The 'A' Word

How would you like to be labeled ADHD?

Posted Jul 25, 2016

Work done by Jerome Schultz, Ph.D. suggests that when people who have ADHD (in his case, children) and who don’t understand the label ‘ADHD’ take on the negative stereotypes often associated with the condition rather than see themselves as a greater 'whole.'  This isn’t a huge surprise.  All you have to do is stand around for a while in a school hallway before you hear “Oh, that’s so ADD!”  It’s not a compliment.

Adults with ADHD know this all too well – they’ve lived it.  For years people told them they were inadequate, ought to try harder, never learned, or were stupid (because they didn’t test well or had problems with memory)…this list goes on and on.  Sadly, many of them believed it because they didn’t have another explanation.  Take ‘stupid’ – a child with ADHD might be exceptionally smart yet test poorly because s/he reads slowly (a common issue with ADHD) and runs out of time.  Or perhaps she did her homework and learned the material but forgot to bring it to school, getting a “0” for her effort.  Or was distracted and didn’t even know she had homework – even though she was perfectly capable of acing it.  Perhaps the ADHD child had a co-existing math learning disability, such as dyscalculia, which kept him from doing more than 5 problems on that 25-problem math quiz in second grade.  That brain that can’t calculate might be amazing with words or pictures…but this gets lost in our ‘teach to the test’ school environment and the taunts of other school children.

People diagnosed with ADHD as adults are often relieved to hear about their diagnosis.  Finally!  A reason for all that has happened to them!  And, if they do some research and tackle the task of treating the ADHD, their lives most often change for the better*.

But over time, if both partners don’t really learn about ADHD and how to live with it, ADHD can morph into a curse – ‘the A word’ as one woman told me.  Having a label – and particularly the label of ‘ADHD’ – can translate into ‘because you have ADHD, our relationship problems are all your fault.’  The woman with ADHD who normally stays on top of things isn’t just deciding that she doesn’t ‘feel like doing a chore right then’…no, she’s ‘not controlling her symptoms well enough’ and gets corrected by her partner.  The man who has ADHD who stays on his computer too long to finish reading an interesting news story ‘has a computer addiction.’   The man who thrills at arriving at the airport just in the nick of time is judged ‘inconsiderate’ and to have an ‘issue with time management’ by his more anxious, and less adrenaline-driven partner.

One frustrated ADHD man told me “I think of this as ‘the leeway conundrum.’  My wife, who does not have ADHD, can change her mind and everything is okay.  I, on the other hand, must never change my mind because if I do, it means I’m ‘ADHD unreliable.’”

This is part of the parent/child dynamic that is so destructive in ADHD-impacted relationships.  The ADHD partner, in the child-like role, has little autonomy and is critiqued on an ongoing basis by non-ADHD and ‘other ADHD’ partners who believe their way – sanctioned by the neuro-typical world – is ‘better.’  Sometimes they have a point…but not as often as they think.  And ADHD isn’t always the reason for differences of opinion, either.  As a non-ADHD partner I may prefer getting to the airport early so that I don’t feel stress.  But as long as my ADHD partner makes it on time, is my way really more successful (‘better’) than his?  Objectively, no.  We do things differently.  Viva la difference!

I’m not one who thinks that ADHD is a gift.  I’ve seen it play a role in the suffering of too many couples.  Research backs me up.  Having ADHD can wreak havoc with your life.  But…and this is a big but…it’s not all about ADHD, either.   Using the label of ADHD without empathy or compassion is simply cruel.  The dysfunction in the couples I work with comes from their interactions and attitudes about ADHD as much as from the ADHD symptoms themselves.  Using ‘ADHD’ as a criticism – as ‘the A word’ if you will – is one of the bigger problems.  It signals disrespect, and a willingness to label another in a way that allows the other partner to ignore his or her own role in their joint problems…leading to much-less-than-optimal healing.

Non ADHD partners, teacher, parents and anyone who loves someone with ADHD would be well-served to think about the undertones so many read into the label of ‘ADHD’…and to remember it’s not just about ADHD.  A person with ADHD is much more than his or her ADHD symptoms – and deserves autonomy and respect for his or her different way of being.

*Research done by Dr. Russ Barkley and Dr. Kevin Murphy suggests that the majority of adults with ADHD who use medications see significant improvements in symptom management.  See Barkley’s book, Taking Charge of Adult ADHD for more information.