Sometimes, Friendship Is the Best Medicine

Medication and counseling can help treat ADHD symptoms, but, for many adults, having a good friend is the best alternative treatment.

two older women with ADHD talk and enjoy each other's company
two older women sitting next to each other, talking and smiling

Nan Bailey, 42, a marketing consultant, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder a year and a half ago. Medication and yoga have been helpful, but Nan’s best weapon against ADHD symptoms has been her friend Janice, a graphic artist, who occasionally works with her. She understands Nan’s behaviors, and helps her manage them.

“If I’m working on a project with Janice, she’ll say, ‘How are you doing with this? How close are we to getting this finished?'” Nan says, laughing. “She knows that I procrastinate and overthink things. She’ll say, ‘Let’s make a decision on this, and move on to the next thing.’ And we get our projects done that way.”

Why Friends Help Treat ADHD Symptoms

Research underscores the importance of friendship to adults with ADHD. In a study called “Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, Not Fight-or-Flight,” published in Psychological Review, UCLA researchers suggest that having a close friend helps women handle stress and live longer, healthier lives. Friendship is especially important to women with ADHD who were diagnosed in their 30s and 40s. Many of these women have lost a job, friendships, possibly a marriage, and some isolate themselves and avoid trying to make friends. Women with close female friends, however, are better able to take control of their lives and heal ADHD-related hurts from the past.

“Women with ADHD find it more difficult to make friends and socialize,” says Timothy S. Bilkey, M.D., director of Bilkey ADHD Clinics, in Ontario, Canada. “If a woman has lost friends because of an impulsive comment or something she has said, her self-esteem will suffer. Women with ADHD are unaware of inappropriate remarks or other offensive behaviors that alienate someone. These women are sensitive to rejection. Finding a good friend is critical to breaking through this wall.”

“Having someone who can relate to your struggles is extremely important for self-esteem and promoting self-understanding,” says Nancy A. Ratey, ADHD coach and author of The Disorganized Mind. Ratey was diagnosed at age 29, and she draws from her experience when coaching adults with ADHD.

[A Dash of Patience + A Smidgen of Honesty = A Recipe for Friendship]

How the Right Friends Can Help ADHD Symptoms

While ADHD coaching is recommended as one element of treatment, many women look to their friendships to provide ad-hoc coaching. Nan has friends with and without ADHD. Of her non-ADHD friends, she says, “A few have discovered that I am overwhelmed by simple tasks — filing papers or housework like vacuuming and dusting — which leaves me with a shockingly messy home. My friends help me without making me feel guilty. They have laundered my clothes and balanced my checkbook.”

Amelia, 49, is a visual artist and poet. Diagnosed with adult ADHD three years ago, she has one close female friend. “She offers suggestions and input to help me navigate a world I don’t quite understand,” she says.

A key to lasting, productive friendships is choosing friends wisely. I — and many of my friends with ADHD — look for patience, support, and a good sense of humor in a friend. My friends have helped me manage my deep-seated insecurity and anxiety. To this day, when I find myself in a situation in which someone is abusive, irrational, or acting inappropriately, I wonder if my social skills are to blame. This is probably due to the fact that my family saw my hyperactivity as willfulness. They thought I could control my behavior, but chose not to. A call to my dearest friend puts things in perspective. She knows what I feel in my gut — that it’s not always me who’s wrong.

ADHD or Non-ADHD Friends?

“Friendships with other ADHD women are hard,” says Amelia, “because they seem to exacerbate my symptoms. Your own ADHD is annoying enough; dealing with it in others makes you aware of your shortcomings.”

[Free Download: More Alternative Treatment Options for ADHD]

Nan agrees. “I have a friend with ADHD-like behaviors,” she says. “Her disorganization and clutter drive me mad! We’re both easily distracted, and can let projects sit idly for months.” On the positive side, “I’m less disappointed in myself when I’m with her.”

Sarah, 33, who was diagnosed with hyperactive/impulsive ADHD at 24, says her non-ADHD friends calm her down, while her high-energy personality draws out their lighter side. “I admire and enjoy quiet, calm types.”

For some, though, friendships with others with ADHD work best. “I can back out on my ADHD friends any time,” says Ratey. “But if I back out on my neurotypical friends, they take it personally. It’s seen as lack of commitment, a lack of caring.”

Being friends with ADHD adults is important for Ratey, because they understand her eccentricities and can laugh about them. “Other women do not understand how hard it can be to shop at the grocery store,” she says. “Women with ADHD know all too well. If you jump from topic to topic, they are able to follow you.”

Ratey remembers making friends with a woman who, like Ratey, had been recently diagnosed with the condition. Neither of them had started taking medication. While other college kids were popping pills to get high, they sat together on a campus bench, holding their medication in their hands. In that classic bonding moment that only those with ADHD can experience, they started taking their meds together! They have been friends ever since.

How To Maintain Adult ADHD Friendships

Making friends is not hard for most adults with ADHD. Given their abundance of charm, intelligence, and humor, what’s not to like? Sustaining friendships is another story. Erratic or offensive behavior, impulsivity, and unreliability become tiresome.

“The challenge in maintaining friendships is making the effort to pay attention and remember things, like a friend’s kids’ names, where she works, and why she won’t eat at a certain restaurant,” says Amelia. “Most people don’t mind reminding you once or twice, especially in the beginning stages of a friendship, but after telling you for the twelfth time that her son’s name is Jason, it’s understandable that someone would get annoyed.”

For all its challenges, friendship makes the difference between a fulfilling life and that state of feeling overwhelmed by stress that many of us experience. Says Ratey: “If a friend does not add to your growth and self-acceptance, that person does not belong in your life.”

Friendship Tips For Adults with ADHD

Take responsibility for managing your ADHD to the best of your ability (meds, therapy, coaching, support groups).

Strive for self-awareness to know how you come across to others.

Enter friendships cautiously and go slowly; remember that not every acquaintance is a potential friend.

Agree to disagree. It’s not always you who is in the wrong. But it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if you don’t see eye-to-eye on something.

Follow through on commitments; keep dates made with friends.

Admit it when you mess up – and apologize.

Don’t take friends for granted.

Listen to your friend when she’s talking, even when your brain would rather be rewriting the grocery list.

Show interest in the other person; think about what’s important to her. Some friends expect you to remember their birthdays, others are OK with a belated wish. Some like calls returned, others like to meet regularly.

Be aware of, and up-front about, your own needs.

[Feeling Antisocial? Alone? Both? 3 Common ADHD Friendship Challenges]