Interviewing the Real Rysa: ADHD, Sex, and Agency: Reblogging for #DiversityMatters
As part of #DiversityMatters and #SigilsandSpells, I’m re-blogging the interview I did with my daughter and her friend about living life as young women with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Anxiety—and seeing themselves represented. Most, thought, we discuss developing an understand of, and empathy for, people who do not walk the “normal” path.
The character discussed here, Rysa Torres, is the main heroine of the universe in which my Sigils and Spells story, “Dragon’s Fate,” takes place.
The Fate - Fire - Shifter - Dragon universe may be science fiction, but Rysa, the heroine of Games of Fate, is based on a real young woman, with real Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I wrote this book for her, and for all the young women like her. – Games of Fate dedication.
Rysa Torres, the selfless-yet-hyperactive heroine of Games of Fate, is based on the living, breathing human who happens to be my daughter. The universe of Fates, Burners, Shifters, and dragons might not be real but she is, and she lives her life inside a mind very much like Rysa’s — fast, furious, and vivid.
Girls with ADHD aren’t, for the most part, “heroine” material. They suffer self-esteem issues. They tend to bounce and be annoying. They can’t hold focus. Who would want to follow such a girl into battle? But, like my daughter, they can be strong, smart, and willing to save the world.
A young woman with ADHD can be the hero. Her journey is just a little more chaotic than it is plucky.
My daughter recently returned to her college campus to start her sophomore year, but today, she asked to share her real world with the readers of her fictional self.
“Suzu,” as she’s called in this interview (because sometimes a little bit of privacy is a nice thing)*, was diagnosed early with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The challenges of growing up a girl like Rysa in Games of Fate – being kicked out of class because of her hyperactivity, feeling overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, and the acute sensitivity to how other people disapprove – were all present in Suzu’s school years.
We sat down around my kitchen table, under our grand window overlooking our backyard with its wild turkeys and deer. We listened to the neighborhood lawnmowers and smelled the savory, smoky wonder of early September grilling. And we talked.
We were lucky enough to be joined by the young woman who graces the cover of Games of Fate. Suzu and Kitsu aren’t the same person, but they are fast friends. Both have insights into the ADHD mind.
Me: Welcome, ladies. Should we start with the basics?
Suzu: I’d say the big things are fidgets, filters, focus, and having way too much energy.
Kitsu: Sounds about right.
Me: How would you describe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?
Suzu: Okay, so, most people have filters on what’s coming in. I don’t. To my brain, the TV blasting upstairs is just as important as the conversation we’re having right now. The tapping on the keyboard is a constant distraction, even the fact that my phone’s sitting here, closed, doesn’t help.
Me: When I was in grad school and I taught psychology to student teachers, we touched on the neuropsychology of the executive functions located in the frontal lobes just above the eyes. ADHD appears to be connected to differences in frontal lobe processing, at least for some individuals.
Kitsu: I don’t have ADHD, but I do have other issues that help me understand Rysa’s character. Many parts of social anxiety feel very much like not being able to filter, though on a more person-to-person level than person-to-world.
Suzu: The fact that I have to consciously compensate for my lack of filters really hurts my working memory.
Me: When I taught, we also hammered home the connection between working memory and academic performance. If a student’s conscious processing is filled with overstimulation, or hunger, or fear, they can’t learn.
Suzu: As my grades showed.
Kitsu: Social anxiety does something similar. It fills up your head and you can’t think about anything else until the anxiety fades.
Suzu: I read that a lot of people with ADHD also have social anxiety. I can’t “ignore” criticism, it comes in at equal weight like everything else, and then my brain flags it as a possible threat. Once my brain’s convinced there’s a threat, my anxiety goes through the roof.
That reminds me of a story: When I was in school, especially middle school, I’d play with paper a lot. I did origami – little swans, little boxes, whatever the paper-folding fad of the day was. This time around, it was little paper “throwing stars”. I’d flip them around in my fingers so I wasn’t going crazy from being forced to sit there. Better than tapping my foot, anyway.
Kitsu: That’s what the teachers thought.
Suzu: Fidgets provide something I have some control over – an input I can use to “block” or “replace” other things coming into my mind from around me.
The teachers didn’t like me playing with paper. I got scolded a lot for it. But this time, it was really bad – a para pulled me out of class because I wouldn’t let them take it away from me. Apparently kids had been throwing them at each other and they were afraid of people getting hurt. I tried to tell her I was using it as a fidget and had deliberately constructed it to be harmless.
What she did next stuck with me to this day: She started screaming at me about “Well, you better have a diagnosis for that!” I freaked out. I didn’t know how to respond. I think I might have started crying. I had a diagnosis. My IEP was on file. She was there to help me because of my diagnosis but she wasn’t.
From then on, I never trusted the school again. They weren’t trying to help me. They just wanted me to be “normal” so I wouldn’t make a scene. No matter how many classes I failed, no matter how much my trust in anyone claiming to wanting to help me dwindled. They didn’t give a shit.
I was kinda nuts when I was a little kid – threw tantrums in school, that sort of thing. They kept me in the special ed room in first grade, and I spent most of my time hiding in a teepee. Thing is, I really wasn’t that bad. It’s just… my little kid brain realized the only time I actually got any help was when I was so crazy they couldn’t ignore it. And so I tried to game the system the only way a 7-year-old knew how.
Kitsu: My half-brother has ADHD. He gets really excited and does impulsive stuff. One day he cracked his head open in a moment of impulse. But as a boy with ADHD, his ADHD was treated as “real” and people paid attention to his problems because of it. In our area, people pay attention when a boy gets overstimmed. Girls are told it’s their fault, are punished because they can’t sit quiet, or yelled at when they can’t comply. At least that’s how it was at our middle and high school.
Suzu: Yes. I guess what I’m trying to say here is this: Rysa’s trains of thought are smoothed out for the reader. If you’re exhausted reading her point of view, imagine how tiring it is to have to live the real version. You can put the book down and walk away. I can’t. That’s what I have to live with, every second of every day. And every time someone says “just get over it,” that’s another person trying to tell me that what’s going on in my head isn’t real. That I’m not real.
Me: In Silent, I have Rysa’s friend Gavin dealing with an enhancement via his high-tech hearing aids. He’s hearing everything and it’s overpowering, especially for this young man who’s spent the last nine years of his life in semi-silence.
There’s a moment where he stops and wonders if this is how Rysa lives.
Suzu: Pretty much, yeah. But his brain is wired to sort things for him.
Me: True. Gavin quickly becomes accustomed to his new superpower. If it were Rysa, it would be like her Fate abilities manifesting all over again – continuous and all-consuming.
Kitsu: I think the vividness of Rysa’s visions show her ADHD well. They're wild and chaotic, but she’s aware of everything in them, including the emotions.
Suzu: I can’t handle strong emotions – I get worked up, I stay worked up, and it feeds on itself until I either step away and reorient or go into overload. For me, horror fiction with lots of jump scares is a recipe for disaster. Even moments in stories where the protagonist runs into a big misunderstanding or makes a big mistake are too much a lot of the time, and I wind up skipping pages. It’s easier to handle positive emotions – they mostly make me want to run around a lot, but negative emotions are painful. And that’s not exaggerating.
Me: We noticed that when you were little. You’d hide during loud cartoons. I think that’s why you only liked “Blue’s Clues” as a child.
Suzu: In Games of Fate, Rysa’s in a constant rush. She doesn’t have a moment to step into a dark place and take deep breaths, or play a video game, or put on her headphones. It just piles on and gets worse and worse, and her anxiety’s whispering in her ear that it’s her fault.
Kitsu: I understand the self-esteem and social anxiety issues involved with ADHD. The being too sensitive to the possibility that you’re the root of all of the problems, so to speak. Thankfully in the story, Rysa has the support of Ladon and Dragon.
Me: Unlike Suzu’s para in middle school, Ladon and Dragon don’t judge. They understand.
Suzu: Not everyone understands.
Kitsu: Or wants to make the effort to understand.
Me: My job with Games of Fate was to write a tale authentic to the characters. Not everyone will like that tale. I’ve disliked lots of books beloved by many a reader.
When talking about a book, saying “I was confused,” or “It wasn’t what I expected,” are legitimate, valid responses. But misrepresenting a book and the characters is not.
Kitsu: I want to say right now that Suzu and I asked Ms. Radcliffe to write a response to a few points we felt needed to be addressed.
Me: What would you like to say?
Suzu: A lot of people seem to be asking why Rysa doesn’t just get over her ADHD. Why do you have to keep writing it like that? Why doesn’t the character calm down and stop having vivid visions? It seems to make some readers mad.
You can’t just get over it. Imagine it this way: You see something as orange, and everyone around you keeps telling you it’s red. They call you crazy, laugh at you, because you just aren’t seeing it right. They tell you that you just need to work harder. And every time you’re told this, you start to slide a little more into thinking they’re correct. That you’re a broken, stupid, crazy person. And all those little incidents become too much to bear and you’re sitting in the bathroom crying because going out there is just too much. That’s ADHD.
Kitsu: It takes a while for feelings like that to go away. It’s all part of the emotional sensitivity we were talking about earlier.
Suzu: My life is alien to most people. I get it. But Rysa is an opportunity for others to understand. It would be helpful to girls like me if other people tried not to judge.
Me: I understand being annoyed by a character who is frantic all the time, if that character is without issues. But Rysa carries a diagnosis.
Suzu: When Rysa’s thoughts are called invalid by saying she needs to “get over it,” or more horrifically, by saying her emotional responses to Ladon are invalid because a college student would never act that way, the character is invalidated.
Saying that Rysa’s responses to her situation can only happen because of the actions of another character – that a realistic character could only be traumatized by abuse or rape at the hands of her ex-boyfriend – is saying that the Rysa’s character is invalid. Her disability is discounted and waved away as something fake. Her emotions and her thoughts could not possibly be those of a legitimate person.
Me: This is particularly upsetting because I detail in the book how Rysa’s ex-boyfriend, Tom, dies horribly while they are dating. All the ADHD aside, how is this not traumatic enough to validate her conscious fear of her new relationship? Why does she need to be abused or raped in order to have a negative reaction?
From upstairs, Mr. Radcliffe, who is listening in on this conversation, chimes in: People drop out of school all the time because people in their lives pass away. All the time. If you want, I’ll put you in contact with one of our student counselors.
Me: I thought a dead ex-boyfriend was pretty darned traumatic. Rysa and Ladon spend almost an entire emotional chapter discussing how her ex’s death affects her.
Kitsu: It is traumatic. Commenting that abuse is necessary is disgusting. Insinuating that a woman needs to be raped in order to be traumatized makes me physically ill.
Suzu: We thought that the question of Rysa’s agency needed to be addressed in a wider sense. It touches on all the issues of ADHD and that particular view that it’s an invalid disorder.
Me: I may be a tad oversensitive, but I see young women with ADHD as a vulnerable population. But that’s a mom’s eye view. It is, though, why I agreed to do this.
Kitsu: We’d like to talk about something else, too.
Kitsu: Rysa’s sexuality is not subtext for how "good girls can’t have sex."
Me: “Good girls can’t have sex” is not part of the story. Once Rysa moves past her fear of hurting Ladon, they’re all over each other. The middle of Flux of Skin (book two) is devoted to Rysa learning to be comfortable with loving Ladon and leaving her fear behind forever.
Kitsu: The way I read it, Rysa consciously resists touching him because of her anxiety, and unconsciously doesn’t resist because she’s, well, not thinking about how afraid she is when she’s in a vision. She’s concentrating on their connection.
If you say that the character’s emotions are invalid, you’re going to go fishing for some excuse to justify why you discount her fear. And you’re going to come up with some easy-access trope you think you understand, like “goods girls don’t have sex.”
Me: Ah. (grins) See, this is why I pay Suzu’s college tuition. You both have a better understanding of how to read texts than those of us with film degrees and graduate work in psychology.
Suzu: It’s because of the internet.
Kitsu: We play a lot of games. We like to rip the worlds of those games apart, analyze them, and put them back together.
Me: (laughs) That, you do.
Kitsu: We know where the FFSD stories are going. How you’re working on unpacking Ladon’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder right alongside Rysa’s ADHD.
Me: I am. After talking with the two of you, I’m beginning to wonder how Ladon’s responses to Rysa could be seen in the same invalidating light, even though they are just as real to his PTSD as hers are to her ADHD.
Suzu: Something to think about for another day?
Me: Yes. Thank you, both of you. Thank you for doing this. If it helps just one person, it’s been worth it.
Kitsu: Yes. You’re welcome.
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