Arguments, Conflict as “Self-Medication”

argue“Too much fighting” was a top reason for leaving the relationship, according to ADHD Partner respondents who had either divorced or separated from or who had stopped dating a partner with (untreated) ADHD.  I’ll post that survey data soon, but given my recent experience at the farmer’s market (“Knowing the Facts Makes You Gaslight-Proof”) and the  partison rancor in this country, the topic of “fighting as self-medication” is on my mind.

So many factors contribute to the sometimes unrelenting arguments and conflict that happen in relationships affected by undiagnosed/untreated ADHD:

  • “Denial” of ADHD symptoms (which often has both physiological and psychological underpinnings)
  • A co-existing condition such as conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder, autistic-spectrum disorder, or even anxiety and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder.

Mostly, though, it’s ignorance around these factors  that fuels the fighting on both sides.  Here’s an excerpt on the subject from Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder.

Chapter 7: More Mystifying Twists and Turns (on the ADHD Roller Coaster)

Conflict as “Self-Medication”

For Kimberly, here’s the hardest thing to understand about her husband. It doesn’t matter how accommodating she is, how hard she tries to avoid doing things that would make him angry; as long as he wants to be angry, he will find a reason. Moreover, he wants to get angry a lot, and he will always find a way to make his anger her fault. Then when he finally succeeds in provoking her anger and she loses her temper, she’ll suffer more accusations from him about her anger-management problem. Kimberly ends up feeling ashamed yet defensive because, she says, “Most people have no idea how determined some people with ADHD can be at provoking others.”

This apparent desire to be angry, and to provoke an angry response in others, can result from the ADHD partner’s biologically based need for stimulation, according to psychiatrist Daniel Amen. “Being mad, upset, angry, negative, or even oppositional immediately stimulates the brain’s frontal lobes,” he explains. “These behaviors can produce increasing amounts of adrenaline in the body, stimulating not only heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension but also brain activity. And many people with ADHD might pick on others to get a rise out of them.” As Kimberly puts it: “My husband gets his adrenaline kick. But I just plain feel kicked.”

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? That fighting can make some people feel calmer, and that they would be unaware of that fact. But believe it.

I asked support-group members for personal examples of the following self-medicating patterns. “Until I read about these behaviors,” Gail says, “my husband and I—and our therapists—had thought that much more than ADHD was going on here. Learning about this pattern of fighting and stimulation was our lifeline to sanity.”

See if you can recognize any of these self-medicating patterns:

“Let’s have a problem”

Lucy, who operates a business with her husband, sums it up this way: “Every morning, it’s as if he can’t start work until he’s put his mark on my day, the way a dog marks his territory.” He gets energized for focusing on work by negatively obsessing on imaginary business problems until Lucy’s energy gets ground down to a nub. It took years for Lucy to realize what was happening. By then he’d sabotaged their best business opportunities. Now they struggle to hold on.

“No, no way, never, you can’t make me”

Oppositional behavior—for example, disagreeing with whatever the other person says or refusing any request—can also increase adrenaline in the brain of some people with ADHD, Amen says. But again, for the partner, it’s extremely draining. Shelby says her ex-husband frequently went into “automatic no mode”: “I could ask nicely or blow my stack and it made no difference. The whole point was that he refused to do it—take out the trash, come to dinner, or something more important. I called him Mr. No.”

“I say the opposite of what you say”

You could call this a subcategory of oppositionality. Or, you could call it the weather report. That’s because even the safest of topics, like the weather, can unleash a storm. “If I just casually mentioned it’s hot outside, my husband would insist it’s not hot outside,” Madeleine says. “Then for hours he would attempt to prove me wrong.” A friend once commented that Madeleine’s husband would argue with a brick wall. “Thank God that this self-medicating behavior went away when he started legitimate medication,” she says. “He even has actual conversations now; you know, the back-and-forth kind, instead of delivering monologues.”

“Let’s call it even”

Amen calls this a game of deflection, wherein the individual with ADHD adopts the complaint someone has made about them and hurls it back at that person. This maneuver may not seem overtly self-stimulating; the adrenal kick comes with the challenge of mounting a good defense. As we’ve all heard, the best defense is a good offense.

Randi experienced this when she told her boyfriend she’d appreciate more help around the house. “You just think I don’t do anything,” he responded, “but I do things that you don’t even notice.” Asked for specifics, he said that he takes out the garbage and, oh, other things that he can’t think of right now. Then he got very worked up about it, dramatically sighing in exasperation, before launching into a lengthy lecture that “It takes two people to run a household, you know.” It’s amazing, Randi says, “because he really thinks I’ll be fooled into believing him if he’s insistent enough, and darn it, for too long I was.”

———————–

The chapter offers more examples, as well as tips to avoid being pulled into a “self-medicating” argument.

Bottom line: The more you understand these behaviors and stop “taking the bait,” the better you’ll be able to stop the “arguments” that have nothing to do with legitimate issues and everything to do with subconsciously seeking stimulation.

Peace out,

Gina

Bookmark and Share

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

  1. Dr Charles Parker’s avatar

    Gina,
    We see this phenomenon especially with kids here in the April, May time frame, near the end of school. In our office we call it *May Denial* – it is the end of deflection.

    Juniors, and often Seniors in HS or college, are approaching the end of the year’s grading period, and they are suddenly facing the fact that the deteriorating grades will prove they:

    1. Have not been taking their meds
    2. Do have an ADHD problem, and, though smart, are tanking with irresponsibility
    3. Did create the conflicts all spring with their parents over marijuana, boys, or girls, or study rules
    4. Are unable to rule the world
    5. Can no longer dodge and run

    During these weeks unresolved pressures clearly originate as their own problem, and the denial is broken – so they come rushing with considerable pressure into the office requesting a med fix, can become suicidal, or dangerous.

    In adults it becomes *Transition Denial* seen even with bright senior officers in the military who have mastered the military system, created a safe mastery of structure and now have to move into the unknown multiple variables of civilian live. They can become dangerous [it's the wife's fault], have affairs, and create all kinds of mayhem until they actually enter that new civilian reality. This is a great time for coaching with ADHD coaches and would be a great specialty for any coach near military bases.

    The *End of Deflection?*

    Thanks for bringing this interesting phenomenon back to us.
    cp

  2. Gina Pera’s avatar

    Hi Dr. Parker,

    “May Denial” is fascinating. I completely understand; our local Adult ADHD discussion group often attracts young people who’ve gotten to college and completely flopped thanks to unrecognized ADHD symptoms or “denial” about their severity.

    Even if they had been treated for ADHD in high school, some say that they never really believed it was a problem, that it was mainly in their parent’s imagination. So, when they left home, they stopped all thought of ADHD, stopped medication, etc.

    It’s easy to see how this “deflection” response presents itself in so many areas of unacknowledged conditions.

    As for the military, I was just speaking to a friend about that this week, saying I get so frustrated hearing news reports about the “difficult transition” that soldiers have in returning to civilian life–with never a mention that some chose the military because they could not function well in unstructured civilian life. So there’s no “return” about it!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share this with us.

    g

  3. Kathleen Petrie’s avatar

    Interesting concept that ADHDers get an adrenaline rush out of arguing. My husband has full blown ADHD and was tested at the Clark (now CAMH). He often uses “the world is falling apart and everything is going to pot”. He has managed to make people burst out crying because of his relentless negative focus on the economy falling apart, etc. Maybe this gives him an adrenaline rush.

    His anger is usually in the form of paranoia. Everyone is out to get him and we are all conspiring against him. In his eyes, I have turned my children against him. Meanwhile , they have had to deal with his uncontrollable verbal diarrhea ,sporadic anger and embarrassing comments especially when around their friends for years and are now at the age where they do not understand why he has not matured and does not know how to control these things.. They feel like they are surpassing him in maturity. They are so angry with him but he thinks it is because I have turned them against him.

    Thanks for this info!

  4. Gina Pera’s avatar

    Hi Kathleen,

    Thanks for your comment. It is one I’ve heard variations on for years now, unfortunately.

    Yes, “looking for disaster on the horizon” is one way to self-medicate.

    Your second paragraph, I fear, describes a large chunk of the American population right now. They were spending like there was no tomorrow in the 80s, 90s, and this past decade. They thought jobs would always be plentiful and the stock market would stay up up up. So would the houses. Now, the “bubble” has burst and they are surprised and eagerly looking for someone to blame–other than themselves, of course.

    Talking about seeing disaster on the horizon, I’ve seen this coming for many years now. lol! My mother, who came of age during the Great Depression, warned me of the signs, and there they all were.

    I hope you can find a way to encourage your husband to seek mental health treatment — for him, you, and the children.

    g

Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>