The View from the ADHD Roller Coaster—Both Sides
Monday, 8 p.m.
The monthly meeting comes to order in the heart of Silicon Valley, a world center of leading-edge technology. Household names such as Google, Yahoo, Apple, YouTube, Netflix, and Hewlett-Packard dot this short stretch of coastal California between San Francisco and San Jose. In attendance this evening are software developers and computer scientists, some from these very companies.
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Whats on tonights agenda? The Next Big Thing in high-tech? Not exactly. Not unless you have adult ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). In that case, keeping track of your keys can be a very big thing indeed.
Phillip*, 32, a talented software programmer with a beautiful smile and an engaging personality, begins: “Okay, Ive been practicing some of the suggestions we talked about last time for keeping track of my keys, and I cant believe how well theyre working.” No one snickers. No one rolls their eyes. Most people attending this support group for adults with ADHD chuckle and nod in agreement, relieved to hear someone speak openly about an embarrassing problem that they, too, have, or a problem similar to theirs.
Make no mistake: Silicon Valley might be a worldwide magnet for people with ADHD, what with their stereotypical love of the new and novel. But even here, ADHD is not limited to young men who tinker in high-tech, and its challenges arent limited to lost keys. The people gathered tonight—male and female, professionals and blue-collar workers, teens and retirees, long-time locals and new immigrants from many different nations—find themselves dogged by a few or many of these other difficulties:
- Losing track of priorities
- Arriving late to events and missing deadlines
- Having trouble initiating tasks and following through to completion
- Being chronically disorganized
- Managing finances poorly
- Losing their temper easily
- Overspending, smoking, video gaming, and other addictions
- Not being “present” in relationships
Next Page: Seeing the lightbulb flash on
[ pagebreak ]As you would expect, behaviors like these seldom won them kudos from bosses, coworkers, family members, or even grade-school teachers. As a result, some people have lost jobs, partnerships, houses, large fortunes, and self-worth. Or, at best, they believe (or have been told often enough) they have fallen far short of their potential. Some have been unsuccessfully treated for anxiety or depression for years without knowing that, in fact, untreated ADHD was making them anxious or depressed.
Many of these late-to-diagnosis adults have long suspected that they were a bit “different.” When they finally learn about ADHD, most wish theyd learned sooner. Much sooner. It explains a lot about how their unwitting actions generated unpleasant consequences as well as why, just when they started getting traction in life, theyd often slip on that invisible banana peel.
Meanwhile, tonight, as these adults share their triumphs and difficulties, ones that their families and the public frequently fail to understand or accept, you can almost see the lightbulbs flashing on. Apprehensive newcomers relax their jaws. Arms unfold. Possibilities expand as they realize that they are not alone, that other smart people, accomplished people, well-meaning people ride the same roller coaster. They begin to realize theyre not “lazy, stupid, or crazy,” as that breakthrough ADHD book title goes. Most important, they learn that practical solutions exist for helping them optimize their abilities. For many, this is the only gathering where they feel truly understood.
But if you stumble on this group while looking for the Toastmasters meeting down the hall, and if you stay a while to listen and watch, you might wonder why these “normal-looking” adults have never picked up certain “mature adult behaviors,” like getting organized or getting to bed at a decent hour. You might ask yourself:
- "Didnt their parents teach them?"
- "Dont they realize why these issues are important?"
- "Do they just not care?"
The short answer: ADHD challenges have little to do with intelligence, caring, the lessons their parents tried to teach, or what they know to be right or wrong. It has more to do with
- having difficulty focusing ones attention right now,
- on the most critical task, speaker, or activity, and
- once focus has been achieved, maintaining it instead of yielding to distraction.
As one prominent ADHD expert, psychologist Russell Barkley, says, “The challenge is not knowing what to do. Its in doing what you know.” So, instead of calling it an attention-deficit disorder, we could call it an intention-inhibition disorder. Thats because its a condition in which the best intentions go awry.
Next Page: Partners have support groups, too
[ pagebreak ]Same meeting room, the following Tuesday, 8 p.m.
Be careful talking about good intentions to newcomers at this weeks gathering! Its the same room but a very different crowd.
The people gathered here tonight arent adults with ADHD; they are their partners. And most have had it with good intentions. They are also done with being doormat and “dumpee,” warden and watchdog, crisis manager and caretaker, and a parent instead of a partner.
Ironically, the two meetings that take place one week apart—one for adults with ADHD and the other for the partners of adults with ADHD—typically show little overlap. That is, one partner or the other in a couple is either “in denial” about ADHD or feels no need to learn about it. Its too bad, because when couples act as a team in learning about ADHD, they tend to speed through the learning curve—with fewer bumps and bruises, too.
The group assembled tonight has come seeking knowledge. They also seek clarity and hope that they can somehow stabilize their lives with partners who seem focused on destabilization. Until recently, most did not know that adult ADHD exists, much less that it can affect their lives so profoundly. Or theyve suspected ADHD for a long time, but they just cant get their partners to consider the idea or do anything about it.
Next Page: The floodgates open
[ pagebreak ]When they finally hear other people voicing similar threads of befuddlement, the floodgates open. Lets listen in as the new folks introduce themselves:
- "Communication problems" plague Donna and her husband. "When we started dating, we had great conversations. Now I cant speak a word before he changes the subject or zones out. I hate the way this makes me feel, like Im boring or not worth listening to. When I try breaking off the relationship, though, he becomes attentive again, only to backslide two weeks later. He finally told me last week that he has ADHD, but he insists it is an asset. Ive read some Web sites that advise us spouses to be more understanding, but thats not helping."
- Joses partner has a spending problem. "On impulse, she bought 20 expensive handbags on sale months ago, planning to sell them online. Shes procrastinated and they sit in the spare bedroom, along with the other ‘bargains. I love her, but we cant afford this. If I complain, though, she says I make her feel bad. Shes been treated for depression for years, but a friend recently suggested learning about ADHD."
- Sheilas husband gets distracted while watching their child. "He left our squirming baby on the changing table when the doorbell rang—and stayed to chat with the mail carrier! Maybe he has ADHD, as our therapist suggests, but is that an excuse? To top it off, he got angry with me when I pointed out the risk! But what do I do when I cant trust my husband with our child?"
- Surrounded by clutter, Lauren feels shes "catching" ADHD. "Our home is so crammed with my partners crafts projects that I can hardly move or think! Ive read about the association between ADHD and hoarding, and came to learn more."
- Brendas fiancé is the love of her life, but his difficulties at work are driving them apart. "Paperwork takes him twice as long as it does his coworkers, who seem half as smart as him. He loses track of time, works until midnight, and then forgets to phone me. He was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid but says he outgrew it. I dont think so."
- Does Dans new girlfriend find him a boring kisser? "I like her so much, but she keeps showing up late—or not at all—for dates, and later shes super apologetic. And, while were enjoying a long kiss, shell get distracted by the least little thing. One time she blurted, ‘Forgot to feed Rex! Thats her dog. She says she was recently diagnosed with ADHD, but maybe shes just using that as an excuse and shes really not interested in me."
- Doreens teen son says his Dad has ADHD, too. "Our son wont accept that he has ADHD, but hes failing in school. He also asks why he should take medication if Dad wont. My husband ‘copes with his own ADHD by drinking beer and riding herd on our son. Their constant fighting is driving me nuts."
- Eric went from being a "catch" to "dropped" in three months flat. "My new boyfriend wanted to be with me all the time and was over-the-top thoughtful. But when it stopped suddenly, he implied it was my fault, which made no sense. Im just trying to understand what happened."
- Jade discovered her husbands credit-card debt after the honeymoon. "He owes $30,000! At first he said hed hoped to pay it before I found out. Totally overoptimistic! Then he blamed me for overreacting. Im feeling some kind of emotional whiplash, from our honeymoon to this. Our pastor suggested looking into ADHD, but is lying a trait? Hed told me he was entering the marriage debt-free. I love him, but Im not sure I can forgive this betrayal."
- Liz is tired of other people holding her responsible for her husbands failings. "Hes my sweetheart and now we finally know why he does what he does. Im not angry with him, but I am angry with the people, including his family, who blame me for not making him do things they expect of him. They dont believe in ADHD and think its the womans role to be a 24/7 executive secretary for her husband."
- Frank cant compete with his wifes BlackBerry. "When she learned she might have ADHD, my wife researched it and hyperfocused on getting better organized. She claims her BlackBerry helps her focus on the job. Great, but wheres the focus on me? If I take more than 30 seconds to say something, she eyes her ‘CrackBerry for the latest text message. We both work hard, but she never turns it off."
As these introductions continue, comments echo all around the room: “Your partner does that, too?” Some people laugh in amazed relief, but others fight back tears. Sure, theyre grateful for the long-overdue validation, but reality can hit hard:
- "You mean our problems arent all my fault—not me being rigid, anal, controlling, demanding, or ‘no fun?"
- "You mean our problems arent all my partners fault—not bad temper, selfishness, or apathy?"
- "You mean the invisible enemy weve been battling not only has a name, it has a solution?"
Most group members here tonight still love their partners. Thats why theyve come to this meeting. (Some, though, are straining to remember why they went on that second date, and a few are asking for referrals to good divorce attorneys.) The confusion crept up on them stealthily, they explain, and most of their partners behavior grew sharply more problematic with time and new responsibilities. They tackled each particular set of problems as it turned up, and so the roller coaster ride smoothed out, lulling them into the idea that their lives would stay less chaotic for a while. But then the next dip happened and the next and the next. And, so the roller coaster will continue, until they either stagger to the exit sign, succumb to permanent emotional whiplash, or develop awareness about ADHD and get on a new track.
* Not his real name. Descriptions of activities and individuals throughout this book are drawn from composites created from multiple accounts.