“How do I explain my ADD to my new boyfriend?” the transfer student asks. “At my other school,” she continues, “all my friends had something so we never really had to explain. And when I told my best friend that I had already told Michael about my issues, Lacy said that I never should have told him so soon.”
This conversation captures the tension of self-disclosure. My student, who I shall call Becca, preferred that her dates and her friends be aware of her disabilities from the get-go, which helped reduce her worries about when to reveal. Her best friend Lacy, I believe, was worried that Becca’s challenges would become an early “deal-breaker” in her new romantic relationship. However, neither Becca or Lacy were sure about what exactly to reveal, about what information was appropriate yet true to Becca’s experiences. As a psychologist and researcher, I had to tell her, unfortunately, that there seems to be no research to support recommendations about the best time or manner to divulge one’s disability during dating.
Disclosure of cognitive and learning disabilities such as ADHD often unleashes a peculiar problem; after the disclosure, it is not unusual for people to remark – as the boyfriend, Michael, actually did - that they, too, are “a little ADD” or "sometimes dyslexic" themselves because, for example, every once in a while they cannot concentrate or reverse their letters while spelling (an incorrect understanding of dyslexia, by the way). Similarly, friends, relatives, and potential romantic partners will sympathize with persons with psychiatric diagnoses, nodding their heads that they, too, occasionally feel nervous or depressed. But my student knows enough about ADHD to know that it comprises more than occasional problems with sustained attention, that she has weaknesses in executive function that her boyfriend does not, as well as poor working memory that often baffles her when trying to carry out basic tasks of daily life, and that her comorbid diagnoses require additional treatments. I also want to note, though I did not say this to Becca, that declaring that someone – even oneself - “is a little ADD” instead of “diagnosed with ADD” is “a grossly misleading, meat-cleaver way of reducing a person to a highly variable facet of his or her personality” (Hinshaw & Ellison, 2016, p. xxiii).
The question of the timing of disability disclosure is actually an issue about whether to confront or to dodge the stigma of disability. I would argue that being upfront about one’s strengths and limitations is the honest way and the one that might feel least stressful in the long term. I acknowledge its difficulty, though, because most people with disabilities state that people without disabilities typically ascribe far more importance and limitations to their disability than they do (Smart, 2011). The stigma is especially strong if the illness is related to psychosis, such as schizophrenia, disfigurement, such as oral cancer, excretion, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or potentially transmissible, such as HIV/AIDS.
I responded to Becca’s question of how to explain ADD to her new boyfriend by suggesting that she might talk with Michael about her own lived experiences with ADD. Also, I offered that the discussion should not be a one-time explanation but rather many conversations and even humor, lasting anywhere from seconds to hours as she and Michael spent time with each other. In some ways, disability disclosure can be like recommended sex education between parent and child; all parties should feel comfortable with an “open-door” policy as issues or questions arise, even those that might be embarrassing to ask or to answer. The important point for daters with disabilities is that they do not need to be experts on their disability; they are, however, authorities on their personal experiences and that is what is important to convey.
Hinshaw, S.P., & Ellison, K. (2016). ADHD: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smart, J. (2011). Disability Across the Developmental Lifespan. New York: Springer.