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.