Every relationship has its questions of timing: How many dates do you go on before sex? When should you allow your date to pick up the check? How early is too early to tell him you have ADHD?
That last one isn’t a question for every new relationship. But it is for mine. The answer is usually: when something goes wrong.
Don’t get me wrong — I love having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Just like being smart or having a sense of humor, ADHD is a positive character trait that makes me who I am. But the men I’ve dated haven’t always understood how ADHD can affect someone. Before going out with me, a lot of them didn’t know what it was.
Attention deficit is a neurological condition caused by underproduction of dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that regulate focus. As a condition, it’s poorly named. People with ADHD don’t pay less attention; we pay more. Because our minds lack the chemical chops to screen out unneeded stimuli, we’re constantly flooded by everything that surrounds us.
This means that on a date I won’t just notice you; I’ll notice everything around you: the straw sticking out of our waiter’s smock pocket, a flickering bulb in the light fixture, the wrinkles on the tablecloth. No matter how much I want to, I can’t turn off the flood of stimuli and notice only you.
Unless you know this, it’s easy to think I’m not listening. Take Butch, for example, a guy I went out with in my 20s. We had a good time, but after that first date, he never called. When a friend asked why, he said: “I didn’t think she liked me.” Butch, if you’re reading, I get it: I didn’t focus on anything you said all night. I did like you, though. Should I have told you I have ADHD?
I think I made the right call by not telling him. By nature, dating is a long process of giving up your secrets, trading them one at a time for intimacy. When your secret is that you’re missing neurotransmitters in the brain, telling someone that on the first date is too early.
So is a third date, which I once asked a man to reschedule because I’d double-booked him with a doctor’s appointment for my ADHD. When I called to explain, the guy asked if it hurt.
“What do you mean, does it hurt?” I said.
“I don’t know. Does the doctor hook you up to anything?”
No, Man I Never Went Out With Again, asking your doctor to write a monthly prescription for Ritalin does not require electroshock. Instead, my psychiatrist asks if my relationships are okay, if I’m focusing better, if my dosage still seems right.
For the record, if you do require electroshock, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Neither is ADHD. Attention deficit is not a mental illness; it’s a neurological disorder. I take medicine that replicates neurotransmitters so I can focus, just as an amputee uses a prosthetic to walk.
But because people with ADHD do need those neurotransmitters so badly, it’s easy to assume we can’t function without meds. One boyfriend even became obsessed with whether I’d taken mine. Every time I said something halfway quirky, he’d ask: “Did you take your medicine today?”
To his credit, he asked because he cared and never in judgmental way. But I still cringed at the question every time. It hurts to have the person you love play parent; it hurts even more to know he needs to.
The night I told him I had attention deficit, we’d been dating a year. And yes, something had gone wrong. We were arguing in a hotel bar — loud music, eavesdropping bartender, wedding reception in the lobby. Over his shoulder, I could see the flower girl walking in circles, dress ribbon trailing behind. The bartender leaned in, the girl tripped, and I couldn’t fight the stimuli and him. I asked if we could finish our conversation in the room, and when he said, “No, we’ll finish it here,” I erupted.
I’d been off medication for two years, but after that, I went back on. A year together proved that man loved me with or without a pill; I loved myself enough to never want to be that overloaded again. So for months, yes, he kept asking if I’d taken my pill, and even though I hated hearing the question, I did not blame him for asking. He didn’t want me that overwhelmed again, either.
I used to wonder how that fight would have gone if he’d known about my ADHD beforehand. When I asked to leave the bar, he didn’t know I was overloaded; he thought I was trying to avoid the conversation. After a year together, I’d already given him most of my secrets. Why did I hold back that one?
Like everyone else with a diagnosis, I want the impossible: I don’t want to disclose my ADHD at all. I never tell men I’m funny; they just laugh at my jokes. I don’t tell them I’m smart; they just know. I don’t want attention deficit to outweigh or outrank the other parts of me.
When things did end with the guy from the hotel bar, my doctor was almost as sad as I was. For electroshock guy, he recommended “You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!,” a self-help book for adults with ADHD. He also said a man who assumes I need nodes hooked to my brain on the regular probably isn’t who I want to be with in the long run.
The guy I do want to be with is the same any woman wants, really: someone who gets me. Rather than disclose my diagnosis, I’d prefer to say “I’m just me” and hear him whisper, “Okay.”