I was diagnosed with ADHD a couple of years ago, while I was studying part time for an MA in Writing for Performance. While I haven't sought treatment, it has allowed me to understand a lot about me, and made me able to begin to forgive myself for the things I haven't done, opportunities I've missed, time I've spent faffing, ridiculous mistakes I've made and some of my more gratuitous social faux pas. It also made me think about the impact that having ADHD (then undiagnosed) had on how I dealt with Tim's death.
I went back to work a few weeks after Tim's death, and ADHD's hyperfocus allowed me to hide in my freelance writing. Being able to switch between grieving and coping gave my brain a break. However, it also meant that I took on too much, and I had to withdraw from a couple of big projects after my mental health crashed. Hyperfocus in grief can also result in an intense focus on the loss, which makes it harder to deal with.
ADHD means a lot of overthinking, and examining how I feel and how I present to the world. I suspect that ADHD is the reason that I have always felt that everyone else has a set of rules on how to react, what to say and how to be in any given situation, and I have either lost my copy (ADHD means I lose a lot of stuff) or never received it in the first place. I would suggest I write a spin-off from the Widow's Handbook called the ADHDers Handbook, but Jessica McCabe has already done it so well at How To ADHD.
But I digress (people with ADHD tend to do that too). This overthinking and the lack of a non-existent rulebook often left me wondering whether I was grieving correctly – perhaps I was grieving too much, grieving too little, grieving too openly, or grieving too privately. Spending time with fellow widows, including fellow ADHDers, means that I understand that there is no 'normal' in grief.
Now and not now and struggling with reality
People with ADHD can see time as either 'now' or 'not now'. This is most commonly used to describe how ADHDers struggle with not being able to judge how long a task will take and so run out of time, or how we can perform well under pressure and with short deadlines, as that is NOW NOW NOW.
As well as ADHD, I have had the symptoms of depersonalization/derealization disorder since my teens. This episodically makes me feel detached from myself, almost as if I am sitting inside my own head watching the world. This often goes alongside ADHD, and I think it led to me dissociating during grief, as another way for my brain to protect me.
I wonder, though, how both of these affected how I grieved. Are these why my life with Tim feels like it happened in a parallel life, or in a dream? Are these why I have been able to pick myself up and create a new life? If so, I'm not sure how that makes me feel. Does it mean that my neurodiversity has allowed me to file him away, move on, and start something new? That thought actually hurts more than I expected it to. Alternatively, do they mean that my neurodiversity actually looked after me as I grieved?
A wall of coping strategies
Historically, girls are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than boys, as they are more likely to show inattentive symptoms (tick), forgetfulness (tick), anxiety (tick) and depression (tick). In the 1970s and 1980s, ADHD was something that happened to young hyperactive boys, not dreamy, anxious forgetful and non-confrontational girls. As a result, I built up a lot of coping strategies over the years, and I suspect that these have made me more resilient in a lot of situations, including grief. These coping strategies can bite back though – they mean that I bottle things up and get overwhelmed, ending up with a spectacular meltdown triggered by a very small incident.
The impact of grief on ADHD
Widow brain affects executive function, the system in the brain that sits in the prefrontal cortex and supports your ability to understand, decide, recall, memorise and have self-control. It is also involved in regulating emotions. People with ADHD already have issues with executive function, and so it's hardly surprising that grief exaggerates and intensifies ADHD symptoms. The physical symptoms tied up with grief, such as problems with tiredness, insomnia, pain and loss of appetite can also make ADHD symptoms worse.
Hints and tips
I was widowed at 50 when Tim, who I expected would be my happy-ever-after following a marriage break-up, died suddenly from heart failure linked to his type 2 diabetes. Though we'd known each other since our early 20s, we'd been married less than ten years.