“A lot of people with ADHD worry about being in a relationship with someone else who has it. I ask them this: Wouldn’t you rather be with someone who got you than someone who didn’t? Wouldn’t you rather be with someone who understands your struggles rather than having him watch them from the outside, confused about your motivations and behaviours? “
Three of my four most serious relationships all involved men with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). I suspect the fourth as well. Only one was diagnosed at the time. But in later years they — and I — were finally overwhelmed by life, finally driven to the point of seeking help, finally realized we met the criteria laid out by the DSM for ADHD.
All are kind. All are blindly brilliant. All are very, very funny. One is predominantly hyperactive; two inattentive, one likely mixed. I fall under the vagueness of “mixed” myself, which means I show characteristics of hyperactivity — the impulsiveness, the occasional non-stop talk, the rash decisions — and inattention: the fuzziness, the daydreaming, the drifting off mid-conversation. My husband says sitting in class with me was like being around Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter: After staring out the window for 20 minutes, I’d either raise my hand and rattle off a brilliant answer or something wildly off-topic and mildly incoherent.
So I know a little bit about ADHD relationships: the good, the bad, and the really, really bad.
I learned the ADHD tricks early on with my diagnosed boyfriend, who had a fairly severe case and had been taking medication for years. We were in college then. He needed a high enough dosage that sleep problems were inevitable. He could fall asleep only while watching “The Hunt for Red October” or lying next to someone else and matching his breathing to theirs. I learned what hyperfocus meant from him, though I didn’t have a name for it then. I learned to touch him when I needed his attention and he was working, I learned to move my fingers from his face to mine — the universal signal for eye contact — when he began to drift off.
We also almost got married in Vegas before we could legally drink, ran away to Myrtle Beach while I was dating someone else, and kept a mess of a house. We were dangerous together, always up to something, always speeding through work to pursue some sort of mildly anti-social ends. We smoked cigarettes and consumed huge quantities of caffeine. This is what a young ADHD relationship tends to look like: a lot of impulsivity, a lot of drama, a lot of caffeine. We, mercifully, broke up before anything irrevocably bad happened.
Two other relationships with inattentive men were like coming home to something I didn’t know I’d missed. Both men are fiercely caring; the one I didn’t marry was in my wedding and remains my best friend. Both men are hilariously snarky when the need arises. Both men, also, naturally tend toward household chaos, an inability to finish projects, and a desperate need for legal stimulants.
They understood and understand me. When I am not taking medication, my house is a legendary disaster area; even with medication, I haven’t mastered the art of a clean car. I get brilliant ideas for projects I never finish. I was addicted to nicotine for years, and my Red Bull, tea, and coffee consumption exceeds every Surgeon General’s warning.
For all the mess and chaos, for all the inability to cook (my husband and I exclusively ate out until our second son was born), for all the rushed deadlines and all-nighters and “rolling garbage mobiles” called cars, these men understand me. They don’t take it personally when I drift off, or when I’m hyperfocused and don’t hear them speaking. We joke about mess instead of castigating each other for it. No one harasses anyone else for caffeine consumption, for projects left undone, for grandiose plans that come to naught. We shrug at each other, go on with our days. That’s who we are.
It helps that by the time I dated both of them, I was self-aware enough to discuss my emotions — and they were far more mature than I was, if not in years than in self-concept and emotional management. It helps that we were able to talk things out. When our undiagnosed ADHD spiralled out of control, we brought each other up short: Look, you have to finish this or you will fail school. Look, we have to pull an all-nighter or neither of us will finish grading these papers. Look, we have a baby and we can’t see the floor for the mess and that’s a problem.
They occasionally indulged my impulsiveness, but mostly they kept my feet on the ground. “Don’t tell everyone you’re going to do something until you actually do it,” my husband told me. He helped me kick the cigarettes and develop some semblance of an internal sensor. Our cars are still full of trash. Our house is clean only because we’re medicated. But we understand that it’s hard to start things we find uninteresting and can encourage each other. We can bring each other out of hyperfocus when the kids are screaming and dinner needs to be cooked. Most of all, we understand why we act the way we act: there’s a mutual understanding there, a kind of sharing most ADHDers without spouses don’t have. I am deeply grateful for that.
No one harangues me for losing my phone, again. No one gets mad when I lock my keys in the car. There’s no exasperation when my husband shunts his grading off until the last minute and has to do take a day off from work to do it. We understand. It’s a gift.
I could never be with someone who’s predominantly impulsive again. The collective weight of irrational decision-making would eventually lead us to dissolution or jail. But inattentive men, when I’m of a mixed variety, work great. A lot of people with ADHD worry about being in a relationship with someone else who has it. I ask them this: Wouldn’t you rather be with someone who got you than someone who didn’t? Wouldn’t you rather be with someone who understands your struggles rather than having him watch them from the outside, confused about your motivations and behaviors?
I’m grateful for it every day. But I’m also grateful I never got married in Vegas.