One of my top strengths is “Love of Learning,” and ever since I was diagnosed with ADHD in 1999, I’ve been studying ADHD in search of the best way to manage my symptoms. In the last seven months of my coach training, I’ve been more immersed in my ADHD study then ever, and the most important thing that I’ve learned is that self care is critical to ADHD management.
Yesterday, I woke up feeling hungover, despite the fact that I hadn’t drunk alcohol the night before. I spent most of the morning on the couch while my toddler watched tv and I occasionally got up to refresh her milk or feed her something simple like crackers. All morning, I thought I was just tired, so I felt a little guilty for my minimal parenting, but I also knew that a morning like this was unusual, so I gave myself a break.
Around 11 am, my husband, Josh, texted me that he was feeling unwell and when I read his symptoms, it clicked in that I had the same stomach bug, especially after I found myself racing to the bathroom to dry heave.
We all slow down when we experience stress due to illness, lack of sleep, or overwhelm. I remember when my middle child was a newborn and I learned about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow’s basic needs for air, food, water and sleep need to be met before we can do anything else. I had become sleep deprived enough that I had to focus on the most basic of needs: sleep. Once I did that, I was able to start working on other needs, like showering, exercise, getting out of the house.
An older version of me would have felt lazy for all the screen time I was giving my girl, all the couch time when I usually log 5-6 miles a day on my Fitbit, and then embarrassed when it finally clicked that I was sick. I would have felt stupid for not being aware of my body. Recently, though, I have a new knowing.
In 2002, a 10 year study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that ADHD brains are 3% smaller than average, especially the frontal lobe, which governs most of our executive function (impulse control, time management, decision making) skills which are impacted by ADHD.
The knowledge that my brain is most likely smaller than average (please note that smaller brains doesn’t mean lower intellect!) helps me keep perspective. When I am sick, the impact on my symptoms is big, which explains why I didn’t realize I was sick until I got the list of my husband’s symptoms. When I’m sick, sleep deprived, or otherwise stressed, I drop things more, I can’t make decisions, my children’s play sounds like nails on a chalkboard, and I’m more likely to put my phone in the fridge and the milk in the dishwasher.
Time and time again, I tell my clients about the importance of self care, and this has had an added benefit for me as a an ADD-er. Now when I’m sick, my own coaching words come up, and yesterday I was able to pause and re-group, and some executive function kicked in:
- I cancelled the childcare I’d set up for my toddler during my coach training class, called in on mute, and continued the parade of kid’s Netflix for my toddler, while I put myself on mute for most of the call
- Josh offered to take today off so I could recover if necessary and I said “Thank you,” instead of saying I could handle it all myself.
- I sent a list of supplies for Josh to pick up on the way home (Coke to settle my stomach, gluten free soup, pizza for the kids)
- When my boys got home from school, I told them that I felt really sick and needed them to be gentle with me. Not that this made a huge difference, but by saying it, my patience with their energy and acting their age was greater.
- I moved upstairs to my bedroom, put the baby gate on the door, safety latched the doors to the bathroom and continued the Netflix marathon until Josh got home.
- Once Josh got home, I napped for over an hour, and then rallied to put my toddler to bed while Josh handled the boys. They went to bed late, and I let go of my mandatory 8pm bedtime on school nights.
Today I feel a little better, but I am trying to take it easier. As I write this post, Josh has taken the toddler to a play park and they will be back in a couple of hours. My urge is to do ALL THE THINGS (why sip when you can gulp?). Instead, I’m capturing my thoughts for this post, I will take a short and slow walk on my treadmill, and rest. I’m resisting the drive to do a load of laundry, clean up the kitchen, vacuum, clean the bathrooms (an empty house is a siren call to do chores uninterrupted) because I know that will result in an exhausted me when my family returns. Josh doesn’t feel 100%, so I want to get energy enough to support him when he comes home.
As I read all this, I feel like these are small things to do, just time management, strategic planning, adulting 101, right? Not with ADHD. I think it’s important to understand that it’s the little things that our brains sometimes struggle with. I was able to do them, even under the stress of an illness that wiped me out, and that is something to celebrate.
Yesterday and today could have gone terribly wrong. Unmanaged ADHD could have manifested into the following: I would have felt a terrible mother for giving my daughter too much tv and too many carbs. I would have felt stupid for not realizing that I was sick. I might have snapped at my husband, yelled at my children, and then felt terribly wrong for doing so. I would have not asked for help, or forgotten to tell my friend that I didn’t need childcare, and then felt like a jerk for that.
I have learned that in addition to the self care of exercise, nutrition, sleep and other regular practices of things that feed me (outdoor time, hot baths, reading, photography and writing), self compassion is just as critical as the above list. My 3% smaller brain has only so much energy for planning and time management, and ruminating on where I am lacking is an energy vampire. Yesterday, when I gave myself compassion, it cleared the way for me to come up with a plan to take care of myself and my family during a time of brief stress. This is what managed ADHD looks like, and it feels pretty good.
Self care is critical. I repeat this over and over with my clients, and I learn this lesson over and over myself. I resist it, and get frustrated by the fact that I have to do more than the average person to take care of myself, but I’m learning to be grateful for the fact that my disorder requires that I take good care of myself.
My self care recipe looks something like this:
- Walk 10,000-15,000 steps per day
- Read at least one page in a book every day
- Get into nature at least once a week
- Hot baths as much as possible
- Avoid gluten (gives me terrible skin rashes and moodiness)
- Play a game with my boys after my daughter goes to bed (we like Ticket to Ride and Mastermind these days)
It’s a living recipe, and I add/modify as time goes on. What is your recipe for self care?
If you are interested in learning about self compassion, I encourage you to take a look around here: http://self-compassion.org/about/