Loving the ADHD Brain
On one of our early dates, Brock and I loaded Tiger in the car and drove a few minutes away to a trail along the river. Almost immediately upon arrival, we realized that there was no leash in the car. While my brain was stuck on the idea that we had to drive back to his place to retrieve a leash, his brain, quickly and smoothly, had already solved the problem. Without a word and with no hesitation, Brock popped open the trunk, removed the strap from a briefcase-style work bag and promptly attached one of the hooks to Tiger’s collar.
I was impressed.
And I told him as such while we began our stroll. And his explanation made me laugh.
“I’m good at getting myself into predicaments, so I’ve had to learn to be good at getting out of them.”
At some point in childhood, Brock acquired the label of ADHD. As I’ve discussed before, I see labels as a type of shorthand. A sticky note version of reality, meant to give an overview and then to be discarded once the person is known in his or her entirety.
In the case of our relationship, the label was helpful in the beginning because it helped give me some framework for our differences and helped me develop an understanding of the bigger picture.
Before we started dating, I was no stranger to ADHD. As a teacher, I have several kids a year that meet the clinical diagnosis (and, yes, many more that don’t seem to yet are still labeled and often medicated). I have friends who qualify and so I’ve seen the strengths and struggles the diagnosis provided with work and family life.
But it’s different when it’s your partner. For one, it’s much harder not to take it personally. It also becomes something that you have to learn to work with rather than fight against, as that battle only feeds frustration.
From the beginning, I was impressed with how aware of his ADHD Brock was and of the strategies he implemented in his life to mitigate its impacts. Wrestling and martial arts allowed him to bleed the excess physical energy. Self-imposed structure helped to reduce forgetfulness or impulsivity. As with the leash incident, Brock became adept at problem solving in the moment, working around any minor catastrophes instead of letting them derail him.
He was an expert when we met. I was still a novice.
But I think we’ve done pretty well at navigating ADHD in the context of a relationship. We laugh more than we snarl and we’ve found solutions where they could be found and understanding where there is no easy answer.
As with any label, the people who live under the umbrella of ADHD are not all alike. They have their own personalities and experiences that greatly outshine the characteristics that tend to come with the label. Nonetheless, there are certain traits that are commonly associated with ADHD. And without understanding, these attributes can have a negative impact on a relationship.
As with anything, your perception is your reality. If you see the deficits in ADHD, your focus will be on the struggle. Each deficit or difficulty also has an asset. Strive to see the gifts and your focus will shift.
Asset: Multi-Level Processing
The ADHD brain is receiving and processing information at several levels simultaneously. Whereas my brain my looks like a four-lane freeway, his looks like a busy interchange. It took me some time to truly appreciate how much Brock is listening (and considering), even when his attention is divided. At first, I took it very personally when he would pick up his phone or interrupt with a random observation while I was talking. But those disruptions were not because of a lack of attention or interest on his part; he was simply vocalizing what happens in his brain much of the time. I’m often amazed at the conclusions or solutions he can arrive at while attaining to other tasks.
I’ve started to master his rhythms and learned when he is more likely to be operating at multiple levels and when he has an easier time focusing on one. I’ve become comfortable with being assertive about asking for focus and attention. And, I’ve discovered that our best conversations often occur while we are moving, the body’s actions helping to still the mind.
The flip side of ADHD’s distractibility is the capacity of the person to have hyper-focus. It’s amazing what can be accomplished during these periods. Just stay out of the way and let it happen:)
Asset: Problem Solving
This was the upside I first discovered on that walk with Tiger. I was so impressed because coming up with a novel solution in a pressured moment is something I struggle with. In fact, one of the reasons I like to plan so much is so that I don’t have to be put on the spot!
This difficulty definitely has its frustrating side. I frequently find myself engaged in hunts for remotes, keys, wallet, phone…you name it, he’s lost it. But it always turns up again and, while we’re looking, we may as well laugh about it. The long-standing joke in our house is that I find some perverse pleasure in hiding his belongings when he’s not looking.
But we have also witnessed the amazing responses of strangers, from the countless restaurants that have called regarding his wallet left behind to the man who found Brock’s keys and tracked him down through a PetSmart tag.
And its blessed me with an ease I now carry. I no longer feel as compelled to over plan and over stress. I trust that he’ll be able to find a solution even if we forget something. And that’s pretty cool:)
This was the biggest stressor for me. My preference is for a neat and clutter-free environment. In my first marriage, everything in the house matched and the home was always picked up and everything had a place. It was easy; my ex and I had a similar threshold for messiness and we worked together to maintain that ideal.
With Brock, that state of neatness is simply not attainable. He makes an effort, but the ADHD brain is simply not as tuned in (or bothered by) clutter as mine is.
Cabinet doors remain open, clothes litter the bedroom floor and random items clutter the kitchen island. He’s not messy in a normal sense, he just leaves a trail behind him because his brain is working on other tasks. It used to drive me completely crazy. The clutter would make me tense, my anxiety increasing with every stain or sock.
But then I adapted. And I accepted. And, you know what? The house may not look perfect, but I’m relaxed. I learned tricks to hide the inevitable stains like buying removable covers for the throw pillows and replacing the white kitchen towels with black ones. I implemented a few systems to help with organization. I have my own bathroom and my own office, so I always have a couple spaces that don’t sprout clutter. I don’t worry anymore about creating perfection before a friend comes over, which leads to many more visits.
We made a joint decision before I moved in that we would hire someone to clean once a month. That investment is critical for us; it keeps a cluttered house from becoming an issue in the marriage. I love the feeling when I come home right after the house cleaner leaves. And now, I accept that it won’t last so I just appreciate it in the moment. And then just let it be 🙂
I live my life largely by plans and procedures. Even my lists have lists. But the most fun I have comes in those unplanned moments. And Brock is great at those.
The first time he caught me off guard was very early on in our relationship. I was working on moving out of my friend’s house and into an apartment and I had just discovered hundreds of dollars of unpaid utility bills left by my ex. I was upset (understatement) as I was trying to come to terms with yet another financial assault. I pulled into Brock’s driveway, shaking and teary-eyed with anger. His response? He flipped over into a handstand and made a goofy face at me. I couldn’t help but laugh, the anger dissipating with my smile.
We actually balance each other really well in this area. He speaks planning well enough that we can sketch out vacations or schedule dates. And I’m flexible enough to change that plan. We make sure the important stuff gets done and we’re not afraid to have some unplanned fun along the way. Spontaneity keeps life interesting:)
Every relationship has its challenges. Every person brings areas of weakness and of strength into the partnership. It’s worth taking the time to learn how to work with those differences. And maybe even appreciate them. I know I do.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hide his keys:)