We don’t mean to hurt you. But we do — again and again. You feel like screaming, pulling out your hair, or lying in bed and crying, “When will she get it? Will this ever stop?” I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that if you love someone with ADHD you need to read this with an open mind.
All of my life, this unhealthy pattern has unwound and scarred my relationships. It has created rifts and hurt feelings, but it has never, ever worked to change my attention deficit disorder behaviors. Because it simply can’t. Because disapproval is not a cure for ADHD.
The problems always begin the same way: I do something stereotypically ADHD. I forget an engagement or speak without thinking or fail to finish what I started, and someone close to me gets hurt. They feel frustrated or angry (or both), and spend many sleepless nights trying to come up with solutions. That alone tells you they care, but caring is not enough; we need understanding, too.
And I know that might sound like a lot — I mean, you’re already doing a lot of work in this relationship, right? When you love a person with ADHD, life is harder. We understand that. But life can also be more vivid and more rewarding if we can figure out a way to break the blame-control-argue cycle together. You need for us to try, and we promise to keep at it. We need for you to attempt these 12 things — every day.
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1. Believe That ADHD Is Real
We are the black sheep, the outsiders, and the oddballs. We’ve been this way since forever, and we’ve never felt we were good enough. Our disorder is not only invisible, it is frowned upon, misunderstood, and causes our loved ones pain and suffering. That is a terrible feeling. We usually can’t believe how we act (we’re just used to it). Rolling your eyes tells us that you think we’re making excuses or lying. Please believe us when we tell you how difficult a simple task is to complete. Disbelief only pushes us farther apart.
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2. Allow Us Time to Process
Our minds are bombarded constantly with thoughts that fly in and out of focus faster than we could ever hope to organize or process them. Imagine a noisy, dizzying Indy 500 race speeding around inside my head, none of which anyone else can see or hear. Why can’t we communicate our thoughts? Because we can’t hear ourselves think. When we find a quiet space — a gap to let the thoughts slow down — we can communicate more clearly and calmly. Please give us the time to find that space.
Our emotions take us hostage. As speeding thoughts bombard our brain, we cannot speak or focus on work. Our cognition shuts down and our emotions begin to control everything we do. On top of that, we are missing the emotional regulators that allow rational thoughts to guide us despite what we feel, and the blinders that help us focus even as intense emotions flood in.
We know it’s asking a lot, but please wait to talk with us until our internal intensity fades, and we’re calm enough to reflect and think before speaking.
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4. Talk About ADHD
Let’s stop pretending that ADHD is not harming our relationships. Sweeping it out from under the rug takes away some negative stigma attached to it, and normalizes ADHD as a part of our lives. So become educated about ADHD, and how it biologically affects the brain. Scientific explanations help to unravel the mystery of this strange, perplexing disorder.
Learn the facts and then accept the reality that it is a part of your life. Fighting ADHD takes up valuable energy and power that could be used for treating and better understanding it.
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5. Don’t Dismiss Our Anxiety
We walk on the ledge of a skyscraper most of the day — on the brink of anxiety that may go from zero to full-blown panic in a millisecond. Imagining catastrophic events is second nature to us. One fleeting thought is all it takes for us to create horrific scenes in our minds. And trying to deal with these overwhelming scenarios (real or imagined), causes us to become frozen, angry, or isolated. That’s our survival mechanism; the way we’ve learned to cope with our anxiety. It’s not always healthy or logical, but we’re working on getting better.
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6. Respect the Zone
The zone we love is the same one you hate. It’s here that we can concentrate intently and deeply on things that we love — sometimes so fully absorbed in our work that we don’t see, hear, or think about anything else. And I mean anything. Many of us encourage and feed into this hyperfocus when it’s happening because we fear that, if interrupted, we won’t ever be able to focus with the same depth, vision, and perception again.
If you interrupt us, we may panic and screech like an opened emergency-exit door. Instead, please ask us, “When would be a good time to talk?" At that time, we can take a walk, sit over coffee, and talk about whatever you like. But not before that time — sorry.
ADHD isn’t an excuse for irresponsibility. It’s a real medical condition and it means that what comes easy to you may be difficult for us. It doesn’t mean that we can’t do something; it means that it’s just much harder for us. Simple tasks that you take for granted — for example, opening mail, paying bills, and filing papers — are a triathlon of executive functions for us.
We understand why you may want to criticize and correct our behavior, but try to accept that that is our reality. Doubts and disappointments will not make these tasks any easier for us; but encouragement just might inspire us not to give up. So please acknowledge our successes — no matter how small.
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8. Help Us Make the Future Matter
Ironically, deadlines are helpful. And reminders are, too. But nagging? Not so much. The presentation of the reminder determines our reaction. Please remember that we suffer from time blindness, which means dates don’t register. The future is vague and blurry, and it doesn’t really matter. Deadlines help because they are goals with time limits that make the future a reality (something we have trouble registering). That’s how ADHD works.
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9. Look for the Good
When you’re frustrated and annoyed with trying to help a loved one again, the understandable temptation is to focus on only our negative traits. It feels impossible to remember our good qualities. And listing them only feels like it will set unrealistic expectations — and lead to disappointment.
At times like this, try to accept your loved ones as they are. Look for the good, and focus on it. Never lose sight of your loved one’s awesome qualities. If it’s your partner, remember the fun-loving, impulsive personality you fell in love with. Go back in time. Love them again, as if you first met. If it’s your child, remember the feeling of holding your newborn infant in your arms for the first time.
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10. Be a Supportive Partner
Words of encouragement wield far more power than do insults or put-downs. We desperately need cheerleaders rooting for our success and believing in our ability to achieve — in part because it’s often so difficult for us to believe it ourselves. Let your loved one know that you are on the same team working for the same goal. And please remember that we learn a lot from you. When you’re patient with us, you teach us patience. When you talk lovingly to us, you remind us how to love.
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11. Know That We Feel Bad
It’s not always obvious, but deep inside our hearts and souls we know that we're driving you crazy. We feel bad about ourselves when we upset you. We know we’re difficult to deal with sometimes, and we feel shame and guilt over that. For most of our lives, other people have told us we weren’t doing our best or trying our hardest. These words took root and sprouted into doubt, worry, and performance anxiety. To this day, they tell us we were never good enough and we probably still aren’t. We live with that every day.
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12. Take Care of Yourself
ADHD relationships can suck the joy out of your life, we know. Though you may feel an unbalanced burden of responsibility in our relationship, please make time for yourself, to do something that makes you happy. Stress is bad for your health — mentally and physically. Take a walk. Go to the beach. Breathe in the smell of the ocean. Sit in a park and enjoy the trees. Learn to meditate. Find an exercise class. Dance, laugh, and feel happy again. If you’re so inclined, invite us. Chances are, we’d love to join you!