ADHD Time Blindness Contributes to My Impulse Spending

For me, the worst part of ADHD isn't being fidgety or hyper-focused; it's under-discussed symptoms such as time blindness and impulsive spending—which have made my finances a constant struggle.

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is often associated solely with the obvious symptoms—such as fidgeting, cutting up in class, and general disorganization. While this is an accurate description of certain aspects of ADHD, there are far more (often overlooked) symptoms of this disorder—that wildly affect the lives of those, like me, with ADHD.

For me, those underreported symptoms include time blindness as well as impulsive spending—symptoms that have made managing my finances a constant struggle. Even though I usually manage to keep away from overspending, I can only achieve this by keeping myself on a very short (at times, painful) leash.

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But first: There's actually more than one type of ADHD—there are two or three, depending how you count—and they exist on a spectrum. The two main types are Hyperactive-Impulsive and Inattentive. That said, people who experience ADHD symptoms rarely fit neatly into one of these definitions—and many are diagnosed with what's known as a Combined Type.

While one person with this neuro-developmental disorder may exhibit jitters and fidgeting, another person may just stare out the window or swing like a pendulum between distraction and hyper-focus.

I have ADHD, and although I've known my brain was different, I was only diagnosed recently—at age 35. This is pretty common in women my age: According to a study conducted by National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and aggregated by CHADD (Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorder), only 3.1% of girls were getting diagnosed with this condition in 1997-1998—right around the time I was realizing that there had to be a reason I couldn't stop moving in class or remember what the teacher was saying.

On the other hand, three times as many boys were diagnosed around the same time. And while the numbers of kids getting diagnosed today are far higher (11.7% for boys and 8.8% for girls in 2019, according to the CDC), there has long been a gap between the sexes when it comes to ADHD diagnosis—and that gap remains a part of the diagnostic landscape.

ADHD isn't a disorder that's relegated to school-age children; it continues to impact adults in many ways that can be detrimental to a healthy life and successful career. Many adults with ADHD report having trouble keeping a job, or might find themselves in a lot of debt. A 2003 study, published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, examined rates of employment, high school graduation, and overall career satisfaction in a group of 500 individuals with ADHD. The results show a stark difference; those diagnosed with ADHD were considerably less satisfied than the control group of individuals without ADHD.

It's also not uncommon for people with ADHD to engage in impulsive, dangerous behavior, to develop substance abuse problems, and even to have a shorter lifespan than their neurotypical counterparts—especially if they are undiagnosed and self-medicating with stimulants.

An impressive study by a Danish team, headed by Soren Dalsgaard, MD, in Aarhus and published in The Lancet in 2015, studied a group of 1.92 million people—32,061 of whom had ADHD—over the course of 32 years. The study found that those with ADHD had greater mortality rates than those without, and concluded that this was caused by various impulsive behaviors: antisocial behaviors, substance use, inattention or impulsivity, and risky behaviors. People with ADHD also experience an increase in issues such as depression, anxiety, obesity, and diabetes. And then, there's the issue of time blindness.

Time blindness and the "ADHD tax"

"ADHD is, at its heart, a blindness to time be exact, it is a near-sightedness to the future," said Russell Barkley, Phd, clinical professor of psychiatry at the VCU Medical Center in Richmond, VA, at a talk he gave for the CADDAC (Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada) in 2009. "Just as people who are nearsighted can only read things close at hand," Dr. Barkley continued, "people with ADHD can only deal with things near in time."

I spoke to Ari Tuckman, Psyd, in West Chester, PA, who concurs with Barkley's definition—and says that ADHD folks' time blindness also contributes to our frequent hyperfocus: "Good attention regulation is choosing the right thing moment by moment," says Dr. Tuckman. He describes distractibility as shifting when you should have stuck, whereas "hyperfocus is the opposite—you stick when you should shift. Hyperfocus looks like awesome attention, but it's not—because what it is is losing track of time."

All of these aspects of time blindness can lead to the proclivity of ADHD folks towards debt—i.e., a hyper-focus on the present moment only, along with an "I'll spend now and pay later" mentality in which "later" never arrives.

This is an excellent way to describe what has always felt, to me, like an inability to grasp what time really means in a way that translates to successful actions. For example, as I'm writing these words, I know I should stop working in time to fire off a few emails, but I can't be sure that I will stop—or even gauge how long in advance I should do so.

Another common example is leaving the house. I can't judge how long it will take me to get ready; the best I can do is a ballpark estimate. This isn't obstinance, or a skill that can be learned; a color-blind individual can't tell the difference between red or green no matter how hard they try, either. Trying to leave the house on time, for me, is very labor-intensive. I'm often exhausted before I've even started my day.

ADHD is, at its heart, a blindness to time.

The practical fallout of this can be disastrous. Individuals with ADHD miss work meetings or office hours with our professors. We forget to go to the office, or are so engrossed in our work that we forget to pick our kids up from school. Being nearsighted to time means an inability to plan and prepare for all the events that make up adult life—like remembering to go to the supermarket, fill the tank up with gas, or pay the rent.

To someone else, this may look like disrespect or laziness. But in fact, time blindness is simply a result of less activity in the prefrontal cortex (the area of your brain that's in charge of things like focusing and making decisions), among other cognitive impairments.

The financial consequences of time blindness are far-reaching. According to Dr. Tuckman, people with ADHD are more likely to forget to paying a bill on time, which means we may have lower credit scores. Therefore, we may face difficulties getting a good mortgage or car loan—or any loan at all. Late fees, lowered credit scores, higher interest rates, and the like all fall under the umbrella of what Dr. Tuckman calls the "ADHD tax"—but folks with ADHD are taxed in less obvious ways as well.

"Folks with ADHD have more traffic accidents [and] more speeding tickets, so they're perhaps paying more in car insurance," says Dr. Tuckman. We may also have to spend more on eating out because we don't have the executive function to prepare our meals in advance, at home. These little things all add up into a hefty bill, if calculated over time.

Impulse buying

The impulsivity that's associated with ADHD comes from the same cognitive impairment that causes a nearsightedness to time. A 2010 study in The Journal of Neuroscience used fMRI scans to examine how dopamine affects impulsive behaviors in 14 individuals and found that "dopamine could potentially increase impulsive choice in two distinct ways," either by discounting the gains that a person stands to receive in the future, or by making smaller, more immediate gains seem more attractive.

This has obvious repercussions for someone with problematic dopamine production (like us ADHD-ers) in terms of proclivities such as substance abuse or gambling, as well as "antisocial behaviors" such as violent eruptions or (more benign but still disruptive) the inability to sit through a work meeting. Impulsivity can mean that a person with ADHD can't develop an exercise regimen or a healthy diet—both of which are lifestyle choices that would have helped that person better regulate their neural functioning. "That's part of the double whammy of ADHD," explains Tuckman. "It's not a problem of knowing; it's a problem of doing—consistently, day after day."

Then, of course, there's impulsive spending. Most people have, at some point, bought something online that they regret the next day—but people with ADHD do this far more, and to dire effect. Impulsive spending can lead to crippling debt, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and other financial disasters.

"Due to impulsivity, the person with ADD usually falls into the 'spender' category," write Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, Ph.D. and Karl Klein, J.D. in their book, ADD and Your Money. "This can lead to marital conflicts regarding excessive spending and increasing debt." In this case, both the marital disputes and the debt are forms of the "ADHD tax."

Because we live in the now, it's very hard for ADHD folks not to do something that will give us immediate pleasure.

I'm usually more of a saver; I live with an iron fist over my wallet because I know what happens when I don't. This rigidity is the "ADHD tax" I pay—and it also can cause marital disputes. Recently, though, my wife and I came into a little bit of money, and I loosened the grip of the fist. In two weeks, I spent more online on non-necessary items (books, an earring stand, some pretty bras, etc.) than I had spent in the past year combined. Packages were arriving that I couldn't remember buying—until my wife brought me back to my senses.

Even though I think of myself as a "saver," I'm really just existing on one side of the same ADHD-symptom coin. The other side is always just around the corner.

The more I learn about my brain and the way it functions, the more I understand that ADHD is not a childhood malady—something to treat so that our kids can get their homework in on time. It's a neurological impairment, and without treatment, adults continue to have lowered quality of life, more daily struggles, and yes, debilitating debt.

This doesn't mean, however, that we are doomed. Having ADHD, even with its time blindness and impulsivity, is also a wonderful part of who I am; it allows me to learn new skills and information rapidly, to multitask like a maven, and to keep up with my toddler while other adults are too exhausted. Living with ADHD can be a joy and a gift. That said, in order to fully enjoy the gift—and not entirely tank my bank account—it's important for me to recognize the challenges as well. Not with judgment, but with compassion, curiosity, and pragmatism.

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