Discovering a Parent’s Untreated ADHD

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On the morning of my 50th birthday, I waited in earnest for my mother’s annual birthday call at 9:30 a.m. (the time I was born). Though I knew she wouldn’t call, it took a while for my heart to catch up with my head. When it did, a tsunami of tears fell.

My mother was in and out of the hospital in 2019 due to a series of life-threatening health complications. She spent the first half of 2020 at home, in a gated retirement community in a nondescript suburb in southwest Dallas.

I was scheduled to visit her for Mother’s Day 2020, in keeping with a yearly tradition. But after careful consideration, I canceled my flight, concerned that if I was asymptomatic and infected her, she might not survive. She was disappointed but appeared to take the news in stride.

She texted me daily. She asked about work and friends, what I was making for dinner, and sent well-wishes to her “grandson” Jack, my 15-year-old, three-legged Siamese tabby mixed cat.

In late May 2020, she received a good prognosis from her primary physician. She took every precaution possible to stay out of harm’s way so that one day she could enjoy the simplest pleasures again. The door to her building was locked, she had a Ring video doorbell camera, an ADT security system, and two locks on her door, one of which could only be unlocked from the inside.

[Home Alone? Older Adults with ADHD Grappling with Pandemic Loneliness]

Despite taking every precaution, keeping every door locked and secured, the illness reached her, and robbed my mother of life on July 20, 2020, at 1:05 a.m. How she became infected is still unknown, though I can’t help but look to the abysmal pandemic policies and approaches of the state and president at the time. Still, not knowing has kept me awake many nights, haunting me to this day.

As funeral and burial arrangements were finalized, I was tasked with writing my mother’s obituary and reviewing thousands of documents she left behind. During the final night alone in my mother’s home – emotionally and physically depleted – I came across a document with a five-digit number on the first page: 314.01.

I suspected it was a code from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), a guidebook used by clinicians to diagnose mental disorders. My blurry eyes darted left of the code and the brief mystery was solved: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I was surprised, maybe even shocked, by this blink-and-miss-it discovery. Did my mother leave me a message from the beyond?

ADHD is a complex neurological condition that greatly compromises executive functions like self-awareness, emotional regulation, motivation, planning, and problem solving. Individuals with ADHD tend to live in a permanent present, and find it difficult to learn from the past and connect that learning to future decision-making. At worst, this “acting without thinking” can gravely affect interpersonal relationships, careers, and potentially the entire lifetime trajectory of people with ADHD.

[The Adult ADHD Mind: Executive Function Connections]

I was diagnosed with ADHD two months prior to finding my mother’s document. Coincidentally, my mother was 49 when she was diagnosed; the same age I was when I was diagnosed. I had not gotten around to telling her about my diagnosis, fearing it might cause her unneeded worry and confusion. But I had learned that ADHD is genetic. Even after her death, this revelation and connection was the final piece of the puzzle that explained our complicated and often explosive relationship.

It is a miracle my mother and I were able to maintain any semblance of closeness or mutual affection. But, gratefully, we did! We often sent each other sweet notes, cards, and texts, just because. When I came out at 23, my mother experienced inner turmoil, given her deeply religious roots. She was a gospel singer who wrote and produced two gospel albums in the 1980s. Regardless, her love for me and support never wavered.

During a phone call with my mother a decade ago, she revealed something even more shocking than ADHD. “You are my best friend, Kelvin,” she said. In that moment, I realized that even in our darkest times, she loved me unconditionally – I was her “permanent present.” In so many ways, she tried to let me know that she had already forgiven me for every misdeed, every cold shoulder, and every missed call. As I sift through irreconcilable guilt (grief’s codependent companion), I pray to one day feel worthy of my mother’s permanent pardon.

Early this year, on what would have been our mother’s 76th birthday, my two older brothers and I, living in different cities, released balloons into the air at the same time. My balloons were round, gold and black, save for three red, heart-shaped balloons to symbolize our own unconditional and undying love for our dear mother. She gave us everything she had, in spite of untreated ADHD that undoubtedly left her overwhelmed and emotionally fatigued.

Amidst the racism, sexism, and abuse she suffered, along with the pain of unfulfilled dreams and an immunocompromised body, her beauty, humor and intelligence were ever present. Her legacy flourishes in her three sons, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

To my mom, I can only say, “You’re my best friend, too.”

A Mother’s Love: Next Steps


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Updated on May 19, 2021



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