The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Month: February 2017

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.

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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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Me & my ADHD: Letting go of the careers that could’ve been.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been sure of my path. Each year, I’ve thought, this is what I’m meant to do. And each year has found me doing something different.

By ninth grade, I’d picked my future college: Berklee College of Music in Boston. I’d never visited, but I loved Boston. My future as a musician was a forgone conclusion. Eager to make sure everything was perfect by senior year, I printed the entire application right then and there.

Sounds very un-ADHD — that is, if I’d ended up going to Boston, or going to school for music. I did neither. As tightly as I’d latched onto that specific idea — going to Berklee and majoring in music performance — I got derailed. Someone I respected and trusted told me something I hadn’t considered: music majors practice a lot. Over eight hours per day, he said. I’d have to give up almost everything else.

Everything else: Writing, art, photography, reading, publishing my zine. The idea of turning my back on those many passions — even in service to my greatest one, which I’d used as a lifeline throughout my adolescence — spooked me.

So began a long succession of college majors. I spread my undergraduate career over four majors and two universities.

Ability, interest, and time intersect

I used to think I could do anything. That I hadn’t and wasn’t — well, it gnawed at me. I envisioned my 30-something self as someone who’d earned two PhDs, hiked the Inca Trail, and learned to speak seven languages. While many of my peers honed and narrowed their passions throughout their teens and 20s, I wondered how anyone could settle down with just one life path. The world was too interesting for that.

I’ve changed gears and started over a lot. I’ve been accepted into undergraduate programs in psychology, education, and fine arts, and graduate programs in business and community art. I regret not studying neuroscience, physics, creative writing, or music performance in college. My favorite class senior year was Geology. My favorite class freshman year was Arab-Israeli Conflict and Peacemaking. I’ve held — and loved — jobs in a cabinetry shop, print shop, IT support desk, and community-based non-profit. My strongest natural talent is playing the flute.

I believed I was smart enough to get a PhD in anything. I had it in me to be a successful entrepreneur, I had the potential to write the next Tony Award-winning musical, and my latest blog project was sure to go viral. The only thing holding me back was time: how would I find time to do it all?

As I neared my 30th birthday, I faced a sudden fear that time was running out. I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I asked myself, when have I ever focused on one thing for long enough to accumulate 10,000 hours of practice? Eventually, I realized that through all of this, I’ve always been a writer. Before I could use a pen, I’d sit next to my mother and dictate stories to her while she copied my words into construction-paper books.

Not all that shines is worthy

Over the past few years, I’ve pondered my identity and my long-term goals. I’ve realized, finally, that if I want to be successful at anything, I have to learn to let go. I have to let go of my dreams of being a famous musician, a Supreme Court Justice, and a neuroscience researcher. As I failed to do all those years ago, I need to pare my life down and make time for my craft — and I have to keep that craft the same, year after year.

It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been working on the same novel draft since 2009. I’ve gotten tired of it and wanted to quit so many times, I have no idea how it’s gotten this far. Likewise with this blog. I’ve come up with 1001 justifications for retiring it and moving on.

I don’t know how I’ve kept it up. I’ve never stuck with anything for this long. All I can say is, it started to feel good. I pitched my manuscript to agents last August and got wonderful feedback. Now a few are waiting on the full, revised manuscript. People have written me from all over to tell me how much they appreciate my blog, and how much my writing has helped them. To quit now would be to let a lot of people down, not least of all myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a letdown before — plenty of times. But it takes on a different meaning as I get older. The questions at parties and holiday dinners twist my heart a little more. I’m closer to the end of my life than I’ve ever been, and I’m beginning to grasp the consequences of starting over every few years. And so I’ve resolved to let most of it go: all the careers that could’ve been.

Yoking to a path: the anti-ADHD

My 30s have been about choosing a path — one path — and tilling that soil for multiple seasons. Our identities are shaped by the work we do each day. That work is like a marriage: something I choose daily, deliberately, and continue to choose throughout my life. It’s not something that sweeps me off my feet on a weekly basis, nor is it something that should change with everything new and shiny. It requires work, intention, dedication. It’s not always fun or exhilarating, but in the end, it’s deeply rewarding. It’s where I’ve chosen to belong.

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