Normal Is Overrated

By Michael T. Sullivan


A first-hand account of what it was like growing up gifted, yet unable to do simple academic tasks other kids could handle

I spent my first 15 years wishing I was normal. Now I wonder why.

If AP Stats taught me anything, it’s that the 95% of the data points that lie under the bell curve are statistically less significant than the 5% that fall to the right or left of the bell. And the quirky, crazy “outliers” that don’t fit inside the normal curve seem a lot more interesting. So maybe I don’t want to be normal anymore. I want to be successful. If that means I have to jump some hurdles that other people don’t, so what? As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

The “S-Word”

Being the class runt was tough. Being unable to sit still and pay attention in class was torture. Being called “illiterate” was awful. Facing all three problems at once was like running the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympics while everyone else raced over flat ground. It took me a while to realize that my problems really weren’t too much to handle.

Being considered stupid because I couldn’t sound out a second-grade word in fifth grade was really bad, especially since I had been solving exponential equations in my head since second grade.

Everyone knows how hurtful the N-word can be. Well, how about the S-word—Shrimp—to a kid who is growth-hormone deficient? I basically stopped growing when I was three. The S-word ruined my life and haunted my dreams.

I was picked on constantly at school until seventh grade. I was even kept off an Under-11 Regional Select Soccer Team that I was good enough to play on because of my height. The trainers took one look at my 5’3” dad and decided I’d never be tall enough to play goalkeeper despite other talents. I was “heighted” at the age of 10. Fortunately, my parents and the fourth doctor we visited found a solution: nightly injections of synthetic HGH, the hormone that my body wasn’t producing.

Genotropin became part of my nightly regimen. I estimate that I’ve been stabbed just over 4,000 times since third grade, but it has paid off—in inches and in self-confidence. Without my medication, I’d have been lucky to reach 4’6”. Now, I stand 5’10”. I played fullback for my high-school varsity and goalkeeper for a pretty good U-19 club team. I punted for the football team. Imagine that, the runt played varsity football.

Nobody picks on me anymore. In fact, I went on to be a Peer Leader at school. I mentored seven freshmen, helping them adjust to the big change from middle school to high school. Nobody picked on my peer kids. I know how that feels and history won’t repeat itself if I can help it.

ADHD isn’t much fun either, especially when medication isn’t an option. Ritalin or some other ADHD medication would have helped settle me down, but it would also have interfered with my growth hormone, so my parents had to choose the lesser of two evils.

Taming the 800-Pound Gorilla

Sometimes dealing with ADHD on my own was like having an 800-pound gorilla on my back. Focusing in class became easier because of behavioral modification exercises I learned in fifth grade. I took bathroom breaks when I needed to stretch my legs and clear my head. I always asked to sit in the front of the room. I always participated in class even if I had nothing to say.

Everyone has a Mike Sullivan story, but I can live with “He’s the crazy kid who took the AP exam even though he didn’t take Mrs. Katz’s AP class” a lot better than “Isn’t Sully the kid who stares out the window and doodles in the textbook?” I eventually could listen to an entire lecture in class and even read an AP Environmental article about dredging without my mind wandering.

Overcoming ADHD on my own was tough, but rewarding. I actually think ADHD has improved my imagination, but I am proud to report that I now stay on task—most of the time.

One of the worst things about having a superior memory is that it’s hard to forget all the mean things kids, parents, and even teachers have said about me. “He reads like he’s in first grade.” “He’s freakin’ illiterate.” “Children can’t be gifted in one subject and remedial in another. I don’t think he’s trying.”

I could never pay attention long enough for anyone to help me much with my reading and writing because of my ADHD. So catching up to my peers was a long, hard struggle. Even today, I read by memorizing words instead of decoding them, but it works for me.

The hurdles I jump over every day are not literal. But they’re still real. When I was young, Tim Howard, who played goalkeeper for Everton in England and for the U.S. National Team, was my hero. Was he the best goalkeeper in the world? No. But he overcame a severe—and unmedicated—case of Tourette’s Syndrome to achieve success. And he used his fame to inspire others, including me.

What have I learned over the years? Hurdles are meant to be overcome. And “normal” is overrated.