For some time now, I’ve been thinking about how best to talk to my mother about my inattentive Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). She is in the late stages of dementia, mobility-impaired, non-verbal and receiving 24-hour live-in care, so I’m not in a position to have a back-and-forth with her about it.
You know that adage about women becoming their mothers? Well, I’ve been noticing in myself certain traits that I can’t put down to mere ingrained mimicry. Relating to focus, concentration, memory and emotional regulation, they’re now being brought forward by the combined forces of lockdown, age, and post-diagnosis relief, like a pair of painfully uncomfortable shoes that I’ve removed for the first time in many years, and never want to wear again.
I know I wrote earlier that I wouldn’t publicly speculate on other members of my family having ADHD. I am no doctor after all, and I don’t have the medical qualifications to make a formal diagnosis. However, the condition is 75% genetic, and the psychiatrist who diagnosed me thinks it highly likely that I inherited mine from my mother.
Were it not for her dementia, I am confident Mum would have taken a keen interest in my diagnosis, and explored the possibility of her having the condition too.
Asking for referral to a psychiatrist assessment notwithstanding, Mum did speak openly of her struggles with emotional impulsivity throughout her life. She used to say that she was a “horrible child” (I beg to differ; she deserved more nurturing than she got), and feared the consequences of being alone with her emotions after my father died nearly two decades ago, he having placated her with steadfast devotion and care for many years.
Indeed my father found a way to lighten the mood by humouring said impulsivity, often teasing his wife: “When you’re angry, you’re like a scorpion in a shoebox.”
Once, reacting to his silent, less-than-enthusiastic reception of a lunchtime soup she’d made, Mum suddenly heaved her end of the family table, dropped it and stormed out of the kitchen. Open-mouthed silence fell upon the remaining four of us. Gently, and with a conciliatory gesture, my father interjected: “Could you pass the pepper?”
Being of another generation, I am not sure my mother was ever aware of ADHD. Widespread public understanding is still slow to take hold, despite 50 years of dedicated scientific research. Nevertheless, the signs were there.
Those scribbled “Do not disturb” notices that she always stuck to the kitchen door in preparation for our supper. The innumerous migraines that her doctor never seemed to resolve. The “organised chaos” (aka stacked piles) that nobody was to touch in her art workroom. Her ushering my siblings and I out the door so “I can concentrate.” Her intense, multifaceted, sometimes random creativity. The non-prescription brain enzyme tablets she’d take regularly, for decades, to improve her focus.
She’d make a beeline for the local Sue Ryder charity shop every time she came near the road in the car — accumulating hours, and many secondhand gems, there. I always thought the excited outbursts she frequently made about her bargains (“Sue Ryder!”) every time she received a compliment were unique to her, until scores of other women disclosed, in response to an unrelated post on a leading private ADHD Facebook group, that they did exactly the same thing.
My mother was sensitive, and occasionally seemed to doubt her own spirited enthusiasm in the moment. I wonder though if I observed her insecurity too closely, because it left me unsure of my own reaction.
That might be why she didn’t care much for people who she felt were too given to eliciting counselling; she liked her space insomuch that, once properly settled into widowhood, she decided she was done with marriage.
To those living with inattentive ADHD who suspect that their parents have it too, witnessing shared traits like I am doing might feel like fizzing bubbles of revelation, clear as crystal, in a frosted glass. However, without formal specialist psychiatrist assessment or my mother’s input, again it is impossible for me to confirm either way if she did. I can only wonder as time goes on, and keep any conclusions private.
If anyone reading this feel inclined to challenge me on this for whatever reason, let me gently remind you that I am neurodiverse and I was born this way. Like many of the ADHD friends I’ve quickly amassed since diagnosis, I know instinctively when I’ve met another person with ADHD; I just don’t say until they indicate otherwise. (Think of it as akin to being gay.)
I fulfilled my own hope of telling my mother of my diagnosis only the other day. Visiting her at home with my nine-year-old, the way she lit up misty-eyed upon seeing us indicated some lucidity. Sitting next to her, I clasped her hand.
“Mum,” I said, “I’ve been doing a lot of learning about myself lately, and you as a mother and a person. I now understand how hard you had to work in your parenting, how difficult it has been, and I want you to know that I think you have been a wonderful mum.
Next time I visit I’ll bring a pretty box, and then I’ll write you a letter and read it to you, and you can put it in the box. I’ll do a drawing too — we can build up a collection that way, and I’ll put it in the library for safekeeping. I do this because I love you and I want you to know that I understand.”
My mother looked at me, and I felt a grateful squeeze of the hand.