“You Can’t Buy Forgiveness for Your ADHD. But You Can Learn to Apologize Without Accepting Shame.”
“Within 30 seconds of discovering my mistake, I had lapsed into fight-or-flight mode. My body moved automatically, sending me running to the shop for a replacement. Quick. Quick. Make it better. Avoid the shame. Avoid the reprimand. Avoid seeing that disappointed look in the eyes of someone you love yet again.”
For as long as I can remember, I have tried to buy forgiveness. Forgiveness for losing something or for breaking something — a promise, a vase, a person’s trust. It’s a defensive maneuver, put in place to quickly head off the slithery feeling of shame that inevitably follows my transgression.
The routine goes like this: I mess up. I quickly apologize saying: “I’ll replace it” or “I’ll buy another one,” but their expression says it all. They are disappointed. They feel ignored. They feel unseen. They feel like I don’t care. They don’t see my ADHD at work behind the scenes. For years this was because even I didn’t see it. No one did. Two schools, college, and university and no one in education or employment or at home picked up on my ADHD.
At the age of 33, I was finally diagnosed with adult ADHD after a fairly serious blip. I somehow managed to lose two hours and leave my partner’s son waiting at his school. I couldn’t buy the mistake away, though every part of my being wished I could. I couldn’t understand how I could have done it. But my tired, exasperated partner knew there must be something else going on. And so I finally got my ADHD diagnosis.
Recognizing ADHD Behavior Patterns
This pattern of buying my way out of trouble, of trying to purchase forgiveness, only became clear to me recently. I snapped out of my morning daydreaming when I heard a shout from the upstairs bathroom. My partner was mad that I’d used all of her face wash and left the empty container half scrunched on the side of the sink. While she was restrained with me, she was obviously disappointed that I hadn’t — or so it seemed to her — considered her needs.
While she was still in the bathroom, I immediately sprung out the front door and ran to the shop and bought several more of the same brand, trying to fix the problem. Once I slowed down, I was able to reflect and realize that, within 30 seconds of discovering my mistake, I had lapsed into fight-or-flight mode. My body moved automatically, sending me running to the shop. Quick. Quick. Make it better. Avoid the shame. Avoid the reprimand. Avoid seeing that disappointed look in the eyes of someone you love yet again.
It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of my internalized shame because of my disorganized memory but also because of…well, where do I start? Those of us with ADHD are taught to be ashamed of ourselves from an early age. I not only have ADHD but dyslexia, too. I don’t know hold old I was but I distinctly remember a support teacher staring at me in utter disgust because I couldn’t spell my surname. Now whenever someone is disappointed with me, that memory looms large and sets off a shame spiral of epic proportions.
I remember, too, when the controller for our family gaming console broke and we went out as a family to replace it. Money was scarce, but we bought it and I held the bag. I can vaguely remember sitting at the back of the bus daydreaming away, staring aimlessly at the winter dew on the window. I can vaguely remember getting off the bus with everyone. I will never forget the looks of disgust I got from every one of my family members when they realized that I had left the shopping bag on the bus. I wanted to buy another one, but I had no money.
Stopping the ADHD Shame Spiral
These memories and a whole host of shame-inducing others have stuck with me and are activated every time I lose or use something I shouldn’t have. And there are plenty of opportunities for triggers, as anyone with ADHD knows. Impulsivity doesn’t help either.
I recently woke up in a fuzzy state and ate my step-child’s special chocolate bar from school. I just saw it and ate it and didn’t think of the consequences. I told myself I would purchase another one when I headed out for work. The problem was I forgot to replace the chocolate bar. And, oh, the look on his little face when he realized what I’d done. He tried to be brave and say it didn’t matter, but by that point I was spinning into a shame spiral, kicking myself for being so thoughtless. I told myself I would replace it the day after. It’s still not been replaced. It never will be.
The reality is that I have ADHD. My medial prefrontal cortex — which is heavily involved in decision-making processes, evaluating options and learning from errors — does not function like that of a neurotypical person. I am not neurotypical and there always will be blips. There is no ‘quick fix,’ but there are ways I can help myself. I can take my supplements, drink more green tea, use Google Calendar more, or create an exercise routine. I can try and stick to it, but it’s guaranteed that I will fall out of that routine at some point. Yes, I can help myself, but I will always have ADHD. So self-compassion is everything. It is a tool I need to use every day — again and again. It’s the only way to avoid the shame spiral.
In short, I am learning to forgive myself over and over. I am learning to not rush to make amends, but to stand in the truth of who I am: a kind, considerate person who has ADHD. I am learning to accept that I am a person whose brain sometimes messes up and forgets things and does impulsive things. But I also love you and I see you, just as I hope you see me and care for me despite the chemical imbalance in my brain.