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Discovering ADHD In My Family

C. LeAnne Taylor

Children growing up in Ontario post-war generally lived in two-parent homes, with a stay-at-home mom. My family was an anomaly since my father died when my brother was seven and I was three. My brother struggled with many things – although very bright, he had difficulty completing assignments. He could read for hours – and it was almost impossible to rouse him. His behaviour was often impulsive, and he teased me mercilessly – to the point of bullying. This was blamed on the impact of my father’s death and living in a house with four females which included our only grandparent and an aunt who was affected physically and intellectually by cerebral palsy.  Did my brother have ADHD? This was not even considered at the time – any “bad” behaviour was the result of poor parenting after all. He did not complete university but held a good job until retirement. He has struggled with alcohol binging and alcoholism as an adult.

            Fast forward to the 70’s when I became a secondary school teacher. ADHD was not understood or even much considered in education. In my first semester, I taught a boy whom I now believe had severe, and of course, unmedicated ADHD. I can still picture him – full-grown in grade 10, rolling on the floor. He taught me to “roll with the punches” – something that was beneficial throughout my teaching career as I considered the needs of many students – the grade 11 student who said he had “the attention span of a chipmunk”; the quiet fellow who told me my decorated history classroom made it difficult to concentrate; the girl who lived in a group home and was often in trouble with other teachers because of her impulsive behaviours. Gradually over my career, there was greater understanding of the attributes of ADHD, and Individual Education Plans (IEP) were developed in an attempt to ameliorate the difficulties these children faced. An IEP is only as good as the attention teachers pay to it and the ability of the student and parents to advocate. I taught in schools which adhered to the requirement of an annual review with teachers, parents, and the student. Where possible, I did my best to follow the directives, and feedback from many of these students indicated it helped.

            But right under my nose, in my own home, was a child with ADHD. My daughter was not diagnosed until her mid-30’s. With my current knowledge of ADHD, after attending conferences, reading extensively, and talking to experts, the signs were all there, hidden in plain sight. At home, she was the sunny one with a bright and happy personality. She was also “scatter brained”. We would send her upstairs to get dressed and find her playing. She would be asked to retrieve something from her bedroom, and she would return with something else entirely. When we asked, “Where is what you were asked to get?” she would immediately turn around and get it. Her bedroom floor was covered with clothes and “stuff”. On one occasion, when I went to get my jeans, they were missing. She had nothing to wear, because her laundry was not done, so she “borrowed” mine. Her friendships were filled with drama, and although we put it down to teenage angst, I could not remember having had such huge issues. Stable relationships would suddenly end, and then start up again. Reading was difficult, and her handwriting nearly illegible. With help and support, she could produce wonderful projects, but without that support, assignments would not be completed. She was a whiz at math and could be found in her room, doing math “for fun”.

            In her early 20’s she met a man five years older. We felt he was not the best choice for her, but when she became pregnant, we gave them the support we could. It was not always easy for either of them. Their little son was born with GERD and the first months were exhausting, until he was given the appropriate medication. My daughter’s husband had a good job and was skilled at welding, but he suffered from back issues and was diagnosed with Lupus. He was often off on disability, and she worked as a supply EA, a convenor of a program for developmentally challenged children and provided respite for families of children with disabilities. As her husband struggled with his health issues, he turned increasingly to alcohol use. My daughter would come home to find him drunk and asleep instead of looking after their son.

            Our grandson was quite bright, with a keen interest in words, and how things work. Although he was a busy little boy, and often dug his heels in when he did not want to do something, we just thought it was typical “boy” behaviour.

            Five months after their second son was born, my daughter’s husband left the family. He had attempted to stop drinking after a DUI but decided that he could still drink. My daughter gave him a choice, and he chose to leave. Losing his dad was stressful for our oldest grandson who was now in grade two. Because he attended a small school, he was given support for his acting out. The difficulty was that my daughter’s doctor refused to have him assessed for ADHD, believing it was more likely related to his father’s absence. When a new principal arrived two years later, with the support of the Special Education teacher, he was finally assessed. Our amateur diagnosis of ADHD was confirmed, and he was referred to an excellent pediatrician, who has carefully monitored his medication and treatment. A psych-ed assessment in grade 6 helped to put in place an extensive IEP and behaviour management plan. These are all helpful, but he still struggles with the attributes of ADHD that make learning difficult and impulsivity a challenge.

            One element that doctors and psychotherapists search for are the genetic factors. There was discussion around his father’s behaviour – skilled at many things but not able to complete projects, his alcoholism, and impulsive purchases when money was tight or non-existent and his very quick temper. It was easy to assign any genetic factors to him. Not long after however, it was determined through testing that my daughter also had ADHD. Acquiring suitable treatment was not easy. Her family doctor said she had no knowledge of adult ADHD and would not prescribe medication. Trying to get an appointment with a psychiatrist resulted in several difficulties and she fell through the cracks because of lack of follow-up on several occasions. It took more than a year before she was finally started on Concerta, which did not work! The psychiatrist with whom she was finally connected was unsympathetic to the issues she faced in her family situation, and she gave up on him. She has counselling every two weeks through an agency she connected with at the 2019 CADDAC Conference, but otherwise she must manage her symptoms on her own. The only support her family doctor gives her regarding ADHD is to refill her current prescription.

            In the meantime, our younger grandson was presenting traits of ADHD. As a toddler, when my daughter was concerned about her older son, I would point out behaviours in her younger son. He was assessed early in grade one, and because he was already under the care of the pediatrician, treatment began quickly. The medication has made a difference for him. Trying to deal with on-line learning through Covid has been arduous – there is not enough stimulation to keep him engaged and he is a full grade behind in his reading level.

There are many questions we ponder. Is there a genetic element one can carry without having the attributes of ADHD, and then pass it on? Other than sometimes being disorganized, neither of us seem to have issues such as time-blindness, inability to be attentive, or impulsivity. Why did it take so long for our daughter to be assessed and to not discover the basis of all she dealt with until her mid-30’s? Why is it so difficult for adults to find the support they need when they are not diagnosed until maturity? Why is ADHD not recognized as a learning disability when it so clearly affects learning?

            I have attended conferences, watched webinars, and read countless books and articles to expand my knowledge. It is putting that information into use that is challenging. I am not a therapist nor a counsellor. I can direct information, ideas, articles, and “useful” hacks to my daughter, but since she struggles with her own ADHD, works two jobs, and does her best to raise her sons on her own with as much family support as she will allow, following through is problematic. She has great ideas but putting them into action is often elusive. We wonder how her life might have been different if we had discovered the ADHD in our family when she was a child. This is a question we can never answer.

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