Q: My girlfriend of eight months has ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). She was diagnosed about 10 years ago, in her early 20s. She takes medication that helps her focus better at work and has steps (like writing everything down) to avoid forgetting important things, stay more organized, etc. Despite this, she is very disorganized and often gets distracted. (I sometimes catch her checking out when we’re right in the middle of a phone conversation.) She often runs late when we are supposed to be someplace and forgets things — minor things as well as major things. She can also be very impatient. There are a lot of great things about her and us, and we do love each other. Still, when she forgets about me or is totally unready (as in, unshowered and wearing a towel) when I come to pick her up, I can’t help but feel like not quite a priority to her.
A: There are surefire ways to get a woman’s attention, like kneeling and pulling out a big gleaming rock. For an ADHD woman, you may also want to hire one of those street-corner sign-spinner guys to stand next to you in a chicken suit jerking a big arrow at the ring. This should substantially improve your chances of hearing a simple yes or no instead of “Oh, no, I think I left my stove…we should order Chinese. Did I charge my cellphone? Look, a spider!”
ADHD is a stupidly named disorder. Those with it don’t have a deficit of attention; they just have problems controlling the allocation of their attention, explains researcher Martha Bridge Denckla, M.D., on Dana.org. People blame ADHD on too much videogaming, too much television, sheer laziness, and even the use of green chalkboards and yellow chalk. (Therapist Susan Tschudi, author of “Loving Someone With Attention Deficit Disorder,” heard that last one on the radio; a caller was convinced it had caused her son’s ADHD.)
Researchers can’t say conclusively what causes ADHD, but Tschudi notes that there’s strong evidence it’s a “neurobiological disorder in which the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are not regulated properly and cause the brain to underfunction,” leading to problems “staying focused, sustaining effort, managing emotions, and accessing working memory (that is, remembering).”
Having ADHD is like trying to think while being attacked by a flock of crows or having 16 squirrels in your head, all scampering off in different directions. I know this firsthand, because I was diagnosed with ADHD about 15 years ago and take Adderall to make the little squirrels sit at their little desks so I can focus and write. Unfortunately, Adderall isn’t a life-wide miracle cure. As my boyfriend likes to joke when he’s asking me about something important: “Do I have your divided attention?”
People dating those with ADHD tend to take its effects personally. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget that your girlfriend has a mind like a steel sieve. When one of her attentional shortcomings makes you feel like she’s messing with you, you might ask yourself whether she’s messing with her wallet when she means to put it back in her purse but instead puts it back in the freezer. That said, it’s important that ADHD be used to explain only ADHD-related behaviors; she can’t be all “Oh, my attention wandered, and so did I — into bed with your best friend.” (She may have the attention span of a tsetse fly; she doesn’t get to have the ethics of one.)
For your relationship to work, you both need to try harder, but in different ways. You need to accept that she isn’t a regular-brained person, and she needs to avoid acting like she probably does in the world of the regular-brained — by hiding it when her attention wanders off. (You can’t have a life with somebody if she’s always pretending she’s heard what you just said.) She also needs to admit it when she’s feeling too impatient to discuss or do something. (Better than pushing herself and snapping at you.) She needs to see that she’s on time when it’s important to you, and you need to have perspective when she comes to the door in a towel when it’s not. Ultimately, making things work comes down to the most basic of basics — love — and wanting to be together so much that the tradeoffs seem worth it. As I’ve noticed in my own relationship…my dog needs a bath. Kale. Like Pauline Kael but spelled differently and also it’s a vegetable. Do you think the Iranians have nukes? Sorry…what was I saying about ADHD?