When you are first diagnosed with learning disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorder, you will likely feel a great sense of relief that you can finally put a name to your difficulties. You will feel validated that you do, in fact, have a bona fide disability and your problems are not a matter of being lazy or stupid. It is also very comforting to know that you are not alone – there are many others LD/ADD adults who experience similar difficulties to yours.
Now, that you know accommodations and remedial services can be provided to help you cope with your LD/ADD you will feel more positive about your chances of succeeding in your education or work life. However, this initial sense of optimism will soon wear off as you realize that you must still face the problems your LD/ADD poses for you in your everyday life. At this point, you will need to work through the five stages of grief described in this module.
Being diagnosed with LD/ADD is no different from being diagnosed with any other disability. It changes your life and will require lifestyle adjustments. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross originally conceived the five stages of grief to help with the process of accepting death. However, her theory is now applied to help with any kind of loss. Upon diagnosis, you may look back at your life and start to identify missed opportunities that can be attributed to your LD/ADD.
For example, you might have lost a job because you could not cope with its requirements, or you might have lost a friend because you have trouble maintaining relationships. If your LD/ADD makes money management a challenge, you might have experienced a loss of financial stability. At this point, you may think to yourself, “If only I could have been diagnosed earlier, I might not have missed out on so much”.
You may suddenly realize how much easier it is for other people to cope with school, career, and/or social interaction and feel cheated out of opportunities. Such thoughts will likely stir up strong emotions for you including sadness and anger. It is important to allow yourself to feel these emotions in order to work through the grieving process. It may help to remember that what you are experiencing is a perfectly natural response for people coping with loss in their lives.
Before we proceed to the five stages, you should know that this process does not always proceed consecutively. Many people move back and forth between stages. Some people get stuck in one stage for a longer period of time than another. It is important to remember that no one person’s experience with this process is the same as another’s and that there is no wrong way to experience the stages.
Now, let’s take a look at the five different stages:
Denial is the first stage of the grieving process and usually occurs in various forms. It may be hard for you to believe that you do, in fact, have LD/ADD. You may question the diagnosis or believe that you have somehow overcome the disability so that it no longer exists. If you question the diagnosis, you may find yourself saying
“I can’t have LD/ADD – There must be a mistake!”.
Adults who believe they have overcome the disability are likely to have experienced academic success (e.g. graduated from college or university). They only see their LD/ADD in terms of their ability to succeed academically and since they have conquered this hurdle they reason that their LD/ADD is no longer a problem in their lives. As a result, it becomes impossible for them to see how their disability affects other areas of difficulty. Such areas might include finding and maintaining a job, organization, controlling anger, money management and making and maintaining friendships, etc.
Another form of denial may actually make you question the legitimacy of the disability itself. For example, you may conclude that “there’s no such thing as learning disabilities, only learning differences” or that “ADD is not really a condition – it’s just an excuse people use to hide their personality flaws”.
A more common form of denial is to have trouble acknowledging the extent to which your LD/ADD affects you in your everyday life. You may convince yourself that your LD/ADD is much less of a problem for you than is indicated in your assessment/evaluation. As a result, you may have trouble making the necessary life changes required to help you cope with your LD/ADD including taking medication, and asking for or using various accommodations and learning strategies.
Probably, the first step to getting out of denial is to identify that you are actually in it!
So, with that said, if you can identify with any of these forms of denial you are already on your way to coming out of it and that’s good news because this is the first step to accepting your LD/ADD.
Anger is the second stage. Denial is often a more comfortable stage than anger. It does not deal with any difficult emotions because we choose to push them away by not recognizing the reality of our situation. However, typically, at some point, reality comes crashing down and anger is often the result. Past and current difficulties linked to your LD/ADD often bring a painful awareness of the extent to which your LD/ADD affects your life. Such awareness may leave you feeling angry about the huge impact your LD/ADD has and continues to have on your daily living.
You may also perceive your diagnosis of LD/ADD as being “unfair”, and become angry that you have to deal with it while others do not. At this point, you might direct your anger towards others. You may feel envious and resentful towards people who do not have LD/ADD and have, what you perceive, as an easier life. During this stage, you may also find yourself blaming others for failures and losses that can be attributed to your LD/ADD.
For example, you might blame your parents or teachers for not meeting your educational needs or not recognizing the problem in the first place. Sure, you have a right to feel angry at others and even to feel envious of their lives, but try to remember how much your anger can hurt others around you. Your parents may feel guilty enough as it is without you blaming them for mistakes they already recognize.
It may help to remember that most people (parents especially) try to do the best they can for us with what they have to give and know. In other words, if a person did not know how to help you, they would not be able to do so. With this said, it is still important to express your anger. Otherwise, it will just grow inside of you and put you at risk for other problems. There are ways you can express your anger without hurting those you care about.
It might help to talk about your angry feelings with someone you can trust (e.g. a parent, friend, sibling, relative, or counselor). Sometimes it helps to write your feelings down. Your writing can take on many forms including various kinds of creative writing (e.g. a poem, story, or play). You may choose to write a letter (you do not have to send it). Other forms of creative expression include music, visual arts, and drama. Whatever coping strategy you decide to use, don’t hold these feelings inside.
Bargaining is the third stage of the grieving process and usually takes place shortly after your anger has passed. During this stage, you will find yourself bargaining with your LD/ADD in a fruitless effort to fight your LD/ADD in order to make it go away. For example, you might come to expect your LD/ADD to no longer be a problem for you as long as you continue to keep up your end of the bargain by taking your medication, attending support groups, therapy, and/or utilizing the various accommodations and learning strategies available to you. Of course, such bargains are likely to be disappointing when your LD/ADD fails to live up to its end of the deal and continues to be a problem in your life.
Due to the on-again, off-again nature of these two disabilities (i.e. you can do it one day but not the next), you might secretly barter with your LD/ADD for a short reprieve from the effects of the disability during important life events (e.g. job interview, exam, social gathering). Again, this type of bargain is likely to be a source of great disappointment if your LD/ADD fails to comply. Bargaining may seem like a solution to your problems at first, but in the long run it will never completely manage your LD/ADD because the bargains you make with your LD/ADD will eventually fail. This often sad and frustrating realization will lead you to the fourth stage of the grieving process.
Depression is the fourth stage. It usually occurs after coming to the realization that your LD/ADD can never be totally overcome no matter how hard you try. At this point, there will be no denying the reality of your disability and the difficulties it continues to pose in your everyday life. You may find yourself thinking “I’ve got it, and there’s nothing I can do about it”. You may despair about various losses you have experienced which can be linked to your LD/ADD (e.g. job loss, lack of educational success, loss of a friendship/partnership, etc.).
Some people feel tired of constantly battling against their LD/ADD and want to simply give up fighting it. You may feel a sense of hopelessness and question your ability to succeed. This is especially problematic if you tend to buy into other people’s false evaluations of your character or ability (e.g. believing that you are fundamentally stupid or lazy). Sadly, such beliefs often lead to feelings of shame about yourself. As a result, you may find it more difficult to tell others about your LD/ADD in order to receive the help and accommodations you require.
You may also feel very alone and not know who or where to turn to for emotional support. Of course, you are not really alone because there are lots of people going through this experience but depression has a funny way of isolating us. This is why support is so essential during this stage. No matter how sad you feel or how much you feel like being alone during this stage, it is important to express your emotions with someone you trust (e.g. a parent, close friend, sibling, or counselor). Finding a support group for LD/ADD adults can also help you feel less alone and provide an outlet for your emotions with people who have similar concerns (contact your local Learning Disabilities Association to find one near you).
This is the fifth and final stage of the process. During this stage, you feel ready to accept your LD/ADD as a permanent part of your life. The diagnosis no longer feels so traumatic for you. The painful emotions (e.g. anger, despair) associated with the earlier stages have passed and you begin to feel more at peace with your LD/ADD. This does not mean you give in to it. You will, of course, still need to take your medication, utilize school and workplace accommodations and use various learning strategies to cope with your LD/ADD.
However, you will no longer feel the need to spend all your time and energy fighting the disability. Instead, you will take a much calmer and rational approach to cope with your LD/ADD. You will also no longer feel as much need to hide your LD/ADD and will begin to feel more comfortable asking for help or accommodations when you need them. Finally, you will begin to feel more hopeful about your future with LD/ADD and your ability to cope with its everyday challenges.