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ADHD Stories My Mom Never Told

When I read my mother’s poem now, I imagine her as a young woman trying to work through the frustration and fear of raising the mysteriously difficult ADHD child I was.

But no escape, my darling,
No turning place to hide.
I offer you no amulet,
No stone to fell Goliaths.
These mortal hands protect you
Only as my shadow halts the moving sun.
Believe the trust you give, I will not
Betray you. A shadow is a shield.
-Berna Deane South (my mother), from her poem “For Trey”

In my last post, I was in the middle of trying to fight off an episode of my ADHD comorbid depression when a chance reading of Kay Marner’s blog “My Picture-Perfect Family” sparked me out of my drama. Her stories of being a non-ADHD mom raising an ADHD child with complex comorbid conditions made me think of my mom. Above is a stanza from a poem she wrote to me when I was a kid — “Trey” is my family nickname.

When I read her poem now, I imagine her as a young mother and poet sitting down at the kitchen table after everybody in the house is finally asleep, and trying to work through the frustration and fear of raising the mysteriously difficult child I was. This last summer, I also found a raging letter to Dr. Spock from that time folded up in a picture album. In it, she desperately pleads for some answer, some way to wrangle their daydreaming, unfocused, and willful boy, Trey, through childhood and adolescence without her and my dad going completely crazy. As I was finishing fifth grade, I think my father was becoming more concerned with the damage I might inflict on the rest of the world.

I went to elementary school in Villa Park, a working class suburb of Chicago in the 1950s. Nobody knows nothin’ about attention deficit disorder. “JDs” — juvenile delinquents — is the buzzword for unruly teens. We younger kids were constantly warned by teachers and scoutmasters that it’d be better to be dead than to turn into one of those sneering, gum-chewing punks on the corner cleaning their fingernails with their switchblades. But look back at Rebel Without A Cause now. James Dean’s got all the ADHD symptoms — especially in that over-the-top, rambling speech to his dad, Jim Backus. Nobody to this day knows what James Dean was screaming about. And Sal Mineo is just a complete unfocused mess. Everybody in that movie could have used some goal-oriented therapy, ADHD meds, and hand-fidgets that weren’t so pointy and lethal. Except for Natalie Wood — she was the non-ADHD “normal” who tried to keep everybody together, but she was in way over her head.

Which brings me back to my mom. I was in no danger of becoming a JD no matter how much I’d have liked to. I was a doofus ten-year-old with thick glasses and a tendency to breathe through my mouth and walk into things. Dad was gone at work all day during the week, and he worked at home a lot on the weekends. So it was primarily Mom who dealt with things — like a cop who’d saved me from drowning in deep, fenced-off slough surrounded by warning signs at a construction site where I was playing. Or the other cop who showed up at our front door after he saw me running away from a brush fire — that he was putting out — by the community center that I’d accidentally started. Or the expensive bicycle I borrowed from a friend and then turned around and loaned to a stranger who promptly stole it. Or walking out of the classroom for recess and erasing the lesson the teacher had just finished putting on the board, and then telling the teacher I was acting out because my mean Grandma was visiting — but my Grandma wasn’t mean, I liked her a lot, and she wasn’t visiting, which my teacher found out when she called my mother.

I explained every time that I didn’t know how whatever happened ended up happening. I didn’t mean to say or do whatever it was. I just wasn’t paying attention. I could see the frustration and concern in her eyes. But she never lost it with me. She stayed as calm as she could, let me know about whatever consequences I had to face, and still left no doubt that she and dad loved me no matter what inexplicable thing I did next.

This amazes me, to this day. My kids have ADHD. They have their challenges and sometimes act out, but they are dyed in the wool saints in comparison to me at any comparable age of their lives.

At any rate, back in the fifties and sixties, there wasn’t nearly the understanding and help available to parents of ADHD kids that we have now. But when I look back to my childhood, I remember the main thing that my parents provided for me and my brother that got us into adulthood in one piece: unquestioning, constant love that doesn’t go away — no matter what. Then or now, or in the future, I think it’s always the main ingredient for any kid to succeed on their own terms.

Or any adult, for that matter.

Not to say that parents, spouses, and friends of people with ADHD should never give voice to their frustrations. Sometimes it’s necessary for your own survival, if nothing else. My favorite reaction from my father came on a Saturday about a month after I’d been drummed out of Boy Scouts for stealing from another Scout and lying to everybody about it for weeks. He looks out the window and sees me across the street playing with matches and accidentally starting yet another fire and then panicking and running off. After running across the street and stomping it out, he tracks me down, drags me home, and on our front lawn, howls, “My god, you’re a thief, you’re an arsonist, what’s next? MURDER?”

That made an impression. At ten years old, I honestly felt sorry for my dad. So I promised I’d try harder to change my behavior, and to pay attention. And I did. I tried.