Monday, February 10, 2014

Cooling "Heat of the Moment" Despair

Back in the “bad old days,” when my husband and I were getting whipped around on the ADHD roller coaster, we desperately needed better strategies—fast! Unfortunately, there was very little worthwhile reading in those days about ADHD and relationships.

Both of us learning about ADHD and my husband taking medication helped immensely. But that went only so far to counter entrenched patterns developed not knowing that ADHD was in the picture. One of those patterns I call the "downspiral of despair," the feeling of futility each time the roller coaster dropped again. In the early days especially, when progress sometimes means two steps forward and one step (or even three steps!) backward, it's tough to keep believing that things will progressive get better. 

In honor of Valentine's Day, I offer to YouMeADD blog readers a few tools that I wish we'd had then and which we will use now. I hope they help to ease the drops and dips in your relationships (not just the romantic ones, either), including your relationship with yourself.   

At the end of this post you'll find a musical dance-number my husband and I created just for you!

A Treasure Chest of Memories

When I spied this box at a local store, I knew I'd found the perfect gift for my husband Valentine's Day: A Treasure Chest to store the hand-made cards and funny notes we have made for each other over the years, along with little mementos of good times together. Why such an idea?  I'll tell you.

It is all too easy, when caught up in the heat of an argument or disappointment,  to forget all that's good in the relationship—and the other person.  Of course, this is true for humans in general but it seems especially true in ADHD-challenged relationships, especially in the early days after diagnosis.  Reacting "in the moment" sometimes means forgetting the Big Picture. If a trove of positive remembrances sits prominently displayed, you needn't go digging into drawers, folders, and envelopes to spark your memory. It's right there.

Even single adults with ADHD often find themselves losing sight of the Big Picture in their lives. That old adage about there being two kinds of time for folks with ADHD, Now and Not Now, can leave them stuck in Now, with no conception that things might look different in Not Now. When their string of successes is interrupted with one slip, they "hyperfocus" on the slip, giving it undue weight and forgetting all they achieved before it and will go on to achieve after—if they don't let themselves become preoccupied with the one slip. They can benefit from an active strategy for offsetting this negative pattern, to avoid sinking their mood and self-esteem and paving the way to an attitude of "why try?"

The same can be said for the partners of adults with ADHD, who after years of frustration can become sensitized to yet another another dip on the ADHD roller coaster. Even after steady progress has been made, the dip can too much remind them of all the past disappointments. The tendency is to think the worst.

One way to avoid falling into either of these extreme negative positions is to build "environmental supports" for remembering the many good qualities about one's relationship or oneself. That's why I brought home this little Treasure Chest. But you can substitute a simpler method, such as a Memory Jar like this one:

Couples can write a little note to thank the other for a kind word or note a kind deed—or simply express an appreciation or brief memory of a lovely time together. Individuals can jot down successes  large or small ("A student thanked me for understanding her" or "I completed a report in record time!").  And there the notes remain— colorfully visible, just waiting to be dipped into  when the need arises.

Scaffolding for Important Communications

What I wouldn't have given, years ago, to hear my husband offer a heartfelt apology. It would have dramatically cut short long-simmering hurts and resentments. Instead, I had to drag apologies out of him, which hardly served the purpose.  As I discovered years into our relationship, he harbored a pragmatic bias against apologies, born of years living without benefit of ADHD diagnosis: "Why apologize for a behavior that I know full well I'll probably do again?  An apology implies that I would correct the behavior. My offering an apology would be a false promise."

Okay, sometimes he does sound a bit like Commander Data on Star Trek. And, you could call his defense either a pragmatic attitude or run-for-cover rationale. Call me gullible, but I took him at his word. Recently, I ran across a brilliant solution that I wish I'd discovered years ago:  Formal Notices, from the Bureau of Communications. They work sort of like the old children's game Mad Libs, that game where you fill in the missing words of a story, read to uproarious laughter.

My husband would have loved these fill-in-the-blank templates because they're both practical and clever. And because an undercurrent of humor runs through them, it makes it less intimidating to convey the sentiments expressed therein. For my many friends with ADHD who have voiced their struggles with composing letters of this sort, it seems the perfect solution. Of course, some recipients might be put off by a "form letter" that offers an apology or pays a compliment. So you want to choose the recipients wisely. Personally, I see no reason why heartfelt cannot sometimes also be hilarious. Then again, a huge coping skill for my husband and I has been a keen appreciation of the absurd and an ability to laugh at our sometimes over-the-top behaviors.

Below are my favorites: the written scaffolding for expressing an apology, offering forgiveness, and expressing gratitude—all of which are important for both adults with ADHD and their partners.  All  "formal notices" are printed on glossy stock; just pull out of the book, fold, and deliver. You can even send through the mail.

A personal note from Gina to You Me ADD blog readers:  

Speaking of couple strategies, I apologize for the lack of posts recently. I have been immersed for the past year in writing and editing a professional guide for couple therapists treating ADHD-affected couples. Routledge Press asked me to produce the book, and I declined several times, knowing it would be an immense project. Finally, though, I relented. The idea of helping thousands of  therapists to help couples who desperately need ADHD-related strategies proved too tempting. Look for the book in 2015.

At the same time, Dr. Russell Barkley asked me to write the chapter on couple therapy to his upcoming revision of ADHD Diagnosis and Treatment Handbook (in press). I look forward to reading all the other contributors' chapters in this "gold standard" professional guide. Between these two efforts, I hope to have significantly advanced the goalposts of clinically treating ADHD-affected couples. Thank you for your patient and continued support. And now a musical number especially for you from my husband and I.  Gina Pera


  1. Excellent tools and a happy dance. Wonderful, Gina!

  2. I absolutely LOVE the "Formal Communications" - and I'm thinking of ordering them to use at work, as well as with my family. Great post, Gina!

  3. The dance made me laugh out loud! Very cute and thanks.

  4. Ah ha! so now I can be sure my husband has ADHD since he refuses to apologize. When I ask him to , ... "say you're sorry", he replies, "you're sorry."
    and then laughs, saying, I said what you asked me to say! Hopeless after 47 years.. we just... tolerate each other... but never 'accomplish' progress.

  5. How fun, great video, I needed a lift, thanks

  6. My husband and I genuinely love each other, but we have lots of problems. I was formally diagnosed with ADHD three years ago at age 61. Like many adults diagnosed, I recognized the possibility after my daughter was diagnosed. My husband has not been diagnosed but four out of six of his nieces and nephews have been along with his brother. There were things about organization and time that I was forced to learn over the years and allowances I made to help me do things that came easily to others. I am feeling overwhelmed at the magnitude of things that could be accomplished in our relationship and I just don't know how to start. So I hope you keep writing and maybe bells or light bulbs will go off in my head of where to go from here.

    1. Hi Fed-up RN,

      If you and your husband "genuinely love each other," then you have so much to gain by better ADHD awareness.

      You don't mention if you have pursued treatment following your ADHD diagnosis. Sometimes, that can be the clearest way through another person's "denial" -- when one ADHD adult starts doing things very differently. It attracts....attention!

      Meanwhile, I encourage you to read my book. It is a comprehensive guide to understanding Adult ADHD and its treatment strategies, including dealing with denial, getting the best results from medication, and more.

      Good luck!

    2. P.S. Here is a link to the book. It's available in audio and print formats:

  7. AHHHHHHH! HAHAHA. I wish you could see me laughing at the idea of an actual formal letter to express sentiment.I cannot wait to spring this on my wife. I cant decide if I will give it to her and require her to fill it out for me or something i have done. Or if i will simply use it to thank her for that which che has done. I am excited to be married Now. and by the way cool video

    1. Hi Tom,

      I'm so glad you appreciate my discovery! I found these forms pure treasure!

      Glad you like our dance number. :-)


  8. Why bother with relationships? I'll just screw that up, too. It's hard enough not falling into despair at work every day. Not being competitive, not being competent or mature or accountable enough…
    Why bother with anything? Even medication doesn't make me competent enough!

    1. HI there,

      I hope you were feeling momentary frustration and that your perspective seems brighter now. If not, I sympathize. The constant barrage of being told "you're not competent/mature, etc." adds another heavy layer to ADHD that most people just don't understand.

      I don't know when you started medication, but I encourage you to keep at it. One study showed that progress steadily advances after two years. In other words, it might take two years to deal with the basics in improving functioning. After that, you can start building on successes.

      Also, please know that there is an art and science to finding the medication that works best for you. And having it be active throughout the day.

      Beyond that, I recommend writing everything down! And creating checklists.

      Good luck,


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