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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How Undiagnosed ADHD Impacted Work

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I work in public education. I was a teacher for nine years and I’ve been a school administrator (principal or assistant principal) for the last five. Most of the work impacts I share will be from my experiences in that realm, though the struggles I faced I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to regardless of the field you work in yourself.

Disorganization

Similar to home, my classroom and my offices have all shared the common problem of ‘piles instead of files.’ Whether it is the never-ending stack of papers to grade or the endless forms that make their way onto my desk, I always feel inundated with so much paper that I can barely think straight.

Deadlines

The ADHD brain typically sorts everything into mental piles of “now” and “not now.” For me this translates into a lot of procrastination as I wait for whatever the project is to come close to due. The only thing that really flips something onto the “now” side is if the deadline actually has consequences attached. There are some hard deadlines in education. There are many more soft deadlines, the ones that have no consequences when you break them. Once you learn that there’s a soft deadline, well, that project just got put back onto “not now.” I’ve had many projects assigned in September or October get pushed all the way to June that way, much to the chagrin of my supervisors.

Poor short term memory

This one hits pretty hard. There are so many conversations that happen on the fly in break rooms and hallways, and even regular meetings that I just happen to walk into. And people are always asking me to help with things. In my current position as a principal, it’s a huge part of the job. Ultimately, I am a support staff member who helps make sure everything in the school runs as it should. But when those promises are made on the fly, I typically forget them before I am ten feet away. I have unintentionally broken so many promises over the years that I’ve no doubt gained a reputation of at best being flaky, and at worst, being a liar.

I can also come across as disconnected and uncaring because I cannot remember names of people I just met. Most of the time I can’t recall a name seconds after it’s been shared with me, even if I’m trying hard. Then I feel awkward about it and even in the “still new” period where I could ask again, I don’t. And then it grows too late and I feel disconnected and intimidated by further connection with that person. Not a great way to build relationships.

Distraction

I don’t have the outward hyperactive symptoms but that certainly doesn’t stop my mind from racing. Whether I’m walking down a hallway or meeting with a person one-on-one, my mind is probably attempting to hop back and forth between a dozen ideas at once. This makes it look like I’m not paying attention, even when I am trying my best. I once attended a meeting where I took three pages of diligent notes and was later accused of not paying attention.

Long meetings do stretch my stamina. I will often have to pull out my fidget or stand up at the back of the room to stretch my legs. All the while my mind is desperately trying to be elsewhere.

“Work Chores”

These are the mundane must-dos of work. When I was teaching this would be grading papers and lesson planning. As an administrator it might be reviewing paperwork, completing observations and evaluations, or setting and reviewing agendas for all the meetings that need to be run. All of these are frequently put off in favor of other tasks that are more interesting or immediately rewarding.

Possibly related to distraction, I struggle reading nonfiction text. Especially when it’s assigned reading. It immediately gets classified a chore and all of a sudden my comprehension level drops to zero and I may spend half an hour trying do read and re-read a single paragraph. Nonfiction texts are frequently used as part of professional development and it’s a constant struggle for me to learn in this manner.

Time Blindness

Many ADHDers struggle with time blindness, which is basically the inability to tell how much time is passing. As a principal I might start a project in my office and inadvertently stay working on it for several hours. Just today I was in my office until nearly 7pm, about 3 hours after every other employee had left the site. I missed dinner and a regularly planned evening activity that starts at 7. This can also take place during the school day, disrupting my effectiveness by keeping me engaged in tasks longer than expected.

This may also account for all of the late arrivals at work. Try as I might, get up as early as I like, arriving on time for work seems all but impossible. It’s not like I’m horribly late, but I typically roll in about 5 minutes later than my own expected start time every day. It seems like there’s always some unaccounted for thing that pops up, one more thing I remember, or some time that I just ‘lose’ somewhere in the morning.

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)

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. So when your boss tells you “we need to meet,” your mind may immediately jump to the worst case scenario. Without multiple points of reassurance, I can very easily feel that my boss is “out to get me” every time she comes by my office.

The high stress that stems from RSD and falling behind at work inevitably leads to more sick days taken. Frequently I’ll find myself in need of a “mental health day” just to get away and do something that feels good, or even to do nothing in particular. Where this can get tricky is if I get into playing a new video game or binge-watching a new series. Then one sick day can easily turn into two or three.

Low Impulse Control

Taking multiple sick days in a row when they’re not *ahem* exactly necessary, could definitely be connected to low impulse control as well. My low impulse control can manifest in several other ways at work too. Sometimes it’s giving into my current fixation and spending time on it when I should be working. Other times it’s the need to throw out a joke or snarky response in meetings. It doesn’t matter how serious the topic of the meeting is, a snarky remark is often the first one to roll off my tongue.

Before my teaching career, I actually quit a job on a whim. My wife and I were working multiple jobs as we neared the end of our college careers, and at one point we both worked in a call center as our second or third job. My wife had a day off and I wanted to have the same one so we could be together. When my request was denied, I handed in my badge and quit on the spot. I haven’t done this with my professional career, though I will admit the thoughts cross my mind from time to time.

It all adds up

I’ve shared a lot of impacts of ADHD on the workplace here. What they add up to is supervisors seeing you as disorganized, lazy, flaky, or just plain not caring about your job. Personally, I have spent my entire professional career feeling like a failure because I could never do the job that my colleagues seemed to be able to. I couldn’t keep up. Oh I could pour hours into an extra-curricular club that I was excited about, but I always felt mediocre about my teaching and have felt even worse as an administrator.

I am on my third job in as many years. My last two employers have cited many of the problems above as reasons why we should part ways. I was never outright fired, but we had those conversations where you’re invited to “read between the lines” and move on. In education, when you start to get that kind of pattern on your resume, it raises red flags to future employers. It says there’s a problem you keep running from. I am the primary source of income in my home, so seeing the huge liability I was becoming for my family financially was one of the driving factors behind me seeking therapy this year. That’s what ultimately led to me learning about ADHD and getting my diagnosis.

So although I’m not glad I had all these struggles, I am glad that I finally saw the need to get help. Because now I know the reason behind all of these issues I’ve faced. I’ve been measuring myself against a bar that I could never reach because my own brain was working against me. Knowing I have ADHD is a huge help, because now I can see what all of these problem areas are. I’ve begun treating ADHD with therapy as well as medication so that I can continue to overcome these issues and finally feel successful at work.

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