Jennifer Elkins: Symptoms of ADHD in Adults and Relationships

Symptoms of ADHD in Adults and Relationships

This is a personal story. It’s about having undiagnosed Attention Deficit. It’s about how being neuro-atypical with ADD or ADHD can impact your marriage. Destroy the joy in your marriage. It’s about how you can identify, treat, and be happily married and excel in your life.

It’s also about a silent disorder that causes people to look normal, but act (to quote a popular book on the subject): “Lazy, crazy or stupid,” no matter how motivated, sane, and intelligent you are.

I tell my story to give you hope in your marriage and in your life.

You can have success.  You can be madly passionately, wildly and sanely in love.  And you can succeed in whatever you put your mind to. You just have to be aware and make some concessions to who you are and how you act.

High School Years

I was a high-achieving student and excelled in academics throughout my childhood. I strove for perfection and the highest level of achievement in whatever I did, from academics, hobbies, and athletics, to music. It was easy for me when I was younger, and the complexity of learning was more manageable.

In  junior high school, when subjects like math became exponentially more challenging, homework became increasingly involved, and tests required more planning, attention, and prolonged mental effort the trouble started.

As my academic success began to falter, so did my self-confidence. Everything school-related had always been such a breeze for me, and my parents didn’t understand what was happening. The expectations I established in elementary school were not being met. I turned those failures inward.

Like most teenagers with ADD, I began to internalize every single comment I received:

  • “You’re just not applying yourself;”
  • “There is no excuse for this;”
  • “You’re being lazy;”
  • “You have no common sense.”

I thought I was losing it.

I felt like an outsider. It’s a feeling shared by most people with ADHD. Mother Nature pulled a hilarious prank on me.

It turns out depression and anxiety can be symptoms of something bigger.

The self-doubt and despair that started in junior high school morphed into something that followed the rest of my life. My parents did take me to get help, but their main focus at that time was ensuring my brother, who’s acting out symptoms of hyperactivity were more severe than mine, would graduate from high school. I was their quietly despairing daughter who wasn’t supposed to have problems. Like so many women, I had no hyperactivity, so I was less of a squeaky wheel.

The ADHD was never properly diagnosed by the psychiatrists and therapists I saw. And it wouldn’t be recognized for years to come.

ADHD had been there all along — hindsight is always 20/20 — but had remained an elusive factor, hiding in the shadows.

Turns out, I actually had ADHD my entire life, but what brought me to this discovery was heartbreaking.

A Marital Crossroads

In my early thirties, my husband and I were at a crossroads. We had been together for about ten years but found ourselves starting to argue constantly.

We weren’t connecting; we were drifting apart.

Even though I didn’t know the culprit was ADHD yet, I knew something was happening to our relationship that was potentially irreparable.

I booked an appointment with a psychiatrist because I thought my depression, temper, constant anxiety, and impulsive behaviors were to blame for the fights between my husband and me. I thought that maybe we had just grown apart. We started thinking about our lives without each other.

It got so bad that we almost decided to separate.

I was sure it was all my fault.

I was at the psychiatrist’s office when I was told that I had ADHD… and it could be treated. At first, I was skeptical. All my life, I had been told that I was the problem, that I had clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, and low self-esteem.

How could ADHD account for what I, what we, had been going through?

Imagine the shock when I learned the depression, anxiety, and impulsivity I had known all my life were symptoms associated with untreated ADHD.

I thought I was just nuts.

I thought I wasn’t cut out to be a wife.

I thought I wasn’t cut out to be anything.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that my relationship with my spouse was affected by these things. My self-doubt led to him taking on a parenting role with me, which led to resentment and anger for both of us, and a recipe for miscommunication.

The problems with communication, present in our marriage, are common in couples where one partner has ADHD and the other does not.

For example, we found and read Melissa Orlov’s book The Effects of ADHD on Marriage, where she wrote about the Parent-Child dynamic. We were stunned to learn we had taken on those roles.  I’ve written my own guide which will be published shortly.

My husband assumed the parent role, while I gave into the rebelliousness I thought I had shed as a teenager.

After reading this book, and a few others, we had hope.

We fought furiously to save our marriage, and it was worth the fight.

Each summer, as we celebrate yet another wedding anniversary, I am grateful and proud. We’ve made the shifts we needed to make to break the patterns that would have destroyed our lives.

Jennifer and her husband, Tony.

Anxiety and Its Evil Twin

I now help couples struggling with ADHD as a clinician and a couples therapist over a weekend retreat. Together we learn how ADHD has impacted your particular relationship dynamic, and what steps need to happen to change that around.

I’ll help you to learned that a diagnosis does not define your marriage.

What a diagnosis of ADHD does for your relationship is provide a framework to build on.

But an accurate diagnosis is only the first step.

You may be like me, someone who needed to battle not only ADHD, but tackle other demons, such as anxiety, depression, impulsivity, low self-esteem, and most importantly, to develop good communication skills.

Anxiety is a bastard.

Such a tiny word can encompass so many things — panic, traumatic stress, obsession, compulsion, and crippling fear about the future. Anxiety disorders are almost synonymous with ADHD. It’s a system of checking, double-checking, and triple-checking we have been forced to develop. We do this to combat the criticisms of being flighty, not paying attention, not listening, or constantly losing and forgetting things.

Let me tell you, people with ADHD are listening to their spouses.

We listen to everything, all at once. We can’t tune things out. We focus on every detail, yet lack the filter to prioritize and categorize the important parts. That’s the challenge of living with a person with ADHD as an intimate partner.

Everything is a priority to a person with ADHD. Simple tasks like going to the grocery store become overwhelming. Normal, “adult” things require sustained mental effort to accomplish.

“How could you forget bread?  I reminded you six times!”

The level of self-doubt grows over the years. The irritation and disappointments of the non-ADHD spouse multiply.

The to-do list becomes a futile scavenger hunt, a grocery list where nothing ever gets marked off. Once vivid relationship dreams become faded stains on a disappointing past.

Isolation compounds disappointments and voicing frustration seems futile.

“What’s the point of staying? I do everything anyway. It’s like having another child in the house!”

If anxiety is a bastard, depression is its evil twin. Like so many adults with ADHD, the worry I had about the future was matched by the guilt I had about my own shortcomings, my mistakes, and myself as a person. And when you disappoint the man or woman you love so very much, you feel the failure deeply. And being reminded about your failures, however kindly, just deepens that sense of being a failure.

This is not a story with a magical ending. I’m a real person, just like you, and I continue to live with and manage ADD symptoms to this day.

But now I know where it comes from. And I have a man I love who is fighting the good fight with me. And this demon is no longer unrecognized, an internal trait that defines who I am or what I can accomplish. It no longer stands for my “investment” in my relationship or my husband when I forget the bread. I’ve worked hard to make real changes that are appreciated and noticed.

And as I continue to fight this good fight, I grow stronger, clearer, and more confident.

And you can, too.