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Getting a good seat at life’s table

What my sister with ADHD has taught me – and what she can teach all of us

By Annie Feibel

“The greatest gift you can give a child is a sibling, and the best gift you can give to me is to love each other.” That’s something my mother has said often to me and my siblings. When I was a child, these words felt like just another one of her adages – but reflecting on them as a young adult, I couldn’t agree more with my mother’s sentiments.

As cliché as it may sound, my siblings are truly my built-in best friends, and they often know me better than I know myself. My brother and older sister, Addie, also have taught me important life lessons and skills that will benefit me forever.

Addie was diagnosed with ADHD when she was in preschool. She has taught me – among so many other things – patience and determination.

Preschool Addie struggled greatly with reading, fell behind her peers in school and lacked the ability to forge strong social connections. In middle school, Addie was overwhelmed by her inability to focus and organize herself, and spent many of her days as an adolescent in tears. High-school Addie was labeled as spacey and forgetful.

My mother said that in our early years, Addie often became so focused on tasks that she struggled to transition from one to the next. Addie would “hyper-focus” on things – her baby doll Butter, a single piano note and protecting me and my younger brother, for example – to the exclusion of other tasks.

This hyper-focus and inattentiveness to the world around her seemed to always put Addie a step behind her peers as a young child. Birthday parties were a prime example: challenged by transitions and usually absorbed in something else, Addie often was the last person to the table – and therefore wouldn’t get a good spot near her friends.

My parents feared that Addie would spend her life never getting a good seat at any table. They worried about how to best support Addie, help her to manage her symptoms and ensure that she did find her place in the world.

Because behind the tears, difficulties, turbulence and misconceptions, Addie was and is brilliantly talented, witty, fierce and a loyal student, friend, daughter and sister.

Addie’s ADHD trajectory wasn’t a straight line. There would be times – such as during stressful life events – when her symptoms would peak and other times when they were less apparent. These inconsistencies in her behavior could be confusing and frustrating to others.

As a child, Addie underwent various ADHD treatments and interventions – occupational and speech therapy, for example – which affected the way her symptoms appeared to others. Our parents completed behavioral parent training. Addie also took ADHD medication, which significantly helped manage her symptoms.

Addie’s support network at school played a critical role in helping her manage her symptoms. We were lucky enough to attend a school with a highly engaged and supportive teaching staff who understood ADHD in girls. These teachers recognized Addie’s ADHD symptoms early in her life, and supported her in the classroom when the symptoms became unmanageable.

With these supports in place – and her parents, siblings and teachers cheering her on – Addie ultimately excelled in school, at home and socially, and she’s gotten good spots at many tables. In fact, Addie graduated second in her high school class, served as the editor of her college newspaper, was chosen as a finalist for a prestigious international scholarship, and is on track to earn her medical degree in 2025.

With grit and determination, Addie has faced and embraced any challenge that ADHD and the world presented to her. And while the condition has presented many obstacles for Addie, it also has given her a unique perspective on the world – an insight that gives her strengths that people without ADHD may not always have.

For example, Addie’s hyper-focused nature drives her to fervently pursue her passions and has given her an ambitious direction for her future. And her ability to connect to the world differently gives her greater emotional intelligence and sensitivity to the feelings of others.

As Addie has grown and learned to manage her inattentive, hyper-focused nature, she has truly turned ADHD into one of her greatest assets. This has taught me, her sister, so much. Here’s what my experience might teach others:

  • People may have ADHD, but it doesn’t define who they are.
  • Although ADHD can look different in girls and women than it does in boys and men, females can have the condition and thrive. Addie is a perfect example.
  • Girls with ADHD can benefit from intervention, just like boys can.
  • Although they may need treatment and/or additional support, girls with ADHD can be better daughters, siblings, friends and students when they’re able to see how their symptoms can be strengths as well as obstacles.

My mother was right: my siblings are my greatest gifts. Addie has also been my greatest teacher. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my sister by my side. And I wouldn’t be who I am if my sister didn’t have ADHD.

Annie Feibel is student volunteer at the Duke Center for Girls & Women with ADHD.

Photo of Annie and Addie, Columbus, OH, 2018. Source: Lori Ann Feibel