If I Only Had a Heart...

Confessions of an ADHD adult who was diagnosed at 37 and, thanks to ADD medication, finally learned what it meant to empathize, to feel, to reclaim his life.

Personal Journey, Part 2

Medication helped with that problem. I'd been taking it for only two days when I started remembering all sorts of difficult incidents and situations from my life, and, for the first time, I felt emotions in a way that I imagine people who don't have ADD feel them.

I remembered when my kids were learning to walk, how they'd trip and fall. Now, all of a sudden, I could really feel how scared and upset they must have been. I also thought about my Mum, who went through a lot when she and Dad divorced. I finally understood how she must have felt.

Pete: Empathy is a problem for a lot of people with ADD. That's especially true for men with ADD, because empathy isn't a highly valued male trait in our culture. It's something Jeff and I worked on - taking a step back and trying to see things from the other person's perspective, actively putting yourself in the other person's shoes. You have to do that over and over to make it second nature.

Jeff: "Take a step back" is a phrase that has come up repeatedly in my sessions with Pete. Before going on medication and starting with coaching, I could turn any disagreement into a toe-to-toe shouting match. I got into nasty arguments - at work, with my ex-wife during our divorce and custody battle, and with my sister, every time she said something that made me mad. It was all so unnecessary.

Now, when something bothers me, I might say, "I need to think about this," or leave my desk for 10 minutes. I've learned to wait instead of firing back an answer to every e-mail that makes me sore.

This approach has made a big difference in the way I interact with my children, five-year-old Jackson and four-year-old Valerie. Like when I wanted to watch TV the other night, and Jackson and Valerie kept getting out of bed. Pete helped me accept the fact that this sort of thing happens, and that getting angry doesn't help. Instead of yelling at my kids, I just got up and walked them back to bed.

"Take a step back" has also helped me adapt to changing situations. That's something I always had trouble with. If the nanny called in sick, or the boss asked me to get something ready that I thought wasn't due for a week, I couldn't shift gears. Now when I feel overwhelmed and the walls are closing in, I grab a notepad, get up from my desk, and spend a few minutes coming up with a new plan.

Pete and I worked on developing my ability to listen. I'd look at my planner and pick out four meetings that were coming up. For each one, I'd plan to practice a few specific things that would improve my listening skills: Don't talk until the other person has completed his sentence. Recap with them, to make sure you understood what they said. I wrote reminders to do these things at the top of my notepad.

Pete: Like many ADDers, Jeff had wildly unrealistic expectations for himself - of what he should be able to get done. He was always overcommitted, always ready to add something to his to-do list without taking anything away. It's like assuming that God will grant you a few extra hours. At one point Jeff's list contained 50 items. I got him to keep it down to 20.

I also helped Jeff accept the fact that life seldom unfolds on schedule or according to plan, and that it's easier to stay on track if he builds "buffer times" - when nothing is scheduled - into his day. If something comes up, I tell him, you have to look at what you have left to do that day. Say you have 10 things, and there's time for only five. Which do you want to do? You've lost X hours, and you have Y hours left. How do you want to use them?



This article comes from the April/May 2006 issue of ADDitude.

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