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My Worst ADHD Triggers

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“Uncle Al and I are on our way to visit your mother and we’d love to stop by to see you on our way. See you in about a half hour!!”

Nothing chills me more than unexpected guests. When I get messages like this, I nearly faint from hypothermia. Why? Because my house generally isn’t tidy enough (in my mind, anyway) to receive unexpected guests. If you were to walk in right now, you’d see:

  • dirty dishes in the sink
  • dog toys strewn throughout the house (toys, when my children were little)
  • piles of mail decorating the kitchen counters
  • unread newspapers taking up space on the kitchen table
  • various items of clothing strewn about

Since being disorganized is one key symptom of ADHD, you can bet that this is an area that I struggle with daily.

Cleaning, disorganization, and surprise guests

Growing up, I watched shows like “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “The Brady Bunch,” and more. And let me tell you, the homes the characters lived in were spotless. Those Brady kids didn’t leave their toys out for others to trip over.

But I couldn’t keep up with these fictitious, perfectly behaved, and tidy characters, let alone real people in real life. Most of my friends and family had homes that looked like something from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. I laughed along with others who loved Martha Stewart jokes, because I was hiding my own “Martha inferiority complex.” I could never live up to her perfect home and meals.

So when friends or family stopped by to visit, I became frantic. “What will they think of me? I’m such a loser, such a slob.”

In the earlier days of my ADHD diagnosis, I struggled deeply, feeling a terrible sense of shame over such shortcomings. In those days, I developed systems for getting my house clear of clutter by screaming at my family to get moving — fast — in picking up their “stuff” and throwing it in their rooms. I didn’t care if things were put away; I needed them out of the main floor of the house.

While that was happening, I grabbed paper grocery bags and went from room to room and stuffed them with things that were cluttering up the house. Any dirty plate or glass was placed in the dishwasher, regardless of the clean items that were already sitting in there.

I got it down to a science, but it took its toll on all of us. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that most people didn’t care if there was clutter in the house. They wanted to visit me, not analyze the state of my home.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one with this type of trigger. Amanda, a member of one of my online support groups for adults with ADHD, also feels the pressure.

“Any time I need to clean, I just get so overwhelmed and cannot find a starting point. I usually have to have someone with me to keep me focused. But then it turns into a big thing because while they are trying to keep me focused, I feel like I'm being pressured and arguments happen.”

Decision-making on the fly

“Mom, what’s for dinner?”

This question threw me for a loop almost every single day. When most adults wake up in the morning, they tend to think about whether they’ll be ready for work on time, or what they want to wear, etc. In my case, every morning started with “What should I make for dinner tonight?” And thus started my day, full of anxiety and indecision.

Another common symptom of ADHD is having difficulty making decisions, often paired with procrastination. I never could easily decide what to make for dinner and when I finally did, I, of course, did not have the ingredients on hand. That meant daily trips to the supermarket, usually around 5 p.m., which meant dinner didn’t get on the table until much later, and that, in turn, meant hungry, irritable children.

I finally came up with strategies that worked. I wrote down recipe ideas onto index cards — about 10 of them. And on the back, jotted down the ingredients needed. This eliminated the problem of deciding what to make. I made two sets of these. One stayed in the kitchen and one lived in my purse.

I’d also marked some cards with red stars — those were the fast and easy menu ideas for busy days when I knew I would have little time for cooking. I’d flip through the cards (which included wild cards for takeout or eating out — my favorites) and get into the habit of heading to the grocery store earlier than 5 p.m., and having dinner on the table by 6 p.m.

It worked, for the most part!

When routines fall apart

Most adults with ADHD have their own triggers. Tanya, another member of my online support group shares:

“For me, it’s a lack of structure or a break in routine. I’ve built my life around routine as a coping mechanism. It’s what works for me. I try to be as flexible as possible but the disorganization that comes from raising a toddler is enough to set me off regularly.

“I try to schedule activities for each day that we are together — when I’m not at work. This helps immensely for both of us. The hardest times are when he is sick and we can't go anywhere... those days, I try my best and know that not all days will be the best days.”

Finding ways to cope

We all have our ADHD-related triggers. Once you can identify what yours are, you can come up with strategies that work so that they don’t overwhelm you. You may not always be able to avoid triggers, but you can learn ways to tame their effects on your nerves and self-esteem.

ADHD-US-NP-00017 JUNE 2018