The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: conflict resolution

Through the valley of the shadow of emotional hyperfocus

Let’s talk about feelings. ADHD feelings.

Most people don’t realize, ADHD is way more than forgetfulness and distractability and poor impulse control. ADHD can make our emotions big and scary and maybe even dangerous. Feelings that come and go quickly for others can suck us in, kind of like an emotional eddy.

Growing up alongside a big, gorgeous river, I learned about eddies. They kill a lot of people. They’re powerful and disorienting, and no human can overcome the force of that much water.

But you can get out. You do it by swimming straight down to the bottom, then downstream a ways, and then you try to reach the surface.

It works for feelings, too.

Sometimes, it’s not a big deal (to you).

My ADHD symptoms got worse during our kitchen renovation. All the mess and disruption did a number on my mental health. That I observed and identified this situation — you know, as one of those life circumstances that’ll give a neurotypical person ADHD-like symptoms — was perhaps my only saving grace.

One evening, just before bed, I annoyed my husband somehow. I forget how, and it doesn’t matter, because it wasn’t a big deal. It didn’t need to be a Whole Big Thing. It was a Normal Marriage Thing. A blip on the radar.

Here’s the problem for many adults with ADHD: we tend to latch onto things, and we have a lot of trouble letting go. Poorly managed ADHD blows Normal Marriage Things into Whole Big Things on the regular. It’s exhausting.

Fortunately, I recognized this. I decided — for once! — not to force my husband through a conversation about why he was or wasn’t annoyed with me, and how we could fix it. He wasn’t worried about it, and he wanted to go to sleep. Have you ever kept your spouse up for hours with a bizarre, melodramatic Whole Big Thing whose significance you couldn’t even explain the next day? I have. Let’s just say I wanted to jump on the opportunity to avoid it this time. I got out of bed and removed myself to another room to settle down.

“Forget it” and “drop it” don’t really work with ADHD.

That’s all great, except I don’t know how to let things go. This is why I insist on talking through everything immediately, and why I never, ever want to go to bed angry. I knew I had to drop it, and I knew bothering my husband with drama while he was trying to sleep would make things worse. That didn’t prevent me from suffering.

People with ADHD can get stuck on an emotion. The feeling magnifies itself until it’s overwhelming, even frightening. We can become a person we don’t know. Just like time disappears with task hyperfocus, the spectrum of our emotions disappears with emotional hyperfocus.

It’s easy to sink into a spiral of self-loathing, anger, hopelessness, worthlessness. Once you’re in the spiral, it’s like an eddy: it sucks you down. It won’t let you out the way you came. If you let it overwhelm you, you’ll drown.

There I was, on the couch, gasping for air as those toxic emotions pulled me under.

Swimming to the bottom of the emotional eddy.

I found my way out, albeit by accident.

Don’t ask me how I thought of this in my state of hysteria, but imagined my future self. I pictured myself standing in our yet-to-be-constructed new kitchen. I was at the island, preparing food, surrounded by friends and family. Happy.

I felt the negative emotions dissipate, like a fog lifting.

Turning off a light, touching someone on the arm, or forcing them to get up and get a drink of water can help break the spell of hyperfocus. I suppose I forced my brain to do this in a more figurative sense. I offered a distraction. I walked my brain over to a different corner, forced my mental eyes to refocus, and suddenly I could see the real world again.

Dropping it with my husband took me to the bottom of the emotional abyss. To my surprise, I resurfaced on my own this time.

When we’re out of it, we’re out of it.

I don’t intend this as a how-to, even though I’d love to imagine my words helping someone. Think of this as an ask, of those of you who love someone with ADHD. I want to help you understand how hard this is. How hysterical we get over stuff that’s not a big deal. How, in the moment, it is a big deal. We can lose all sense of self-worth. We attack. We may literally not be able to comprehend the fact that you still love us.

So don’t try to reason with us. Don’t even try to recognize us. Wait for us to come back first, or better yet, try to help find us.

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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?

When you’re not yourself

During an emotional meltdown, part of us really does disappear. My two-year-old gave me a powerful reminder of this while we were staying with friends for the weekend.

R — exhausted from days of fun and social interaction — totally lost it getting ready for nap. We were in full meltdown mode. I just sat in the middle of the room and tried to remain calm as he sobbed, crawled in circles, and screamed incoherent sentences.

The crying eventually subsided. R opened his eyes, looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time, smiled, and said…

“Hi.”

Hi. As though he had just returned from Somewhere Else. In a way, he had.

When your rational brain checks out

It happens to grownups, too. I especially like how Dr. Mark Goulston describes this phenomenon in his book Just Listen.  He refers to our “three-part brain” as:

  • The lower reptilian brain (fight-or-flight),
  • The middle mammal brain (emotions), and
  • The higher primate brain (logic and rational thought)

These parts were added on sequentially as we evolved. For a real-life illustration, spend some time with babies and toddlers. In his classic Happiest Toddler on the BlockDr. Harvey Karp compares toddlers to “primitive little cavemen” living a “superfast rerun of ancient human development.”

As adults, Goulston says, these three parts of our brain can work as a team. However, add a little stress and our old reptile brain takes over.

“If you’re talking to [someone] whose lower brain or midbrain is in control,” explains Goulston, “you’re talking to a cornered snake or, at best, a hysterical rabbit.”

The biggest mistake we make in our ADHD household? Assuming someone is thinking rationally — with our primate brain — when we’re not.

not yourself pull quote

Your reptile brain deserves some space

When I’m feeling like that cornered snake or hysterical rabbit — not sure which is worse — the critical next step is telling myself, you’re not yourself right now. Or, more accurately, I’m the last person I want handling an important decision or conversation.

I’ve learned it’s best to honor where I am at the moment and give myself space to cool down. Naming feelings helps a lot. Try it next time you’re in emotional or fight-or-flight mode: say — aloud or to yourself — I’m feeling really out of control. That comment was really hurtful. Wow, I’m so angry. Listening to my child cry is sending my stress hormones through the roof.

It’s a hard skill to learn, and it requires practice. My brain loves to trick me into justifying extreme emotions or, even worse, sticking it out in an argument despite feeling hysterical.

This is almost always a terrible idea, especially given ADHD’s effects on emotional regulation. Emotional control is often lacking in ADHD adults. “Without well-developed verbal and nonverbal working memory,” explains Dr. Russell Barkley in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, “you have less capacity for the visual imagery and self-speech that can help you calm your emotions.”

If you’re in a relationship with an ADHD adult, this emotional reactivity may be all too familiar. In Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?Gina Pera describes “a tendency to become easily frustrated and growl or blow up, but react 10 minutes later with over-the-top excitement to something else.”

This describes me to a T. My rational brain can be a real diva. It’s ready to walk off the stage at any moment, leaving me to yell the exact wrong thing at my husband, boss, or kid. Once I’m entrenched in a conflict, I forget how I even got there.

It’s tough to counter this. The first step is noticing it’s happening. Intense emotions are, most of the time, an indication that I need to back off. It’s not the time to work through an important issue with my husband, make decisions, or provide my opinion on someone else’s behavior. A poor grasp of time makes it tough to defer these things. Right Now can be the only time that feels real.

But defer we must, if we want to maintain healthy relationships. It’s okay to be upset, and it never hurts to ask, “can we talk about this a little later?” It’s not okay to explode at someone, say a lot of really upsetting things to them, and later claim you have no memory of what happened. My life has been a lot of the former and not enough of the latter, but I’m working on it.

How about you? How do you minimize the damage when your rational brain shuts down?

Blame shifting: when someone you love puts it all on you

If you love someone with ADHD, you may know too well how blame shifting can hurt a relationship.

Blame shifting takes many forms:

“If you didn’t make me so angry all the time, I wouldn’t explode at you. Would you rather I bottled it all up?”

“I wouldn’t have gotten a speeding ticket if you hadn’t asked a bunch of questions when you knew I was trying to get out the door.”

“I never thought I’d be the type to cheat, but you made me feel so unappreciated.”

“You and Dad never modeled a healthy relationship for me. No wonder my marriage fell apart.”

Daniel Amen blame shifting quote

For the purposes of this post, let’s look at a smaller-scale example:

Suppose you’re having company over tonight. Your husband meant to take pork chops out of the freezer last night, but he forgot. He arrives home from some errands at 4:30, ready to marinate the chops so he can throw them on the grill when your guests arrive.

Upon discovering the meat still in the freezer, he blows up at you:

“Great, now dinner is ruined! You were here all day and you couldn’t have noticed the meat wasn’t in the fridge? Every time I think you have my back, you’re just thinking about your own stuff and doing your own thing. All our other married friends work together as a team. You make me feel like our relationship is just every man for himself…”

And on and on.

In describing this behavior to your friends — or searching the internet — you may learn blame shifting is often categorized as psychological abuse.

Does this mean you’re in an abusive relationship and it’s time to get out?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Why we blame others

Just like shifting blame onto others is easier to swallow than accepting your own (often overwhelming) faults, it’s easy to cast ourselves in the role of the victim. Once we’ve accepted the role, both parties learn to play their part like it’s second nature.

Before we write off a blame shifter as incurably abusive and ill-intentioned, it’s worth a closer look. The ability to see a situation from multiple angles and experience emotions without being blinded by them is a marker of strength. We can assert and protect ourselves in ways other than walking out the door.

As we seek that steady foundation, we need to remember why people people tend to mistreat others. As a child, I remember my mother telling me bullies picked on me because they felt badly about themselves.

Bullies of all ages use others to shift focus away from their own hurts. In his book Healing ADD from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Amen writes, “people who ruin their own lives have a strong tendency to blame other people when things go wrong.” Consider the pain, humiliation, and self-loathing weighing on the hearts of so many ADHD adults and it’s easy to see blame shifting and other emotionally abusive behaviors as the path of least resistance.

Accepting even a minor failure — like forgetting to take the meat out of the freezer — can feel like too much to bear if your self-image has already been decimated by ADHD. Allowing ourselves to own that one misstep threatens to open the floodgates, confirming our worst fears about ourselves and reinforcing our most damaging self-criticisms.

Disarm with compassion and clarity

I’m not excusing bad behavior, but rather seeking explanations beyond “he’s just a bad person.” When you’re feeling wounded by a blame shifter’s words, try to remember they’re hurting, too. This knowledge may make it easier to begin from a strong and productive place rather than simply retreating or attacking back.

And it does take strength. The best first step in a conflict is to acknowledge your own contribution, even if the other person is wrong.

Why? Because this removes the blame shifter’s weapon. You cannot assume a position of strength without making yourself vulnerable. When someone shifts the blame, that’s a good signal that they’re coming from a place of weakness and will redouble their attacks if you begin by focusing on their faults.

When acknowledging your contribution, don’t dwell on blame or get melodramatic. The idea is to communicate to the other person, “I’m not interested in discussing who’s to blame here” and move on.

In the case of the frozen meat, that means saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t notice when I went into the fridge to get my lunch. If I had, we may have been able to get the meat thawed in time.”

You may fear you’re just rewarding bad behavior. There’s inherent risk in making yourself vulnerable. But consider your options: if you argue, deny, and try to pass the buck back to the blame shifter, you’re making them feel even more threatened and thus even more prone to attack. You could just slink away, refuse to engage, and wait for it to blow over, but that makes you an ideal target: a person who won’t stand up for herself, who will allow someone to tear you down to make themselves feel better. That’s not okay.

After accepting your contribution, be firm. Make sure you’re not enabling blame shifting now or in the future. Help the blame shifter see their role in the situation by making clear, non-threatening observations about what happened.

Avoid statements that aren’t about you, like “you said you’d be in charge of the meat. I shouldn’t have needed to worry about it.”

Instead, describe only your own feelings, observations, and interpretations: “the meat wasn’t on my radar. I guess I kind of forgot about it after we decided you’d grill and I’d make the side dishes. It sounds like you’d like for us to check each other a little more intentionally to make sure nothing gets forgotten.”

This shifts focus away from finger-pointing and toward problem solving.

If the blame shifter continues to dump on you, speak up. Resist the urge to get emotional or confrontational. For example: “I feel like I’m trying to look at this from both sides. It’s not okay with me to just focus on how I messed up because that’s not what I feel really happened here. Am I making it difficult for you to have a two-sided conversation about this?”

Once a blame shifter learns that you won’t take the bait and feed the flames with more emotion, they’ll stop seeing you as a viable container for their own bad feelings and low self esteem.

You can’t do it all

Sometimes a loved one will continue behaving badly, especially if their ADHD is untreated or poorly managed. Only you can know — through experience, soul searching, and repeated attempts to open doors to effective communication — if it’s time to remove yourself from a toxic environment.

However, it’s important to remember there’s hurt on both sides, and rarely does responsibility for stopping the cycle rest with just one person.

Much of the advice in this post was gleaned from Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen’s Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. If you’re dealing with a poor communicator, the best thing you can do to make things better is to hone your own skills and lead by example. I highly recommend Difficult Conversations as a starting point for anyone seeking to heal a damaged relationship.

Have you felt victimized by a blame shifter? What did you do? Are you a recovering blame shifter? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.

Book Review: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen coverHow to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk has been called “the ultimate parenting bible,” and rightly so. Nearly everything you need to know about communicating with children — and people in general — lies within its pages.

Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish preach a style of parenting that feels so different, you may just turn over to a blank page in your parenting journey. It requires a complete paradigm shift from “how do I get my kids to do what I want them to do?” to “how do I engage my kids’ cooperation?”

My parenting world also turned upside down when I read Vicki Hoefle’s Duct Tape Parenting, and both books are indispensable. Where one leaves off, the other begins. How To Talk So Kids Will Listen gives more specific examples and techniques, especially for situations when ignoring problem behavior feels like the wrong idea. Parents will come out of this book with a great toolbox not only for shaping desirable behavior, but for developing strong, lasting relationships with their kids.

In a way, this book feels like Difficult Conversations applied to parenting. It’s far more than that, but How to Talk So Kids Will Listen will teach similar skills: listening, empathizing, problem-solving, and viewing situations from your child’s perspective. As I’ve begun using Faber and Mazlish’s techniques, it’s been easier to apply the core concepts to my social interactions with everyone.

After all, children give us opportunities to practice (and start over) every single day. With each success, my son and I both gain confidence in our ability to communicate and solve problems effectively. We can apply everything we learn in our home to interactions with the world at large.

Let’s face it: ADHD adults struggle with patience, empathy, and communication. This makes parenting a particularly tough challenge. The techniques in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen haven’t just made me a better parent, they’ve made me a better person. As my toddler and I practice on each other, I feel a glimmer of hope that I’ll get better at handling tough situations with grown-ups, too.

Not only that, ADHD households aren’t peaceful by nature. We have to work at it. It’s so easy for both parents and kids to fly off the handle, and once a situation escalates, calming down is incredibly difficult — if not impossible. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen will help you prevent meltdowns (yours or theirs) from happening in the first place.

If you doubt a general parenting book can be applied to ADHD households, simply turn to the testimonials toward the end of the book. You’ll find several parents sharing the tremendous benefit Faber and Mazlish’s methods have had for their ADHD kids.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen‘s biggest weakness is its age. Where Hoefle’s Duct Tape Parenting provides an indictment of the too soft, too involved, ‘helicoptering’ parent of today, Faber and Mazlish criticize an authoritarian style that is far less prevalent now than it was when the book was published in 1980. However, if you keep in mind the pitfalls of both approaches and commit to the principles in this book, you’ll be just fine.

If you’re sick of nagging, yelling, punishing, or just plain feeling drained and frustrated at the end of every day, it’s time for a fresh approach. The road to a more peaceful, cooperative, interdependent family isn’t an easy one, but this time-tested book will show you the way.

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