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My mom reads my column.
Honestly, I was very surprised when she told me off-handedly this summer that she had read it. Frankly, I didn’t think anyone in my family particularly cared. I don’t mean that in a bad way; I merely found the revelation surprising because, for all that I talk about neurodiversity, the topic doesn’t come up often in conversations with family members. I actually don’t even know whether my extended family knows I have ADHD, or if they do, what that actually means or looks like for me.
Occasionally though, my mom will tell me stories about how looking back, she now sees the signs of neurodiversity in family and friends around her growing up in Sri Lanka. Often, especially if they displayed visible signs, they were made fun of for being lazy and impulsive, erratic oddballs at best. At worst, they were completely ostracized from family and community. Maybe with the right support, things could have been different. But, then and there, there weren’t accommodations, let alone empathy — it was simply sink or swim. Now, reflecting back, that survivalist attitude to “continue swimming,” even through the whirlpools and riptides, is one that crosses cultures and countries, and intricately intertwines with immigration narratives and generational gaps.
For those who hold other marginalized identities in addition to being neurodivergent, to be neurodivergent isn’t merely “being neurodivergent.” It’s simultaneously to be all that you are, neurodivergent, a person of color, queer, and every other multitude you contain. It’s an intersectional experience. Though the intersection of culture and mental health/neurodiversity is underexplored, they’re heavily intertwined, considering that the experiences from generations before significantly affect us. Take Anna Roodnitsky, Dartmouth ’25, who describes to me her father’s experiences in Ukraine and how they interacted with her mental health journey.
“I had to go through a lot with my family emotionally because my dad has a history of extreme emotional turmoil.” She continues. “He grew up a poor Ukrainian farm boy with a history of an alcoholic father, and they had been robbed before. He has plenty of emotional trauma. He was just taught in Soviet society to suck it up, but it manifests in his day-to-day actions. Because if you don't talk about it, it still affects your life.”
While cultural intergenerational trauma is heavily pertinent to the exploration of neurodiversity and culture, I want to make it abundantly clear that I wholeheartedly refuse to perpetuate any misconceptions that life and culture are much better in the U.S. than elsewhere.
Born in the United States, I’ve seen how the American Dream is peddled, both here and across the world. My parents left a country in the midst of war in the 1990s and had to come to terms with the fact that the place they were leaving behind wasn’t the place they knew growing up. Yet, especially when I’m back in Sri Lanka, I wonder about how the large, yet tight-knit communities of family and friends, rich culture with breathtaking religious festivals and mouth-watering food could have all been mine to grow up with. To exist in a space where your eyes aren’t the darkest eyes anyone’s ever seen, where you’re not the token brown person.
All this to say, here in the U.S. we love to think that “the U.S. is so amazing,” and in turn, “everything’s so much worse in other countries,” Jailene Ramos ’24 tells me as we unpack the nuances of our neurodiverse oldest daughter of immigrants tales. Tracing back to “colonization and whiteness,” narratives of American supremacy are “spoon-fed to immigrants in this country” who often internalize them and pass them down. It results in their children, and even their children’s children believing that there’s always worse than what they face and using that belief to invalidate their own struggles.
“How dare I struggle, or feel any form of whatever, when people in my country are doing so much worse?” She continues, explaining how her parents would tell her that “people in our country are just so much worse because they have to deal with corrupt governments and poverty.” That may be true, “but it also sucks here.”
“At least back home, you have your culture. At least you have your people, you're surrounded by others who support each other,” Ramos says. “In this country, you don't. In this country, you are fighting against everyone.”
I’m sure many first-generation Americans like myself can relate to the notion of constantly navigating spaces that are not for us, the unfortunate reality of the American ExperienceTM as a BIPOC. You may wonder how maybe elsewhere, there exists a space that could have been for us. This sentiment parallels my journey with neurodivergence, except that “space,” that “ancestral land” that would have been more accepting, doesn’t seem to exist. Being neurodivergent transcends cultural background, and yet, worldwide, it’s heavily stigmatized and silenced. And, especially if you live in a country that differs from your country of heritage, those cultural factors may inform or shape your relationship to neurodiversity.
Though Ramos isn’t the first or only neurodivergent person in her family, she tells me, “my family and my culture don’t believe in mental health,” which she attributes to a variety of factors including lack of privilege, space, and resources, as well as strong religious notions rooted in her culture.
So, as the first to be willing to discuss our experiences with neurodiversity openly, we’re the ones who have taken on the sacrifices of progress, even though it isn’t fair that it’s our burden to bear. And yet, it often feels like, if everyone before me has made sacrifices so I could be here, writing this behind Harvard’s Ivy League name, how could I not do everything I possibly can to make things easier for everyone who follows, so they don’t have to feel alone in the ways that I did?
Yet, it’s no one person’s fault I feel all this pressure. It’s not my parents’ fault that the survivalist attitude helped them find success. They didn’t have the grace to make mistakes or fail and only wanted to see me succeed as well.
These pressures have deep systemic roots, and long branches that run so deep, it can be hard to even think of questioning them, let alone unlearning them. As “the oldest child of immigrants, and especially if you're a girl, it's like the quadruple whammy” of neurodiversity, culture, gender, and oldest child pressures. Ramos, who has Major Depressive Disorder, describes how these factors made it seem like the journey to get to a better point took “longer than it should have.”
“I had all of those pressures of ‘everything has to be perfect.’ I have to be on top of things. All of the entire burden of beginning to build generational wealth for my people, falls on my shoulders. Especially now that I have the privilege of going to Harvard and getting an education, just the fact that I graduated high school, which is something that my parents didn't do, and now that I get to go to college for free,” fed into Ramos’s denial surrounding having depression.
It’ll take many years, much representation, and many conversations to find accessibility and acceptance in all of the cultures we belong to with all of our identities. And true to my eldest daughter of immigrants nature, it’s an area I try to pave the way in, even if, admittedly, there’s a price to pay. But, as I get older, and let go of the lessons that no longer serve me (even if they served generations upon generations before me), I find myself no longer swimming to survive.
Hi, Mom. If you’re reading this, does it scare you that I’m writing this column? It’s honestly too late now since it’s now the start of the second semester of my writing it, and it’s basically public information that I have ADHD. Even if I may have been able to hide it, it’s a path that’s now foreclosed, no matter how much ableism and judgment I face. But, if we both know one thing, it’s that “I never listen anyways” (that doubles as an ADHD joke), so I’m sure I’ll be okay. Thank you for always doing your best for me; with every day I grow more grateful for the sacrifices you made and lessons you’ve learned the hard way, all so I can tell you in The Crimson that I love you. Hopefully, with pieces like these, someday, if I ever have a daughter, she can write a column piece on her identity without scaring you and me.
Anuksha S. Wickramasinghe ’24 is a Neuroscience concentrator and Crimson Editorial editor in Mather House. Her column “ADHDVENTURES” appears on alternate Mondays.
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