The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Tag: Gina Pera

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?

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Use a signal for bad ADHD behavior…and don’t forget to laugh.

Sometimes — maybe even most times — we don’t realize we’re making a scene until it’s too late.

Many ADHD adults are plagued by emotional reactivity, impulsive outbursts, and overreactions. Dr. Michele Novotni, author of What does everybody else know that I don’t?: Social skills help for adults with ADHD, describes this behavior as “ready, fire, aim.” We progress so quickly from stimulus to response, we don’t understand the meaning of the phrase think before you speak.

This is a source of anger and embarrassment for our long-suffering spouses, especially in group social settings.

Angry outbursts at home leave our partners feeling hurt and confused. Paradoxically, these outbursts often lead to periods of calm, and we may not understand why our spouse is still hurting. “Your angry thoughts are like a flash flood,” writes Novotni, “rushing through gullies and then quickly drying up again.”

Granted, overreactions can be funny. I’ll never live down the time I placed my hands over my ears and wailed “I’m so confused!” in the middle of a discussion at the office. They can also propel a situation from mundane to catastrophic in a split second.

These moments don’t need to be a runaway train. You can install an emergency brake: a signal that communicates hey, you’re doing it again instantly and wordlessly.

Words can put an already volatile ADHD’er on the defensive, especially if you’re tempted to say exactly what you’re thinking. Look for a discreet hand sign or gesture. Make sure it’s something you both feel okay about and, ideally, will smirk at even if you’re angry. “Instead of criticism and belittlement, try humor,” suggests Gina Pera in Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

Our outburst signal was born years ago, at the dinner table. I don’t remember what provoked me. Maybe I’d had a long day at work. Maybe the salt shaker fell over. It doesn’t matter. What matters is I pounded my fist on the table so hard, several months’ worth of crumbs ejected from the crack where the leaves join together.

A tense silence stretched between us as we stared at the line of food bits bisecting the otherwise smooth surface.

Then we laughed until our sides hurt.

Now, when my husband sees me start to tumble into meltdown mode, he makes a tabletop with one hand, looks me in the eye, and lowers his other fist onto it.

Signs are objective, general, and can remind us of a funny moment — even if it’s a dark comedy.

Have you and your partner tried signals to help derail bad behavior? How do you send a message without making things worse?

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Why you need to stop putting yourself last

If you’re a parent with ADHD, it’s easy — maybe even automatic — to put yourself last.

I’m not always flush with well-focused energy. Sometimes I think I owe it all to my family. Because I’m always behind on something, I never feel like I’ve earned time for myself.

The problem is, time for ourselves isn’t an earned privilege, it’s a necessity. When you put yourself last, you’re making your ADHD symptoms worse. Taking time out for yourself will make you a better parent and open the door to a deeper, more satisfying relationship with your kids.

stop putting yourself last

Stress is the enemy of willpower

Perhaps the biggest reason to (literally) give yourself a break: it increases your self-control. Parents with ADHD aren’t born with a vast reserve of composure, and many of us have a low tolerance for frustration. Stress — sometimes viewed as an unavoidable byproduct of parenting — reduces self-control even more.

“Stress is the enemy of willpower,” writes Dr. Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct. “So often we believe that stress is the only way to get things done, and we even look for ways to increase stress — criticizing ourselves for being lazy or out of control — to motivate ourselves. Or we use stress to try to motivate others, turning up the heat at work or coming down hard at home. This may seem to work in the short term, but in the long term, nothing drains willpower faster than stress.”

Sound familiar? ADHD adults are especially guilty of the stress game thanks to our brains’ increased need for stimulation. As Gina Pera explains in her book, Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?, conflict and stress can become a subconscious form of self-medication.

Relax and step back

One of the best ways to recover from stress is simple relaxation. The human brain wasn’t built for marathons. We need short breaks — real breaks, not hiding in the bathroom while you check Facebook — to disengage our brains from whatever we’re doing. Shoot for something that lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, like meditation or yoga.

You might also want to try stepping back more often and doing a little less for your kids. It will help them learn important skills, not to mention excessive hovering can be detrimental to family relationships.

It’s easy to feel guilty about this, like you’re choosing yourself over your family. Don’t forget you’re part of that family, too. Despite abundant social pressures, attachment parenting, at least in its purest form, isn’t for everyone. Your kids need a stable, sane, well-rested parent. If you’re not giving that to them now, figure out how to get yourself recharged back to your best self.

Strive for a healthy relationship with your kids

Not only will a healthy break help you maintain your sanity, it’ll improve your relationship with your kids. After all, how would you feel if you were in a relationship with someone who:

  • Was always run-down and exhausted because of you?
  • Had no life of their own because of you?
  • Lived in constant fear of messing you up, as though you were too fragile for a real, honest relationship with them?
  • Needed you to feel dependent on them?

If you’re going at full intensity from the time you wake up to the time you collapse into bed, ask yourself: can you spare a few minutes of down time if it means you’re less likely to forget something important or yell at your kids?

Fellow parents: how do you recharge when you feel overextended? Do you struggle to create down time for yourself?

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“When…” “If only…” & our quest for Somewhere Else

“I feel like you’re always waiting for something,” a high school boyfriend once told me, “and then you can be happy. But when that thing comes, you’re not happy, you’re just waiting for something else.”

Knowing me, I probably tried to argue with him.

I eventually forgot his comment, only to have it brought to the surface as I read Dr. Wes Crenshaw’s I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not“You were born with a great fondness for Somewhere Else,” Crenshaw’s words called to me, “that glorious place, person, thing, or idea that’s anywhere but here.”

Somewhere Else

Nearly 15 years post-boyfriend, as a far more self-aware ADHD adult, the words felt stark, painful, and true.

This “great fondness for Somewhere Else” really is something we’re born with, though, isn’t it? In the struggle to be content, mindful, even present in any given moment, many of us come to realize, this feeling isn’t about Here. Or You. Or Somewhere Else. Happiness, fulfillment, and love are states that we cultivate in ourselves, not feelings that come to us when we’ve finally arrived Somewhere Else.

Fred Rogers — yes, Mister Rogers — expressed his thoughts on love in a way that really speaks to me:  “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like ‘struggle’. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

What would it mean to apply this to loving ourselves, our partners, our homes, our lives?

For all the stereotypes (many of them true) about ADHD’ers questing for pleasure and instant gratification,  satisfying the now without regard for long-term consequences, some may be surprised that being happy in the moment doesn’t come naturally for us.

In fact, as ADHD expert Gina Pera writes in Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?“ADHD often confers a degree of neurologically based irritability, moodiness, hypersensitivity, or outright anger.” In other words, we’re not as much fun as you think we are, and we’re not having as much fun, either.

That’s (in part) because learning to achieve love and happiness in the long term takes a lot of sustained focus and effort. We know others seem to have it, but we don’t know how to get it. Before I sought treatment for my ADHD, I didn’t have a clue what that sustained focus and effort even felt like.

Learning what that work feels like and strengthening the mental muscles that allow us to do it is critical to long-term well-being. Otherwise, we’re just waiting for the right circumstance to come along — or roaming the world in search of it — so we can finally sit down, take a deep breath, and be happy.

Somewhere Else is a dangerous place, mostly because if we keeping looking for it and wishing for it, we’ll never get there. Somewhere Else is Here. We just need to stick around long enough to learn to really, deeply love it.

I’ll leave you with these words from zenhabits writer Leo Babuta:

Many of us can point to external conditions that get in the way of being present (some problem on our minds), or that get in the way of being happy and content. But actually, the things that are stopping us are all inside us. We can’t let go of problems and be present. We are frustrated with ourselves, with others, with our situation, with the way the world is, and we can’t let go of wishing they were different.

The obstacles are inside us.

And so, can’t we let them go?

And can’t the time for happiness be right this moment?

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Link roundup: distracted moms, allergies, messes, and spontaneity

  1. The Distracted Mom
    “It’s a struggle worth sharing since I know I’m not alone in it,” says Carolyn. I’ve been waiting, wishing, and hoping for more blogs about living with ADHD. A mom living with ADHD is just icing on the cake. Carolyn has created a lovely new blog that promises not just to be a strong voice in the adult ADHD community, but a hub of information from around the web. The Distracted Mom logo
  2. A-choo! IgG, Immunity, and ADHD via ADHD Roller Coaster
    Dr. Charles Parker sheds some light on the connections between allergies, food sensitivities, and ADHD symptoms.
  3. The Blessings of a Messy Life via Be More With Less
    I cannot abide a mess. In an ADHD household, this kind of attitude is both helpful and disastrous. Here, blogger Courtney Carver provides some silver-lined wisdom for dealing with life’s messes.
  4. When Being Impulsive is Not Spontaneous via The DIY Librarian
    Oh boy. This one hits the nail on the head for me. Many people claim the spontaneous! fun-loving! zany! ADHD traits as assets, but as I get older, I find myself more and more exhausting. If you’ve ever felt the same, read this.
  5. Sorting Through Sentimental Keepsakes via Unclutterer
    My very unscientific life observations have taught me, ADHD’ers can have a terrible time with sentimental attachments to objects. I won’t speculate today on why that might be, but this post offers some solid advice on managing sentimental attachments while trying to live a simple, less-distracted life.
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Is it ADHD?

is it ADHDIt’s not uncommon for people to tell me, you know, I love your blog, and it makes me think I may have ADHD.

Believe it or not, I enjoy hearing this feedback. I write for an ADHD audience, but I hope the parenting, organization, and other life strategies I discuss will help everyone.

But how do you know if you have ADHD? Taken individually, all of the core symptoms sound relatable. However, if your symptoms cropped up recently or have come and gone over time, it’s probably not ADHD.

In Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?, Gina Pera writes, “an ADHD diagnosis requires more than a symptom or two. Otherwise, everyone would have ADHD! It requires both a certain number of symptoms and significant impairment — for example, in the area of career, money, education, or relationships.”

Isn’t there a test?

Still confused? Several websites offer online self-tests. Though these questionnaires all have their weaknesses and you should never take the results as a clinical diagnosis, they may point you in the right direction. Here are a few to try:

  1. Amen Clinics ADHD Type Test
    This test attempts to suss out which of Daniel Amen’s seven ADHD subtypes describe you. The questions may connect some strange dots in your life and get you thinking about the lesser-known symptoms of adult ADHD. Amen’s book, Healing ADD, is definitely worth a read for a more comprehensive understanding, but the website alone should provide some insight into whether your case (and treatment) will be straightforward or difficult.
  2. Psychology Today ADHD/Attention Deficit Disorder Test
    Doesn’t touch on many relationship and emotional issues, which the Amen Clinics test does much better, but it does provide situational questions. These may be easier to answer than evaluating a blanket-statement description like “procrastinates often” or “easily distracted.”
  3. Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland Online Screening Test
    Perhaps the least in-depth, this test is based pretty strictly on the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. That gives you a good idea of what a clinician might ask you at a first meeting, but don’t expect to shed light into any dark corners here. Test claims you can get a lot of information from Section A alone, but I recommend doing Section B also. While the questions are rudimentary, you’ll probably know by the end whether you need to schedule a professional consultation.

How to learn more about your brain.

While online self-tests are certainly appealing if you’re looking for a quick, easy answer, there are precious few of those in the world of adult ADHD. You’ll learn far more by reading a good book by a knowledgeable professional.

For more insight than I can possibly provide here, I recommend checking out some books about ADHD.

Here are the most approachable, high-impact, easy-to-read books I’ve found. All are available in audio format in case you’re one of the many ADHD’ers who don’t enjoy reading.

  1. I Always Want to be Where I’m Not by Wes Crenshaw
    Dr. Crenshaw’s book is especially handy for the under-30 crowd. We gain a lot of responsibility in our mid-20s: often marriage, household management, financial independence, and a self-structured professional life. This can be a time of great suffering for ADHD adults, and Crenshaw’s case studies will hit home for many.
  2. Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? by Gina Pera
    This book was written for partners of ADHD adults, but I’ve loaned it to several ADHD’ers who’ve found it positively enlightening. Unlike many ADHD books, Pera focuses on ADHD’s impact on our closest personal relationships.
  3. Your Brain at Work by David Rock
    Okay, this one’s not about ADHD, but it gives a great primer on the neuroscience of focus, self-supervision, and success in the face of your brain’s natural limitations. You’ll learn several handy techniques for practicing mindfulness, recharging, and managing your brain’s supply of dopamine (a neurotransmitter critical to motivation and often lacking in people with ADHD).

How about you? What are your favorite resources? Where did you find your biggest a-ha moments?

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Link roundup: Bullet Journal, brain training, winter reading

  1. Bullet Journal
    Art Director/Interaction Designer Ryder Carroll’s masterpiece of a life management system. No purchase necessary, just grab your trusty notebook, watch the intro video, and prepare to be inspired. Bonus points for a gorgeous website.

  2. ADHD is Different for Women via The Atlantic
    Though I don’t agree with everything in this essay — read my response here — it provides some valuable insights from a recent college graduate with ADHD.
  3. Gina Pera’s reading list for partners of ADHD adults
    I was searching for my next audiobook last week and Gina was kind enough to share this list with me. My own growing collection of book reviews provides a resource for ADHD adults themselves, but it’s still a work in progress. Don’t let the name fool you — Gina lists plenty of great reads for us, too.
  4. Spoiler: I’m a Mom with ADHD via The Homemaking Scientist
    I’m always looking for other bloggers talking about adult ADHD, and I was pleased to stumble upon Jackie’s story. Kudos to her for sharing! We need more voices like hers.
  5. brainHQ
    You’ve probably heard of Lumosity, thanks to a killer marketing campaign, but they aren’t the only brain training game in town. I learned about brainHQ from my husband, who decided to give it a whirl this week after reading The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories Of Personal Triumph From The Frontiers Of Brain SciencebrainHQ’s exercise programs aren’t just based on brain science, either: they boast over 70 published papers proving their benefits.

Have a link to share for next time? Leave it in the comments!

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Book review: Is it You, Me, or Adult ADD?

A version of this review first appeared in Mix Tapes and Scribbles.

Gina Pera You Me Adult ADD cover imageGina Pera’s Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD is an absolute must for any long-term relationship with one or more ADHD partners. Even without a formal diagnosis, I recommend it to anyone who’s been called irresponsible, lacking common sense, disorganized, or plain old hard to live with. What you read might just change your life.

Back in my undergraduate days, I remember one of my art professors advising his female students to keep our names when we got married. Having a marriage fall apart was, he warned, going to be more likely for us than the average person, and our careers were built on name recognition.

And why might our marriages be destined for hard times? We could thank our dedication and drive, our chaotic lives, our inability to prioritize anything over work. We may not come to bed until 3:00 a.m. We may not pay the bills on time or remember to pick up the dry cleaning. But we’d always have attention to spare for our work.

That sounds an awful lot like ADHD, which affects a great many creative thinkers. In fact, my husband — a computer programmer — fits this description exactly.

When I read Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?, I gave it to him immediately and said, “this is a book about us.”

He pursued an ADHD diagnosis shortly thereafter and credits this book with altering his whole perspective on life.

Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD? doesn’t just focus on ADHD adults’ obvious task completion issues. Pera digs into the executive functioning deficiencies that undermine relationships and render typical couples’ therapy and communication strategies ineffective, including:

  • Listening — really listening — to your partner and comprehending what they’ve told you
  • Empathy
  • Seeing a situation from your partner’s perspective
  • Comprehending cause and effect, including the impact your behavior has on your partner
  • Emotional regulation, biploar behavior, and/or heightened emotional responses to everyday situations
  • Handling adult responsibilities and being reliable when your partner needs you

The book also hits on the surprising manifestations of hyperactivity and inattentiveness in adults:

  • Hyperfocus — getting absorbed in a project to the exclusion of anything (or anyone) else
  • High-risk behavior, including substance abuse and aggressive driving
  • Picking fights, then blaming your partner for becoming upset as a result of the conflict
  • Blurting out private or inappropriate information about your partner in social settings
  • Insatiability — an inability to feel satisfied with anything (or anyone) in your life

Pera’s extensive research and real-life anecdotes will help make sense of an ADHD partner’s “confusing ups and downs of selfishness and generosity, irritability and sweetness, brilliance and boneheadedness.”

For many readers, Pera’s research will bring together disparate pieces they never knew belonged to the same puzzle. For those with unrecognized/undiagnosed ADHD, it will be a revelation. My husband commented that he couldn’t believe everything he “didn’t like about [himself]” had a common root — and could be managed with coping strategies and medication.

For that sense of hope alone, I recommend this book to any adult who suspects ADHD in themselves or their partner. These people know they’re not reaching their full potential but feel powerless to get their lives under control. Because they’re perfectly capable of focusing — hyperfocusing, even — on things that deeply interest them, partners and colleagues conclude that they just don’t care.

If you fear losing a piece of yourself by trying stimulant medication, Pera concisely debunks the perception of mental disorders as a “gift.” Instead, she stresses that our “strengths are independent of [our] ADHD” and our “ADHD fog can obscure the best of qualities.” Treating ADHD with stimulant medication doesn’t remove our capacity for innovation and brilliance. Quite the contrary: it frees us from our feelings of helplessness and lack of control.

All in all, Stopping the Roller Coaster combines just enough science for the lay reader with a wealth of real-life stories from people in ADHD relationships. It can feel disorienting to read anecdotes you thought were unique to you, your marriage, or your partner. In the end, though, that commonality opens the door to hope. ADHD adults can reduce the baseline of anxiety and frustration in their homes take control of their lives in ways they never imagined. I’m sure this powerful little book has saved more than a few marriages.

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“You’re doing it again.” Developing a signal for problem ADHD behavior.

natalie portman ear pull gif

Our outburst signal was born at the dinner table. Maybe my husband made light of a frustrating situation. Maybe I’d had a long day at work. Maybe the salt shaker fell over. It doesn’t matter. What matters is I pounded my fist on the table so hard, several months’ worth of crumbs ejected from the crack where the leaves join together.

A tense silence stretched between us as we both stared at that line of food bits bisecting the otherwise smooth surface.

Then we laughed.

We laughed until our sides hurt. Most importantly, we laughed until our tension and frustration were all but forgotten.

ADHD overreactions can be funny, but they can also escalate a situation from mundane to catastrophic in a split second.

In the moment, words can put an already volatile ADHD’er on the defensive — especially if you’re tempted to say exactly what you’re thinking (e.g., your spouse is acting like a toddler).

“Instead of criticism and belittlement,” suggests Gina Pera, award-winning author of Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?“try humor.”

If you or a family member struggle frequently with overreactions and sudden outbursts, create a sign. Make sure it’s something you both feel okay about and, ideally, will smirk at even if you’re angry.

Ever since that night at the dinner table, my husband has a signal to let me know I’m overreacting. He looks me in the eye and pointedly lowers his fist onto the palm of his other hand.

Signs help break the moment, make you laugh (or at least crack a smile), and inform you in a non-confrontational way that you’re doing it again. Signs are objective, not situation-specific, and can remind us of a funny moment — even if it’s a dark comedy.

Communication — especially reading moods and social cues — is often a major struggle for adults with ADHD. What coping strategies have you and your partner implemented? Which ones have been successful, and which have flopped? Why do you think that is?

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