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“My Undiagnosed ADHD Inflamed My Sister’s Depression — and I Blamed Her for It”

ADHD and depression mix like gasoline and fire. My undiagnosed ADD exacerbated my sister’s mood disorder. I was bossy and mean. She was submissive and sad — the target of my recklessness. Will I ever forgive myself for breaking her heart?

My younger sister is the perfect antidote to me. Where I push, she pulls. I’m a whirling dervish; she’s peace and quiet. It’s perplexing how siblings raised in the same family, at the same time (she’s three years my junior), in the same house can be so different from each other, but we are. Today, at 19 and 22, we have grown to live in (almost) perfect harmony, but it took a few turbulent decades to get here.

My ADHD demands a constant stream of chaos and stimulation; her depression calls for calm and stillness. My energy motivates and invigorates, but it also overwhelms her. She provides the clarity and reason that I lose sight of all too quickly.

They say you live and you learn, but what if those lessons come at great cost to someone else? Despite our seemingly unbreakable bond now, I can’t help feeling that my undiagnosed ADHD ran amok for too long, leaving a path of heart ache and destruction in its wake. My sister, cruelly abandoned, was left trying to make sense of the confusion in its aftermath. Our ADHD and depression drove us apart, and after years of denial I can finally see I was to blame.

The Apple and the ADHD Tree

I was finally diagnosed with ADHD at 19, upon returning home from a stint abroad in London. Apparently, the emotional volatility and reckless behavior that my parents had witnessed exceeded what was considered normal in a teenager. Anger mismanagement was suspected first, hypomania next, and then ADHD — the one I always insisted I had.

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My mother grew up with a sister who had ADHD. She was often violent and deceiving; I, on the other hand, was eager to please and overly sensitive — traits that fell away as I reached my rebellious teenage years.

Later, when my ADHD symptoms more closely matched those of my aunt, I was placed on medication, and that’s when everything became clear. ADHD explained my erratic behavior and the way I raced through life at rocket speed. It explained why I was always the last person to hand in permission slips, was always losing everything, was repeatedly scolded for interrupting conversations, and was constantly moved for talking in class. It made sense of the fact that I seemed ditzy in conversation, but smart on paper. It helped to explain why I found it difficult to absorb information I heard, and struggled to contribute valuable verbal insights to discussions with which I could barely keep up.

I hated answering questions in class because my answers never seemed to make sense. And on the off chance that they did make sense, they were delivered in a rambling, incoherent manner — punctuated with umms, ahhs, and likes. At work, every job I held was precarious. Often teetering on an ‘almost fired’ probation, yet somehow saved in the end by a vibrant energy that made me an asset in the hospitality industry.

As a roommate, too, I was a disaster — disrespectful, selfish, and always on a one-way venture for thrills and fun. It’s no wonder I was kicked out by roommates twice in the space of six months!

My ADHD Reality Check

After being properly diagnosed and treated for my ADHD, I saw my behavior in a whole new, horrified light. I was bulldozing through life so fast I had ignored the telling signs of my manic idiosyncrasy that had disrupted the lives of those around me — in particular, my younger sister.

[Could Your Daughter Have ADHD? Take This Quiz]

Growing up, my sister was my built-in PA (personal assistant). I led the Barbie Doll games and the living room jazz performances, instructing her to do this and that; to follow me here and there. When she tried to resist and stand her ground, I’d erupt in an irrational rage. When she needed to march to the beat of a slower drummer, I lacked empathy. I confused her depressive periods with a lack of zest for life that I believed made people worthy of my time.

As she quietly struggled with her own inner demons, I announced every small achievement loudly and intrusively, in her face. It’s hard to explain the unprovoked rage somehow. It’s a complete loss of perspective, due to a tidal wave of emotion that hits you with little warning. Makeup used without permission or the shared car unavailable when I needed it, would be enough to set me off.

Making Amends for My ADHD Mistakes

In an argument a few years ago, my sister blamed me for her mental health struggles — a comment that was said in haste, but one I’m convinced contained the truth. She explained how my abrasive nature and dominating personality made her feel insignificant, uninteresting. She said that my insults calling her ‘boring’ had filled her with self-doubt and social anxiety. I was upset to learn I was a frequent topic of discussion with her therapist and that I presented a large enough challenge in her life that she needed professional guidance. At the time, I just couldn’t accept responsibility — I told myself my sister was overly sensitive.

Treatment helped me feel calmer, more responsible, and less impulsive. As I came to accept the destructive role I had played in her life, internally I struggled more. My feelings of anger and self-righteousness were replaced by shame and guilt.

Slowly, I began to understand why it was always me at the center of a storm, why people distanced themselves, and how stressful my hard-partying teenage years were for my family. As I became less reckless, I grew more attentive — two changes which remarkably strengthened the relationship with my sister.

I still struggle with self-love and forgiveness, but I don’t think guilt and self-blame are the evil enemy. At least not for me. It’s what drove the self-correction and made it a priority. When you’re told in school to be yourself, and never change for anyone; I know now that I have to disagree.

It’s only natural for siblings to be impacted by each other’s behaviors and lifestyles. Sadly, there’s a lack of censorship within the safety of one’s home. It’s as if we expect our family to come equipped with a thick skin — impermeable to our toxic rhetoric.

My ADHD has made me who I am. I wouldn’t be me without my racing mind, rambling speech, frantic mannerisms, and tendency to speed through life. In a fast-paced, overstimulated world, I fit right in. But in the complex world of mental health and personal struggles, I became too comfortable — and that isn’t fair.

The ‘love at all costs’ mantra that we’re often afforded by our families should not lead to a drop in self-monitoring or improvement. As I’ve found, it’s the ones closest to us that we can hurt the most.

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