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ADHD: The Immigrant Experience

ADHD: The Immigrant Experience - Stranger in a Strange LandI just got home from a visit with my friend Dave. Even though I’d spent (three times) longer with Dave than I’d planned, it was well worth it. I walked home with a bounce in my step, feeling refreshed and relieved.

I’d been able to express things to Dave that I’d been only half-aware of; things that have been burbling around in the background, waiting to be shared with someone who spoke my language.

Talking to Dave is always a voyage of discovery, unlike speaking with anyone else except – another person with ADHD.

Stranger in a strange land

Once in my apartment, my buoyancy dissolved. I suddenly felt lonely. I felt like an immigrant who’d just shared time with someone from my home country.

I’d been on an island of respite, where I could let my hair down, relax, and speak my own language. No wonder I’d felt such relief.


As I cooked dinner, I was reminded of breakfast. This added to my sense of being an immigrant: I’d had homemade cream-of-asparagus soup, and sautéed leeks. Not cereal. Nor pancakes. Not coffee and a doughnut. Not nothing. Veggies. I had veggies. I wanted veggies. Besides, they needed to be used up, so why not?

Different language, different food… I was feeling more like an immigrant by the minute.

Cultural style

I even decorate differently. I use artifacts and a style common to my culture. There’s a lawn gnome in my bathroom, wind chimes in the living room, and drums all over the house. Original artwork, and nothing from a catalogue or show room. I laughed my head off when I first visited fellow countryman Dave’s place, and spied the miniature knight-in-armour, standing about 4 feet tall, in one corner of his bathroom. Just like back home, I thought.

When hanging out with non-immigrant friends, no matter how gracious they may be, I always feel slightly out of place. It’s hard for me to relax, being afraid I’ll spill my wine, or sit in the wrong chair. If there’s a TV going in the background, I can barely stand it.

When I’m at another immigrant’s home, there are always little signs of familiarity that instantly put me at my ease, like Dave’s knight: a pile of papers here, a dirty dish there, dust-coated end tables, fascinating books, mismatched cushions, intriguing artifacts that stimulate my mind and make me want to ask questions. There’s eclectic furniture, no color scheme, but a cohesiveness born of the host’s passions and pursuits.


Speaking with someone from my ADHD-culture (especially someone who speaks my hyperactive dialect) is fast, fresh, and exciting. New things are created before our eyes. It’s full of the subtle nuances and shorthand inherent in any unique language. As immigrants, the content and structure of our language is also our own.

To assimilate or not… that is the question (one of many)

Dave and I often discuss the relative merits of assimilating into the non-immigrant culture, and the relative value (and ease) of doing so. How much? How far? And – simply – how?

Having been diagnosed with ADHD for just over a year, Dave amazed me as he fully embraced a complete immersion NSL (Normal-as-a-Second-Language) course. After he began his ADHD medication, he embarked on an in-depth study of local social customs, including speech patterns and typical topics of discussion. He became fluent in the language, learning how to fit in to his adopted country if he so chose.

I admire his facility in doing this, but we agree that it can be exhausting at times. I also recognize that I’ve more often chosen to stay within the comfort of my circle of compatriots.

After my recent visit with Dave, I realized that most of my local friends and acquaintances have no idea how truly hard I’m working when we get together. I’m using a second language; I’m trying to socialize in a culturally appropriate way; to understand local customs and mannerisms; to fit in. I’m also well aware that many of them make allowances for my different background as well!

Inter-marriage and children

Today, Dave and I discussed relationships, and the relative merits of marrying someone from our own cultural background, versus partnering with a non-immigrant.

Perhaps a non-immigrant could provide a stamp of acceptability, allowing us easier entry into – and tacit acceptance from – the mainstream society, I mused.

On the other hand, what about the obvious struggles arising from living in a bi-cultural household with two languages, and two completely different background experiences?

And how to raise the children?

Surely it would be best for the children of a mixed-marriage to be equally schooled in both cultures, understanding how each thinks, their values, artistic sensibilities, cultural norms, languages, and so on.

Still learning

Dave and I parted with no definite conclusions on most of this. The only thing I realized for sure was: thank goodness there are other immigrants like me to hang out with, to provide an island of normalcy while trying to live within such a foreign land.

And we decided to not wait so long to meet again.


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ADHD: The Immigrant Experience

Zoë Kessler, BA, B.Ed.

Zoë Kessler is an award-winning author, journalist, and speaker specializing in women and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD / ADD).

A frequent contributor to ADDitude Magazine, Kessler has also created video, standup comedy, and guest blogs on ADHD and Marriage covering ADHD-related topics.

Zoë, an internationally recognized ADHD expert, has been interviewed on radio and featured in magazine articles, documentaries, and books on the topic of women and ADHD across North America.

Her newly-released memoir ADHD According to Zoë - The Real Deal on relationships, Finding Your Focus & Finding Your Keys (New Harbinger Publications, 2013) about life with ADHD is now available.

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APA Reference
Kessler, Z. (2012). ADHD: The Immigrant Experience. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Apr 2012
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