Above: Rhea Simone Auguste photographed at Woodford Cafe, Chaguanas. Auguste has performed there frequently. Make-up by Charlene Mohammed, photography by Mark Lyndersay.

When I was 13 years old, I was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) by psychiatrist Dr. Celia Ramcharan. I think, it was common knowledge to everyone except me that I was different.

The difficulties I had interacting with others and processing situations turned my childhood into a social obstacle course. That was over 20 years ago and back then, mental health issues were never really spoken about. My family discussed it but often reminded me to keep it hidden because of the possibility of stigmatization leading to discrimination.

A lot of people hear “mental health disorder” and process those words as a fancy way of saying crazy. I’ve spent the last two years speaking on platforms and doing presentations to try to educate people about the disorder so that a lot of the misconceptions can be addressed.

ADHD is a spectrum disorder similar to Autism – different people with ADHD may have different symptoms and challenges. For me personally, I’m hyperactive. As a child, my family would call me “Hurricane Rhea” because I’d go into a room and turn it upside down with exploring.

It wasn’t a bad thing, I’m naturally curious. I still love exploring everything around me and asking a million questions as I go along. If I come across something interesting, I can hyper-focus and learn everything I can about it like an obsession. I won 11 awards for journalism and I can safely say most of them were because of that innate drive to explore topics that fascinate me.

The challenge surfaces when I have to learn something I am not remotely interested in. It’s like having a mental block on a grander scale. As an adult, I have to work twice as hard to stay on task and I work best with lists and in creative fields where I can use my hyper-focus to my advantage on projects that interest me.

I struggle sometimes with memory holes as an adult so if I don’t write down what I need to remember and glance at it frequently – I can get sidetracked easily and get lost in my own thoughts.
A lot of people, usually those not qualified to give medical advice, think that ADHD is a myth or something that can be addressed by a change of diet and exercise. ADHD is a legitimate disorder that can only be diagnosed by a qualified medical practitioner.

There is a lot of wrong information easily accessed on the Internet and via social media that has led to a lot of frustrated parents and children. It’s difficult to try to convince someone that you or your loved one is struggling to cope with the challenges of a hidden disability.

People watch someone with a physical handicap in a wheelchair and understand easily that the person can’t walk. It’s different for people with hidden disabilities because more often than not, we’re held to the standards of the average person and there’s a lack of willingness to empathize or even believe that we are struggling.

People hold you to standards expected for neurologically “normal” people and if you admit you have a mental health disorder that may make their expectation unrealistic, they say you’re making excuses or quick to doubt that anything is wrong. I’ve experienced this as a teenager and as an adult and it’s extremely frustrating.

How can we improve accommodations for those with hidden disabilities like ADHD? We definitely need to revise our current education system. The structure, especially at the primary level, was designed without taking into consideration the various challenges that children with special needs, children with learning disorders or hidden disabilities may have.

Additionally, as a result of the academic pressure placed on students from as early as Standard Three – usually because of a desire to see excellence at the SEA exam, many areas where children with special educational needs excel are overlooked thus leading to them becoming frustrated, demotivated and some of them “check out” because they can’t find their place.

I was very fortunate to have attended a Primary School (Exchange R.C. Couva) where a few teachers observed what my strengths were and instead of forcing me to sit still and regurgitate ideas found in books, I was offered the chance to explore the creative side of my mind. I was in Brownies, sang in a choir and would perform anytime I had the opportunity – always in calypso competitions, representing the school at art competitions and I was involved in storytelling or poetry readings.

Sister Mary, a Catholic nun attached to the school made me her business during school hours. Another teacher, Miss Stapleton, worked with me after school hours and they kept me busy so I rarely had time to get into trouble because I was doing things I loved. The support continued at the Secondary level at Holy Faith Convent in Couva and that set a foundation for me for life.

That’s the gap we’re missing: Music, art, sport – these are the areas many children with ADHD excel in. In the existing school system, there is little room for children to explore these areas properly. We’re so heavily focused on churning out a nation full of doctors, lawyers and engineers that we treat the arts and sports as hobbies instead of letting children find what interests them and encouraging them to pursue what they’re best at from a young age.

When they act up in classrooms because they can’t cope with the pressure or aren’t able to properly express themselves and their frustration, we penalize them by taking away their lunch break or recess periods – the only times they may be able to use to explore their talents. It’s a weird system in my opinion and although my sons are in it (the younger one with ADHD as well), I don’t fuss about the academic side of things.

That approach surfaced because I’ve worked as a Journalist, a Real Estate Agent, a Caterer and in Corporate Communications but none of those titles provided me with the level of satisfaction I get from being a Comedian, Motivational Speaker, Event Emcee and Event Manager. In 2017, I lost my mother to cancer, my contract ended and I was out of work.

I had to give up my home because I ran out of funds while waiting on calls from job interviews. I returned to the stage out of a mix of necessity and curiosity – I love stand-up comedy and wanted to see if I would be any good at it.

I’ve now produced over 40 independent stand-up comedy shows under my Haul Yuh Mic brand, offering budding comedians the chance to test their skills on the microphone with CCN TV6, the first season was aired in November 2019.

I do corporate engagements called “Treat Your Staff to a Laugh” with lunchtime shows that are clean comedy sets exploring mental health topics and workplace stress. I’m a Motivational Speaker and I try to get involved wherever I can to raise awareness and help fight the stigma against mental health disorders.

I’m also a domestic violence survivor and speak frequently at women’s empowerment events.
I believe people are gifted and have different talents and it makes no sense telling a bird you’re going to test its skills as a swimmer against a school of fish. Let the bird do what it was designed to do best. The same rule applies to people – let people show you what they can do best and offer them the support and encouragement they need to excel at it.

Follow me for your daily chuckle @SimmyTheTrini on all social media platforms.

Sponsors: Dale McLeod, Jacqueline Scott, Starlite Collection, Sacha Makeup, JB Fernandez Memorial Trust II.

Rhea Simone-Auguste photographed at Woodford Cafe.