In a fit of anger, my son throws his gaming headset on the floor and shatters the plastic connecting the headphones to the bridge that crosses the top of his head. They are irreparable and unusable. He comes in my room, sobbing, telling me they are destroyed then saying what an idiot he is and how stupid he is.
I try to tell him there’s a difference between being stupid and doing a stupid thing but I know he can’t hear it; in this moment, all he knows is that he is a failure. He climbs in his bed to sob and sob. He verbally assaults himself and all I can do is stand by helplessly listening.
When he’s ready, I stand beside his bed, taking up one of many fidget toys to play with where he can see. This distracts him enough to start a conversation. He tells me the bully in his brain is being horrible to him and telling him how stupid he is, calling him an idiot.
I tell him I know how he feels because the bully in my brain is horrible too. He starts to doubt me until I tell him the bully in my brain is an absolute jerk who tells me I’m not good enough or smart enough; that I’m not as great as people think I am; that I’m a failure and can’t do things; that I’m a fraud. My bully tells me I’m a horrible mother, that I’m not really a writer, only pretending to be one, and that I can’t accomplish any of my dreams so I might as well give up. My bully is a monster and I hate her.
I tell my son how we decide how much power we give the bully and he sobs more, telling me he can’t control it. I know. I tell him it takes years of work to learn to fight it and I fail all the time and find myself sobbing just like he does. I tell him that I cry too, only he doesn’t see it because it’s usually when he isn’t around. I tell him I struggle with my bully and she still wins sometimes. I’d like to tell him she only wins on rare occasions, but that would be a lie.
A little more than two years ago, we hit a crisis point as parents. Our son whom we affectionately referred to as “hyper-verbal” and who was opinionated about clothing from the very start began spiraling in school. He wasn’t having academic issues. Instead, he suddenly went into seeming constant sensory overload, thanks to being fenced into a small room all day due to necessary COVID strictures. Before COVID his class would transition from activity to activity, which included walking somewhere else, about every forty-five minutes to an hour. His teachers would tell us how amusing our son was during these transitions because he would walk with them and talk and talk. Once that transition time was gone and he stayed in one room, even for lunch, for the duration of the day, he no longer had an outlet for that energy. He could hold the buzzing in his brain because he had a chance to release it every hour. When that release disappeared, the pressure inside his mind would build and create more and new forms of sensory overload issues. It was as though he was a completely different student.
This took us down the path to receive an ADHD diagnosis. We filled out forms sharing our perspective as parents and some of his current and past teachers did the same. Those behaviors that seemed “amusing” in PreK-1st grades and the quirky opinions about clothing turned out to be symptoms. Since receiving that diagnosis, my son has started taking medication and regularly sees a therapist to help him manage his ADHD.
Thankfully we had an excellent learning specialist on staff at our school at the time and she patiently held my hand as I started to learn how to be a mom to a neurodivergent kid. She listened and made suggestions and helped us form a great relationship with our son’s teacher. But one of the best things she did for me was recommend a resource: ADDitude magazine. I immediately subscribed and started reading articles.
The more I read, the more pieces began to fall into place, not only for my son and his experience but also for our oldest child and, eventually, myself. Our oldest is almost 5 years older than our son and from an early age exhibited what I thought were symptoms of ADHD. Even as an infant and nursing, she regularly wouldn’t finish because she would turn her head at every noise and distraction. Once she could walk, we could not sit at a restaurant for more than five minutes at a time to eat. We could keep her in her seat long enough to take a few bites then one of us would have to take her by the hand and walk her around the restaurant while the other parent ate. When I rode in the car with her, if we drove for more than ten minutes, she would start crying. I would reach behind me to stroke her head while I drove to try and calm her. As she grew, she would stand by her chair at the dinner table with one foot folded in the seat and nibble at her food.
When our oldest was a few years old I started mentioning I suspected she had ADHD. My brother was diagnosed when we were kids and I knew it was a possibility that my kids could have it. But my oldest was assigned female at birth and ADHD in girls isn’t often recognized. I would ask about it and would hear that she was “just a grazer” or she just was curious about the world around her. She performed well in school and wasn’t a disciplinary issue anywhere. She got along with everyone and everyone loved her.
Then I started reading ADDitude magazine and saw all of the symptoms that were excused or missed. We established a relationship with a therapist for her because of the success our son was having in therapy. Even then we were dismissed. That therapist told me, when I said I was curious about ADHD, that she would NOT diagnose ADHD just because I was looking to medicate my child. I had said nothing about seeking medication, only that I thought it was possible she had ADHD since my son did. The therapist refused to consider it. Needless to say, we did not stay with that therapist for long. Since then we have changed therapists and the new one immediately saw the hallmarks of ADHD as exhibited in young women but were often missed. Our oldest now takes medication to help her manage.
The more I learned about the condition for my kids, the more I was learning about myself. As I read about habits, behaviors, coping mechanisms, and more, the more I saw myself as if for the first time. Many of the attributes I thought simply were personality quirks in reality were symptoms. Some of the things that have made me successful in my line of work actually are coping mechanisms developed by people with a neurodivergence.
At forty-five, I finally decided to talk to my doctor, timidly at first. In early fall, at a regular visit, I recounted some of the story above and said I was suspicious I too had ADHD. She was kind and asked if I wanted to seek testing. I told her I didn’t but I would think about it. A couple of months later I contacted her and said I thought it was time. We set up an online assessment with a psychiatrist who specializes in testing adults for neurodivergence and other clinical diagnoses. By the end of the one hour call, he said he felt confident I had moderate to severe ADHD but he would confirm after scoring all of the tests. The week after Christmas he called me to tell me his findings didn’t change.
I am a middle aged mom of three and finally am starting to find some answers to things that have bothered me my whole life.
Before you start to question how I could be so “old” and just now discovering this, you need to know that the average age for diagnosis in women is late 30s to early 40s. Google it. I’ll wait.
A friend asked me what difference a diagnosis would make now. Obviously I had learned to manage it well in my life since I am a relatively successful person. Why seek a diagnosis for something that doesn’t seem to have been an issue?
First, my kids. I wanted to know for them. If they can see me and know I have it, they can know they’re not alone. They also can understand why they have it. Too often neurodivergence and other mental health challenges are seen as moral failures or character flaws, as if the person were simply too weak mentally or emotionally. In our case, ADHD is inherited. It’s connected to how our brains develop, which is determined by our genetics. There is nothing we did to “cause” it or “deserve” it. It simply is a part of who we are, the same as having hazel eyes and being tall.
Second, my kids. I am starting to understand how my ADHD has shaped my parenting style for good and for bad. There are times when it has helped me be fun and more empathetic. There are also times when it has made me inpatient, aggravated, and temperamental. Knowing more about myself will help me learn to spot signals that perhaps I’m becoming overstimulated, which then could lead to some less-than-desirable parenting behavior.
That leads me to another reason: my kids. Learning about and understanding ADHD and neurodivergence in our house has changed our family vernacular. It is empowering us to recognize symptoms in ourselves and each other and to talk about them. When one of us is getting overstimulated, we can express it and have the others understand. It helps us recognize it in each other as well and try to encourage the other to step away for a bit to allow their nerves to settle.
I’m realizing there are some structures we need in place as a family that I didn’t understand were important before. For example, my kids tend to be pretty independent. When we have a day with no commitments, everyone does their own thing, including getting food. The other day, we were late eating dinner and everyone was cranky and struggling. We went out to eat and choosing a restaurant was a huge challenge, to say nothing of the ordering process. It finally occurred to me that we all had forgotten to eat! They might have had a snack here or there, but because everyone was allowed to hyper focus on whatever interested them that day, no one had thought to eat proper food. In my own world, I had failed to make sure anyone else had eaten since I had forgotten for myself. I’m learning this is related to something called “time blindness” and is common for people with ADHD.
Finally, the reason I sought a diagnosis was for myself. I never felt I quite belonged anywhere. I made friends easily but also felt as though very few people ever knew me. I can morph to fit into almost any setting but don’t feel like I fit there. I have referred to it as “being a chameleon” over the years and thought it was just a personality quirk. Turns out it’s a common symptom of ADHD. As is being a people pleaser and extremely sensitive to rejection. There are things I have avoided doing in my life for fear of being judged or excluded, which I realize sounds ironic given that I have felt I didn’t belong anyway. I would marvel at friends who willingly entered into arguments with strangers and walked away without a care in the world. I, on the other hand, would be replaying the exchange for hours, days, months, even years after.
My son and I finally manage to quiet his bully enough for him to take a shower. I know the shower will stimulate him in other ways to help reset his brain. This is another new addition to our family vernacular and it comes in handy. When one of us is overstimulated, the others can recommend a “brain reset” and help by handing over a game on a phone or start a movie on the television or play a song on the radio. When our brains hyperfocus, even on unhealthy things, it can be very difficult to disrupt those neural pathways and distract us. It can even make us angry to have our hyperfocus interrupted.
When I suggest it’s time for a shower, my son argues. All he knows is that his bully is still dogging him, even if with a little less vigor.
“Fine! Fine! I’ll take a shower!” he yells at me.
Ten minutes later, he walks into my room smiling and talking about a new video game he wants to try and the conversation he’s been rehearsing in his head to have with a friend at school the next day.
In the meantime, I’ve been arguing with the bully in my brain. She’s telling me how I failed to handle the whole event with my son as a mom, how I should have said some things and not said others. She tells me to give up and reconcile myself to be the failure she knows me to be. She wins a little bit in that while my son showered I allowed myself some tears due to feeling of helplessness. But for the first time in my life I’m starting to believe she might win a few battles but she won’t win the war because now I know where she comes from, and knowing is more than half the battle.
Receiving the diagnosis doesn’t change who I am, anymore than it changes my kids. But it’s like being handed the key to unlocking myself that I’ve wanted my whole life but assumed didn’t exist. There actually are reasons why my brain races the way it does and why I can see twenty solutions to one problem or why the vent fan over the stove completely overwhelms me to the point I want to rip the microwave off of the wall and throw it out the window. That knowledge gives me enough power to step back, take a deep breath, and understand there are things I can and cannot control about why my mind and body respond to things the way they do.