Growing Up, I Never Knew My Sister Had ADHD
The effects of my sister’s undiagnosed ADHD felt unfair when I was a child. But looking back, I can finally see how much harder it was on her.
Growing up in the same household with someone doesn’t mean you share the exact same childhood. Take my sister and me; we couldn’t be more different. When one sibling has undiagnosed attention deficit, and the other does not, the nature-versus-nurture divide becomes readily apparent.
I am the older of us two, by two-and-a-half years. I am adopted and my sister was not. I have blond hair and fair skin, and I look, coincidentally, a lot like our dad. My sister, a brunette, is the mini-me version of Mom. Although I was shy, I could be fiery at times, and had a strong-willed personality that screamed to be in charge. My sister, an outgoing, natural-born people-pleaser, happily complied with almost all of my bossy demands. So, like many older siblings, I started life with a built-in following.
Life wasn’t easy for either of us, but my sister’s ADHD symptoms are part of the lore of our family. One of my earliest memories is when my family took a train to visit our grandparents. We rode all night in a sleeper car. While it was exciting, my sister, who was two at the time, talked all night, earning her the lifelong nickname Mary Motormouth.
In elementary school, she didn’t pay attention to anything that was going on, but I didn’t know why. Once, we went sledding with the neighborhood gang. She veered way off course, landed in a stream, and sat there soaking wet, crying. When we got home, Mom said it was my fault for not looking out for her, but I couldn’t make her pay attention to where she was going.
On another occasion, a couple of my friends and I were going to a park close to our house, and, as usual, Mom made me take my sister with us. This particular time, a swarm of bees were disturbed from their hive as we started playing on the jungle gym. We all ran away except my sister. I’ll never forget yelling at her, “Come on! Run!” Instead, she stood there crying and screaming as the bees stung away. I was sent to my room for that, too. All I could think was how crazy it was that she just froze in place. Later I discovered that ADHD brings lots of anxiety with it, and this had caused her to freeze.
I Was the Bully
The point of these events was that I was bossy and mean. No one knew the signs of undiagnosed ADHD. I was punished because everything was my fault. To make it worse, every time I was in the doghouse, my sister tried to suck up to our parents. I resented being blamed when she didn’t pull her weight, and she wasn’t helping herself. Why was it my fault that she found herself in a pickle all of the time?
I’m not saying that I was always innocent. We had a big tree in the yard, and we lined up and took turns tossing darts at its trunk. One time, I had the fabulous idea to do what I had seen in a magic show, and made my sister stand against the tree so we could outline her with the darts. That didn’t go as planned, because a dart got stuck in her hand. I remember being mad at her because I knew I was going to get in trouble again.
As time went on, I remained the bully and she the innocent victim. I felt bad about a lot of things — that she didn’t know what was going on around her, that I couldn’t be left alone with my friends and not have to look out for her.
Everything changed when I entered eighth grade. We moved from one state to another, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, my family was coming apart at the seams. Dad’s job had us relocate, and my sister and I became the new kids in a new school.
The stress of starting over was a lot for me, but it was overwhelming for my sister. This is when she started having panic attacks. She missed a lot of school, and often had to leave school early. That was the beginning of my being allowed to forge ahead with friendships that didn’t include her. We went our separate ways, albeit under the same roof.
In my senior year, Mom and Dad divorced. I lived with my dad, who was diagnosed with ADHD and Bipolar Disorder, which meant I was usually alone. Mom took my sister and moved across town. It wasn’t until we were both in our 40s, after our parents passed away, that my sister and I attempted to come together as family. In fact, it was as our mother was dying that my sister shared her ADHD diagnosis with me. That was five years ago, and the impact on me has been profound. I changed my career from retail to psychology, and I am now working full time as an ADHD coach.
Learning the truth about ADHD allowed me to see my sister in a new way. I know now why she’s the way she is. She’s chatty, friendly, eager to please, and bends over backward to help people. She also has trouble getting to work on time and setting boundaries. Keeping a clean home is a struggle for her.
This year, we had Christmas in July, because that’s when the presents she bought in December were finally mailed out. She is loyal, loving, and forgiving. When we talk about our childhood now, we look back and laugh at some of our tough times. She has forgiven me now for what I could have not known then, and that allows me to forgive myself.