (played here by Megan Follows) (Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksMay 31, 2021

Diagnosing Anne: Now that I finally see ADHD in myself, I see it in books, too

A collage of characters from books, including the Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Sherlock Holmes and Anne of Green Gables.
Anne Shirley, aka Anne of Green Gables, aka maybe Anne with ADHD (played here by Megan Follows) (Design: Tina Tiller)

Anne of Green Gables is a certain kind of different – and Susan Wardell loves her for it. 

I have recently re-acquainted myself with Anne. We are old friends. Childhood friends, actually. But this time I noticed something new about her. I should perhaps clarify that Anne is not real. Except on the page, and in my mind and heart, and for countless other readers since her “birth” in 1908. Anne of Green Gables, written by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery, has sold over 50 million copies since its first print run. It is a book I re-read many times as a child and young person, when that intense, odd little orphan girl felt like a wonderful fictional counterpart for my own sense of difference, of too-much-ness (of the world and of myself). 

It has been a few years since my last read. A decade maybe, which is strange to think. And something has changed for me, since then. It is something that has changed for her too. 

It is a diagnosis. We both have ADHD.

I self-diagnosed myself with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) at age 28. The idea, the revelation, came as a shock to me, and yet at the same time felt as familiar as day. In this early stage I was obsessive in my research, and yet still tentative to fully claim the label based on my own insights, and amidst my thriving academic career, my fulfilling family life. I settled into a temporary understanding with myself: that I would use the term to understand my own (previously difficult-to-define) oddities and challenges, but not claim it publicly. Then quite recently, at age 31, I got a psychiatric assessment and confirmed the diagnosis. I wrestled with it anew. Because a diagnosis, proffered by an authoritative figure (white coat optional) changes both everything and nothing. 

“I’m not a bit changed – not really. I’m only just pruned down and branched out. The real ME – back here – is just the same.”

― Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables)

I am the same person I was before the doctor emailed me that form, with those four letters printed on it. My behaviour, my character, my habits, are the same. Nothing has changed except the label I give to the story of me. But that label connects me to a whole history of medical research and “expert” knowledge. It connects me to a set of broadly articulated social stereotypes. It connects me to other people with this label; people both similar and different to myself.

I have been thankful over and over for my diagnosis coming at a time where conversations about neurodivergent brains are building powerfully in the public sphere. Where forms of neurological difference such as ADHD or autism are no longer always and strictly seen as brokenness or deficit, but are advocated for as valid forms of (neuro)diversity. 

Still, both views are present, and there is no roadmap for ADHD under either. Perhaps especially for girls and women, who are underdiagnosed due to stereotypes about energetic or disruptive little boys that skirt the way we are socialised to be in our bodies, and to be in public. Perhaps especially for adults, who are again outside of most media depictions, and may look for representation but find a great big nothing. 

In online support groups for adults with ADHD, many of us are newly diagnosed. More join every week. And, every now and again, someone asks about fictional characters. 

How many fictional characters are openly stated to have ADHD? Next to none. Yet like many types of people that society didn’t always have a name for, we didn’t come out of nowhere, and so the search begins. In the margins, between the lines, back in time, and within ourselves.

It’s like a game we play, re-reading and re-watching the stories we are familiar with, with new knowledge at hand. Playing at psychiatrists ourselves (and probably more well-read then nine out of 10 of them, on the subject of us) we look for the signs, and work collaboratively to diagnose them: 

Pippi Longstocking. Percy Jackson. Tom Sawyer. The Mad Hatter. Willy Wonka. Amelia Bedelia. Emma Woodhouse. Sherlock Holmes. 

Some of these are more flattering than others. Some more contestable.

And not just books, but other modes of storytelling, including film and television. Lesley Knope. Lorelai Gilmore. Jake Peralta. Anna from Frozen.

Anna of Arendelle, member of the ADHD community?

The guessing game goes on and on. And there, in the classics of both screen and page, she stands: Anne Shirley.

After many years, I re-read Anne of Green Gables; revisited the friend who flavoured a cake with anodyne liniment, who fell off a roof on a dare, who nearly drowned enacting a tragic poem in a pond, who smashed her slate over Gilbert’s head, who had imaginary friends, and story clubs, and who said if she wasn’t a girl, she’d like to be a bee. 

In re-reading this book with new knowledge about myself, I read Anne in a new light too. 

She has a boundless mental energy – “she thought in exclamation points” – loves hard and feels deeply; “I’m in the depths of despair!” She is full of plans and projects: “Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them – that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still.” She is distractable, absent-minded, has flights of fantasy, “her eyes astar with dreams”. She is spontaneous, sometimes reckless, emotional: “the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardly on this impulsive soul”. Her mind goes 1000 miles an hour, she is five steps ahead of everyone else, she talks and talks, in tangents, and passionately: “Mr Spencer said my tongue must be hung in the middle.” She is creative; makes unexpected original connections: “Do you think amethysts can be the souls of good violets?” She is smart and curious and passionate: “Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world.” Others find her startling, a little odd, a little much. “People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

“There’s such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.”

― Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables)

So much of this was familiar to me. So much was unavoidably similar to the traits I had read about and researched. I had to conclude she was a particular kind of interesting, a particular kind of troublesome, this Anne I knew before and knew differently now. She was Anne with an E. She was Anne with ADHD. And they were all the same person. 

For adults with ADHD, if the process of re-reading fiction to look for ourselves feels familiar, it is because it parallels a process we have most likely already been through. A process of re-reading our own life stories, of sifting back through the things we know about ourselves, our ways of being and learning and interacting, to look for clues about our diagnosis. There is often a lot to revisit. The stories we have been told about our childhoods, the stories we have told others about defining moments, about challenges, since. The things we’ve heard other people say about us – at parties, on report cards, in work evaluations, to our faces and behind our backs. The things we’ve whispered to ourselves, about ourselves, that were not always kind.

“Oh, I know I’m a great trial to you, Marilla,” said Anne repentantly. “I make so many mistakes. But then just think of all the mistakes I don’t make, although I might.”

– Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables)

The facts don’t change, but our understandings of them can. It comes back to the rose and to Shakespeare: What’s in a name? What’s in a label – whether taken as a “disorder”, or as a “difference” or “identity”? Either way, it changes us, and it changes our stories, just by framing them differently. It makes us a certain kind of different, even if we always knew we were different. So we re-read our life stories, carefully, determinedly, tentatively, through the lens of ADHD, to see not only what we will find, but how we will feel about it. 

This kind of re-reading can help us to offer grace. To ourselves. 

It would be something I wish for everyone, neurodivergent or neurotypical, with or without a label. To be able to forgive the things we couldn’t do, or achieve, or be. But sometimes the label helps, like a fresh foreword in a book written long ago, and now reprinted. It gives context to the story of our lives. And sometimes, it heals. 

Because if it gives our lives context, it also can give them companionship. 

It is comforting to see yourself on the page. Why else do we read? We read to know we are not alone. Then when we learn something new about ourselves, we re-read to know we are still not alone.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

– Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables)

When I came back to Anne this time, it was for a reason. The reason wasn’t the ADHD. In fact Anne’s “diagnosis” hasn’t occurred to me before I started reading, and wasn’t my purpose for doing so.  

It was because I wanted to introduce her to my daughter. 

My daughter is seven years old, and spectacularly smart, creative, and deep-feeling. Recently she was asked to think of something special about herself, for an art project at school. When I came into her classroom, I spotted it hanging from the ceiling: a glitter-logged cloud, her handwriting on it immediately obvious to me. “I am special because I have a different brain,” it said. 

She is not diagnosed. But I have been open with her about my brain being different, and about some of my observations of the similarities in the way we both think, and feel, and process. That sparkly cloud showed me that it made sense to her, and that she has chosen it to help her make sense to herself. She has grabbed onto this idea with both hands, just as she grabbed hold of the book with the little red-headed girl on the cover, when I took it down from the shelf, and tucked us all into a blanket on the window seat, and began to read.  

“It must be a great deal better to be sensible; but still, I don’t believe I’d really want to be a sensible person, because they are so unromantic.”

― Anne Shirley (L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables)

I pass on my stories, and I pass on Anne’s stories to her for the same reason: in the hope that she will benefit from the work I’ve already done to factor those four letters into my life, gently and honestly. 

I pass on these stories so that when she, too, is forgetful, and chaotic, and enthusiastic, and distracted, and creative, and empathetic, she may find a kindred spirit in Anne. So that when she is looked at strangely, when she feels different, she may benefit from having seen Anne adventuring, succeeding, loving and being loved, even so. 

And perhaps, in that good company, she will get to spend less time re-reading her life story, and more time writing it. 

Keep going!