My husband Matt is a phenomenal artist and human. Like he’s so stupid talented that it ruffles my feathers to even think about it. He’s been drawing since he was a kid, and his first-rate renditions of Spiderman and SpongeBob were one of the main things that drew me to him. I’m not being biased in the least when I say that my husband is a total gem, and I’m a lucky gal to know and love him. Matt also happens to be one of 11,000,000 people in the United States living with the highly genetic, brain-based syndrome known as ADHD.
There’s a deep well of anxiety inside of my husband due to his jarring diagnosis as an adolescent and the challenges he faced as a young human living in a society that didn’t always know what to do with him. It would be several years into our relationship before Matt even felt comfortable and safe enough to reveal to me that he had ADHD. And when he finally did, the emotional floodgates opened for the both of us.
Let’s just say that there were a lot of really tough days that year, and I’m grateful — and a tad bit surprised — that we made it through all of them and still want to make out with each other.
I certainly wish that my husband had felt comfortable and safe enough to tell me about his diagnosis sooner — but in all honesty, I had a nagging feeling there was something altogether unique about Matt. He would throw himself into his creative gigs with laser focus that was nearly impossible to interrupt. He’d also unintentionally leave his stuff spread out across our place, forget tasks on our to-do list, and couldn’t handle long conversations with me. All I knew was that there was something going on with my hubby, and I just wanted to better understand it. But it’s unbelievably difficult to open up and get vulnerable about living with a condition that so many people judge, dismiss, and exclusively see as a problem.
Matt was just your average preteen when he got diagnosed with ADHD back in the nineties. In those days, the most common treatment was to immediately prescribe medication to struggling kids and view it as an inconvenient behavioral problem that would interfere with a child’s ability to learn and achieve in school. Matt was put on meds that left him tired and depressed. The exuberant energy that accompanied his sweet personality exited the building, and what remained was a scared, lonely, confused kid feeling completely powerless. Therapy helped a little, but it largely left him with a stronger sense of being inherently problematic. What didn’t help was being a child in middle school during a time when neuro differences were seen as something to merely compartmentalize and diminish.
I wonder how differently childhood would’ve gone for my guy if people knew what we know now about neurodiversity, which affects 15-20% of the global population. That’s one billion folks worldwide, people. A term created in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer, neurodiversity is the collection of brain differences that impact how human beings think, communicate, and act. It was Singer’s passionate belief that these were simply variations of the human genome that shouldn’t be stigmatized.
In other words, neurodiversity means that we all think differently and our communities should at the very least embrace that. At the very most, we should be making evolving accommodations for neurodiverse individuals that send a clear message — that we all deserve equal access to what we need and want in life, regardless of how much or little our minds contrast with each other.
I won’t ever fault Matt’s family for why he struggled so hard — his dedicated parents and loved ones were doing their best to navigate uncharted waters with zero experience to draw from. Since nobody really talked openly about neurodivergence in the nineties, his diagnosis led to a lot of emotional numbing and constant bouts of shame. My in-laws ultimately agreed that their son should stop taking meds and showered him with all the day-to-day support they could. But Matt still felt very alone and very lost for a long time, which breaks my heart.
My husband’s experience is unfortunately not an isolated one. Between the impulsivity that can accompany ADHD and the horrific stigma around it, there’s a lot of overlap between this neuro difference and mental health challenges in kids. Recent studies are beginning to establish a direct correlation between a child or adolescent having ADHD and a greater risk of suicide, so we cannot wait any longer to really start listening to, and learning from, our neurodivergent children. We also need to be ready to make swift, efficient, appropriate accommodations to help them learn and thrive in school and extracurricular activities.
“Our review found young people are particularly affected by this judgement and stigma,” University of Melbourne’s Developmental Mental Health Chair David Cogill and his fellow SAGE Journals authors share in an article for The Conversation. “They’re aware they’re viewed by others in a negative light because of their ADHD and they commonly feel different, devalued, embarrassed, unconfident, inadequate, or incompetent.
Not surprisingly, many kids living with ADHD react to the unrelenting criticism of who they are by verbally and physically lashing out. This response is not only understandable, but also relatable to neurotypical folks who have dealt with harsh, fault-finding peers or loved ones. Our expectations for neurodiverse kids are often developmentally inappropriate, which further isolates and ostracizes them.
Thankfully for my husband, a high school teacher noticed how supremely talented he was and allowed him to fill his math assignments with drawings and doodles. It was the educator’s way of giving Matt the freedom to express himself and thus make the work inclusive for him. Matt’s Grampy also took his grandkid under his wing after he dropped out his senior year of high school when it all became too much. They drove around town together, Matt regularly getting out of Grampy’s car to drop his resume off to local art businesses and studios. As he practiced putting himself out there, my husband began feeling motivated to believe in himself and his art. He eventually went on to get his GED, put himself through college, and is currently thriving in his animation career.
He also makes for an exceedingly stellar life partner and father who never fails to love with his overwhelmingly generous heart and always makes us laugh.
I can’t go back and be the advocate I wish I could’ve been for Matt as a youth, but I’m doing everything I can to make up for lost time. Living with a partner who has ADHD definitely comes with its own distinct perks and complexities, but so does everything that’s truly worthwhile in this life. As I embrace his neurodiverse mind with growing curiosity and compassion, I also never hesitate to bring the levity and tenderness in moments when he’s bogged down by the unjustified pressures of living in an ableist world.
My husband deserves to undoubtedly know that he belongs. He deserves respect, acceptance, and support. His ADHD is not some exclusive series of hurdles to be avoided. It is as much a part of what makes him him as everything else, and the world needs to get on board. We all do, for the sake of our neurodivergent kids out there just wanting what everyone does — to be seen as worthy, lovable, and absolutely amazing.
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