Sheltering in place, with a spouse who has adult ADHD
March 23, 2020 2:38 PM   Subscribe

My spouse has adult ADHD, and we are both working from our (tiny) apartment for the forseeable future. On our best days, it is a challenge for our household to create and follow a routine. With shelter in place, it's even harder. If you have ADHD, or you have a spouse with ADHD, can you share any strategies that you have found to work (or NOT work) with this new normal?

In a non-shelter-in-place world, as the non-ADHD-having spouse, I aim to be supportive but not in the "mom" or "caretaker" role 24/7. In this world, we're in a tiny apartment together for an unknown amount of time, and I'm scared that if I don't figure something out, it's going to have severe ramifications on my spouse's professional life and our relationship. Currently my spouse spends many hours each day laying down and reading the news online, and is finding it difficult to concentrate on work or to step away from the news firehose. I'm finding it difficult enough to create a routine for myself.

Fitness is typically a great helper for my spouse's ADHD and mood, but we live in a very dense area where it's virtually impossible to exercise without being surrounded by people, and my spouse is immunocompromised and does not feel comfortable going outside.

I've been doing workout videos online and my spouse will join me if I "sheepdog" them into it, and after they do it they are markedly more happy and energetic - but my spouse doesn't have the oomph to do it by themselves. I'm unclear how much "sheepdogging" I should be doing right now and would like to know if others are finding strategies that work for them and/or their adult partners.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I can't be too forceful, because I've had a lot of trouble establishing a habit, but: meditation. Your routine can start at some amount of time (probably less than 15min) once or twice a day. Like, you have a morning routine, shower, then you both sit and meditate for some interval that signals the start of the work day. Then, at like tea time (4pm) you have another to punctuate the end-ish of the day, have some actual tea/coffee, then wrap up loose ends and have dinner, then unstructured time.

OK, my imagination got away with me. I've been cooped up! But that's probably something close to what I'd come up with for myself if I needed to. Point being: it's only 15min once or twice a day, and is such a radical difference from internet gab and newsclamation points that it could cut down on the buzzy activity-randomness that (I experience too!) causes time to get busted up into unmanageable shards.
posted by rhizome at 3:09 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

First, write out a schedule together. Schedule waking, going to sleep, meals, exercise videos, calls to family, checking email, free space (like an hour of uninterrupted 'net surfing), specific chores, medications, work tasks, gentle stretching, brushing, flossing, together activities.

As the person in my relationship with ADD, I find it very helpful when my partner points out to me that I am staring at the news or twitter feed. I appreciate that my partner encourages me to go out for my daily walk. I am not super great at doing these things on my own.

Some days, I need more "sheepdogging" than other days. Having a list written down really helps. I made myself basically a sticker chart for adults and only a few weeks ago realized I could break it down into "morning" and "evening" sections. I color in the square for the day and activity for whatever I accomplish that day.

I use meditation oasis on the podcast app to help myself be still. There are plenty of meditation podcasts, so surf around and find some that you like.

It is unclear to me if your partner is supported in this by a medical professional, but if so they should keep up that support via telehealth and keeping any prescriptions filled. If they are not currently supported by a professional, they should look into beginning a therapeutic relationship. While my partner supports me in this, he is definitely not doing all of the work of managing my focus.
posted by bilabial at 3:12 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

My heart was in my throat reading your ask. I have ADHD & would not be able to function without my third floor cocoon.

Here are a few things that come to mind when it comes to working:
- Turn a corner of your bedroom into an micro-office for one of you & keep the door shut when working
- hang up some kind of barrier (ie hang sheets) in a corner so there's a 2nd space that can function as an office & will lessen visual distractions. Take it down after work hours
- Everyone wears headphones when audio is involved
- Have a rule that the couch is public, common area. No one gets to camp out there except on weekends and after 5pm
- Make an effort to not initiate conversations during work hours. Things like "can you get me a glass of water while you are up?" can cause major distractions & derail focus. Text each other if necessary
- Come up with a 2-3 word catch-phrase with which you can succinctly remind each other if things go off the rails like "office hours" or "on the clock"

Take care of yourself first. It is not selfish.

I remember reading articles about people living in tiny houses or RVs together. I bet you'd find some great tips with a bit of research.

Good luck to you both!
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 3:32 PM on March 23 [9 favorites]

In a similar boat. Having a schedule has been really important to me, even if he doesn't follow it. He has his own plan of the day. So part of it is detachment - my rhythms & energies are going to be different no matter what, so it's important for me to let go of any sense of what my husband 'should' (my definition) be doing at any moment. Having my own wakeup times and mileposts in the day helps me stay focused. I have meditation in the morning, breakfast/coffee and chat time, a work shift 9:30-1, then a midday break, then another work shift 2:00-5ish, then a workout, then dinner, then R&R. Mealtimes have become really important daymarkers for us. Breakfast/coffee, lunch, and dinner have taken on a new degree of formality and we're trying to use at least dinner as 'sit down and be present' time. Also I am taking the tip that it's still important to differentiate weekdays and weekends and make sure that 'time on' is actually different from 'time off.'

So, don't assume you have to have the same routine, but do sit down and have a meeting about how you want to manage in these Between Times. Are there any particular goals either/both of you are working toward right now? What do you want to be sure to get in every week and every day? What are some things that are fun and break up the routine? What can you agree to prompt/remind him of and what would you rather just not have a part of? After all you're not around to manage him the rest of life, so no reason you should get that role now. But if one of the goals of your spouse is "keep their job," and being at home makes that harder, then maybe you can brainstorm now how to create boundaries around work time. As a lot of people are finding, depending on the work you do, you can actually get more of it done in less time. So if a 4 hour workday is workable for them, maybe that's fine and you can let go of your thoughts about what they should do the other 4 hours. If it is not ok and work is slipping, then he might need to brainstorm with you and/or his boss.

A lot of the reading-news-online behavior for a lot of people is just sheer anxiety. I agree that a meditation practice can really help with that.

I agree with the note above about carving out separate work spaces.
posted by Miko at 3:42 PM on March 23 [2 favorites]

I would not “sheepdog.” Their well-being and work performance are their own responsibility. You do not need to “figure something out” or “find strategies”; they do.

I say this as an adult with ADD who has also struggled with the news firehose and had trouble focusing on work. If my husband took on the role of manager/nagging parent/coach, it would be be obnoxious for both of us. I’d get angry at him for telling me what to do; he’d get frustrated with me for not doing what he thought I should; I’d feel like even more of a useless failure than I already do, because I’d be letting him down; then I’d feel even more anxious and be even more likely to procrastinate.

If anything helps, it’s when my husband mentions a problem he’s also (genuinely) having — like “ugh, it’s so hard to not just sit here and check Twitter all day, I’m making myself super anxious” — and say what’s working for him — like “It’s honestly a relief to just do some kettlebell exercises. I mean, working out sucks and it’s hard, but it’s actually a relief not to think about COVID for a few minutes.” That way it’s very clear that he’s not judging me, and I’m more able to respond with “Yeah, I know, I’m just struggling with even being able to decide to exercise. But I know it’ll help if I do.”

Schedule waking, going to sleep, meals, exercise videos, calls to family, checking email, free space (like an hour of uninterrupted 'net surfing), specific chores, medications, work tasks, gentle stretching, brushing, flossing, together activities.

Guessing this advice is very YMMV. As someone with ADHD, this sounds like it would be pretty exhausting and stressful for me. I get very anxious when I have a lot of scheduled activities — my brain can’t stop planning for/worrying about the next thing long enough to focus on the current thing, especially when the next thing requires any kind of planning or prep.

If “schedule everything” doesn’t work, I suggest your spouse (not you) try scheduling one easy, rewarding thing to break the news-checking loop, anything that does not give them anxiety about being able to do it successfully. Like “cook a scrambled egg and make coffee” or “feed the cat”. Sometimes that’s enough to kick me into a different gear, at least for a little while.

You can and should schedule your own day and take care of yourself, regardless of what spouse is doing. If spouse is in your work space, you can ask them to go to another room/area.
posted by snowmentality at 3:59 PM on March 23 [7 favorites]

I am the spouse with the partner with ADHD. It would be nice to have a shared routine but that's just not going to happen or of it does, it's a nice surprise. Expecting it leads to problems. I focus on me, advocate for breaks and space or advocate for reasonable compromises like one break in the day to tidy versus waiting until after I've gone to bed to do any cleaning. I take care of myself. Sometimes I ask him a question. Do you want to take a shower/take a walk/did you complete the thing I asked for yesterday/etc. I've suggested apps to help limit screentime or filter things but ultimately he's the adult and it's his consequences. "Do you want to take a break from the news and have a snack?" Might work better than "you're going to lose your job if you don't stop obsessing all day."
posted by crunchy potato at 4:34 PM on March 23

no offense to everyone who is helped by meditation but IME if your adhd is reliably mitigated by physical activity, fitness, exercise, etc, then attempting to switch over to meditation, especially under crisis-type situations, is honestly on par with death. like just thinking about it is giving me a nascent panic attack. adhd benefits from meditation are real, do exist, can be wonderful, but if you are not a person inclined to benefit from stillness, attempting to force the change or expecting useful rapid results is madness.

OP, the rigid scheduling idea would work best for me personally. breaking things down into half hour or even 15 minute increments can be helpful for some people but not for others, and it will take some adjustment time to figure out what works best. a very important thing to note is that you should absolutely abandon the rigid schedule at a moment's notice if your spouse manages to get into Work Mode, they should ride that streak as long as they can, even if it's close to a meal time or bedtime. again, just my personal experience on getting shit done as a person with heinous executive dysfunction and who is procrastinating a midterm paper by answering this question as needlessly thoroughly as possible.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:04 PM on March 23 [13 favorites]

I am the partner with ADHD. And my partner has symptoms even if he is undiagnosed. I am also the organizing/pay the bills on time/keep things running spouse.

My first feeling here is that it is your partner’s job to deal with his symptoms—even if he isn’t doing a good job of it.

In the short term, I can do all the household things, but I do burn out. I don’t sheepdog, but I do call on him to take on specific tasks so I can go rest a bit. And I don’t save him if he ADHDs it. c.f., if I ask him to make dinner and he forgets, I will find a way to sustain myself, but I will not jump in and make it for him.

Yes, it’s an illness, but there’s also a responsibility to cope—or deal with the consequences. By allowing consequences, I figure I’m doing partner a favor and giving him an opportunity to manage things better.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 5:15 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

Hi, I'm both the non-ADHD partner and someone with executive functioning problems. First thing you should check on, if you haven't, is whether or not they've been taking their meds. When my routine went off the rails, so did appropriate med taking. They may not have noticed that they've been missing their meds, or they may keep only noticing when it's too late to take them, try to remember for tomorrow, repeat ad nauseam. So, check that first.

Okay. Next. What's the bare minimum your partner needs to do to maintain their professional life and your relationship? I mean, specifically. What do they need to do that they are not doing that will cause significant harm to them if they don't do it? If they're not doing those things, I'll address that later. But if they are doing the bare minimum, then you need to let everything else slide. There's a pandemic going on. It's my opinion that everyone should be doing the bare minimum they need to stay healthy and keep their jobs, and fill the rest of their time with as much social and leisure time as they can. It's not a problem for them to spend many hours lying down. It is a problem if they're also not getting done the bare minimum, and it's probably also not great for their health to be glued to the news, but that's a different problem. This may not apply to you at all, but I really want to make sure that you aren't getting hung up on the fact that they spend a lot of the day "not doing anything." That's normal and expected for anyone in this situation, including you, if you haven't given yourself the space to do that. So make sure you're differentiating between "things that absolutely need to happen aren't happening" and "my partner spends a lot of time doing nothing."

Okay. So. Let's say there are things your partner needs to do and they aren't happening. Before you do anything, sit down and talk to them about what they know does and doesn't work for them. My partner, for example, hates lists and schedules. They find them extremely anxiety-inducing. What does work is chaining easier tasks to harder tasks, using the easy task as the initial "get up and go" motivator. So, for example, if they get up to fill up their water, they might do some dishes while they're already in there. But just motivating themselves to get up and do dishes, even if it's on a schedule/list, is near impossible. Your partner may or may not have insight into this, but it's important to check.

Then. Decouple your routine from theirs. It's just going to frustrate you so much more if you try and sync up your routines. Set up your own routine that's independent from whether or not they successfully complete their routine. What you can do is check in with them along the way and invite them to be part of it: "Hey, I'm exercising now, do you want to join me?" "I'm getting breakfast, do you want to eat too?" "I'm getting out of bed, do you want to get up to?" If they say yes and don't move, ask, "What needs to happen before you can join me?" This has two purposes: one, verbalizing the steps can actually be really helpful for people with ADHD. Two, after doing this a little while, you may notice certain steps they tend to trip up on and see if there's any environmental changes you can make to alleviate that. The point is not so that you can do all the things for them, but so that you both are more aware of what's getting in their way and can adjust accordingly.

If your partner wants to build their own routine, they will have to do that on their own. I'm going to list some tips that you can show to them, but you shouldn't be trying to get them to implement them. You can offer to help, if they feel they would benefit from reminders or more structure and you feel mentally and emotionally capable of providing that, but it should be on them. These suggestions may or may not work for them; I'm drawing from both my partner's experience and my own, and we have vastly different approaches to executive functioning tasks.

- Set up morning and evening routines that incorporate everything that needs to get done on a daily basis. Feeding the dog? Cleaning the litterbox? Washing dishes? Exercising? All of this should either be part of a morning or evening routine. There shouldn't be any tasks that need to happen "at some point" in the middle of the day. Have a checklist of things that you do every morning and every evening (with a specific start time, so you know when to get to work on it), and just do all of those daily tasks one after another. This is the benefit of WFH! You now have the flexibility to do this! You can even write the whole list out as a step by step, starting with getting out of bed (or maybe even starting with turning on music or taking meds before you even get out of bed!). Once you've done the first step it may be easier to follow the rest, especially if it's written out clearly and it's the same every day.

- Use a speaking clock to help with time-blindness. My partner (thanks to a MeFi question!) uses this app, which tells them the time every half hour. This helps both with, "Oh, shit, it's 2 o clock and I haven't eaten lunch??" and "I've been scrolling Tumblr for 3 hours."

- Schedule a specific time for social media and news reading. Preferably for after work has been done. If you must check news/social media in the morning, limit yourself to a specific number of posts/articles--say, 10. Sort by most popular so you get the important stuff, leave the rest for later.

Um, I had more, but we had a mini-crisis in the middle of me writing this and I'm all out of energy. I may come back to this later, but I'm gonna post what I have in case it helps.
posted by brook horse at 6:39 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]

Is your spouse actually worried about their work performance? My wife and I have very different jobs and very different work habits (hers is very steady, mine is very burst-y – thanks, ADHD and hyperfocus). Our styles both work perfectly well for us, but we make sure not to pay too much attention to how the other is working because if she worried about my performance she'd definitely be stressed about my work habits. Sounds like you two have plenty to work on together but make sure you are only worrying about things that actually call for it.
posted by Tehhund at 8:13 PM on March 23

I quit refined sugar (anything with the fiber processed out) last June and I have to say, it helps a LOT with executive function. I decide to do a thing, and then do it. I have been successfully developing home routines.

This would be a fantastic time to quit refined sugar. Throw it all out, and then it's gone and not coming back for a while.
posted by aniola at 8:45 AM on March 24

ADD here. The only thing that's helping me right now is the Self Control app (website blocker). I had to add Google to the restricted sites; it's the only way to stop my mindless compulsion to search "[location] + coronavirus"and then lose hours to scrolling. Self Control probably stopped me at least 20 times yesterday; it amazed me really how mindlessly I would do it, and how frequently.

I also have to say it's sad that people are even more burdened by work stress and time management during this crisis, which is sapping so much mental resource. I also know some people need the work not only for money but for their sanity. I just know that for me, trying to focus on work has been a Herculean task. So if anyone else is feeling that... you are not alone. For me, it's at least in part because I'm feeling called to do something more important to the world than what I'm currently doing.
posted by gold bridges at 9:57 AM on March 24

Adult with ADD here:

1) I find myself overwhelmed when my routine changes and can't really do anything until I feel more in control of things. So I make lists. Suggestion list for your partner:
- Get them to sit down with pen and paper (NO screens) and make a to do list with five columns.
- Column 1: All the things. Inbox zero should be in there, and EVERYTHING they've been postponing/avoiding. Every little thing. Long list.
- Column 2: (Approximate) deadlines for each.
- Column 3: Ask whether any of these are giving them anxiety. On col 3, have them write down all the obstacles they see in the way.
- Column 4: Updates/progress log, or check mark if completed.
- Column 5 (optional): Your feedback! I'd go full grade school teacher with stickers if I had them. But ymmv.
- Then, have them figure out on their own how to prioritize and plan to solve these.
- Post this on the fridge, by the bathroom mirror, on the wall in front of the toilet... Ok, the last one would be a fun game. Imagine this: after list is done, you never talk about it again except via the bathroom notes. Like in-house texting without the distractions of a phone.

They may be scared/discouraged/feeling helpless. I find that getting real about my responsibilities and confronting the reality of my fears, in a caring, sympathetic (& friendly, cozy, stimulating) space goes a long way to get me back on track. I've learned how to get myself out of that headspace by trial and error, but your partner may need some initial handholding from you or, ideally, a therapist.

Just make sure it's clear you're doing it this once only. That next time, they're on their own and if they want your help they need to ask for a concrete thing you can do (as opposed to using you as a crutch).

2) Scheduled (but generous) waking up time and no one gets to sleep after alarm has rung. ALL screens off at a given time of night. Only radio or off-screen reading/activities after that. Preferrably reading together in bed with a soft light.

e.g. Encourage them to journal once a day. Set a 15-min journaling time. Perhaps as a morning ritual? Or how about, while one of you does a given chore, the other has their journaling time.

3) Setting up both a schedule AND a space for each activity I do helps me transition from one activity to the next more easily. Having to re-set up for something I did yesterday is a big hindrance for me as I could easily get distracted in the process.

4) Have shared, scheduled rituals to kick off the day and end it. Maybe finish it with a board game, reading something fun to each other?

5) One thing I'm doing only once a day is reading official coronavirus updates (they only come 1x day anyway).

6) Phonecalls to friends/family every day, scheduled. NO constant checking of phone/social media during office hours.

7) Scheduled chores and clear accountability for house work. Insist on keeping your space tidy and clean. A dirty and messy apartment can be really discouraging to me as well.

8) Do they take medication? Maybe suggest they speak to their doctor about modifying their prescription for the time being. They may be having other issues related to anxiety, as well as ADD.

9) Once you've come up with a shared schedule, treat it as a contract and STOP cat-herding. Just show them your disappointment and let them react accordingly.

Fixing their broken routine is not your job. You can help them help themselves, but not babysit them. You're already doing plenty of emotional work for them, while also taking care of yourself in this crisis. If they can't manage the schedule you've set together it means they can't benefit from the help and support you're giving. At that point, it's their problem, their consequences, their life and you can't fix that.

That said, please find time to enjoy each other's presence. You're the lucky ones who get to spend this time in company of their loved ones. This is a challenge you can overcome, and I'm rooting for you!!
posted by ipsative at 11:34 AM on March 24

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