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
I went to Target yesterday during my brain-dead hour, 5-6 pm. The only turmeric supplements they had on the shelf were chewable gummies with sugar…what? Sugar is not good for inflamed joints…I didn’t buy them.
That’s not my ADHD story. I checked out with only one item, a box of 13-gallon garbage bags. My rush-hour trip to Target in 90-degree heat had been a frustrating bust. I inserted my debit card into the machine, and it displayed an option for requesting cash back. When I removed my card, the clerk asked if I wanted my receipt in the bag. Yes, I answered and turned to walk away.
He caught me pivoting and handed me a twenty dollar bill, which surprised me. The garbage bags cost about eleven dollars. For a moment, my rapid math brain imagined a nine-dollar credit…are you following this?
Reasoning caught up, and I thanked him for reminding me of the requested cash. He said you’re welcome with a smirky smile. His look spoke volumes: Good luck finding your car, old man!
Breathing Appalachian air while rocking on the balcony of a B & B made me sleepy this morning, despite the coffee conversation about a black bear that surprised our neighbor at dusk last night. I’m walking that same trail now to wake myself. I am capable of walking aimlessly down mental trails, but this morning I am walking mindfully. Exercise and vigilance on a mountain path are good for the heart and mind…seriously!
Written June 6, 2018 in the mountains of Western North Carolina