ADHD, RSD, and Grief

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TW: death of loved ones, grief, loss

I’ve always struggled with strong emotions. Especially related to sadness and grief. I draw the connection between stronger than normal emotions and ADHD due to the fact that ADHD includes an under-performing and/or underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is the logical, reasoning, executive-functioning center of the brain. So with that not working at capacity, it leaves the door open for the limbic system (which controls emotions) to play a much stronger role.

What does this look like for me?

Probably the most frequent place you’ll see this is when I’m watching movies or television or reading a book. I will react much more strongly than people around me, especially when negative things happen. I will often have tears in my eyes and sometimes break out into uncontrollable sobs. Even if a story is just kinda sad I may sit there with a lump in my throat, unable to speak without crying. Good examples from media that have impacted me this way would be the recent finale of The Good Place and the openings of two movies: Up, and Star Trek (2009). Each one of these brought me to tears and still do.

I also have a hard time dealing with plots where things are going very badly for the protagonist. A notable example happened while I was reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. So much awful was happening in that book: Harry was in all sorts of major troubles yet felt isolated from his friends and Dumbledore, Umbridge had taken over the school, and things continued to get more and more bleak with the return of Voldemort. My wife can tell you I nearly gave up on the book though I dearly love the series. I just can’t take that much negative without feeling overwhelmed.

What about real life?

So these examples are well and good but they really only exist because I feel these strong emotions about real-life people and events already. I have been working with my therapist quite a bit on this lately, because there are some events in my life that I’m definitely not over yet, though years have gone by. I’ve come to the realization that I don’t necessarily have to get over them either, but I am still left trying to figure out what to do with all these feelings.

My grandma Mary died 5 years ago today, but I still feel the grief associated with her passing as acutely as if it happened yesterday. She loved me more than anyone else ever has, and in a way no one else ever has. Grandma’s love was unconditional. And absolutely so. I was always welcome with her. I was always safe with her. I knew I would always be so. She cared about what was going on with me. She would ask about books I was reading and would read them herself. She wrote letters to me and taped hockey games for me. Whenever there was an important event in my life, she was there, every time. After she passed we found she had saved every letter I’d written her. Ever.

I love her so much.

I think of her often. Nearly every day. I try not to think of her deeply though, because when I focus on her, I am reminded of the depth of the loss that I feel and I will quickly fall into a wet, teary mess–just as I am while writing this post. I have put reminders of her all through my house. These include: blue plastic cups and monogrammed silverware from her house, angel figurines that I had once bought for her, and a map of Ireland that I bought at an Irish family history conference–a conference I attended because after her death I became hyperfocused on researching my Irish roots, which came through her family line.

My wife and I have been married for nearly 16 years. During the first 6 years I came to know a wonderful man, my wife’s grandfather, Eugene. He was so kind. He always showed genuine interest in what we were doing and I felt as welcome in his home as one of his own grandchildren. When he passed away in 2010, it was a huge blow to his entire family. We of course went to the well-attended funeral. During the eulogy, I was overtaken by grief and broke down into embarrassing, uncontrollable sobs which I could not stop. I was so loud, and sitting right in the middle of one of those long church pews in the center of the chapel. There was no way to get up and leave, and my wife was doing all she could to quiet me down as she processed her own grief.

I couldn’t understand what was going on. Yes, he was a great man. But it didn’t make sense to me why I was feeling this grief so intensely and outwardly. It was more visible (or at least much louder) than reactions from his own wife, children, grandchildren…more than anyone else in that chapel. I couldn’t keep it under control. I don’t think I’ve cried so hard in my entire life, before or since.

So why did I have such a strong reaction to his death? And why have I continued to struggle with the grief related to my grandmother’s passing, even 5 years later?

I think RSD is the key.

If you’re not familiar with RSD, the basic idea is that you perceive rejection, even when it isn’t there. So where there’s disagreement, you may read confrontation. Where there’s a helpful tip for improvement, you may hear criticism. Many ADHDers experience RSD symptoms and it is believed that they are taught through experience: as we have suffered so much rejection throughout our lives, we begin to anticipate it everywhere.

What’s the relation then?

When it comes to moves, television, and books? I think I simply pick up on the stress, anxiety, and strong emotions of anger and sadness expressed in the lives of the protagonists in the stories. I am acutely acquainted with these frustrations and emotions in my own life and my empathy response simply cries out when I see even fictional suffering.

When it comes to those real-life losses, I think I have an explanation for that too. It’s admittedly a very small sample (2) but I’ll hope that you as the reader might chime in and let me know if you feel that I’m on the right track. I believe the passing of these two amazing people hit me the hardest because they never triggered my RSD. Ever. They both loved me unconditionally. They were always safe.

So it hurt the most to lose them.

Everyone else in my life has either been too distant to matter in this way or they have hurt me somehow. Well, enough at least that my RSD is wary around them and I have to be at least somewhat on-guard. It was never so with Mary or Eugene. Seeing either of them was like a ship entering the safe harbor from the raging, stormy sea. I could drop my guard and just be loved for who I was. Period.

If you’ve got people in your life like my grandmother and my wife’s grandfather, please do all you can to cherish your time with them and enjoy your relationship with them as much as you possibly can. Call them. Visit them. Write them letters. Tell them how much you love them and thank them for loving you in a way that few know how to.


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ADHD, Hyperfocus, and Fixation

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Hyperfocus and fixation were two of the first words I heard associated with ADHD when I started learning about it. I’ve seen them used both distinctly and interchangeably. It seems everywhere I look there’s a different take on what they mean and how they’re related. So this week I dove in once again to really try to get a handle on these two terms so that I could write somewhat intelligently about them. Here are the working definitions I’ve come up with. Don’t worry, they’ve been vetted by Twitter – haha!

Hyperfocus: the ability or act of intensely focusing on an activity or task to the exclusion of awareness of time and surroundings.

Fixation: a topic, person, object, or activity that becomes the primary focus of an individual for days, weeks, or more.

I don’t claim to be in charge of these terms, but while I use them in this post I want you to understand how I’m using them so that I can speak clearly about them.

What hyperfocus looks like for me

So, why the confusion about the words? I believe it’s because they often show up together. While I can hyperfocus on just about anything if my interest level is high enough in the moment, I’m most likely to be found hyperfocusing on my current fixation. And while I may have a fixation that occupies much of my time and thought during a day, I may not actually be engaging in hyperfocus.

When I hyperfocus, I’m usually sitting. You will notice an intense level of focus and stillness. I won’t even be fidgeting. Frequently there is a screen involved, whether it’s a computer, television, e-reader, or smartphone. This was actually one of my “ah-ha” moments in analyzing my ADHD. When asked if I could sit still for prolonged periods, my automatic answer was, yes! But as I considered it, I had to add…if there’s a screen. Without a screen I can’t stop fidgeting to save my life.

One of the reasons that screens are so common to my hyperfocus ability is that whether a work project or entertainment at home, I’m most likely using a screen of some kind. So while a screen doesn’t have to be present for me to hyperfocus, it’s very common that there is one.

While I’m in hyperfocus I will completely lose track of time. I may play a video game for 6-8 hours straight, not eating or taking care of any other needs. When the hyperfocus is broken, typically by my partner returning home, I will often find myself very hungry and needing to use “the facilities.” As a kid I played The Legend of Zelda on NES all day long. When I was called to dinner I found that my thumb hurt. I’d developed a blister from playing on those unforgiving boxy controllers all day, but hadn’t realized the pain until I was called away.

Hyperfocus is double edged for me. If it’s a work project I’m excited about, I can research and plan and create for hours. But if it’s recreational, well, you’ve seen I can easily waste a day or more. I can’t necessarily control when hyperfocus will engage, but I can try to make it happen it by setting up a scenario where I have a chunk of time set aside for a project I’m excited about.

What Fixations Look Like For Me

When I have a fixation, you’ll know it. It’s pretty much on my mind all the time and all I want to talk about. Look at my internet history, my social media, ask me what’s new…you’ll hear about it. I don’t always have a current fixation. I have had many of them. Sometimes they will last weeks, months, and even years. When I do have a fixation, I can tell it’s more than “just another interest” by looking at the time, money and attention I give it.

Time: My fixation will be the first thing I attend to when I wake up and the last thing I look at/think of before I go to sleep. It will also occupy a lot of time throughout the day, typically 4-5 hours, but stretching to 10 or more on the most intense days. The fixation often takes precedence over family, work, church, values, and goals. It will encroach into work and family time.

Money: These high-interest fixations, combined with low impulse control, lead to me buying many things to “set up” or continue a new fixation. Anything related to furthering the fixation is considered a necessary purchase regardless of how much money is in my bank account. I have great collections of items stored in my house related to many past fixations.

Attention: Usually the fixation will be on my mind all day whether I’m actively participating or not. I like to make spreadsheets to track and plan. I’ll make notes in my phone app. I will learn all I can about the subject through research and study. I’ll engage in frequent periods of hyperfocus around the fixation. Despite typically having a terrible short term memory, when it comes to fixations, I can remember a high degree of detail, short or long term.

My Current and Past Fixations

  • Video Games
    • Galaxy of Heroes mobile game
    • Modern Warfare 2
    • Final Fantasy 3/6, 7, 8
    • Legend of Zelda
    • Other Xbox games
    • Cell phone games like Candy Crush
    • Intellivision
    • NES/SNES
  • Toys and Games
    • Chess, both playing and coaching
    • Magic the Gathering
    • Legos
    • Bowling
    • Disc Golf
    • Baseball, playing the game and collecting cards
  • Academics
    • Reading
    • Elementary school
    • Standardized Tests
    • Academic acceleration
    • Computers and programming
    • Writing (NaNoWriMo)
  • Personal/Relationships
    • ADHD
    • Dating
    • My partner
    • Sex
    • Letter writing
  • Media
    • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    • Music – listening
    • Star Wars
    • Cartoons
  • Food
    • Eating in general
    • Dieting
    • Hardee’s Monster Burger
  • Other
    • Working on cars
    • Boy Scouts
    • Barbershop singing
    • Dinosaurs
    • Family History

Each of these fixations lasted a minimum of several weeks. I am happy to talk about any of them at any time, because I’ve still got a good deal of knowledge about each one. If it’s a past fixation rather than the current one, it may cycle to the top or have a weekend or summer resurgence. Most of the time though they just kind of stay in the back of my mind and I think as fondly of them as I do my long-lost elementary school pals.

What has your experience with hyperfocus and fixation been like? Do these descriptions resonate with you? Does anything on that list sound familiar? Feel free to hit me up for a conversation about any of them. Happy to share.


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Improve Your Self-Care With the #10for20Challenge

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The #10for20Challenge is all about self-care. The concept was initially shared by Dani Donovan three years ago, when she proposed it as an alternative to New Year’s resolutions. When I discovered the challenge on Twitter last month, I was immediately interested because I absolutely hate New Year’s Resolutions. Let me explain.

Whoever decided to say that the first of the year is the ‘perfect time to set new goals’ has obviously never been inside my ADHD brain. Sure. I went through the motions of setting New Year’s resolutions for many years, because it’s practically an expectation. But that also meant for me that every year I was expected by what…society? to come up with a list of goals to improve myself.

So for several years, yes I made the damn list and for each and every one of those years I did little to nothing to work towards the goals on the list. But it certainly was fun to tote it around for a month and tell everyone all the great things I was planning on doing.

Of course then came the feelings of embarrassment, anxiety, and shame around having not measured up yet again. But that is part of the problem. New Year’s resolutions feel like something that is forced on me from the outside. And that’s a great recipe for this ADHDer to say “screw it” and move along with my life.

The #10for20Challenge is different

10 for 20 is about you. It’s about taking back some of your time each day—20 minutes—in order to focus on something that already makes you happy or something that you want to do more of. Start by making a list of ten things that fit that description, and then pick any one of them to do each day. It’s as simple as that.

My 10 for 20 Challenge list looks like this:

1. Talk with someone about something that matters
2. Write
3. Move my body
4. Listen to music
5. Organize something
6. Help solve a problem
7. Play a video game
8. Sing
9. Play with my kids
10. Learn about something new

When I look at that list, I don’t get worried about not measuring up, I get excited by seeing things I love and things that make me feel better after I’ve done them. It looks like a list of friends waiting to greet me at the end of a long day, as well as a few acquaintances who make me feel better the more I get to know them.

How the challenge improves your self-care

Where it really shines is when taken in the context of the following illustration I found on Twitter. It shows how all too often we try using just one thing for all of our self-care. And when that one thing gets stale we are left without, and end up just providing more fuel for anxiety and depression.

The strength of the #10for20Challenge is in its flexibility. Its a menu of “can-do” items rather than “to-do” or “must-do” items. And when you are able to make this time for yourself, odds are good that with a list of ten you’ll have something to do that’s also available at the time you want to do it..

As someone who has struggled with self-care for most of my adult life, I implore you to explore this idea. Try it out. Make a list. Post it where you can see it or have easy access to it. And then set aside 20 minutes a day to do something on that list. For you.

And screw the fact that it’s already February—these aren’t your mom and dad’s New Year’s resolutions. There is nothing that says it’s too early or too late to start anything. With ADHD you’ve got to strike when the iron is hot, not when some arbitrary date rolls around. So get started now and enjoy the positive change that comes to your life.

Have you tried the 10 for 20 Challenge? Are you going to try it now? Feel free to reach out and share your experiences with it by commenting below or sharing on social media using the hashtag:



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