Can you recall times in your life when someone presumed to be an expert on your experience, or your intentions? You didn’t listen to me because you don’t care…you would have remembered if it had been important to you…you hurt me on purpose.
I recall a moment when I knew with certainty that no one in the universe shared my personal experience, only similar experiences. Standing beside my brother on a spring day in 2011, minutes after our father had taken his last breath, I awakened to the reality of a private experience that would never be repeated. I hadn’t just lost my dad; I had lost a relationship that no one else had. As close as the three of us were, I didn’t have my brother’s relationship with our father, and he didn’t have mine.
My brother and I spoke at our father’s memorial service, describing the same person from our different experiences. I felt a special connection to my brother that day, recalling precious moments in our shared history. It was the same history, but not the same experience. Furthermore, each person attending the funeral stood alone with a personal experience of my father. And as we stood together in respect for a life that we knew from the outside, not one of us was an expert on my father’s personal experiences.
Married for 62 years, Mom knew Dad better than anyone. She knew when he was worried about something. I could never tell…he tried not to show it…but her experience informed her of the signs. Still, her experience was not his. His efforts not to appear worried may have been his way of protecting her. I cannot be certain about his motives.
The next time someone shares their expertise about your intentions, you can try, if you wish, to comprehend why thy are so certain. You might even ask, “What makes you think that?” Confidence in your personal experience can help you avoid being defensive or angry in response. You can be curious instead, which may help the speaker suspend certainty, or make you aware of something useful. Practicing mindful awareness…of self and other…and keeping an open and flexible mind, are good for your relationships and your emotional wellbeing.
We don’t hear ourselves speak when our brains are on automatic pilot, which is most of the time. It happens to all of us. My morning meditation practice now includes observing a feeling of annoyance rising within me when I hear superfluous language.
Two presidents, the previous and the current, have influenced our speech in a subtle way that challenges my equanimity. One of them often said, “Look…” as he began to answer a question. The other has coined annoying verbs, like “hugely.”
Now, I’m hearing intelligent people on the entire tiny spectrum of political discourse using both. When someone begins an answer with “Look…” I find myself thinking, “Look at what?…I was listening until you said, ‘look’!” It makes me anticipate a lecture, and I want to tune out.
When I hear people using fake adverbs, I think, “Why not use a real word and demonstrate that you have a vocabulary?” Who needs adverbs anyway? Adverbs are just hyperbolic symbols, like exclamation marks! The current president is hugely hyperbolic! And so annoying!
I made the mistake this morning of believing that early voting meant early. All I could find online showing the time of day said early voting starts at 7 a.m. “in most locations.” The website for my local library, the early voting location for my district, showed the dates and not the times. This was my second trip to vote early. Last week, the line was too long…as long as my to-do list.
When I arrived at the library early this morning, coffee in hand, I read the times on a sign: “Early voting, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.” I got back home at 7:15…in time to eat an early breakfast.
The Four Tops had a song in the 60’s titled, “I can’t Help Myself.” I Ioved that song when I was an adolescent…still do. But the adult version of me has developed an aversion to helplessness. I don’t want to hear myself saying, I have ADHD and I can’t help being impatient…I can’t help being late…I can’t help interrupting others…I can’t help tuning others out, or as Elvis sang, I can’t help falling in love with you. (Footnote: As a teenager, I “fell in love” with (1) pretty girls who didn’t like me, and (2) songs that made me feel sorry for myself!)
I can help myself. To become a responsible adult, I had to give up trying harder to be like the other 95%—the neurotypicals—and incorporate a new mindset, “Try another way.”
I once asked a high school pitcher, a star on his baseball team, this question: “If you didn’t have a right arm, would you try to use it?” He was relying on his unreliable memory, misplacing appointment cards and telling himself that he would remember the appointment. I told him that the memory in his phone was more reliable than the appointment cards, and more trustworthy than the differently-wired brain beneath his baseball cap. He agreed. He couldn’t deny it.
I learned a valuable lesson from a clerical worker at my first mental health clinic job. I was about 22 years old then and complaining on a rainy day that there was no place to park near the building. She said, “Who do you think you are? We all have to park where we can.”
I’m not entitled for any reason. Relinquishing responsibility because I have ADHD will not prevent consequences for my negligence. I get stopped for speeding when I deserve to be stopped. I get a penalty for late payments on bills when I postpone paying them. I experience effects of my wife’s hurt feelings when I am inattentive, or when I forget an important event.
I can help myself. It is no one else’s obligation to do my work or clean up my messes.
Helping yourself starts with acknowledging your brain difference and accepting yourself, as you are, with the compassion you would grant to a close friend. Billy Joel sang, I love you just the way you are. He didn’t add…and now change yourself. Instead, he said, Don’t go changing to try and please me. Changing behavior and habits is not the same as changing the self. Embrace yourself, and it will be much easier to change habits and patterns of behavior.
It is okay to be different. Fly your freak flag proudly, but don’t embrace “can’t help myself.”
For years I thought ADHD Awareness Month was November. Imagine that…I was only one month late! And I used to think of it as an oxymoron, as “inattention” and “awareness” are incompatible concepts.
In all seriousness, too many people don’t understand what ADHD is, and some people still doubt that it is a thing…despite the science. Some people still believe that it is only a childhood disorder and that kids grow out of it. There is some reason for that misunderstanding. There is nothing in pediatric mental health that has been researched more than ADHD, but research in adult ADHD is relatively new. For nearly thirty years, we have used mostly children’s criteria for diganosing adults. There are important differences.
Researchers continue to debate whether we should have an age-of-onset criterion for diagnosing ADHD. Until recently, the symptoms had to be present before age seven. Increasing the age of onset still doesn’t capture every adult with the disorder. The sypmtoms sometimes are not evident until well into adulthood. Symptoms must impair daily functioning in some way, but they might not have impairing effects until the features intersect with increasing complexities in life. For example, entering college may be the first time symptoms become evident. Entering a career, a marriage, or parenthood may be the first time symptoms impair functioning.
When the symptoms arrive at that intersection…that life transition…adults with undiagnosed ADHD wonder what happened…or their spouses wonder what happened. How does one lose competence suddenly? The onset of symptoms wasn’t sudden…the life transition was…and they met at the intersection.
Sometimes we are just too defensive about having these features, even after a professional diagnosis, to adapt effectively in life transitions. Those who are less defensive do better. That is why my mission has been to help adults with ADHD accept their different brains in order to live well with them. There is much to gain, and nothing to lose, by being open to a fresh perspective on what we call an attention deficit disorder.
We would be better served calling it an attention management disorder. Effective attention management requires inhibiting a surplus of attention. Lacking an effecive attention manager, our brains are trying to attend to too much. No one can do that well enough to attend effectively to one thing at a time. That is why we can feel overwhelmed by tasks that we think should be manageable.
I have been embarrased when my symptoms have caused problems for me, or for others around me. That is why I believe we must learn to tolerate the discomfort of embarrassment. If we can to that, we are better able to develop new skills, incorporate new strategies, use new tools, and work more skillfully with others. The alterntive is to deny the disorder and underachieve, or harm our relationships.
Let’s continue to educate others about the reality of ADHD in adults. If you want to arm yourself with facts, read ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says, by Barkley, Murphy, and Fischer. I would suggest reading the results and summaries, as the chapters are structured like professional journal articles…boring in style and important in content.
ADDNashville will be meeting at the regular time this coming Monday, October 1 at 6:30 pm. The topic will be “Maintaining what you have organized.”
What sorts of small, seemingly insignificant things can derail organization? Sara blogged about it a while back, and you can read the post at https://www.skillsetorganizing.com/the-blog/a-look-at-obstacles.
If you plan to attend tonight’s support group meeting, please read last week’s guest blog by Lisa Ernst: “Listening to Your Thoughts Like a Friend.”
My wife didn’t marry a grown-up; I think she was drawn to the fun. Thankfully, she was still around when I was diagnosed with ADHD fourteen years after we married. That same year, she went with me to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association’s first conference, about 25 years ago. I’m lucky the conference was in Merrillville, Indiana, too far from Chicago for her to entertain herself. She attended some sessions on her own. When she saw Dr. Daniel Amen’s SPECT scans of ADHD brains, her perception of me, and our relationship, shifted immediately. I believe she saw what we could be.
I credit mostly my wife’s understanding, and secondarily my discovery of meditation retreats, for the opportunity to “try another way.” That became my mantra, and we became actual partners. There was no way around mutual effort if we were to have a real partnership, and mindful awareness of the ADHD effects would be necessary.
I fully understand why some spouses of adults with ADHD have the wisdom and courage to leave an unhealthy relationship, and some have the wisdom and courage to stay and insist on partnership. The alternative is hopelessness.
Spouses of adults with ADHD grow tired of repairing messes that their partners make. Examples of messes include forgetting special occasions, being late to events, interrupting others, being angry when others interrupt, blurting out what should be private, getting lost in solitary activity, neglecting priorities, losing track of time, misplacing important items, cluttering shared space, postponing tasks, driving too fast, drinking too much, talking too much, changing jobs too often, paying bills and taxes late. And perhaps the worst…ignoring one’s relationship partner.
You may be dealing with these or other messes if you are married to someone with ADHD. It is not easy. Adults with the disorder may ask their spouses to cut them some slack. After all, they can’t help how their brains are wired, and they’re not making messes on purpose…right? That may be correct, but it is unfair for the ADHD partner to start there. The first order of business is acceptance, which includes accepting that ADHD has an effect on others. Caring enough to listen respectfully to reasonable complaints is one way to live well with ADHD. If your partner doesn’t do that, he is not being a partner and will miss the benefits of skillful partnership.
Non-ADHD spouses who have had an excessive dose of “co-dependency” therapy often say something like this to me: “I’ve done my work; he needs to do his. I’m done with fixing the problems he creates.” Who wants the job of cleaning up a partner’s messes? Being an effective partner is something else, something that can’t be done alone. Resenting takes just one person. Denial takes only one person. Blaming takes only one, but it creates a blamer in response. Both partners lose in the blame game.
The solution is simple, but often uncomfortable. Years of feeling judged may contribute to the ADHD partner’s shame and defensiveness. I can be defensive when I feel shamed, and my defensive response takes my wife’s complaint off the table. My complaint supplants hers. For example, I might not like her tone when she tells me how my behavior has affected her. My mindless reactivity takes over when I fail to tolerate my hurt feelings with grace. If I get angry at her for being angry at me, or shut down to avoid uncomfortable feelings, we both lose.
The non-ADHD spouse must differentiate between taking care her partner’s ADHD and taking care of herself in relation to it. The former is burdensome, the latter practical. My wife is the bill payer. To make sure we had adequate funds in our joint account. she once put a deposit slip on the seat of my car when it was my turn to make a deposit. She was not taking responsibility for my bad memory, but taking care of her needs. She once asked me what I could do to assure her I would be on time for an important meeting that evening. Her question prompted me to think of a strategy. She avoided assuming the burden of telling me what to do.
Partners in a business are mutually responsible for the success of the business. If either stops doing his job, the business fails. Successful partners put the partnership first, prioritizing it over individual desires, differences, and personal comfort. Partnership doubles the power of individuals in dealing with life’s challenges. Life situations don’t cause divorce; treating a partner as an enemy does. Blaming generates more problems and solves none.
If you get stuck in conflict, listen more and speak less. If your goal is to understand rather than be understood, your partner will reciprocate, and mutual understanding will result. When you remain respectfully engaged with your partner in a conflict, you will solve problems. When you react aggressively, or retreat to avoid uncomfortable feelings, you will create problems. If you don’t find solutions immediately, you can still maintain respectful dialogue and enhance your partnership. To “win” an argument is to create a loser in your partnership. That is not what competent partners do.
Our Labor Day potluck (September 3) will be at the same park we have used before. River Park is just off I65 in Brentwood. Turn left from the Concord Rd exit and proceed to Knox Valley Dr. and turn right. You will see the Brentwood Library on the right and basketball courts on the left. River Park is behind the basketball courts. Sara’s website provides a link for signing up to bring a dish. Labor Day marks the 13th anniversary of ADDNashville. Sara’s website: http://www.skillsetorganizing.com