Almost 20 years ago, my husband and I got lost in downtown San Francisco. The destination we sought? Our first adult ADHD discussion group.
Heated bickering continued for a few more wrong turns (“You said to turn left!” and “I didn’t mean that left!”). Finally, though, we found the place, hustled up the stairs, caught our breath, and joined others seated at a large round conference table.
That’s when a worn-out looking man seated directly across from me said something that sticks with me, all these years later:
I’ve blamed a lot of people in my life for my troubles, but when it comes down to it, I finally realize that I am my own worst enemy.
For forty years, I’ve not only opposed what other people want me to do, I’ve opposed what I want to do.
His words hit me almost viscerally. His profound truth—mixed with desperation—I would come to understand much more specifically in coming years, on my way to becoming an Accidental ADHD expert.
We’ve all heard that adult ADHD can create problems in relationships. This man’s epiphany, however, struck some larger foundational truth: Having ADHD can create problems in your relationship with yourself, never mind with someone else.
No matter how much you crave that healthy diet, that uncluttered home, or that comfortable bank account, unrecognized and unaddressed ADHD symptoms mean you can’t always initiate and maintain the necessary steps to get there. (Talk about depressing. No wonder ADHD is so often misdiagnosed as depression.)
Add another person to the equation—in particular, a romantic partner—and the potential for misunderstanding and hurt feelings reaches dizzying proportions.
ADHD And Sleep: Challenges Affect Both Partners
Take sleep, for example. More than half the respondents to the ADHD Partner Survey identified their mates’ ADHD-related sleep patterns as a big problem. They cite it as a problem almost as challenging as difficulties in listening, remembering, and organizing.
The yellow bars represent the “big” problems, the red “little” problems, and blue “no” problem. As you can see, about half of the survey respondents said their ADHD partner’s sleep habits were a BIG problem, and another 20 percent or so a LITTLE problem.
The irony, of course, is that sleep deficits compound ADHD symptoms.
In fact, an amazing number of my friends who have ADHD tell me that they actually fight sleep—actively, resentfully fight it.
- Brad explains, “Gina, going to sleep is about the most boring thing a person with ADHD can do—just lie there in the dark waiting for nothing to happen.”
- Miranda says she pushes herself to cross an impossible number of to-do items from her impossibly expanding list each night until she finally collapses into bed, too tired to fight it any longer.
- Steve says he stays up several hours later than the rest of his household so he can have some “me time” at the end of his frantic day.
There are lots of reasons that many modern Americans, ADHD or not, try to steal extra time in our busy days by giving sleep short shrift. But Glen’s story reminds me of the guy at that first support group. He had finally met the enemy, and realized it was him.
“I Resent Giving Precious Hours to Sleep!”
Glen says that, by age 45, he’d grown weary of the mental battles he’d wage with himself about going to sleep.
Of course, he knew he needed a decent night’s sleep in order to function the next day; he’s not stupid. Yet simply the thought of going to bed at a decent hour triggered the infamous “ADHD oppositionality.”
In his heart of hearts, he fiercely resented spending precious hours sleeping when he is so behind on… everything. So, what did he do? He staved off sleep by watching TV while simultaneously scanning every news headline worldwide on the Internet. Finally, he started to accept that more hours spent wasting time instead of sleeping made no sense. He needed a sea-change strategy.
That meant taking ADHD-savvy strategies seriously, starting with getting more sleep. But it also meant realizing that that his stimulation-craving brain tricked him to thinking it was being productive, by scanning headlines at night instead of sleeping.
Finally, on the brink of losing his job for making too many mistakes in his groggy state, he hatched a new plan to outwit his own rebel nature. That is, he started trying to sneak up on himself, so as not to trigger the opposition.
“So,” he says, “now I tell myself, at about 10 each night, I’m not going to bed now. I’m just going to put on my sleep shirt. A few minutes later, I’ll turn on the bed-stand light, all the while assuring myself, I’m not going to sleep now, I’m just turning on the light.”
By using this bit-by-bit strategy of “sneaking up on himself,” Glen is getting more sleep. That means he has more “coping” power during the day, including in organizing himself to seek professional help for his ADHD.
“I’m Not the Only One?”
Until recently, Brad, Miranda, Steve, and Glen assumed that their difficulties around sleep were their own insoluble personal quirk or flaw. Finally, they learned about ADHD, did their research, and discovered through my Palo Alto-based discussion group that they weren’t alone in their challenges, including the nocturnal kind. We have many, many discussions on this topic, and we all learn a great deal.
They also learned that people with ADHD are not clones; they are individuals. And, each individual does best by questioning their own particular assumptions and habits—why they do the things they do, and how to trouble-shoot.
ADHD neurobiology itself is associated with higher-than-average sleep disorders—such as sleep apnea, delayed sleep phase, and restless leg syndrome. Moreover, these sleep challenges are often exacerbated by other ADHD traits such as disorganization and stimulation-seeking habits that keep many such adults glued to their computers or TVs when they should be dozing.
Sleep, Sex Deficits Can Go Hand in Hand
If you are romantically involved with someone who has ADHD but neither of you recognizes it—or how it affects sleep, finances, communication, and so forth—it’s easy to take the behaviors personally.
Miranda’s husband, Jeff, used to feel rejected when she’d delay coming to bed. He missed her company, missed enjoying sex with her.
Moreover, “I felt like she was avoiding me, avoiding intimacy—running herself ragged all day, doing chores at weird hours,” Jeff explains. “She couldn’t explain why she did these things, and, what’s worse, she resented my even asking about it. Her defensiveness made me wonder if she might be having an affair.”
Such “couples troubles” could even bring you to counseling, where the clinician might completely miss ADHD and instead find deep, dark reasons why one of you refuses to come to bed.
Fortunately, Jeff and Miranda figured it out: Lifelong struggles with undiagnosed ADHD had left Miranda feeling not only defensive but ashamed of sharing, even with her husband, her embarrassment about not being more organized, more efficient. So, she shut down and shut him out.
As for Glen, he is not even currently in a relationship. So, he wasn’t opposing a partner’s desires for him to come to bed. As he readily concedes, he was opposing his own desires! If he didn’t start getting more sleep, he risked losing his job.
Finally, after talking with other adults with ADHD at our meeting in Palo Alto, he’s decided to follow up on that long-ago diagnosis. Perhaps getting help for his ADHD symptoms will help him gain better control of his day—and night.
ADHD And Sleep: Problem-Solving
There is no cookie-cutter answer for getting better/more sleep when you have ADHD. There is only each person’s detective work and problem-solving:
- Some people with ADHD will benefit from a medication to help with sleep.
- Others simply need organizational strategies to get head on pillow by a certain hour.
- Still others will benefit from boosting Circadian Rhythm signals in the morning (a walk in the sunlight) and supporting melatonin release at night (turning down the lights; using a filter for electronic devices, such as F.lux.
I’ll be writing more about ADHD and sleep in the future.
When you’re living with adult ADHD—yours or someone else’s—accurate information and solid support are absolutely essential.
With my ADHD Roller Coaster blog, I work to shed light on the myriad and surprising ways that ADHD can slip under the radar. That includes the radar of sleep specialists, who typically are unfamiliar with the vast and growing literature on ADHD-related sleep disorders.
What questions do you have about ADHD and sleep?
What answers have you found for your or your loved one’s sleep challenges?