Two Sisters: Contrasting ADHD

When the PhD in neuroeducation recommended the book about ADHD to me, I bought it because I wanted to better understand my daughter.

Her ADHD diagnosis was not a complete surprise. My sister was diagnosed with “hyperkinetic reaction of childhood”, or childhood hyperactivity disorder, as they called it in the mid-1970s, and boy did she earn it. Cindy was the bounce-off-the-walls, talk-your-ear-off, impulsive fireball of energy that everyone imagines when they think of a child with ADHD. She also had an IQ of 170– at the age of 5. Basically, she was every teacher’s worst nightmare. But my daughter wasn’t like that. She was calm and quiet and struggled in school but never made a fuss about any of it. If Cindy didn’t understand something or wanted to know something, everyone around her knew. She was far from quiet.

My sister and my daughter could not be more opposite, but the genetic component of ADHD has been well-documented over decades.

Only the name has changed. My daughter’s official diagnosis in 1999 was “Attention Deficit Disorder–Inattentive Type”. That made sense. The fact that she was diagnosed at all was pretty amazing, since boys are diagnosed at 5x the rate of girls, and usually it is only girls with obvious hyperactivity issues. She wasn’t high energy and didn’t constantly bounce from one thing to another. Rather, she could stare out the window for hours. When she was interested in something, it would hold her until she grew bored of it. On the other hand, if she wasn’t interested in something, no amount of encouragement or consequences could force her through it. We were homeschooling so of course when the Doctor recommended that I read Driven to Distraction, I bought it.

I did not expect to see myself in nearly every client the author wrote about.

I saw the genetic connection between my sister and my daughter. It took a while for that same connection to light up in my own brain. And then it did. I realized that I’ve always struggled with attention. I have joked as an adult that I’m a jack-of-all-hobbies. I pick them up, obsess over them, become really GOOD at them, and then burn them out. They do tend to cycle back around, almost seasonally. But if I become interested in something, I work on it until I excel. I usually tire of it around that time and move on to something new. But I didn’t remember really struggling in school as a child like my sister and my daughter. Until recently.

As is my way, I pile things up until dealing with them becomes something I MUST DO NOW. Today was the day that I had to get my computer desk area decluttered and cleaned up. We are putting up our Christmas tree in the next day or two, and the living room needs to be neat and tidy. My desk area can be an eyesore at times, because of my inability to decide what to do with all the things.

And anyone who knows someone with ADHD knows, that person cannot just put things away.

Beginning a project such as cleaning off my desk so it can be dusted is a long process involving multiple steps. Any one of these steps can lead to other rooms, projects, containers, shopping trips, or just trips down memory lane. This time, memory lane won out. I decluttered the desk. I dumped a pile of paperwork that had been dealt with in front of the wood stove and carried the pile of “needs to be filed” papers downstairs to the filing cabinet. Medical bills (at least 6) that have been paid: filed. The dog’s rabies certificate: filed. The yearly escrow account statement (that came in July– don’t judge me): filed. A carbon copy (yes, really) of my GED transcript from January 1989: filed. This is the piece of paper that led to the one-hour memory lane rabbit trail. Or derail, if my husband is telling the story.

In a folder marked “Dawn’s School Records” is a 5×8 manila envelope. Inside that envelope are nearly all of my report cards from Kindergarten through 11th grade. I haven’t looked at them… ever? I’m not sure if I have ever looked at all of them, but I did today. And what I learned was interesting. Consistently, in many progress reports spanning multiple elementary grades, my teachers’ remarks included things like “Dawn needs ongoing encouragement to stay on task”, “Dawn continues to struggle and does not ask for help,” and junior high and high school classic comment, “not working to potential”.

kindergarten progress report with comment "attention span not improving"
First grade progress report note "is capable but makes errors due to inattention or haste".
First grade
Second grade progress report note "We are working to improve study habits and attending to tasks until they are completed."
Second grade
fifth grade progress report notes "Dawn is still rather slow to complete her work. She needs constant prodding and encouragement."
Fifth grade

Spelled out there, without the actual diagnostic words, is the ADHD diagnosis I did not receive as a child.

My sister’s was obvious, and SO disruptive that our pediatrician recommended my mom take her to have an EEG done. It was a neurologist who diagnosed her with hyperactivity disorder. But I was well-behaved, pleasant, and compliant, if not a little chatty but never overly active. I didn’t fit what was then ONLY thought of as a disorder of activity. No one understood neurodiversity in 1977. They had only just begun to delve into what was going on in children’s brains at that time.

Cindy was given a prescription for Dexedrine that turned her into a shell of herself. My Mom really gave it a try, but after less than a month on the stuff my formerly fun and brilliant little sister sat around watching television all day instead of all the activities she normally loved doing, and Mom took her off of it. In retrospect, they should have adjusted the dosage, but my Mom wasn’t willing to go any further with it. We just took Cindy as she was, and Mom gave her teachers as much support as she possibly could to keep her bouncing genius of a daughter occupied and happy at school. Meanwhile, I, “the good, easy child” quietly floundered all throughout my school years and no attempt was made to find out why.

I am 52 and I still haven’t received an official diagnosis of ADHD.

Seeing myself in the client profiles of Driven to Distraction made me realize that the genetic component of ADHD didn’t miss me; everyone else missed seeing it in me. I recently reread this book, with even more interest than 25 years ago. With today’s ongoing discussions on social media about neurodiversity and ADHD, I have been able to confirm over and over that my suspicion is correct. My therapist isn’t a psychiatrist, so she isn’t able to make that diagnosis for me but she also agrees with my conclusions.

What use is this knowledge for me in my 50s?

It has also given me clarity about a lot of inconsistencies that I believed about myself as a child. It helps me be kinder to myself when I struggle to do regular things that most people can do easily, like clean off a desk. It helps me pay closer attention when my interests are shifting so that I can give my husband at least a little forewarning. He appreciates that. 🙂 I can give myself grace and also let my husband know when I need some extra support. The knowledge is very freeing.

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