What does it feel like to have Adult ADHD in a relationship that doesn’t “meet you halfway”? What does it feel like to have ADHD in a world that can even feel endlessly critical and devoid of empathy? A world where adult ADHD means not being good enough?
What does it feel like to be constantly admonished for what you’ve done wrong — but seldom praised for what you have worked so hard (sometimes five times as hard as your critics) to do right? What does it feel like when it’s the people closest to you — a partner, a spouse, a parent — who constantly criticize you?
This powerful first-person essay should give you an idea. But first some background.
This is a long essay. You might find it unsettling or even “extreme”. You might not be able to personally relate. Still, please consider reading it. (And be sure to check the comments, where the writer provides an update.)
My goal in all my work is bridging the divide between “ADHD and non-ADHD” (the latter a term you’ll never catch me using). Creating, if you will, dual-empathy.
To see how common ADHD-related challenges can manifest even in dual-ADHD marriages, please consider reading the essays from two women with late-diagnosis ADHD—each married to men with late-diagnosis ADHD: You, Me, ADHD Book Club.
The Importance of Ranting
For many years, I’ve read thousands of e-mail “rants” or “vents” from the partners of adults with ADHD. They come via my free online discussion group (ADHD Partner).
A rant/vent is a post wherein the writer releases long-simmering frustration. Why do I encourage it? Two reasons:
- It’s an important step toward finding one’s voice and creating positive change.
- It’s better to vent these frustrations to the group than to their ADHD partners, who need all the post-diagnosis optimism they can get.
Typically, the most tortured essays come from members who live with “in denial” mates. That is, adults who cannot or will not see the adverse impact of their ADHD symptoms on loved ones and themselves. The number seems to be on the upswing, perhaps due to the plethora of sites peddling ADHD gifts and ADHD superpowers. This is catnip for people with poor self-esteem, low empathy, and high grandiosity.
Sometimes, ADHD symptoms can so entangle and limit the perspective of these adults that they blame everyone else around them for their problems. If they are confident enough that this is true, they can be very convincing—and even intimidating.
As a result, their partners (not knowing that ADHD is afoot or what it really means) accept an unfair share of responsibility for the couple’s conflicts. I wrote extensively about this phenomenon in my first book: Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?
The Double-Sided Sword of Denial
Yet there exists a parallel phenomenon for some adults with ADHD: They endure people who remain “in denial” about ADHD and the sometimes-formidable challenges they are up against. In this way, the “denial” sword cuts both ways. So can an apparent lack of empathy.
Here’s the thing: I also facilitate a face-to-face group for adults with ADHD. And, I receive many e-mails from adults who have ADHD. But I’ve not been privy to written rants from adults with ADHD (excluding those tortured souls who flame me as being a Pharma Shill or Whore, despite no pharma funding).
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Perhaps the adults in our local group are simply polite. Perhaps their friends and loved ones are more enlightened about ADHD—not “in denial” and actively empathic on developing joint strategies.
Just possibly, though: They beat themselves up over their missteps so much. Hearing it from others just tosses one more justified critical voice on the heap. It’s been going on so long in their lives, perhaps they don’t even think to mention it.
A Visceral Kick to the Gut
Recently, I received this e-mail from a new acquaintance, L. Friesen. We met when she read some of my posts on an ADHD discussion forum and sent this message:
Months ago I wrote to you about wanting to send you something I was writing. I realized that I was having difficulty articulating what I felt needed to be said. It’s taken months of going back and forth with it and it’s evolved from where I first started.
It’s not all that polished and I apologise for that. [She uses British spelling.] I find few in the helping area that I truly respect and you write with a sensitivity that is often very touching. I’m curious about your response to what I wrote.
Here is my response to Ms. Friesen:
A visceral kick to the gut.
I’ve always felt empathy for the challenges of adults with ADHD, including the pervasive misperceptions and myths about it, because I made a point to educate myself. But still, this essay’s raw and heartfelt emotion stayed with me for days.
My gratitude goes to Ms. Friesen, for allowing me to share her powerful essay with you. I hope her words give voice to your personal experience—or help you to understand the people with ADHD in your life.
On With My Vent In All Its Offensive Glory
By L. Friesen
I’ve observed that prefacing what you’re going to say with “I’m just venting” means you are declaring immunity from criticism for being irrational or unfair. You can be irresponsible about the casualties that read what you spew or be as bigoted as you want.
I’m invoking this “right” for myself.
You will simply have to put up with my impertinence because, as you already know, venting is not something allowed to those who are neurologically questionable. For us it is called “making excuses” or, gotta love this one, “being negative.”
I don’t care to be objective because it’s my life and my experience, which isn’t an objective experience. I’m out of control, I’m breaking the rules. This is my “oppositional defiance” and not a legitimate “vent.” Legitimacy is only for the normal. So on with my vent in all its offensive glory.
A Lifelong Sacrifice to Public Opinion
From my earliest years, I recall the disapproving voices.
“Little girls do not run up and down the block screaming.”
“Look at you, you got mud all over your dress!”
“What were you thinking?”
“What is wrong with you?!”
There was never an answer to these hurtful questions. My parents, injected with fears that they were badly permissive parents, left me no shelter from this storm of accusation. No one was coming to rescue me.
I felt like a sacrifice to public opinion. I watched the people who loved me—more than anyone else in the world—berate, scold, and many times slap me for reasons I could not understand. “With a spoiled child, here is what you do,” they were told. Or, “Just give me that child for a week and I’d fix her.”
I began to believe that I must be bad, that everything was my fault even if I couldn’t figure out what it was that I had done. Now I am told I care too much what others think and that I “have low self-esteem.” I don’t actually believe this. It becomes impossible to manage a self-image that is bombarded with negative attributions, and I need to be ever vigilant in order that “others” do not penalize me for just being myself.
From the earliest memories of my life, my treatment hung upon the whims and mercies of an unmerciful other out there. Never knowing when the looks would come or why, the disapproval hung thickly as if I was followed by a flock of crows. A group of crows is called a “murder,” and perhaps in some ways, this is apt.
I Never “Grieved” For My Own Children
At least I was spared the indignity of having my parents “grieve” over me. Blessedly, I never once grieved for my own children. I never felt I was put upon by all their energy or the homework we had to get through each night. They broke stuff and got into all sorts of things. They did try my patience on certain days. But each night, when they were asleep, I’d go into their room and see what a little angel I had in each of them.
There is a certain rage that wells up inside of me when I hear parents who are angry and resentful of their child—or those teens who are floundering desperately and get heaped with all sorts of lingo about consequences and contracts and threats of being thrown out to fend for themselves. I look at the grievances and the blame that gets heaped on those young shoulders and wonder how they will do well. The steady drumbeat of criticism has already done its damage.
I don’t think there’s anything more offensive to me than seeing the blame perpetuated onto another generation. When I read of the suffocating control that some parents wield, in order to “keep their sanity,” I am filled with such that only one who’s been there can know. I was just a mom with wonderfully spirited children.
No Excuse for “Symptom Leakage”
Now, as an adult, should there be leaking of any symptoms, there will be room for interrogation, along with lots of “should” and recriminations.
To have ADHD means that you will be subject to the continuous and damning refrain: There is no excuse. I must look normal—and act normal—because there is no excuse otherwise. Oh, we’re told that it “can” be an explanation. But it’s just a well-worded and appropriately self-deprecating acknowledgment of culpability for our crimes.
What are these crimes? Apparently, refusing to take our designated place as unworthy of actually being excused. We must always be pardoned by the grace of those rising above our behavior and proclivities. As if they’re walking around with that condescending smile and token accommodations saying, “You’re welcome” to me all day long. The message also gets sent that we are ungrateful and callous for not saying thank-you for any allowance at all.
Yes, I know that mouthings are made here and there, a much rarer event than the monkish intonations of “You must not use ADHD as an excuse.” In theory, I am absolved upon a rare “bad day”. But in practical terms, this is not the case. I can be called to account for any leakage. Inevitably to follow: The disparagement or disapproval of my failure to utilize one “coping” device or another.
There really is no excuse for having ADHD. Messages to the contrary are a salve doled out so sparingly that usefulness is moot. My voice will be excluded because my reputation precedes me. I’m one of “those” who can’t be trusted, for we are ever under the critical and suspicious gaze. I have been positioned as someone of inferior reputation. Therefore, I must be lying, I must be making an excuse.
I Lack “Self-Awareness”—Oh Really
It’s true, though: After a lifetime of interrogations, you learn to watch what you say when those questions begin. You learn that it’s humiliating to hand someone the stick that they will beat you with. I will be dismissed with lines such as, “People with ADHD lack self-awareness.”
I have become very aware. It won’t do, however, to allow a voice that isn’t filled with anxiety and trepidation for your favour that today I performed okay. In short, any defense is labeled patronizingly as “defensiveness.”
When you’re losing ground in an argument, you can always push one of the buttons on the laundry list of my diagnosis. For example, the button self-doubt works wonders: my view of reality is skewed by my condition. The button of lacking self-awareness. It doesn’t do to point out that this lack of self-awareness cuts both ways, that you are no more aware of or understand the cues I send.
It is irrelevant to mention: I am inconvenienced by any number of rituals that slide so fast past your awareness—because you expect and demand that I be normal.
Your reasoning becomes harsher as your unchecked expectations escalate. Your blinded awareness of my state leads you to characterize your observations in the most hurtful ways. You say, should I ask for consideration, you are forced to ‘”lower your standards.”
It’s a pointless exercise to wonder or dare to ask aloud: Why is it always me that needs to learn their verbal, emotional, physical language and to heed their default rules of conduct while also translating mine into theirs for their comfort? Why is their communication style, their processing, their outputting the decided template—the one I can fill in with bits of me that are whitewashed and made more palatable for them?
You’ve Made a Twin of Me In Your Mind—the Normal Twin
You say I mesmerized you with my hyperfocus—a bit of magic dust I covered myself with to trap and enslave you. It wasn’t that I was actually a warm, funny, decent human being with any redeeming qualities. Now, with bitterness and rank self-pity, you complain that the real (inferior) me was concealed beneath a magic glow.
The resentment you express over my “deception” just adds to my disorientation. You’ve made a twin of me in your mind—my normal twin, the one you really want.
You measure me constantly against this figment-of-your-imagination twin and I am predestined to fall short. At some point, you will threaten to abandon and scorn me. Then, as the anxiety and the part of my brain that allows for super performance tries to stave off the loss, you watch and sighhh and commiserate that it’s just a manipulation to stave off the inevitable. I won’t truly change, you say ruefully. Because to truly change (to your standards, anyway) would require a level of perfection impossible for anyone.
Why Is This “Ideal” Twin The Goal?
Ultimately, you don’t want to participate in the give and take of my coping strategies. That requires your maintaining an uncomfortable level of vigilance while modifying your habitual ways of doing something. When you find this difficult and sometimes impossible, you throw at me that you do everything and then insist you can do no more—all the while insisting that I maintain this same level of effort for you.
Why is this ideal me (the one in your head) the goal? Do I get to show you the lovely box I’ve constructed for you from my ideal template? Shall I walk you through the exact instructions you’ll need to follow in order to wedge yourself into it?
You will allow me to show you how much I care for you by throwing some “opportunities” my way to make me feel better. That is, to let me feel slightly less like I’m trying to keep a raft afloat—held together with duct tape as parasitic fishes poke microscopic holes in it. You’ll let me think my foundering is getting me closer to your realization: that I do in fact love you and want you in my life.
Oh, and you’re welcome.
Super-efforts only last a few weeks and you can’t understand why? They do for you as well. But then, you don’t have to use this part of your brain for normal performance as well. Many times you will leave, grieving for the hypothetical twin. I am left wondering if I can begin again. Maybe I can find someone who will care about me without my own loving feelings being rated according to performance-based system.
Dodging Social Landmines Is Exhausting
My social timing will never be perfect. I’ll stand out from the crowd, which will lead either to unsolicited and often unhelpful advice or they will back away slowly. I strain to contain the thoughts, to remember the hundreds of niceties, correct postures, correct lines of the conditioned script you call empathy and socially adaptive behaviour.
Anxiety will spike as my mind floods with potential social landmines, things you give no thought to. I know that, should I find myself feeling enjoyment, a laundry list of how I’ve socially failed and embarrassed you will soon follow. When I’m enjoying myself, the tight hold I must maintain on my body, my facial muscles and my thoughts loosen and “here there be dragons.”
As we finally leave this field of landmines, the exhaustion overwhelms me, leaving me little ability to fend off the recriminations over my moments of unchecked control. This will be followed by finishing the list that I must accomplish before my day is done. For, not to do so means having to listen to you say that I never do anything and you have to do everything. That I have just exhausted myself in “doing” for you so that your social needs will be met is swept aside as negligible. Those efforts are invisible to you, so they don’t count as doing.
Meanwhile, At Work: More Landmines
The next morning I go to work, where similar landmines await. I’ll spend the next 8 hours jogging around those landmines. Should my attempts be too imperfect, the ax is waiting.
In fact, I see it coming now, when my differences reach a critical level and I begin to be treated with disdain. I move on, with you unaware. Nor can I tell you. I never do anything. Then you will wonder why I quit yet another job.
But how about you? Will you acknowledge several times each day that you have not lived up to the ideals imposed upon you by society. Or, will you make some pretense?
I look for support and see none around me. So I go online. If not vilified, then I am certain to run into the overly cheerful, overly pumped up, positive voice of what appears to be a special ed teacher transitioning into adult practice. These are the places where commentary and narratives of the non-ADHD partners share their pain, where:
- Embarrassingly over-confident cheery tips for “handling” my ADHD are doled out like recipes for “never fail” pastry.
- Bigotry and ADHD-ist statements flow freely.
- I dare not chime in my own experience because it might contradict the ongoing debasement, censure, and denouncements. I was personally told it’s a measure of their pain and that I have to understand.
The unspoken message: I am insensitive and blissfully unaware of my bull-in-a-china-shop ways. I need to “pay attention” so that I can learn just how destructive I am.
Your Pain Eclipses Mine
I damn myself the instant I confess my condition, do I not? How selfish I am to be so unaware of your pain and do nothing. It couldn’t be that—after a lifetime with no treatment and a lifetime of abuse—I am in no position to do so? This, along with a complete lack of acknowledgment that what I’ve faced is a condition at all. I don’t know how to help myself, much less help your pain. Your pain eclipses mine. You are the innocent victim of my ADHD. I am cast into the role of victimizer, which adds to a lifetime’s burden of guilt.
It couldn’t be that your comparing of me to “what I could be'” is more often the source of your pain than anything I do or do not do?
It’s very understandable, you’ll be told; “They” can make you crazy. You’ll toss out the occasional “I’m not perfect, either.” But you wield the weapon of our symptomology while your own lack of perfection remains concealed. Not very much of a level playing field, is it?
They extoll your virtues—what you put up with. poor dear. It’s chaos and madness—the terror of the roller coaster. For me to cry, to rage, to acknowledge what is being done and how my reputation is being shredded will only bring on yet another accusation of self-pity. I am evil by nature. Tis my nature, said the scorpion.
My Caring About Your Pain Is Not Credible
I actually care that you are in pain. I’d like to help, I’d like to share with you so that you could understand perhaps where you are mischaracterizing, where you can push for more, and how you can be more effective.
Unfortunately, I am not credible. That crazy ADHD brain is described as out of touch with reality—skewed. Then there is the implied motive that I’m gaming you. Who would take advice from a doctor or lawyer whose view of reality is skewed? If I correct a misperception, I am being “defensive.”
There are so many methods to silence me, to discredit me, that I am left mute while the flow of your rage burns a psychological acid on my character. It would appear my role is to be one of acknowledger of how we people with ADHD run around and wreck people’s lives.
It’s all sewn up neatly, and I am immobilized, a silent stone. Speaking out brings chiding or censure; emotional reactions are forbidden. I must apologise and comply. After all, I need to be examined, treated, and cured. Emotional reactions reflect my bad brain. I must be grateful to be your affliction—and most of all to be polite and say “Thank you.”
To acknowledge shame is shameful; to acknowledge my hurt frightens you. I might “give in” and no longer march towards that destination I can never reach. That destination being to look and act and perform like an NT [neurotyical].
Everyone is taught to conceal weakness, to mask “the problem,” and soldier on. If I try and conceal mine, the accusation of lying or deception is forthcoming. You will never accept that I was giving my best performance because it wasn’t good enough.
Adult ADHD Means Not Good Enough
I dare not mention it for I know what’s to come. That relentless urging to be better than I am, as I am clearly not good enough. “What could you have done differently?”, the kindly yet patronizing voice will ask.
It is not mine to express frustration or demand acceptance; otherwise, that lightly scolding tone will tell me I’m being negative. I learn that my reality and my experience and my nature is negative. To speak of the reality of it is to jeopardize a cultural need for everyone to be the same.
So I sneak in ways of soothing and resting myself for the next onslaught and I’m told that these methods are “not good enough.” These methods are in fact relieving and pleasurable. Naturally, that’s maladaptive. I must employ and perform an inexhaustible amount of compensatory strategies.
I must go to bed at night at a prescribed time so that I can lie awake and perform an inventory of my actions to satisfy any recrimination that I am not “taking care of myself,” making excuses, or lacking empathy for you.
If this doesn’t work, then medication is the answer. My partner now sees that all is right in the world as I behave closer to “normal.” I’ve become medicalized, a project that feels like a punishment, the demand to obediently take the medications despite the intolerable feeling in my body from the side effects. The demand to obediently follow the script of wellness and getting better. “I’m getting better! I’m doing better. I didn’t forget to do that thing you asked me to today.”
“I Can’t See You Doing Anything”—How True Indeed
There are moments when the thinly veiled disgust washes over your face as you find my small triumph an embarrassment for its mundanity. It’s also glaring evidence that you live in blissful ignorance of the struggle you expect me to make look easy. You can then say, “I can’t see you doing anything?” True indeed.
I need and want to develop strengths. I want to pursue goals and live in a way that allows me to be comfortable. Yet, in all this narrative, I feel oddly left out.
My experience of desiring to achieve is overshadowed by your fear that I don’t have the correct desires—or any desires at all. Your fears and demands create such anxiety in me that my head swirls. The relentless herding towards a satisfactory goal leaves me on my personal “trail of tears”—exhausted, confused, and parts of me so undernourished that I become disoriented in my own life.
I have been battling for survival all my life. As society disallows any legitimate symptoms, I am now in a double bind. The rhetoric is designed in such a way that, should I complain, I am just “buying into” a defeatist attitude. Or that the judgment is all in my head or that I lack empathy for those who are affected by my ADHD. It is expected of me that I will labour perpetually to become that which I will never be. To prove I’m normal.
Even though you can’t see all of the labours I put forth daily, I am labouring and it’s a heavy burden. What makes my burden unendurable are the needlessly ever-present insinuations and devaluations that like rain, weigh me down, often past the point of my endurance.
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