The ADHD Homestead

Building a good life with ADHD.

Tag: support

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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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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How (and why) to tame your hyperfocus

People with ADHD can achieve almost superhuman levels of focus (referred to as hyperfocus) in some situations, yet none at all in others.  That’s because ADHD isn’t an attention deficit, but a broken attention regulation system.

bomb timer

Hyperfocus is our secret superpower. Often, it’s also our undoing. Capable of an amazing state of flow, we’re unstoppable, and it’s easy to get ‘sucked in.’ That’s why it’s so important to reign in our hyperfocus: unstoppable even to ourselves, we become a runaway train…and we all know how that ends.

Unchecked, hyperfocusing ADHD’ers neglect all other responsibilities. Work, school, family, or romantic relationships may suffer. Health may decline due to frequent all-nighters and missed meals (have you ever gotten in the zone and forgotten to eat?).

The good news is, you can learn to let your hyperfocus run wild in a controlled environment. It’s not easy, but here are some tips to get you started.

Know your triggers and risky behaviors

Keep a log of activities that run away with you. What time of day was it? What else was going on?

Eventually, you’ll see a pattern. For example: I don’t particularly like sewing, but it’s one of the few projects that gets me out of control, always wanting to eliminate one more rough edge. When I’m tired or frustrated, I’m more likely to waste time on Facebook because my brain can’t get in gear.

Know yourself. Know when you’re more likely to lose control, even if you don’t necessarily feel like it’s a bad thing (“sure I went to bed at 3:00 a.m., but I got so much done!”)

Limit time spent on high-risk activities

In her habits book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin tells us to “decide not to decide.”

In other words, set boundaries ahead of time and commit to sticking to them. For example:

  • Only one one-hour or two half-hour television shows per night
  • Never open Facebook after 9:30 p.m.
  • Don’t start a new computer programming task within one hour of bedtime

Don’t let your brain talk you out of it. It will tell you things like:

  • “If you just do this one little thing, you can get the program working”
  • “If you sew this side seam, you’ll just have the bottom hem to do tomorrow”
  • “It’s only 25 more minutes, and we need to watch the resolution of this cliffhanger.

There will always be one more thing, even after that one more thing.

Decide not to decide.

You also need breaks — ideally, before you think you need them. Read up on the Pomodoro Technique, which advocates a system of regularly spaced short and long breaks to keep your brain functioning at its peak.

Set a timer. Don’t trust yourself to watch the clock, or even to remember time exists.

If you share an office space, you may want to use a desktop app like Tomighty. At home, we love Suck UK’s adorable — and very loud — bomb timerThe Time Timer provides an excellent visual representation of time, and its ending bell is soft enough to use in a shared space.

Whatever you do, get up and stretch for a few minutes every half hour or so. It’ll break the spell and remind you of the real world — and the people in it who count on you.

Enlist help

Make agreements with family, colleagues, or helpful friends. Tell them to be persistent, even if you resist, make excuses, or tell them to go ahead to the meeting and you’ll be right behind them. Agree ahead of time that this is unacceptable behavior, and ask them to remind you whenever necessary.

Also, remember: you’ve asked this person for their help and support because you’re struggling with self-regulation. Try to listen, cooperate, and be gracious.

Use gentle reminders that involve the senses

If you’re trying to break the spell of someone else’s hyperfocus, avoid getting angry. The ADHD person isn’t fully present in this interaction. They may not remember a conversation that occurs during hyperfocus, and they may not even notice anything happening around them.

Because hyperfocus takes us so deep into the zone, we often need more than a simple, “time to leave for dinner — now.” Create a sensory event to bring consciousness back to the real world. Turn the lights off, provide a gentle touch on the arm or shoulder, or set a timer with a loud bell. If an electronic device is involved, turn it off — but only if you’ve agreed beforehand that this is okay!

You can do this for yourself, too, especially if you invest in something like a WeMo switch or, if you want to go simple, a lamp timer that will turn off the lights or computer at a predetermined time. Apps and browser extensions — like the Productivity Owl for Google Chrome — can help limit time on specific websites.

How about you? Do you struggle with hyperfocus? What tools and tricks have worked for you?

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Is homeschooling right for your family?

Last week, we heard from Meg about homeschooling her oldest child, who has ADHD. Figuring out whether homeschooling is right for your family can be overwhelming. Checking in with Meg as we go, let’s explore a few questions you should ask yourself before taking the plunge.

home schooling

photo credit: Lynde Pratt

Do you have time?

ADHD is highly heritable. If a child has it, there’s a 30-40% chance at least one parent has it, too. We ADHD’ers are notoriously time-blind, making it hard for us to look before we leap.

You need at least one full-time homeschooling parent,” Meg warns. She works part-time managing her own business while her husband works full-time. For now they divide teaching duties to form two halves of a whole.

If you’re already feeling frantic, over-committed, or just too busy most of the time, something will need to give. Force yourself to imagine the day-to-day grind of your new homeschooling life. Do this several times, and with as much detail as possible. Fight your natural tendency to say “oh, I’ll figure it out.” ADHD severely impairs your ability to think through long-term consequences of your actions, and it’s your responsibility to counteract that.

“[Homeschooling] isn’t something you squeeze into your day,” Meg reminds us, “it’s a lifestyle.” Make sure that feels okay with you.

Do you have money?

You don’t have to pay for an expensive curriculum, but newbies may appreciate the structure at first, if only to teach them what does and doesn’t work for their child.

Don’t forget the other costs associated with homeschooling, either. Ideally, you’ll want to take your child on regular field trips, many of which cost money. Group activities, like karate or Boy Scouts, provide vital social outlets for homeschoolers.

And there’s that prickly time question again: will you need to hire help for household chores?  ADHD adults often struggle with household maintenance, and adding to your responsibilities at home may force the issue. Meg’s family discovered they’ll need to pay around $300 per month for cleaning help. “We have two other children and a large, old house/property that requires a ton of maintenance,” she explains. “There’s too much on our plates right now.”

Have you included your child in the decision?

If you haven’t read Vicki Hoefle’s Duct Tape Parenting, I recommend it before proceeding with your homeschooling decision. In business and in parenting, buy-in is critical — and too often overlooked. Your child, no matter his age, needs to feel like an important part of the process. Homeschooling is something you’ll do as a team. If he lacks ownership in this decision, you’ll have a very hard time indeed.

How’s your ADHD management?

Homeschooling requires some minor red tape, but it’s “no big deal,” says Meg, thanks to copious online resources.

Like so many things, poorly managed adult ADHD will make this easier said than done. In Pennsylvania, where Meg’s family lives,  you must keep records for 185 learning days each year (these can include field trip days).  Many families hire a certified teacher to review these records annually. Parents must also notify the school district of their intent to homeschool via an affidavit at the beginning of the year. These steps aren’t difficult, but you’ll need to remember to keep records and complete time-sensitive tasks every year.

Adult ADHD can also cause impatience, irritability, and strained family relations, not to mention poor social skills extending far beyond your front door. Be honest with yourself: will you be able to work with your child, often enduring intense frustration on both sides, while maintaining a healthy relationship? Will you be able to tolerate being together all day? Are you capable of making the necessary social connections with other parents to cultivate friends for your child?

Is school really the problem?

Even if you send your child to traditional school, you’re not off the hook: just ask any parent who’s tried to get everyone out the door in the morning. Then there’s checking in on homework, fielding teacher concerns, attending disciplinary meetings (my parents especially loved those), and helping your child develop coping mechanisms to succeed in a learning environment that seems utterly incompatible with ADHD.

It’s tempting to throw up your hands rather than tackle these challenges. Just remember, homeschooling won’t make the root issues go away, it’ll just give you a different set of puzzles. (I’m reminded of when, as a beginning skier, I got frustrated with the learning curve and decided a snowboard would solve all my problems.)

“I don’t have leisure or rest anymore,” confesses Meg. This is part of her motivation for hiring someone to help around the house. “It’s an unhealthy way to live…I don’t plan to live this way forever, but for now it is what it is. When you believe you’re doing the right thing, you make it work at any personal expense.”

Meg’s steadfast belief that this is the right thing for her son keeps her going when things get tough. If that’s the case for you, too, that’s great. But do some soul searching before pulling your kiddo out of school. Make sure you’re truly acting in your child’s long-term best interest, not out of desperation to offload a set of overwhelming challenges.

Have you considered homeschooling? What would you like to say to parents considering teaching a child at home?

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Sometimes, it pays to pay

Has an area of your home or yard gotten out of control? Do you need a breath of relief?

Sometimes, it pays to pay. Pay someone to get you back on your feet, that is.

When a few loose ends become a lot of trouble

A friend once told me about a job he took over winter break in college. A professor asked him to help clean out his office. When my friend arrived, he found it worse than he ever expected: the professor accessed his desk at the rear of the room via a tiny path through a tunnel of clutter. Visitors actually had to pass under the junk balanced overhead.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar situation in your own life. Maybe it’s not the whole house, but just a closet or a room that gradually got away from you until cleaning it up felt too overwhelming. I know it has happened to me.

Looming, unfinished, unattended projects sap our mental energy. If you’re feeling stuck, you may need to close one of those open loops.

Taming the jungle — with some help from a pro

Several years ago, I got fed up with our garden. I’d let it get out of control following a springtime shoulder surgery. Finally, I decided enough was enough.

Rather than add it to the list of overwhelming problems I swore were ruining my life, I took decisive action. My boss had a neighbor who was looking for odd gardening jobs. We were getting a tax refund. While I didn’t want to hire a regular gardener, I had to admit I needed help.

For less than the value of our tax refund that year, we had a gardener take us from here:

overgrown-garden

To here:

new-garden

That left us responsible for weeding and upkeep, which felt far more manageable than clearing the overgrown mess it had become.

Pay if you can

I realize hiring someone to give you a boost on household tasks may not be possible for everyone, but it’s worth considering. If money is tight, you may want to set aside an unexpected windfall, such as a tax refund. Or you could calculate how much you spend on one unnecessary thing and put the money in a jar for your project instead. Think cab rides instead of walking or taking the bus, lattes at Starbucks instead of making them at home, ordering Chinese instead of planning your meals and cooking during the week, paper towels instead of real ones, cigarettes when you keep saying you should quit. An exciting reward may even motivate you to create a good habit.

Also, just because you pay someone to redo your garden doesn’t mean they need to come every week to mow your lawn. Hiring a service to scan all your old photographs only needs to happen once if you’ve moved on to digital.  A cleaning service can provide a single-visit deep clean to make it more manageable for you to start a regular cleaning schedule of your own.

Even if you grew up in a household that valued doing work yourself whenever possible, there’s no shame in asking for a little help to reach your full potential. Remember, once a task becomes overwhelming (like a garden that hasn’t been tended for two years or a renovation project that’s left you without a kitchen for 10 months), breaking it into bite-size pieces and getting started again on your own will be tough. If a little money is all it takes to put you back on track, so be it.

Have you benefited from paying a professional to help you with a task that had become an insurmountable hurdle? If you have, please share!

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ADHD then and now: notes from my teenage self

People sometimes tell me I can’t have ADHD because I’m too smart and organized.

I insist I’m only as organized as I need to be to maintain a base level of sanity, not to mention cleanliness and financial security. It just so happens I need to create a lot of intentional, concrete systems to keep the ship afloat.

good student quote

I still have my rough patches, but it’s easy to forget how ADHD feels for those who are younger, undiagnosed, newly diagnosed, or just haven’t gotten the support they need to start organizing their lives.

Here’s a different perspective, written when I was 17:

…When I have to pay attention in school, sometimes I just can’t. I’ll try with all I’ve got, but it’s like a fog, a force field goes up between me and them and I can’t cut through it.

Most of the time, no matter what, I can’t sit still. My leg twitches, my fingers, tap, I fidget and shift positions, or my eyes just keep darting around.

I find it difficult to do my homework at night because I’ll start staring at something, I’ll pick up objects around me and look at them, my thoughts will wander, I won’t be able to focus or concentrate.

And then there’s my memory. I can never remember books and movies, I constantly forget to perform simple tasks, so much so that it interferes with my daily functioning in life. This is why I write on my hands. I do things in fragments because I get distracted and bounce from task to task. I must perform my morning routine in the same order every day lest I leave something out. I am very absent-minded.

I have trouble not talking when there is someone who I can talk to nearby.

See, I talked to my guidance counselor about it, and I still don’t know what to do. In order to be diagnosed with anything, a test would go out to me, my parents, and my teachers, none of whom I want to get involved. I’ve tricked my teachers into thinking I’m a good student…

I have to constantly stay a step ahead of this, I have to beat it and sidestep it and wrestle it to the ground, all to keep my head above the water. Battling with a condition of your own mind is like nothing else — it is a unique struggle, one that knows you and hits you where you are weak, one that wears you down over time and makes you feel sick inside.

I wish it could be easy, but it sucks.

Already, with ample structure in a minimally challenging academic environment, I struggled internally.

I didn’t cause much trouble at school and I graduated with a GPA over 3.5. Study halls gave me extra time for homework. I was also bright enough to get away with discreetly working on assignments during lectures without falling behind on the material. As a linguistic thinker, I relied on my ability to test well, but forgot most of what I learned shortly after the exam.

Many find this surprising, but it’s a common story for ADHD girls and women.

These are the ADHD cases that slip by until adulthood, when we must create our own structure, goals, and schedules. We must make our own day, and if we haven’t learned to do that, everything begins to fall apart.

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Ring in the new year with a photo scanning party

A gem from my own scanned slides

A gem from my own scanned slides.

Amazon gift cards burning a hole in your pocket? Looking for a way to organize and declutter your life for 2015?

Take one small step — and spend some quality time with a few friends — by buying a photo scanner and pulling together a photo scanning party to digitize your old photographs. As I consider my own oversized bin of photos and letters, which is currently languishing in the basement, this idea from The Minimalists blog feels especially apt for ADHD’ers.

Why? Because we tend to hold onto sentimental items, we struggle to keep our collection of stuff organized, and we often need moral support to get through a daunting task. Planning a party sounds fun, right? Certainly more fun than sitting alone and tackling a to-do item called “digitize old photos.”

Turning organizing time into social time will help your projects feel less overwhelming, with the added benefit of a few objective third parties to keep you focused on your goal.

If you have old photos hiding in boxes or piles, check out the original photo party post on The MinimalistsThis is a great way to ensure your photos stay safe, organized, and — perhaps most important — easy to access and appreciate.

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