The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

ADHD clues: My embarrassing 2nd grade papers

“At least you didn’t do worse than chance.”

I had to laugh. My dad had unloaded a huge, unwanted box of old school papers on me. While most went into the recycling, I found a few gems. Among them, a pattern-recognition exercise where I scored an overall 25% on a four-part multiple choice.

As my husband pointed out, at least I didn’t get below 25%, or I would’ve done worse than blind chance.

What does this have to do with ADHD?

Well, I have a hunch: I can figure out which image doesn’t belong. I think I could’ve done it in second grade, too. But it takes me a while. I’m not a natural visual thinker. The oddball image doesn’t jump out at me. In other words, I have to keep my eyes (and brain) on the pictures long enough to figure it out.

And look at this page of math problems. My accuracy rate was okay, but I left huge chunks blank at the end.

Looking back at my elementary school papers and report cards, I see a trail of ADHD clues.

I see a smart kid who made a lot of silly mistakes on assignments. Who forgot to do homework. Whose attention span was too short to figure out simple pattern recognition exercises. Who got distracted and ran out of time before finishing an assignment. This, on top of the report cards detailing my lack of impulse control or (related, for sure) social skills.And yet, because I was smart — my IQ and advanced reading skills landed me in the gifted program — and a girl, no one suspected ADHD. This was, and remains, common. If ADHD runs in your family and you have introverted, sensitive, academically gifted children, it’s something to watch for.

Grown-ups with late-diagnosis ADHD: do you ever look back at all the clues and wonder how no one knew?

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Protecting teen drivers with ADHD

“My teen son has ADHD, and I know this makes him more likely to die in a car accident.”

This was how this week’s guest blogger, Mark Connor, opened his introductory email to me. It hit home. 16 years ago this month, I took my driver’s license test. I’ve officially been driving for half my life, and I’m still alive. Several of my high school classmates weren’t so lucky.

My dad is a professional driver, and he made sure I took driving seriously. He — and my mom, aunt, and uncle, who teamed up to give me lots of driving practice — also taught me on a stick shift, which helped keep me in the parking lot for long enough to get comfortable behind the wheel before I hit the road.

Kids like me are very fortunate. So, I’m sure, is Mark’s son. Mark created a website called Drive Safely to help spread the word about vehicle safety. Here, he shares a few pieces of wisdom from his journey parenting a teen driver with ADHD.

Driving is already the most dangerous thing teenagers do, with thousands of teens dying in automobile accidents every year. The risk is even greater for teen drivers with ADHD. According to one study, young drivers with ADHD received significantly more moving and non-moving violations than drivers without ADHD.

However, just because the risk is greater doesn’t mean that teens with ADHD can’t become safe, successful drivers. Here’s what you need to know about ADHD and teen drivers.

Facts to Know

In 2015, over 2,000 teens aged 16 to 19 died in motor vehicle accidents, and more than 200,000 were injured. While this is the lowest number of teen driving deaths ever recorded in one year, it’s nevertheless a devastating statistic.

Evidence shows that new drivers with an attention deficit are prone to riskier behavior behind the wheel. Teen drivers with ADHD are:

  • Four times more likely to speed.
  • Five times more likely to receive a parking ticket.
  • Three times more likely to lose their license within the first five to eight years of driving.
  • Two to three times more likely to be in a car accident.

In addition to these worrying numbers, teens with ADHD more frequently pass other vehicles improperly, tailgate, fail to obey traffic signs and signals, and even drive while under the influence of alcohol.

What You Can Do

Parents of children with ADHD won’t be surprised by the increased risk for their teen drivers. They’re familiar with the minds that struggle to stay on task and the impulsive behavior. What they may be unsure of, however, is how to help their teen succeed behind the wheel.

Involved parenting is instrumental in teaching attention-deficit teens safe driving habits. Parents should first ensure their child is taking any medication prescribed by their doctor. Step two? Consider whether a teen is prepared to start driving at all. Teens with ADHD who are still learning to manage their behavior may be best served by a delayed start to driving. While no teen wants to be late getting their driver’s license, staying safe is the most important thing.

Parents should spend plenty of time practicing driving before taking their teen to the license bureau. Learning under parental supervision will empower a teen to make the best possible choices behind the wheel, and parents will be able to identify and address the specific challenges faced by their teen. On top of covering good driving habits, discuss common roadside concerns like jumping a battery and staying safe in a roadside emergency.

Extra practice isn’t the only adjustment to make for teens with ADHD. Promote good behavior behind the wheel by instituting the following rules:

  • No cell phone usage while driving.
  • No more than one passenger at a time.
  • No passengers during after-school hours or on weekend evenings, the most dangerous times for teen drivers.
  • No adjusting music while driving. Consider equipping vehicles with voice-activated technology to remove the temptation.

A written safe driving contract can create accountability between teen drivers and their parents. A safe driving contract should include mutually agreed upon rules to observe behind the wheel, and appropriate consequences if those rules are broken. That may mean restricting driving privileges if a teen is caught driving with too many passengers, or making teens pay fines incurred from driving infractions. No matter the rules you settle on, promote compliance by consistently applying consequences.

Just because a teen has ADHD doesn’t mean he or she can’t become a safe driver. Give teens the tools to drive responsibly by addressing the unique challenges of ADHD head-on.

Caught up in the excitement

There are people who think ADHD is a gift. I’m not one of them.

Just today, I read this sentence in a comment thread: “I have reached the conclusion that ADHD persons are are blessing to the world and that having ADHD is a gift rather than a curse.” Not to be judge-y, but I bet this person doesn’t have ADHD. If he does, he’s in a near-delusional state of denial.

That said, I’ve had some time to reflect on my gifts this week. I’ll admit, ADHD isn’t 100% doom and gloom. Lots of us grow up to be emergency room doctors, firefighters, or professional snowboarders. Our lust for high-stress environments leads us to careers our laid-back counterparts would rather avoid.

We have dopamine to thank for this. The neurotransmitter of pleasure, reward, and motivation. I reject the “ADHD is a gift” narrative because dopamine has no conscience. It doesn’t nudge us toward becoming an emergency room doctor rather than a drug addict. It doesn’t care whether we balance our brain chemistry by running marathons or picking cruel fights with our spouse. I imagine it costs society at least as much as it provides in so-called gifts.

But for today, I can appreciate it a little more. Because I’m existing in a time of great inconvenience.

Roughing it with ADHD

Our kitchen renovation is officially underway. Last night, our downstairs looked like this:

Living with me on a normal day isn’t always a treat, but right now, I’m cool.

I prepared for this renovation like crazy, thanks to my flair for crises, over-planning, and roughing it. I’m the person who breaks out in goosebumps before hurricanes and snowstorms. I stockpile canned goods, put the kitchen matches near the stove, charge up the camp lanterns, and try to hide my disappointment when the electricity stays on.

Of course, every ADHD “gift” has a dark side. Mild over-preparation easily tips into hoarding and obsession for some.

But taken in moderation, we folks with ADHD can turn inconvenience into fun. We thrive on novelty. Many of us spent our youths getting into trouble for weird behavior and clowning around. Most people I’ve talked to assume we’ll be surviving on takeout this month. Not so. I happily carried my camp stove to the front porch and ignored the funny looks from neighbors as I cooked dinner. I threw myself into advance food preparation with an enthusiasm I rarely possess for normal dinners. We’re existing in a weird, different, and somewhat extreme situation. It’s not just any old night when I have to make dinner in a normal kitchen. I’m in my element.

A rare note of gratitude

I rarely talk about the upsides of ADHD on this blog. There are enough yahoos doing that on the internet already. I’m not grateful for my ADHD, just like most well-adjusted people wouldn’t be grateful for bipolar disorder. But every once in a while, I encounter a situation that forces me to admit, “hey, I’m actually an asset to this project. My unique combination of traits, some of which are rooted in my ADHD, really bring something to the table.”

People with significant ADHD-related impairments know, I don’t have the opportunity to say this every day. To be able to acknowledge a gift — that’s a gift unto itself. I’m going to try to appreciate it, if only for the duration of my self-induced, kitchen-less hardship.

Applying the ADHD brakes during a huge project

Life at the ADHD Homestead is about to get crazy: we’re renovating our kitchen.

This is our biggest, baddest project since we did in vitro fertilization almost five years ago. Like IVF, the payoffs will be fantastic — we got a kid last time, and this time we’ll get a kitchen larger than a closet — but getting there might be rough.

A major renovation, like purchasing an expensive science baby, requires us to keep a lot of balls in the air. We need to pay attention to multiple angles at once, meet a bunch of deadlines (big and small), and play a massive game of Don’t Mess It Up.

To pull it off, I have to allow some moderate hyperfocus and forget most of my regular projects.

brake pedal image

An uneasy truce with hyperfocus.

I complain about hyperfocus a lot, both because I find it annoying and because my ADHD falls at the other end of the spectrum. However, now’s the time to channel my inner hyperfocuser and say no to everything else.

My ADHD makes it hard to prioritize. When it’s not driving someone crazy, this can be an asset. My many responsibilities to our home and family require comfort with a lot of irons in the fire. I’m the point person for planning an annual reunion of our college friends, I care for our lawn and garden, and I help my dad’s side of the family maintain a house at the beach. I pay our bills and clean our house and RSVP for our social events.

Now, it’s time to shut all that out. It’s going to be hard. The other night, I sat down and told myself, “there are two important things: finishing my novel by August, and renovating this kitchen.” That’s it. There will be no planning of friend reunions, no playgroup outings to the zoo, no impromptu dinner parties. No reconfiguration of our retirement accounts, weekends at the beach, or sewing myself a new dress. No progress on other projects. Just fiction and a kitchen, that’s all.

Saying goodbye to all the things.

Less than two hours after making this decision, it already felt uncomfortable. Every time I notice something that can be done, I want to do it. I want to make sure we’re not overpaying on our car insurance. I want to plan a writing retreat,  research stand up paddleboards, and have lunch with a friend. I want to do all the things.

Of course, if I do all the things, I’ll enter June feeling despondent about my lack of progress on my novel manuscript.

“It’s okay,” friends will tell me. “You were renovating your kitchen!”

Well, sure. A huge project always feels like a fair excuse for stalling on other things. But it’s not a fair excuse for failing to prioritize.

It doesn’t come naturally, but I’m going to try. I just have to remember: Writing and kitchen, writing and kitchen, writing and kitchen.

And when a new project or task crosses my path, I need to force my first reaction to be, “no.”

Has a big project ever redefined your priorities? How did you deal?

My ADHD Home: A Visitors’ Guide

My attempts at effective homemaking with ADHD could fill a memoir. I long for a tidy, peaceful home where guests always feel comfortable and welcome. My grandmother would tell you I make this look easy.

We should all have someone like my grandmother in our lives. For everyone else, I give you this visitors’ guide. I do like you, and please don’t let me drive you crazy.

 

Never be afraid to ask.

Before I say anything funny, allow me to say: I want to be a good host. I try to provide the essentials: towels, toothbrush/toothpaste, a bed, and fresh coffee in the morning. I’ll even pick the coffee mug I think suits you best today.

I’m also forgetful. I miss social cues. Some aspects of my lifestyle are a little weird. If you want it, and I haven’t offered it, I guarantee I a.) have no idea and b.) want to make it happen. A polite request for something to make your stay more comfortable is always welcome.

You’d be surprised by what throws me off my game.

Once, my mom brought her own pillowcase to my house. I had a newborn, and she wanted to save me some laundry. I spent the next four years searching for one of the pillowcases to that sheet set. Apparently, I cannot handle washing part of the set without losing the rest.

I recently found it. I wish I could tell you where, but this happened a couple weeks ago, and I forget. I know I found it somewhere in my house.

Also, now I have anxiety every time someone suggests using a partial sheet set. Guests have said, “oh, it’s just me, you didn’t need to use two pillowcases.” Or, even more terrifying, “I don’t really need the top sheet.” I always wonder: should I admit that I’m afraid of losing the unused piece of the set?

Don’t worry, I love going out. I just hate getting ready.

I love showing you around town. I love thinking about my guests, and what they might enjoy, and designing a weekend to suit them.

That said, I hate getting out the door. I fuss over departure times, even when they don’t matter. I overthink how many and which cars we should drive, or whether we should walk or take public transit. I get cranky with my family for taking too long to pack up. Generally speaking, I don’t go with the flow.

I apologize. I’ll try not to be unpleasant, but I have a terrible track record. If (when) it happens, it’s not about you, or my desire to do the thing. It’s about getting out the door, which is not my favorite.

Keep me up late at your own risk.

I have a bedtime, just like my kid has a bedtime. It’s around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. If I stay up too late, I’ll be a hot mess the next day — especially if we need to get out the door for anything. Lack of sleep intensifies pretty much every ADHD symptom, and sometimes I feel like it increases my meds’ drowsiness side effect.

However, most social nuance is lost on me. I have no idea how to extricate myself gracefully from a conversation. If you’re up, and you’re talking to me, chances are I’ll stay up until you say it’s time for bed. If you want to be super helpful, try to wrap up our friendly chat around the aforementioned time window. Say something like, “alright, well, I’ll let you get to bed.” Everyone will thank you in the morning.

I love offering you a private space…for both of us.

I feel rude even typing this, but I get a little batty about clutter. I find it visually overstimulating, and it makes my brain go haywire. I spend a lot of my life battling clutter, if only to clear my own head.

For our first several years in our house, we didn’t have a dedicated guest room. By necessity, guests tended to spread their belongings throughout the house: a keyring here, a newspaper there, a colony of duffle bags in the corner. I hated myself for how cranky this made me.

Now, I offer guests a semi-finished basement room with their own futon, side table, and bathroom. A handful of guests have told me, “oh, you don’t need to set all that up for me. I can just sleep on the couch.”

Trust me: I love making you a little nest, and it makes me feel like a nice friend. It also gives you a place to put your stuff without cluttering my living space. I’m not a terrible person, but my neurochemistry places certain demands on my environment.

Before Coffee vs. After Coffee.

There are two kinds of time in my day: the time before coffee, and the time after coffee. Before coffee, I like to hang out in the kitchen, cook breakfast for everyone, listen to NPR (or music, or nothing), and put a kettle on the stove. Then I eat my egg and toast and take the remainder of my coffee to the couch to read a magazine.

During this time in the kitchen, I feel happy and pleasant — unless someone harshes my mellow. This isn’t the time to start an important conversation. My brain isn’t warmed up yet. While I’m measuring out the coffee or pouring water into the French press — this is an especially bad time to throw me off-kilter with idle chit-chat. If I pour too much water and have to start my coffee-making routine over, I can’t promise I’m going to be able to deal.

Decompression is a good thing.

After all the drama of pre-coffee chit-chat, lost pillowcases, cluttered side tables, and expeditions out my front door, I need a breather. Seinfeld put it best: it’s not you, it’s me.

I’m an introvert with ADHD. This means I’m easily overwhelmed and worn out by all the hurly-burly. My kid no longer takes a nap in the middle of the day, but I still appreciate a slice  of quiet time. If I sneak off to my office to read a book on the loveseat, or to a backyard hammock for a 30-minute rest in the sun, I probably don’t want you to come keep me company — though I do want you to find me if you need anything! Likewise, if there’s something you want to do — take a walk, read a book, spend some time checking your email — feel free to set aside some time for it. I won’t be offended if you want a little down time that doesn’t involve me.

I like you, please come back.

Bottom line: I love having guests. It’s way more relaxing than getting my entire family out the door (see above) for a weekend away. I love sharing my home and my city. I don’t always have my act together, and sometimes that makes me feel disappointed and angry with myself. It’s not because I don’t want you there, it’s because I have this internal struggle happening: I want to cling to my routines and my familiar environment (ADHD’ers don’t always deal well with change, and someone leaning back in a reclining chair can feel like too much change for me). I also want to be the world’s best host, and I don’t want my ADHD to make me look like a failure as a friend or a grownup.

So welcome to my home. I hope you’re 100% comfortable and happy and well-fed, but if you’re not, I hope you’ll ask for whatever you want. I also hope you’ll be sensitive to the fact that I might act weird sometimes, or seem overly rigid about the little stuff, or get cranky and overwhelmed while we’re getting out the door. I don’t mean to be off-putting. I appreciate you, and I hope you’ll come back.

I have ADHD, and sometimes I can’t spell my own name

I’ve never had real a nickname, but my dad sometimes called me “Jacly” when I was a kid. The joke started when I forgot the last letter of my name at the top of a school paper.

Fourth-grade Jaclyn knew how to spell her own name — obviously — but my attention span wasn’t always long enough to write all six letters.

It still isn’t. I still catch myself writing “Jacly” on official documents. I also forget words in sentences, or I write words with the letters out of order. Occasionally, I find post-it notes with sentence fragments or unlabeled telephone numbers. I got distracted before I finished writing, and now I can’t figure out what they mean.

In the moment, I don’t realize these attention lapses are happening. There’s no way I can tell myself, “hey, focus!” and prevent them. I call myself detail-oriented. I’m proud of my ability to fill out forms correctly and completely. Still, I make weird mistakes all the time — especially when I’m writing by hand.

I don’t remember whether I liked my dad calling me “Jacly.” I can see myself appreciating that someone gave me a nickname. Just as likely, I might’ve gotten my hackles up. All the anguish I remember from my childhood stemmed from my ADHD, though I had no idea at the time. ADHD’s quirks and foibles — like misspelling one’s own name, or throwing a third-grade classmate on the floor after he cuts in line — can come to define us. And that hurts. Maybe it’s who we are, but it’s not who we feel we are.

That dissonance haunted me all through my young life. I wrote in my journal about a desire to leave home and start over. I hated going to school knowing everyone had an opinion about who I was. I didn’t feel like I fit others’ definitions of me.

I still struggle with this, but I try to keep a sense of humor. I try to look for opportunities. Every time I write “Jacly,” I smile and hear my dad’s voice as I go back to add the ‘n.’ I try to view mistakes as opportunities to show my real self: someone who’s neither selfish, nor irresponsible, nor slapdash. I do that by admitting my mistakes, apologizing when necessary, and acknowledging how my actions affect others. I’m upfront about my memory and attention issues. I hope this openness helps people realize it’s not about them, or my feelings toward them. I talk about my post-it notes and my organizational systems because I want others to see I’m trying. I try to laugh at the silly stuff, and keep working on the important stuff.

Because I’ll always misspell my name on occasion. Every once in a while, my post-its — or another system — will fail me. It’ll probably be my fault. But I can practice resilience. I can forgive myself and maintain a decent attitude. I can resist the impulse toward defensiveness, blame-shifting, or turning all that anger inward. I can own Jacly, but reject negative, self-destructive labels. Then, I can brush myself off and keep trying, assuming it’s not too late to add the ‘n.’

ADHD & money: Our experience with a financial planner

A lot of adults with ADHD experience financial stress. Fiscal responsibility requires impulse control, tolerance for boring paperwork, and an ability to plan ahead and defer pleasure spending. We have to stay on top of our bills (and their due dates). And that’s assuming we have a steady job that covers expenses with room for savings.

I’ve always considered myself good with money — ADHD and all — but I want to tell you about my recent experience with a financial planner. I balked at the idea when my husband first suggested it. After all, I (and most of my family) take pride in my ability to handle money responsibly, without asking for help. However, hiring a financial planner was one of my best decisions in recent memory.

Regardless of where you are with money, I highly recommend a financial planner to make sure you’re on the right track. Here’s what the process looked like for us.

Financial planners aren’t just for rich people

While many wealth management consultants only see people with over $1 million in assets, there’s a whole network of planners who take on smaller clients. At first, I thought hiring a financial planner made a statement about how much money you had: enough that you couldn’t figure out what to do with it. But we all need to save for the future, even if we’re not making a ton of cash.

Our financial planner reviewed the full inventory of our assets — from our bank accounts, to our employer-sponsored retirement accounts, to an IRA my grandmother insisted I open as a teenager — and gave us a list of tweaks. His suggestions had little impact on our current lifestyle, but those investments will be worth a lot more down the road. I’d been on the right track, funneling money into long-term savings to “hide” it from our temptation to make impulse purchases. Our financial planner helped us make sure we were saving the right amount, and that the money we saved was being invested wisely.

If you don’t have much, it’s even more important to run a tight financial ship. Our financial planner recommended using automatic transfers. We love them. Money disappears into accounts we’re keeping for retirement, a new kitchen, and our son’s college education. I realized we need to prepare for R’s preschool tuition bill. It isn’t due for several months, but it could hurt our emergency buffer if we don’t set money aside. I also started brainstorming ways we could save on our monthly expenses. I used to think relatively little about money and hope for the best. When there was money left over, I transferred it to savings. Otherwise, our paychecks covered everything we needed. Now I’m more conscious of big-ticket expenses coming up — and how much we need to save — thanks to automatic transfers that keep me on a schedule.

How we found our financial planner

We started our search through the Garrett Planning Network. Most of Garrett’s planners work with smaller clients, and they don’t receive any commissions for their work. In other words, they charge a fee for the hours they spend crafting your plan, and that’s the only way they get paid. They have an obligation to work in your best interest.

After we made a list of planners in our region, we narrowed it to one who looked like the best fit. Then we arranged a get-to-know-you meeting. I used this guide from the Wall Street Journal to brush up on the basics of the business. Before our meeting, our planner asked for a basic inventory of our finances. We met and discussed expectations, made sure we understood his services and fees, and ultimately decided to proceed.

My husband was skeptical at first. I’d done all the initial research, and he had only the planner’s website as an introduction. After our initial meeting, he was completely sold. This was critical: we were trusting someone else with part of our financial future. I wasn’t willing to pull the trigger unless we both felt confident.

Deadlines, deadlines

Not only did our financial planner give us advice we wouldn’t have thought of on our own, he gave us a to-do list. We’ll probably check in with him again in a year or two. I’ve been more motivated to carry out his suggestions than I would’ve if I’d been on my own. If nothing else, I don’t want to show up to our check-in empty-handed.

For adults with ADHD, this readymade to-do list — not to mention having someone else do the mountain of research on financial minutiae — seems like a fantastic idea. A future check-in establishes external accountability, something notably absent in my previous DIY financial management strategy. As hesitant as I was to enlist help with my financial future, I feel like it’s already paid for itself.

What do you think? Have you worked with a financial planner? Do you struggle with money? 

5 random, mundane things ADHD messes up for me

ADHD and everyday life: it’s almost all I write about here. I try to touch on the important issues, the ones that can cripple our relationships, productivity, and self-actualization. On the ground, though, the little stuff adds up. It makes us laugh. It grinds us down. It affects how others judge us.

Here are five random ways ADHD affects my day-to-day.

  1. Maintaining curb appeal. I live in a sweet little neighborhood where most people take pretty good care of their yards. I love taking care of my yard. It’s rewarding, and it gives me quality outdoor time. The problem is, taking care of the yard(s) requires consistent effort. I’m really great at burst effort. I mow the lawn on the regular, but I’ve also been guilty of the following: dismantling a children’s play structure and letting the pieces blow around the front yard for months. Leaving a length of baseboard from a demolition project leaning on my back fence for five years (and counting). Doing a great job mulching in April, then letting weeds take over the flower garden in July. Repairing the structure of our decorative porch column, then leaving it a bare wooden post all winter (and counting). The list goes on. I can’t imagine what would happen if I didn’t even enjoy this stuff.
  2. Keeping gas in the car. I think I put gas in my car every month or so. I used to drive more, and fueling up at a quarter tank was part of my routine. Now, it’s so long between fill-ups that I forget the gas station, and even the gas gauge, exist. I often don’t look at the gas gauge until the orange light comes on. Then, the ADHD dissociation of actions from consequences kicks in. Intellectually, I know my car will eventually run out of gas. On a deeper level, I can’t feel it. It doesn’t seem real. The feeling most people get when the fuel light comes on doesn’t always happen for me. This is why people with ADHD do such dumb stuff sometimes. Yes, part of our brain knows what will happen, but the part that directs our actions misses the memo. It’s almost unbelievable, even to someone who experiences it.
  3. Using wart remover. You know the stuff I’m talking about, right? The directions say to apply it every day for a couple weeks. For four years, I’ve failed to remember this for enough days in a row to permanently remove a wart.
  4. Parenting with consistency. I often say, “well, next time…” and “okay, but from now on…” The problem is, unless I write that down, I probably won’t remember. My highest priority is to  provide a consistent, predictable system of consequences in my child’s life. I feel awful every time ADHD sabotages this, either because my heat-of-the-moment “next time” was impulsive and unreasonable, or because I forgot the promised consequence.
  5. Helping the homeless. I feel distinctly not-okay every time I shake my head “no” or ignore a homeless person. At the same time, I would rather give them a bus pass, a snack, or something similarly useful than straight-up cash. My goal in life is to keep a stock of granola bars within arm’s reach in my car. That way, I can hand a healthy snack out the window when someone is holding a sign at a red light. However, achieving this is a legit project. I need to select a temperature-tolerant, individually packaged snack, remember to buy it at the store, remember to put it in my car, and remember it’s there when I want it. I feel guilty about the fact that I haven’t succeeded yet.

Alright, your turn. What’s an unexpected roadblock ADHD throws up in your life? Share it in the comments, we won’t judge 😉

How much should we help a spouse with ADHD?

Last week, I wrote about ADHD, failure, and resilience. The week before, I wrote about letting go of all my life’s could-have-beens.

But what about the person right beside us — our life’s co-pilot? What if we’re married to someone who has ADHD, too?

Living in a dual-ADHD marriage is complicated. Where does my success or failure stop, and my partner’s begin? Where do my responsibilities to myself stop, and my responsibilities to my family begin? How much of my self should I invest in lifting up another person?

A friend told me once, before I got married, that a marriage is like becoming 1.5 people. You never do anything truly alone. In many ways this is true: our fates are intertwined. We can’t (or at least shouldn’t) give up all of ourselves in service to another person, but neither can we afford to cut the rope and let them drown.

So how much should a partner’s ADHD feel like my problem? How much should I help, support, and rescue?

ADHD is different for everyone

Our family’s biggest blessing and biggest challenge is how different we are. My husband and I come from opposite ends of the ADHD spectrum. His Achilles’  heel is hyperfocus and time management. My focus is all over the place. On the bright side, I can’t stand being late. Rigid systems and lists repel him, whereas I’ve used them as a form of coping and self-soothing since my teens. I have no idea how to relax. He refuses to worry about anything until it’s critical. ADHD manifests differently for everyone. We’re a perfect illustration of this.

While differences allow us to support each other, we can’t let each other — or ourselves — off the hook. If adult responsibilities are divided too unevenly, a marriage can begin to feel like a parent-child relationship. I may be anxious and obsessively organized, but I shouldn’t do so much for my husband that he feels incompetent.

I also have to remember: my ADHD isn’t his ADHD. What feels right for me, may make little sense to him.

Life and marriage are different for everyone

I also have to think of my own sanity. ADHD expert Gina Pera often tells partners of people with ADHD, “put on your own oxygen mask first.” That often means finding a way to make peace with how things are right now. Regardless of how I’d like our team to operate, how can I make sure I write every day — right now? How can I practice yoga daily and go running three times per week? How can I keep others’ behavior from stressing me out? If I’m running myself ragged for someone, it’s not a healthy relationship. I help, I support, but I don’t sacrifice my self-care priorities.

Also, every marriage is unique. I’ve had many people, most of them pretty good friends, tell me things like “I don’t know how you do it” or “I could never put up with that.” What they mean is this: they couldn’t tolerate their spouse, in their marriage, rarely being around to help put their kids to bed. They wouldn’t want to be responsible for mowing the lawn or taking out the trash. For me, in my marriage, these things are tolerable. I enjoy mowing the lawn. Sometimes I ask my husband to take a few days off to stay with our son while I attend a writing conference or retreat. He supports me 100%. He’s never said no, and he’s never complained. As long as the equation balances for me, I try to ignore what may or may not work for anyone else.

ADHD symptoms, in priority order

If I’m asking myself how much I should help my ADHD partner, I have to consider if he even wants my help. How much of a problem is this for him? What are his priorities?

My own symptom-management priority has always been clear: to make sure I can comprehend and stick to a system for keeping myself organized. I can’t stand living in chaos.

On the other hand, I bet my husband would point to my temper. Also, my tendency to start new projects whenever I think of them, never mind the 10 projects I’ve already dragged him into. He’d probably say my ADHD can — when poorly managed — make me negative, inflexible, combative, and anxious.

Being an intolerable person is a problem, I get that. It’s just not as big a problem as failing to be productive.

It’s important to talk each other about what symptoms are bothering us most. Walking into an argument — or a well-intentioned attempt to help — assuming the other person ranks this problem the same way you do is a recipe for disaster.

Setting a spouse up for success

There’s also the issue of teaching a person with ADHD to fish, rather than giving them a free pass. My husband also has trouble coming up with productive ways to spend time with our preschooler on the weekends. He has things he wants to do, and he struggles with how to involve our son. I bought a few books with screen-free and science-y activities for young children. I bookmarked a handful of pages. Then I gave my husband a few pre-selected choices on a Saturday morning. He had no trouble picking one. He and R. went to the store for supplies, returned home, and made sensory “moon sand” in the kitchen.

I kept expectations reasonable. I didn’t berate him, nor did I hold his hand any more than I needed to. I set him up for success because success builds confidence and, in this case, relationships.

Go for what works

The bottom line: it’s a balancing act. I’m trying to find the sweet spot between the health of my family, our relationship(s), and my own sanity. I support and help — and, yes, pick up slack for — my husband. I also demand that certain conditions be met: our family relationships are strong, I’m taking good care of myself, and our home and finances are in order. When my kid feels hurt or disappointed, I’m not writing, and/or I feel like I have too much on my plate, I speak up and demand change. Otherwise, if it works, I do it — even if it’s not the way my friends are managing their home lives.

Does having ADHD mean I can’t succeed?

People often ask me about getting organized with ADHD. I like chatting about organizing at home, too. Recently, my husband said something interesting.

He told me, “But these [strategies] don’t work for me — that’s what ADHD is.”

But is it?

There are scores of apps and organizational systems out there. Does having ADHD mean we’re doomed to fail with all of them?

I’m doomed, but not hopeless

My answer: yes and no. Yes, we’re doomed to fail. No, ADHD doesn’t consign us to a hopeless and chaotic existence. Everyone fails sometimes, perhaps people with ADHD more than the average. Whether that makes us feel “doomed” is a matter of resilience, as long as our symptoms are under control.

For all my praise of David Allen’s Getting Things Done — my ultimate organizing go-to — I’ve failed with GTD many times. But that’s the key: many times. I’ve had to train myself to start over, and over, and over. In order to succeed, I’ve had to make peace with failure.

Of course, sometimes I do feel like having ADHD means I can’t succeed, or I’ll never be as successful as someone without ADHD. I think anyone with any disability feels this way sometimes. It can feel like I work twice as hard because I need to keep my ADHD under control. That’s it’s own project, and it only gets me to the starting line.

Symptom management: always the first step

However, there are ways to make life with ADHD easier.

First and foremost is symptom management. As I’ve said before, I know GTD works for me. It feels right. My project/task management app, Toodledo, feels right. Neither feel easy, but they feel right. And when both became impossible — that is, I truly felt doomed to fail, and became increasingly ineffective — I knew something else was broken.

As it turned out, the medication that worked well for me before I had a kid was no longer effective (this isn’t uncommon — changing estrogen levels can have massive impacts on women’s ADHD symptoms). I went through a brief trial and error process to find a new medication that worked for me. Maintaining my organizational systems became possible again.

I think of this like eyeglasses for my brain. For most of my life, I lived with severe nearsightedness — the “I need my glasses to find my glasses” variety. While I still had limitations with my glasses, I could see well enough to function in the regular world. ADHD meds don’t magically turn me into a “normal” person, but they approximate it well enough, just like strong eyeglasses.

Even if a system like GTD or Bullet Journal or an app like Toodledo is perfect for me, I can’t maintain it with out-of-control ADHD symptoms. In this way, my husband was right: effective symptom management is the first step to implementing an organizational system. Skipping it is like trying to read a tiny-print textbook without glasses.

The right tools for my brain (and no one else’s)

As highly as I value symptom management, I don’t believe meds make me a superstar at every organizational system. I still need to work with my brain, and I can’t impose my favorite tools on the rest of my household. While having ADHD doesn’t stop me from using a system like GTD or Bullet Journal, I’ve had to learn what works for me and what doesn’t. Even if a friend swears by a specific app, cleaning schedule, visual filing system, etc. — I have to know that if it doesn’t feel right, I’m not going to use it well.

And that may be the most critical point: many people can get by with a half-system. Many people can force themselves to get organized with a system they don’t love, or that doesn’t mesh with their thinking style. People with ADHD cannot.

We’ve had to think about this a lot in our home. I bristle at clutter and gravitate toward closed storage. My husband, a visual thinker, dislikes putting anything away if that means he can’t see it. To contain the amoebas of junk that push me over the edge, we use a lot of baskets.

Likewise, you might think Gmail’s Priority inbox, starred messages, auto sorting features, or new Inbox app would help people with ADHD. Maybe they do, but they don’t help me. They make me freak out because they don’t mesh with the way I need to manage my email. Rather than listen to the rest of the world tell me how great they are, I’ve disabled all of it, and I plan to keep it that way.

When you find what works, don’t let it go

That’s how I have to be if I want to succeed as an adult with ADHD. I have to defend and stick to what works. Having ADHD means my field of of stuff that will work is pretty narrow. It means what works for some people might not work for me, and what works for me might seem silly or weird to others.

My system isn’t perfect, and sometimes it fails despite my best efforts. But having ADHD doesn’t mean I have to label myself a failure. It just requires me to be ever-vigilant, making sure I’m using the right tools to control both my symptoms and my inboxes.

How about you? Have you found a system that works for you yet? How do you manage ADHD burnout, and the fear that you’ll never get it right?

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