The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Tag: self-care

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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Declaring relationship bankruptcy after an ADHD diagnosis

It’s been some years — I don’t remember how many — since my husband and I began treatment for ADHD. I use the word “treatment” loosely: we both began taking stimulant medications, and we still do, but treatment means more than that. The journey includes plenty of hard work and learning, not just a prescription.

That learning changed our lives. We both started reading about adult ADHD. We learned about ourselves, each other, and our marriage. We felt like our relationship could start over.

The ADHD diagnosis can give couples a chance to declare bankruptcy in our relationships — in the most positive, healing way possible.

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When we owe more than we can repay

When people (or businesses) declare financial bankruptcy, it’s because they owe more than they can afford to pay.

What a thing to consider in a marriage: what does it mean to owe more than I can afford to pay? If you’ve struggled with late-diagnosis ADHD, you have an idea.

Many of us cling to a feeling that we shouldn’t let someone “get away” with bad behavior: the consequences should match the crime. We fear becoming a doormat or an enabler. But in marriage, we bind ourselves to another person. We create a new family, whether it becomes a family of two or sixteen. We shouldn’t underestimate the emotional and financial price of dissolving that marriage. Sometimes we focus so much on standing up for ourselves, we leave no one standing up for our relationships.

While my husband and I might not have imagined it several years ago, our little family is thriving. Our home is full of love and support and, yes, ADHD-related aggravations. Letting go of the past has freed us to build a strong future. We have the knowledge and power to forge a new path. Grudges will only us back.

Letting go, for our own sake

I used to take pride in stubbornness. I cursed my short attention span for my inability to stay angry when someone “deserved it.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I hurt myself more than anyone by holding onto negative emotions. Stress and anger are toxic to our minds and bodies. There was a time when I literally lost sleep over some of my husband’s ADHD-related behavior. I blamed him for my exhaustion and my elevated stress, and this fueled the cycle of anger and resentment.

Eventually, I realized I needed to take care of myself first. I needed to find a way to forgive and, most important, work around him. I needed to find a way to be content and effective on my own — to take control of my own emotional life. With that, I was free to care for myself, but also to support him in his desire to change.

We can’t build up when we’re busy tearing down

Which brings me to my next point: those of us with ADHD know we mess up all the time. We feel awful about it. Knowing others are angry and disappointed only makes it worse.

I remember when my husband rear-ended someone at a red light. In his defense, there were contributing factors, but it was still all ADHD.

I was livid. This was pre-ADHD treatment, so my own behavior — especially responses to frustration — was out of control. Having never been in an accident as a driver, I felt like I had a moral high ground. I wanted to stand in the middle of the road and berate him until I lost my voice.

Luckily, a close friend was in the car with us, and he pulled me to the other side of the road. Then he told me something I’ll never forget: your husband feels bad enough right now. The last thing he needs is for you to add to it.

I’ve remembered this conversation many times over the years. When we hurt someone we love, we don’t need the wronged party to tear us down. We need support. We needed a firm, kind response that will empower us to do better next time.

Letting go, to get to work

In many ways, treatment and education for our ADHD has given us new eyes. How should we ask to be repaid, except with a promise, now that we know better, to do better? What do I have to gain by creating unreasonable expectations, or by holding my husband to things he said before his diagnosis? Old hurts can be difficult to release, but when we learn to let go, we can find great peace, stability, and happiness in our relationships. Even when things go wrong.

For some, declaring financial bankruptcy can be the best first step toward a strong financial future. In the same way, for some couples, a declaration of relationship bankruptcy can be the best way forward following an ADHD diagnosis. All you need is two people willing to own their flaws and keep doing the best they can with what they have.

When have you struggled to let go of an ADHD partner’s misdeeds? How has letting go helped (or hurt)?

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?

The power of right now

right now

“Wait,” my friend said, “did I just hear you say you sweep the floor every day?”

Never mind that I sweep the floor every day because I won’t devote the time or energy to doing it right. Sweeping every day enables me to do a spectacularly half-assed job and still keep a pretty clean house.

What I should have told her, though, is I sweep the floor every day right now.

When it comes to ADHD, we can append right now to pretty much anything we call  habit or routine.

I’m emptying my email inbox regularly…right now.

I’m eating well and cutting back on mindless snacking…right now.

I’m really struggling…right now.

And there’s the key. Sometimes I find it demoralizing, the knowledge that nothing is permanent, ever. The knowledge that a bad ADHD day (or week, or month) can roll back all the progress, all the good habits I’ve made over the course of months or years.

It’s all so fragile.

But if the good feels fragile, we should remember that the bad is fragile, too. No mood, no collosal screw-up, no period of total disorganization lasts forever. We can — and do — dig ourselves out eventually. Even if it’s just by forgetting what we were so upset about in the first place.

Or finding something shiny, fun, and new to get excited about.

This can feel like a character flaw. Often, it is a character flaw.

But we can draw strength from it, too. We can smile at a new day, even though yesterday was a train wreck. We can try again with a new personal organization system, even though the last three didn’t work for us.

Unfortunately, our time-blind minds can’t often see beyond the horizon. Right now feels too much like forever. When right now feels good, that’s okay. It’s great.

When right now feels overwhelming and hopeless, we can’t imagine it ever getting better.

Write yourself a note. Remind yourself that right now is just that: right now. It’s not tomorrow. It’s not even later today.

If you’re having a good day, use this as inspiration to keep up the good work. Don’t let complacency sneak in. Don’t let yourself believe you’ve finally gotten your act together “for good this time.”

If you’re struggling, write yourself another note. Reinforce the idea of right now — relentlessly. Even if you can’t see outside the moment — right now — keep reminding yourself you’ll come out the other side eventually. Probably sooner than you think.

And then — watch out.

How are you feeling right now? What has helped you most when you needed a balanced perspective?

You are your problem coworker

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If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ve encountered some difficult personalities. Even in the loveliest work environments, someone makes life difficult from time to time.

In your relationship with yourself, you are that problem coworker.

Practice being fair to yourself

Let’s face it, you do find yourself difficult to work with, don’t you?

The trouble is, we tend to hold ourselves to a different standard than our troublesome officemate. We beat ourselves up over mistakes, we scrutinize awkward conversations long after others have forgotten them, and we constantly remind ourselves of how we should be different — and better.

If you thought and felt this way about everyone around you who wasn’t perfect, you’d drive yourself crazy. And, though we’ve all wasted energy stewing over a tense working relationship at some point, most of the time we say “that’s just how he/she is.” Our approach to professional interactions can provide some important wisdom.

Accept, strategize, and move on

Despite my relatively poor social skills, I often felt I had an easier time working with my office’s difficult personalities. When it’s your job to collect important human resources documents or present a new health care plan, impasse isn’t an option. The work simply must get done correctly and on time.

How did I do it? By accepting people as they were and creating strategies to give them what they needed from our interactions. If someone managed email exceptionally poorly, sending email reminders would lead to strife and missed deadlines. If a colleague couldn’t stand being interrupted, I wouldn’t get anywhere by approaching her at her desk to discuss her incomplete timesheets — even if that was the method preferred by the office culture.

I learned how people operated, how they saw things, and what their priorities were, and I worked from there. The people weren’t going to change, no matter how much I berated them or set them up for negative consequences. The best thing to do was create a strategy for working with them.

Then, I moved on. I didn’t waste my time or energy complaining — aloud or to others — about how problem coworkers could stand to improve. If I stumbled in my dealings with them, I refined my strategy and kept going.

Developing a long-term working relationship

Would our lives be different if we remembered more, got distracted less, exercised better judgement, managed our calendars more effectively? Sure. Are we likely to start making these dramatic improvements tomorrow? Certainly not.

When things go wrong, don’t assume it’s because you just need to “get yourself together” or “learn how to manage that type of situation better.” That rarely leads to anything but negative self-talk, and it deprives you of the opportunity to figure out how to do better next time.

Instead of beating yourself up for not being perfect, figure out what went wrong. Learn what situations trigger your temper and irrational behavior. Learn whether you communicate best via email, text message, phone, or face-to-face conversations. Learn when you’re most likely to overindulge in sweets. When you know what steers you toward trouble, you can figure out how to keep yourself from getting there.

For my coworkers, sometimes it was as simple as catching someone by the coffee maker and talking through what felt to them like an impersonal, tedious process. For myself, sometimes it’s as simple as putting a pad of sticky notes in my glove box so I quit forgetting important things between the car and the front door.

Whatever you do, don’t write yourself off. You still have to work with yourself tomorrow. You’d be smart to make the best of it.

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