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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