Growing up as a non-ADHD kid in a family with ADHD sounds like a challenge. It was, but not for the reasons you’d think. My father had ADHD and bipolar disorder. As a kid, I knew only that he took a yellow and purple pill every morning at breakfast or was scolded by Mom if he forgot. He may have been the man of the house, but we all knew that it was Mom who was in charge. Our family of four had one non-ADHD parent, one with ADHD, one non-ADHD child, and one with ADHD. Truthfully, ADHD caused many challenges, and created chaos in our family.
Missing in Action
Dad was a smart man, but he had trouble keeping a job or maintaining one that paid enough. His impulsivity got the best of him, and he overspent. We never seemed to have enough money for things like clothes, but there was always ice cream in the house. He was disorganized and he couldn’t remember where things were or the appointments that he made. Many times I heard Mom’s exasperated tone as she told a person on the other end of the phone, “I don’t know where he is. Hopefully, he’ll be there soon.”
Dad didn’t manage much around the house, so most responsibilities fell to my mother. He also wasn’t around much. So, by default, Mom became the sole disciplinarian. She was the rock of our family, the glue that held everything together, and she resented it. She questioned Dad about things for which he had no answers. She would get furious about something he said and madder still about something he didn’t say. He could do no right in her eyes. Then she complained that it was his fault that she was always the “bad guy,” and got mad at him for that, too! Every time she yelled at him, it felt like she was yelling at me.
My Dad, Myself
My dad and I were so much alike. For starters, we looked alike, which wouldn’t be unexpected except that I’m adopted. We both had blond hair, light eyes, light skin. We shared a carefree, sometimes untamed approach to life, which was in sharp contrast to my rigid, stick-to-the-rules mom and sister. Dad and I didn’t care if the dishes weren’t clean, if papers were all over the place, or if our school and work assignments weren’t started until hours before they were due. We didn’t consider what others thought and, with reckless abandon, we did what we wanted. In fact, he and I together pushed the boundaries Mom set, and I thought of him as my best friend.
My happiest childhood memories were from when I was in elementary school. Growing up with a fun dad meant that all of my friends liked to come over to my house. At my birthday parties, he would dress up funny and run around making us laugh. On summer nights, he pitched a tent in our backyard, gathered all of the neighborhood kids, and told ghost stories in the dark. I can still see the flashlight as he held it, casting shadows on his face. It always mysteriously shut off at the most frightful point in the story. Then he laughed as we all screamed. He delighted in playing and spending time with me. Together we flew kites, built sandcastles, and rode our bikes.
Dad was energetic and imaginative. He believed I could do or be anything I wanted. He was my hero. He also taught me about unconditional love. No matter what mistakes I made, or the trouble I found myself in, his love for me was never in question. In return, he got the same. So, when he was running back and forth from home to work or off on exotic “business trips,” his absence was felt but forgiven. Most summers were spent waiting on Dad to do his work. He frequently zoned out in the backyard while trying to finish writing his dissertation. He said, “When I finish, we’ll go on a tropical vacation,” and I hoped that he was telling the truth. That day never came. As with many other unfinished projects of his, he never earned his doctorate.
But he did earn my unwavering love. The shame he felt when confronted with his misgivings was a shame I shared. I’ve heard that when you shame the parent, you shame the child. I’m here to say that it is true. All of the problems due to his ADHD that I had to deal with paled in comparison with the shame I felt that something was terribly wrong with us. That changed in 1987, when I was 20. My dad took his life after going off of his medications. Now I’m more than the non-ADHD child; I’m the child of a dad who committed suicide.
Being the non-ADHD kid in my family had its difficulties, but the kind of dad he was wasn’t the problem. The way he operated in the world was challenging for everyone around him, but his heart was huge and his kindness was limitless. I wish only that his compassion for others had been directed more toward himself. Today, I have no shame. As the years have gone by, the frustrations and pain he created have been replaced. Memories of fun and love are all that are left. I’m sorry my best friend isn’t here to hear how much he means to me, how much I love him. If he were, I’d tell him, “You’re just perfect the way you are.”