(by Zoe Kessler - see bio at end. This post is a "must read" for anyone dealing with an angry ADHD spouse!) I was diagnosed with ADHD at 46. After my diagnosis, I had a long talk with my sister (who does not have ADHD). One of the most startling things she told me was when we were kids, we’d be happily playing, when – POW! –I’d have an angry outburst. She said this scared her.
All these years later, her childhood memories made me cry. I was filled with shame and remorse. I’d had no idea how my moods had affected her.
When we were kids, I also had no idea what ADHD was, or why I couldn’t control my impulsive anger.
Today, I understand that like other ADHD symptoms, effort and willpower are no match for undiagnosed ADHD.
It begins at the beginning
Sudden, hot tempers are common amongst many of us with (untreated) ADHD. The reasons are not as straightforward one might think, but I’m pretty sure impulsivity and mood swings don’t help. If I felt anxious or worried, these sudden bursts of anger were much more frequent.
As a kid, being punished for angry outbursts only increased my anxiety; I couldn’t control or predict them, and constantly worried that I might explode. A vicious cycle began: angry outburst – punishment – anxiety and worry, leading to inability to control angry outburst… and so on.
My self-trust plummeted. Worse, my mom didn’t trust me either. She was convinced I could stop this behavior if I wanted to, and repeatedly said so. So now, I not only had anger problems, but was deemed willfully belligerent.
This led to profound identity confusion. I knew I was a kind and loving person. I knew I was trying my best, but how could I convince my mom of that? Not knowing about ADHD, we were both perplexed (albeit for different reasons).
As a child who was repeatedly criticized, I became an adult with a heightened sensitivity to criticism. I’d become defensive if I even thought I’d been criticized. As a young adult, this only led to more angry lashing out. The vicious cycle continued.
An angry snowball rolling downhill into adulthood
As an adult with untreated ADHD, I had no idea why this was happening in spite of my efforts to “control” it. Now I know that my brain and physiology were not allowing me to do that, in spite of sheer will power, various kinds of therapy, reading about anger management and psychology, etc., all of which I tried.
It was frustrating (and baffling), knowing myself to be loving, but having this knowledge and my actions contradict each other. How could I convince anyone else that I was not this angry beast if I was acting like one? After all, they could control their anger. What was wrong with me? It was like being a puppet, with my behavior at the whim of some invisible, malevolent puppeteer.
My new understanding does not mean I have excuses. What I have, finally, is an explanation. I’ve had to work to let go of crushing regret after a lifetime of broken relationships. Finally, I know the reasons why I couldn’t control my anger, and these reasons have led to understanding, which is the starting place toward change.
Much as it’s difficult for the person on the receiving end of the anger, believe me, it’s also hard to be the one dishing out the anger.
As an adult, another vicious circle is added to the first: angry outbursts can repel others; this leads to being alone. If you try again, and hurt someone else, it can lead to self-isolation; either way, you’re alone. Acting in a way that’s not congruent with your values and beliefs can lead to a lack of self-esteem, grief, self-defeat, even depression. No wonder you become convinced that you just weren’t cut out for relationships.
And how sad is that?
Giving up is not the answer…ADHD treatment is!
Thanks to my sis and others, I can see how living with someone with impulsive and seemingly irrational anger would make someone a nervous wreck!
The happy ending is, with treatment for my ADHD, I’m handling anger in a much healthier way.
A lot of people with ADHD are incredibly passionate and sensitive; as such, I’m ok with (and don’t actually think I can change) the kind of anger borne of witnessing, for example, social injustice of any kind. This kind of (managed) anger can be channeled into working for positive change.
Yoga, meditation, spending time relaxing and having fun with friends, a healthy diet, ADHD medication (key for me), and so on have all but eliminated the sudden, angry outbursts I used to have.
If I can do it, and others have done it, I know these angry outbursts CAN be understood and managed. They can even disappear with the right treatment. It takes conscious effort and willingness – but it CAN be done! (but of course you’re the one who’ll have to do it; if you’re in a relationship, hopefully you’ll have the support, understanding, and love of your partner). Hang in there!
Zoë Kessler is an author, journalist and speaker living with and exploring adult ADHD, especially in women. Diagnosed at 46, she's currently working on a memoir about being a woman with ADHD for New Harbinger Publications.
In addition to her blog, ADHD: from A to Zoë, at Psych Central.com, Zoë has written about ADHD for print and radio, including feature articles for ADDitude Magazine, MORE Magazine, and radio documentary for CBC Radio One. She's currently working on a documentary about women and ADHD with Rick Green, producer and director of A.D.D. & loving it?!
Zoë has been a popular guest on radio talk shows; has been featured in documentaries and books on women and ADHD, and offers lively, informative presentations on all aspects of ADHD, especially from a woman's perspective.