When journalist Gina Pera married a man with undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), she embarked on a wild ride that took her from frustration and confusion to understanding and advocacy. Today she runs support groups for people with ADHD and their partners, and her book Is it You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? was published in 2008.
Q: How did you realize that your husband had ADHD?
A: My husband is a brilliant scientist, and I had never dated a scientist before I met him. You know the stereotypical absent-minded professor? At first I figured that he must be it.
When we first started dating, he used to miss our exit all the time when driving down the freeway in San Diego. Then he had two fender benders in probably the first three weeks we were dating. ADHD tends to create problems with driving because it involves concentration on so many levels. The first time he said it was because he was so excited to have me in the car with him. And I made logical excuses for him: He grew up using the subway; he’d learned to drive, in Paris, only the previous year. It’s not that there weren’t little red flags everywhere; I just didn’t know what they were.
But those red flags soon became bigger problems. Promises were ignored and not even acknowledged. He was doing really thoughtless things and I knew he wasn’t a thoughtless person. We tried counseling, and the therapists just loved to hear our stories: They could tell we loved each other and they were thoroughly entertained by our problems, but they just couldn’t give us any good suggestions.
One day at the library I came across the book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Daniel Amen, M.D. I was fascinated by his description of ADHD and the way it physically affects the brain; it really seemed to describe my husband all the way back to his childhood. I took the book home and said to my husband, "Do you think this could be you?" And he said, "You know what? This really makes sense."
Q: In the title of your book, you used the outdated term "ADD." Why that instead of ADHD?
A: I have several issues with the name ADHD, as I know a lot of doctors and researchers do too. First, the "H" for hyperactivity: Most adults don’t exhibit these hyperactive symptoms, and because of that a lot of people don’t ever consider the fact that they could have this condition. That’s why the official name is AD/HD, with a slash, to indicate that the hyperactivity is optional; that it’s a subtype of a larger condition.
My husband has what I call "stealth ADHD" because I always thought he was so relaxed; his eyes weren’t even ever open all the way when I first met him. Turns out, he was just exhausted because his time was managed so poorly.
In general, both terms (ADD and ADHD) present obstacles to understanding the true nature of the condition. For example, "attention deficit" isn’t exactly true, because people with ADHD can still focus on certain things. In fact, they often hyperfocus—spending way too much time on one thing, like playing video games or reading about hang gliding on the Internet for eight hours straight. They stay up all night; they’re sleep deprived the next day. It’s not an attention deficit problem; it’s an attention regulation problem.
Q: What are the biggest issues that get in the way when one partner in a relationship has ADHD, based on your experience with support groups?
A: Not knowing that ADHD is involved is probably the biggest and most detrimental problem, because both people misattribute each other’s behaviors. The partners will conclude “He doesn’t love me; she’s so selfish; he doesn’t care about our family,” while the people with ADHD think they are being unfairly criticized, because, not realizing that they have ADHD or what it truly means, they have tunnel vision and think everyone functions the same way they do.
Money is also huge, especially in this economy. One large survey showed that ADHD costs adults $77 billion a year in lost household income, due to lower education levels, lower-level jobs, and unemployment. Even if someone is employed, they might be missing out on promotions or raises because they’re constantly in trouble, missing deadlines, or getting bogged down with little details.
The third thing is just the unreliability of a person with ADHD. A lot of spouses I know complain about having a partner who’s like another child: They feel like they have to scold them constantly and remind them to clean up their messes, they can’t rely on them to pick their kids up from school, they’re always worried about another car accident or surprise credit card bill. That can be a real relationship killer, and it can cause a lot of bitterness.
Q: Besides problems at work, how else can ADHD affect a family’s financial situation?
A: Some people with ADHD do a lot of self-medicating with shopping, for example. In my support groups, we always laugh at the number of people who have closets at home filled with eBay or as-seen-on-TV products. Scientists know that dopamine, the brain chemical released in anticipation of buying something or trying to win something, also has something to do with attention disorders. So some people with ADHD are more drawn to the thrill of spending money—even though once they get the actual product they lose interest.
Even if they’re not chronic spenders, many people with ADHD tend to have other financial problems. In my house, we spent a ton of money just on overdue library books. My husband would forget to mail his mother’s birthday present ahead of time, so we’d spend a fortune overnighting it to Canada. Unpaid bills, late fees, speeding tickets, higher insurance rates due to car accidents—all these things can add up to big problems.
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