The Sweet and Sour of ADD

Ned Hallowell likes to say that ADD is a “gift that’s hard to unwrap”.  Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about the “gift” idea – instead I tend to think of ADD as something that can be “sweet and sour”.  When a person with ADD is in what I think of as “good alignment” (or perhaps their “sweet spot”) life can be very sweet.  But when it’s sour everything can be awful! 

Is ADD a “gift” in my family?  Maybe.  My daughter is very creative, and it’s possible that her creativity is augmented by her ability to “see” things differently because of her ADD.  On the other hand, I’m creative as well, and I don’t have ADD.  Both my daughter and my husband are very empathetic people – is that because they have struggled with ADD issues?  Maybe, though not provable.  My daughter is incredibly persistent.  Ned would attribute that to her ADD, and perhaps that is the case because she has had to really push herself to achieve at the level that satisfies her.  But is that a “gift” or would the gift be being able to achieve without so much effort?  Neither of them are high energy, but I can envision a situation in which “high energy” were a gift…provided it weren’t out of control energy that made someone have trouble fitting into the world around them in a way that was satisfying and let them meet their goals.

Ned Hallowell argues that the “sour” traits of ADD have accompanying “mirror traits” that are positive ways of looking at the same action.  For example, the mirror trait of “distractible” would be “curious”, “impulsive” is mirrored as “creative”, and “intrusive” as “eager”.  But is “intrusive” really “eager” if it manifests itself in a series of conversational interruptions so great that you can’t talk to each other?  To me, this is just…interrupting.  It serves no positive purpose that gets either party closer to a positive outcome they are trying to achieve.  This is where my concept of the “sweet spot” comes in.  Both members of a couple are more likely to see the positive in ADD if the person with the ADD is in that sweet spot – i.e. managing the ADD well so that what you are trying to achieve (communication of information through a conversation, for example) is actually accomplished.

What factors contribute to getting into a sweet spot?

For the ADD spouse:

  • Fully acknowledging your ADD and accepting that you have it.  You can’t control ADD’s impact on yourself or those around you if you don’t fully accept that you have it.
  • Taking responsibility for actively managing the ADD.  This includes being receptive to the input of others, fully treating the ADD, and recognizing/lowering its impact on others.
  • Putting yourself into situations that give you joy.  These can include jobs that match your interests, hobbies, and (most of all!) making time for connecting with those you love.

Though it is the responsibility of the person with the ADD to find his sweet spot, a spouse can help.  Some of the best ways include:

  • Celebrating victories.  Research shows that celebration of victories is more effective at connecting a couple than offering to help someone who may need it.
  • Accepting ADD as a part of your spouse.  Rather than trying to get the spouse to be “non-ADD”, work with the ADD spouse to minimize the impact of ADD by developing coping strategies that work for you both (thus lessening potential resentment).
  • Practicing “loving detachment”.  Stay part of a couple by not taking over the responsibilities of the ADD spouse, even if he struggles.  This is hard, but far preferable to taking on the responsibilities and ending up in a “parent” role.
  • Expressing your needs, and staying in touch with them.  While all marriages require negotiation - and ADD marriages particularly do - remain true to your most important needs.  Express them clearly and figure out ways to get them satisfied.  Else you will move into a place of resentment and hurt feelings that will damage you both.

Medication can help many people with ADD get into their sweet spot and, in my mind, should be considered as a first line of treatment.  However, there are reasons why someone might not want to take meds.  If that’s the case with the ADD partner in your couple, then make sure to have other ways to effectively manage ADD symptoms.

But indulge me a moment as I talk a bit more about meds.  My observation is that meds can “clear the way” for a person with ADD to more effectively realize their full potential.  For example, my daughter’s meds allow her to focus better and to organize better.  With effort, she is able to keep her studies organized enough that she has time to actually study and learn her material.  Without the meds she spends so much time chasing after assignments that she forgot, collecting papers she lost and explaining to teachers why she missed yet another deadline that she has little time to actually learn.  My husband’s meds allow him to control his anger and be less distracted.  With lots of effort at first, and now less effort, he has been able to focus on me better, putting some routines in place that let us spend lots of quality time together and really connect.  Without the meds his unexpected bouts of anger made me too wary of him to effectively connect and he was too distracted to spend much time on me, anyway.

In neither case are meds “magic pills”.  They only provide a basic tool (anger control, focus) that clears the path for each person to expend the effort needed to live their life in a way that emphasizes what they want to achieve, rather than emphasizes playing catch up from ADD symptom-induced disasters.  In our household, meds plus lots of hard work, has allowed ADD members to reach their “sweet spots”.  Again, that’s probably not a “gift”, but it sure does make life nice!

There are plenty of marriages out there where the ADD partner has taken himself into his “sweet spot” – where the ADD is managed and life no longer revolves around picking up the pieces but around your joint interests and what you share together.

Let me know if any of these ideas help you and your spouse get into your sweet spot.