The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Month: October 2016

Sewing, ADHD, empathy, and learning to switch gears

My husband and I inhabit opposite ends of the ADHD spectrum, and we sometimes clash over each other’s use of personal and project time around the house. I’ve tried to develop empathy and understanding for his work style, but it’s hard, especially when my own ADHD hinders that empathetic response. I’ve learned the most — and gained the most empathy — from a hobby I’m shocked to have in the first place: sewing.

sewing-adhd-empathy

A little background on what makes time management a thorny issue for us: My focus ping-pongs between tasks. I love starting new projects. Anyone who shares an office with me will notice, I have a habit of saying a sentence or two every few minutes. This drives my husband crazy.

He finds interruptions unbearable. Once interrupted, he spends a lot of energy sinking back into his task. My multi-tasking, over-ambitious nature aggravates and overwhelms him. He only wants to work on one thing at once. Once he’s in the zone, he finds it nearly impossible to break away. He can agree the task sin’t worth the time, isn’t a priority, should at least be delayed for the sake of family time, sleep, or food — but he’ll still spend an entire day on it. I can’t spend an entire day on one thing, even if I want to.

In short: we have two very different brains. We both have ADHD, but we struggle to regulate our focus in different ways.

An unlikely truce with the sewing machine.

Until my late 20s, I avoided the sewing machine. It required many things I lacked: Focus. An ability to read directions without missing a step. A light touch. Patience. Willingness to forgo ill-advised shortcuts. My sewing projects ended one of two ways: Abandoned due to some mishap (see above) or looking uncharmingly homemade.

Then something happened. First, I started treating my ADHD. My house also needed curtains, and I had trouble finding the right size and color in the store. Curtains felt expensive for their quality. If I wanted the right stuff, I’d have to make it myself.

From curtains grew a desire to make clothing, floor cushions (another item I considered overpriced), and a weighted therapy blanket. With each project, I learned new tricks, new skills.

An object lesson in hyperfocus.

I also noticed something happening in my brain. I got into the zone with sewing in a way I usually found impossible. I’d finish a seam and want to sew up one more raw edge, and then one more. As the finished product grew nearer, I found it harder to put it down.

I mentioned this to my husband and he said, that’s exactly what software engineering is, except there’s always one more raw edge.

It’s the kind of thing that can become an addiction for a person with ADHD — especially one who struggles with controlling hyperfocus and switching tasks. With each raw edge that disappears, our brains get another little hit of dopamine. With that, we’re already chasing the next.

Brains out of (and back in) the corral.

Regardless of whether it contributes to an ADHD superpower, I don’t think hyperfocus feels good. Sure, my husband likes writing software, but he doesn’t like staying at work all night. Once the spell is broken, he won’t defend his decision to sink hours into a Wikipedia rabbit hole. In fact, it hardly feels like a decision at all. Hyperfocus can feel like a superhuman skill, but at some level, we also know we’re out of control.

My new sewing habit helped me understand and develop compassion for my husband, but I used it to teach my brain new tricks, too. I stopped and considered how long I might like to spend on sewing before I sat down at the machine. I forced myself to stop after that time had elapsed, even if my brain screamed in protest. When I burned out on  a writing project, I drifted to my sewing table. Switching to a spacial, manual task allowed the linguistic part of my brain to recharge. It gave me time to decompress and allow new ideas to bubble to the surface. After a lifetime of trying to corral my focus, I learned that switching gears — done wisely — can be a good thing.

It’s easy to give up on ourselves in certain respects: to say, “my ADHD makes me bad at that.” It’s even easier to get angry with a spouse because we feel they don’t get it, aren’t trying hard enough, or just don’t care how their behavior affects us. To my surprise, sewing has taught me a lot on both fronts. I conquered a previously unconquerable skill, and I got a taste of what hyperfocusers are up against.

When do you struggle most to empathize with your partner? What helps you see the world from their perspective?

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Firm and kind: A challenge for ADHD families.

I think I speak for most ADHD-affected households when I say, sometimes we don’t bring out the best in each other. In his book Healing ADD From the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Amen makes a list of games people with ADHD love to play. One of them is, “I bet I can get you to hit me or yell at me.” Sound familiar?

Most of the time, this isn’t even conscious. People with poorly managed ADHD — or those whose medication has worn off for the day — have trouble regulating emotional responses. They also use conflict to balance out their brain chemistry. Yelling, fighting, or needling someone until they explode provides a boost of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in short supply for ADHD’ers.

Without proper treatment and education, these become lifelong behavior patterns.

firm-and-kind-and-adhd

My goal when responding to these behaviors — and I falter often — is to be both firm and kind. Too many people still believe stricter parenting (like we had in the “good old days”) is the answer for kids with ADHD. When we see unacceptable behavior, we read a lack of visible, tangible punishment as permissive parenting. To some, firm and kind feel mutually exclusive.

This attitude isn’t limited to children: I hear the same about spouses and other adult family members. We don’t like to see someone “get away” with bad behavior.

I’m firm, I’m kind, but I don’t consider myself permissive with my family. I’m certainly not a doormat. In fact, people often tell me I’m the only person so-and-so will listen to, or they ask why a certain family member behaves better around me. It goes to show: Firm and kind can be strong, too.

Respect for myself

I first discovered “firm and kind” in parenting expert Vicki Hoefle’s lovely books and this post on her blog. Her words have changed my life. I feel like I have permission to look out for myself while I care for my family. Returning to Dr. Amen’s game of “I bet I can get you to hit me or yell at me,” I wonder how much respect I can have for myself when I’m falling right into that trap. In parenting, as in all social interactions, if someone can goad me into a fight, they can control me. If my child can make me late every time we leave the house, he’s in control. An out-of-control person doesn’t command respect from herself, let alone others.

When I draw a boundary, I show everyone I mean it. It doesn’t matter whether the boundary is big or small. I’m firm about reducing the number of days our family spends traveling around Christmas. I’m also firm about leaving for school at 8:45 a.m., regardless of who’s still in bare feet.

Giving kindness and respect to my family

At the same time, I try to practice kindness without letting others step all over my boundaries. I don’t say, “fine, you spent so long playing around, see how you like freezing your toes on the way to the car!” I say, “okay, time to leave. I’ll bring your shoes to the car so you can put them on while we drive.”

Simple. Matter of fact. Kind.

Hoefle claims that all children modify behavior based on what earns a reaction. We can deduce that children with ADHD do this to the extreme. When we engage in power struggles, allow ourselves to be goaded into flying off the handle, or allow our child’s behavior to control a situation, we set ourselves — and our children — up for more of the same tomorrow. This feels more unkind than letting him get cold toes on the way to the car.

Modeling how I want to be treated

After reading Hoefle’s books, my ears became attuned to how parents all around me spoke to their children. Try this next time you’re in a public place: Imagine the children as adults. What would you think if you heard someone speaking to an adult that way?

“Firm but kind” reconciles my two minds when it comes to parenting. We can be firm. We can refuse to engage in a power struggle. We can also be kind without letting kids ‘get away’ with bad behavior.

In other words, we can be respectful without being permissive. We can be kind without becoming a doormat. I apply these principles to everyone in my family, from ages 3-85. I’ve discovered that the harder it is to get a rise out of me, the more respect and accommodation I get from others. Especially those with ADHD.

Have you struggled to maintain peace and respect in your family? What keeps you grounded?

Why I don’t commiserate with friends about my ADHD partner

It can seem like a favorite pastime for the over-30 set: we commiserate with friends — almost always same-gender, often accompanied by alcohol — about our spouses’ foibles.

We’ve all done it, and we’ve all nodded along while someone else aired their grievances. In the sober light of day, we might wave this grousing off as harmless. It’s not, especially when someone in the relationship has ADHD. Taken too far, it can be as toxic as the ADHD itself.

happily-married

 

Here’s the problem: We view the world through our lens, and others through theirs. It’s easy for neurotypical third parties to misinterpret ADHD behavior. A well-meaning friend may jump to our defense, labeling our ADHD spouse as abusive or manipulative, selfish or inconsiderate. Surprisingly few ADHD behaviors are intentional or calculated, but most of the world reads it that way. We may read it that way. Our friends, eager to support and defend us, reflect it back.

To clarify: I’m not condoning bad behavior. Poorly managed ADHD can make the whole family miserable.  I’m also talking about my own experience in a normal, loving, ADHD-afffected relationship. ADHD affects all kinds of people, including selfish, abusive jerks. I’m not married to one of them.

ADHD hides other sides of the story.

ADHD can color the way I perceive and react to domestic negotiations. Last fall, I wrote about the challenges of being a workaholic homemaker with ADHD. I lamented the loss of our twice-monthly cleaning service, which was supposed to be temporary but which I tried to make permanent. I wanted more time to write, and I thought paying a cleaning lady could give me just that.

Imagine me telling this story, fresh off the original confrontation with my husband, to a supportive stay-at-home mom friend. What might she say? That my dreams are important, too? Who is my husband to deprive me of this over a relatively minor expense? That it’s 2016, and he shouldn’t expect a woman to be a full-time homemaker while he continues to advance his career?

Here’s the truth: My husband is incredibly supportive of my writing on a daily basis. This summer, he took time off from work to stay with our son while I attended a writing conference. He didn’t think twice about spending the money on the conference, nor did he complain about staying home with R. He has complete faith in me and admires my dedication to my work. As for which parent stays home, he would’ve been happy to do it. Our decision was made on the basis of money and, at some level, who was more in control of their ADHD symptoms.

Here’s another truth: Being a homemaker for an ADHD household takes a lot of time and effort. Having ADHD myself makes everything harder. When a spouse has ADHD, the other partner usually picks up slack from them, too. I’m pulling more weight than the average stay-at-home mom, plus I have my own impairments. Not only that, my ADHD hinders my ability to roll with the punches. I had more trouble dealing with the argument about the cleaning lady than the loss of her services.

If I lack adequate time to write, the culprit isn’t ideology, it’s poorly-managed ADHD. I shouldn’t be asking for a cleaning lady, I should be demanding that X, Y, and Z ADHD symptoms be brought under control. Most important, I should wait for a calm moment to plot my way forward. The problem is, I doubt that’s what a girlfriend would tell me over a glass of wine.

Don’t judge: our worst is the worst.

The bottom line: our family is mutually supportive and egalitarian, and we’re doing the best we can. We make mistakes, we overreact, but we apologize an move on. We know and honor each other’s true selves. Both my husband and I admit we have ADHD, admit it’s a problem, and make an effort to manage the symptoms that negatively impact others.

ADHD happens to good people, and it can make us look bad. In our worst — usually unmedicated — moments, we can look downright monstrous. I’ve dealt with this all my life: an outburst, a temporary loss of myself, an irrational response, and suddenly that’s what defines me in someone else’s eyes. It feels awful, and it’s why I try not to complain about my husband to my friends. Because he’s a great guy, and most of the time my life feels inappropriately fortunate. He’s my family. I don’t want ADHD to define him as anything other than that.

Do you struggle to be fair to your partner while satisfying your need to vent? What have you learned?

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