“You’re Not Listening!” How ADHD Impulsivity and Insecurity Broke (Then Saved) My Relationships
“I suffer from an irresistible desire to jump in and finish people’s sentences, particularly when my anxiety spikes are coupled with a strong compulsion to be liked. It turns out I wasn’t really engaging with people at all those cocktail parties; I just spent decades holding an audience hostage until my glass was empty.”
A lifetime of undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has revealed a lot of uncomfortable personal truths.
I am the odd one — the unpredictable wild card with loyal friends who stood by me even when I made things awkward and complicated, both to their delight and horror. Self-identity is a universal struggle, but I think people with ADHD labor more than others to define who we are and figure out where we fit. Our brains work faster and that can be exhausting or frustrating. Everyone else has to catch up.
Extroverted by nature, I always put on a show. I have a subconscious desire to make everyone around me laugh, no matter the circumstances, and I tend to dominate social situations in order to feel validated. This became increasingly apparent in my 20s. Somehow, it helped me shore up a subconscious insecurity I felt around silence. There’s not a story I won’t relate to and unconsciously try to top. In other words, I talk a lot in social settings — and listen only enough to find my springboard.
This dominance often comes across as self-centeredness, and it is. I suffer from an irresistible desire to interrupt and finish people’s sentences, particularly when my anxiety spikes are coupled with a strong compulsion to be liked. It turns out I wasn’t really engaging with people at all those cocktail parties; I just spent decades holding an audience hostage until my glass was empty.
I often come across like I didn’t care about who I was talking to, but I really did. And so the show, and the behavior around it, would go on. I often felt spent and empty at parties without understanding why. I was like a puppy running around a room full of cat people, I was the center of attention but still struggled to feel like I fit in.
Enter Serious Relationship Number One
It’s only within the last few years — when I found and lost my first truly meaningful love — that I started to get what was going on and understand that most of where I was going wrong was inside my head.
Although my ex had relatives like me and seemed to subconsciously know and understand how to handle me, neither of us recognized my ADHD. The relationship was something uncommon — she was patient and a listener. She understood me looking like a flirt as I habitually soaked up the room. She was fun, interesting, well-read, and understanding.
However, my underlying cognitive issues eventually were a major factor in eroding our relationship, but I couldn’t see it until it was too late. After years of looking for the wrong help, I felt lost and weighed down by a lot of emotional baggage. I subconsciously pressured her, assuming she had all the answers.
The Impact of Intense ADHD Emotions on Love
The problems in our relationship were sucking all the joy out of it, and my ADHD symptoms played a big part in its eventual destruction. What I know now would have spared us a lot of heartache and pain back then; but if you don’t understand what’s going on in your own head, how is your partner supposed to? Here’s how ADHD symptoms can sabotage love, in my experience.
- The ADHD brain mostly hears criticism. When my ex said, “I feel like you don’t listen properly,” I heard, “I am having doubts about whether I love you.” Constantly interrupting her (and others) is also a barrier to listening, and it collapsed efforts to communicate.
- ADHD brains conjure exaggerated thinking and imagined scenarios. The more something matters, the more alarming it becomes. When she was communicating a problem I would subconsciously create my own reality based on the little and often extreme things that filter through into my brain. Then, I’d take my interpretation of what is being said — which is often way off — and obsessively try to analyze and fix it. It’s real, unrelenting, and I can’t shut it off.
- ADHD causes hyperfocus on the negatives. Negative thinking can trigger a landslide of emotions and cause infinite dwelling. In my case, it put far too much stress on my ex, who may not have been mentally equipped to handle my extreme cognitive reactions to otherwise manageable, but very difficult issues.
- Criticism overwhelms the ADHD brain. When you care so deeply, criticism is especially difficult and often triggers anxiety and depression. I become overwhelmed and then suffer mental blocking — that silent screaming in my head that prevents me from making sense of anything, and I’d sit there, totally numb.
- ADHD impulsivity causes irrational behavior. When an issue goes unresolved, I stop sleeping and engage in escapist behavior, like drinking more to try and stop the ceaseless rumination. I’ve also been known to make major life choices after breakups — including career changes and leaving the country.
The End of the Pain
During the breakup and the years that have followed, I have learned more about myself.
In the final months, as we circled the drain, I started to write down what my ex was saying as she spoke. (Learn shorthand — it’s so useful, it’s unreal!) It forced me to listen and not interrupt her and she told me it was the only time in our more-than-two-year relationship that she felt heard. With notes in hand, I was able to respond objectively to the problem based on what she actually said, and she said a lot.
While the notes and the changes of tact started to save our relationship I dumped her — despite the fact that I promised I wouldn’t. In my head, I needed “to get my house in order” before I could be the man she deserved.
It wasn’t because I didn’t love her, but because I desperately wanted the pain, guilt, fear, self-destruction, and confusion to stop. I felt misguided and damaged and I needed to be able to sleep again after months of insomnia. So, I obliterated everything to focus on pulling myself back together assuming she would talk to me in the future.
When I wanted her back a little while later, she didn’t want me and said I was selfish for trying to connect to her again. Post-breakup, my problems remained unsolved and were joined by a hole that sat where she was meant to be.
At the Helm of a Complex Machine
I’ve learned that ADHD can be like a goose learning to fly in a fighter jet. You can’t fly like the other geese because the flapping you’re doing is in the cockpit going Mach 5. You keep flapping and flapping, hitting the bleeping, flashing buttons but the jet doesn’t respond. Things go wrong because you’re doing the wrong thing but you’re also doing the right thing, just in the wrong setting. Then they spiral out of control — you crash and burn — but you’re still sat on the ground trying really hard to flap like a goose.
Now that I have a diagnosis, my life has improved. It’s provided me with a sense of direction, a reference point, and some accurate learning. It provides my current relationship with a bit of security, too.
A diagnosis is objectively just expensive confirmation of what your mother has been telling you for years — plus access to the kind of pills undergrads would kill for. It is not a complete explanation of all your past problems. My diagnosis won’t clean up the past messes I’ve made.
But, for me, the diagnosis has helped me address a deep-rooted feeling of insecurity that’s blighted so much of my life. It has helped me understand why I often felt misunderstood or not taken seriously, why I sometimes flap about as I do, and why I sometimes did (and still do) odd things.
ADHD is not a superpower, but it’s not a problem either. ADHD doesn’t define or change me, but it does help me understand how the mechanics work so I can overcome major problems more accurately when they pop up.
Post-diagnosis, I can now identify triggers and understand them for what they are. I can anticipate a mental block and slow down enough to rationalize what is happening. I’m more comfortable with silence — it helps me process the pounding in my head. I’ve learned to explain what’s going on in a way that my current partner and friends understand.
That feeling of guilt and frustration at past mistakes is still there, but now I know it’s not entirely my fault (when is it ever?!). I still have to make a conscious effort to retain that knowledge, though.
Heartbreak taught me that it’s OK to take space from life when things spiral, even if all you want to do is fix everything immediately. Even if it feels weak, like you’re quitting when people need you, you aren’t. The truth is that they don’t need you when you are unable to help yourself.
I still have a hard time handling criticism and not jumping to extremes. I still don’t know what to do with my face and hands when someone tells me I’m annoying. But now I have a better handle on the operating system and that information is power that I’ve never had before.
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Updated on July 30, 2020