The life of 31-year-old Chris White hasn't been an easy one. During late adolescence and in his early 20s, he suffered from bouts of depression and debilitating stomach problems due to an undetected ulcer. But it was his untreated attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), Chris admits, that eventually threatened his career and his marriage.
Growing up in a large suburban town 20 miles outside of Chicago, Chris felt that he didn't measure up to his classmates in high school. He struggled academically and didn't fit in with his peers, although he did excel at springboard diving. At 20, he attempted suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants. The psychiatrist he started seeing concluded that his poor grades, lack of focus, and social awkwardness were indeed caused by ADHD.
Chris didn't take the diagnosis seriously, and rarely stuck to his medication regimen. He attended four different colleges, but he didn't stay long enough at any of them to earn a degree. Once he entered the work force, attendance problems caused him to be fired from his first two jobs and demoted in his third. He decided to quit before he could be dismissed from the fourth.
Between jobs, he met Patty, a legal secretary, and within 18 months they were married. But when the honeymoon ended, Patty discovered that living with someone with untreated ADHD was a daily struggle. "Everyone says that 'the first year is the hardest,' says Patty, "but I knew we had bigger issues."
Several sessions with a family therapist only heightened the friction between them. So when Chris's mom suggested they see a certified ADHD coach, they were skeptical. But it became a turning point in their marriage. Two-and-a-half years later, Chris and Patty are still married and happy. Here is how the couple overcame their challenges.
Ken Zaretsky (a life coach in Chicago): When I met Chris and Patty, their marriage was in trouble. Patty was ready to give up on her husband, and he wasn't aware of how upset she was with his behavior. They fought a lot. They needed to sit down and talk about their issues and needs.
Patty had to learn that people with ADHD behave differently than those without the condition. She didn't have to excuse Chris's behavior, but she needed to understand ADHD in order to realize that Chris wasn't deliberately trying to upset her.
After some discussion, I discovered that Patty and Chris didn't spend much time together. Patty told me that they said almost nothing to one another when they were relaxing at home. She would watch TV, while he worked at the computer on the other side of the room. My goal was to educate both Patty and Chris about AD/HD, devise some solutions that would let them manage their life together, and, in the process, help them rediscover their love.
Patty: We met with Ken twice a month at our house, sitting in the living room and talking. Chris also called Ken to coach him through any issues that arose during the day.
When Ken discussed the symptoms and patterns of ADHD, Chris's actions started to make sense to me. Ken asked me about our last big fight. Chris was in the middle of refinishing our dining room table, when he went to the mall to buy more sandpaper. He didn't come home for three hours. I was livid. But Chris didn't understand why I was angry.
Ken explained to me that Chris, or anyone with ADHD, lacks an internal clock to give him cues about the passing of time. When Chris got involved in something - like shopping at the mall - he simply lost track of time. Then Ken asked why Chris's tardiness made me so angry. I said, "I shouldn't have to tell a grown man when he has to be back from the mall. I always have to be the responsible person. I would like to spend three hours at the mall as well, but there are things that need to get done at home." To be honest, my feelings were hurt, too. It felt like Chris would rather be out shopping by himself than spending time at home with me.
Chris: I'd forget about our fights five minutes later. But I eventually started to realize that our marriage was in trouble; it seemed that Patty was always upset with me about something. I had no idea how we had gotten to this point.
Patty: Our finances were so dire that we couldn't pay our bills. Combined with everything else, the money shortage seemed too much to manage.
Chris: Ken pointed out that impulse buying is common to people with ADHD. I know it was a problem for me. I bought things without thinking and ran up large credit card bills. Ken came up with ideas to help me cut back on my spending. I drew up a re-payment plan, paid off my credit cards, and then canceled them. I learned to take out less money at the ATM, so I wouldn't overspend.