How an ADHD diagnosis saved my marriage – for a while anyway
On our first anniversary, after a few too many old-fashioneds, I asked my husband if he regretted marrying me.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it regret,” he said.
He spent the next 20 minutes trying to explain his answer, but I didn’t hear any of it. I was certain this signaled the end of my marriage, so I gave up mixing cocktails and started panic-drinking whiskey, then cried myself to sleep. The next morning, with clearer (but throbbing) heads, he apologized and I promised to try harder.
Kyle had been eager to settle into the routine of married life. I thought I wanted that, too, but early on we both started to sense that I was more suited to the spontaneity and autonomy that “dating seriously” allowed.
We met in our late 20s after we’d both made our way back to Kansas City – me from a decade in Brooklyn and him from 18 months teaching English in Korea. By the end of our first date, we’d planned our next three and I quickly learned he showed his love by cooking elaborate meals and burning mix CDs well beyond the time that was a thing. Two years later, we exchanged vows at a very-2012 barn party.
But not long after we said “I do”, I began to panic about the fact that I’d just committed the rest of my life to someone who wanted to know my plan: for the evening, for the weekend, for his next trip to Costco. That’s a reasonable expectation in most relationships, but the problem – as my new groom saw it, anyway – was that there weren’t any plans. For as long as I can remember, I ate when I was so hungry it hurt and stumbled into bed when I could no longer keep my eyes open. The only thing I’d ever bought in bulk was my favorite red lipstick once I learned it was being discontinued.
Before Kyle, my life had mostly been a series of false starts – the perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect guy. Eventually, they all began to feel like an itchy sweater I was desperate to take off, so I’d make some sweeping change and start over. Kyle was more like a favorite sweatshirt that got a little too tight after marriage. He’d ask questions I couldn’t answer, like: “How can you spend three hours arguing with Republicans on Facebook, but you won’t hang out with your husband for 15 minutes?” and “Why don’t you ever come to bed with me?” I pulled a blanket over my head when he tried to talk about money and pulled away when he wanted to talk about our relationship.
Nothing he was asking for was objectively unattainable; I just couldn’t quite seem to attain it. And every few weeks he’d send me some article that boiled down to what I’d heard from teachers, self-help audiobooks and bosses my whole life: you’re not trying hard enough.
I didn’t want to lose him (and not just because he made sure I ate at least one real meal a day), so I skimmed most of the articles he sent, doubled my caffeine intake and became overly dependent on calendar reminders. I made a budget spreadsheet I compulsively updated for about a month and set notifications for everything, including “Check in with Kyle” on weekdays to discuss our plans (or lack thereof) for the evening. And most days I did check in. Until I stopped.
After our worst fights, I’d cry in the shower, wondering how many more times I could mess up before he’d divorce me. Because no matter how hard I tried, I somehow always found a way to self-destruct.
When I got pregnant a few years later, I decided something had to change. This kid wasn’t choosing to have me as a mother, so I turned all my attention to preparing for the baby. I joined Facebook groups with people who worried way too much about soft cheese and stretch marks, and I amassed piles of parenting books I believed I’d someday read.
Save for a rough start to breastfeeding and some undiagnosed postpartum anxiety, the first year of motherhood was much smoother than the first year of marriage. Kyle and I were so in love with our son, Teddy, that we put our relationship problems on the back burner. I became militant about baby sleep schedules and mealtimes and even kept up with washing and putting away miniature clothes for 12 whole months. I was shockingly content giving my full self to this tiny human who relied on me for everything and never demanded to have a serious talk about money or asked if I’d given any thought to dinner.
Shortly after Teddy’s first birthday, I accepted what seemed like the perfect job managing social media for a restaurant group. I was excited to leave the house in real clothes and use my brain for something other than playing peekaboo and reciting Goodnight Moon from memory. Incessant notifications and bad reviews demanded my immediate attention. It was thrilling.
At home, laundry piled up. Mornings were total chaos.
One evening, when things seemed to be going smoothly, he asked if I could maybe make dinner for us only once a month. “It can be something easy, like that roast chicken you used to make.”
Oh! The roast chicken I used to make when I was a freelancer and didn’t have a toddler who demanded my attention all the time? THAT roast chicken?
I was too upset to say that, but I did start crying. Though really it was more of a wail.
“I don’t understand how women have kids and jobs and ever cook or clean or do anything ever at all!”
We ordered takeout and he talked me down. But the sense of calm didn’t last. If I was doing one thing right, I was doing everything else wrong. As hard as I tried, there was simply no way for me to be a good partner, a good mother and a good employee.
On our fifth anniversary, Kyle, ever the optimist, surprised me with a reservation for a weekend away in a luxury treehouse. He wisely gave me two months’ notice so I wouldn’t have to stress over last-minute travel. I spent the weeks leading up to our trip focused on working ahead so I could leave my laptop at home and be fully present with my husband (as present as one can be from a heart-shaped jacuzzi overlooking the Ozark mountains, anyway). I finally felt on top of my shit.
Apparently, I was a little too on top of it, though, because the weekend before we were supposed to leave, I showed up for a brunch a day early. I laughed it off and took it as a reminder to double-check the arrangements I’d made for our little getaway.
First, I texted the dog-sitter: “Just confirming: I’ll bring the dogs to you on Thursday.”
Next, the babysitter: “Remember you have Friday off!” Then my in-laws: “Finalizing details for next weekend. You’re picking up Teddy from school Thursday and keeping him through Sunday, yes?”
Kyle’s mom replied first: “But aren’t you going out of town the weekend after next?”
Sweat started to seep out of the weird places it does when I get nervous and I scrambled to find the email confirmation for the treehouse. I exhaled when I saw I had the right departure date. Then I looked at my phone’s lock screen and realized my real problem: I had no concept of that date in relation to the one I was living in. I didn’t know when I was.
I went through the familiar motions of cleaning up my scheduling mess and everything was fine until that Friday. The babysitter was late, so I sent her a text: “Hi. Where are you?? Close, I hope!”
Her reply knocked the wind out of me: “In Wichita. And you’re in a treehouse in Arkansas. Right?!”
How was I still fucking up so badly?
In my quest for answers during the first year of supposed marital bliss, I’d happened upon an article called ADHD Is Different for Women. So much of it had felt familiar: the sense of not being able to hold everything together, the disorganization, the forgetfulness and especially the internalized shame. (See also: moldy coffee cups all over the damn place.)
At the time, I convinced myself an ADHD diagnosis would be too easy. I just needed to go to bed earlier and open my mail and exercise and look at my calendar more often. And maybe throw in some turmeric tea and quit gluten. I needed to try harder.
Back then, I’d willed myself to dismiss the article, but it always lived somewhere in the back of my mind, and I was suddenly desperate to read it again. I texted my boss with one hand, put on Daniel Tiger for Teddy with the other, then furiously typed something about women and ADHD and moldy mugs into my phone’s browser. Rereading it a few years later, I zeroed in on a big point I’d forgotten: women often mask their symptoms until their 30s, when marriage and motherhood become so stressful that they hit a wall.
For the first time, I started to let myself believe there might be something clinically wrong with my brain. Maybe it wasn’t a matter of not trying hard enough; maybe I wasn’t getting enough dopamine to function like a neurotypical person. The thought came with a rush of sadness and relief. And lots of tears.
I sent Kyle a link to the article with one word: “Me.”
He replied a few minutes later: “This is crazy, babe. It totally sounds like you.”
Then: “You should see a doctor, too. If medication will make your quality of life markedly better, you deserve that.”
I did deserve that. We both did. I deserved less stress and shame, and Kyle deserved a wife whose brain processed dopamine like the woman he thought he married.
As soon as we returned from our magical treehouse weekend, I attempted to find a doctor to guide me through treatment. It was harder than it should have been, though; my first couple of visits were with a psychiatry resident who tried to convince me I had bipolar disorder – for which I would have gladly accepted a diagnosis and treatment if I believed it were true. But at the risk of sounding like an anti-vaxxer, I’d done enough of my own research to know it wasn’t the issue. My insurance company wasn’t much help when I tried to find another provider, so I started asking around for someone who would, at the very least, believe the things I told them.
It took a few months, but I found a psychologist – we’ll call her Dr B – who specialized in ADHD and, shockingly, she was accepting new patients (which might have had something to do with her office being a 35-minute drive outside the city). So what that she didn’t take my insurance? Or that she couldn’t even prescribe meds? I was so desperate for someone to take me seriously that I was more than happy to give her all my money along with my abridged life story over the course of a few 50-minute sessions.
Dr B not only took me seriously but also validated my feelings – and the more I talked, the more I realized how many of my flaws were likely ADHD symptoms. And the more dots I connected, the more I cried. I cried because I was relieved to have an explanation and also because I was sad for how hard everyone (including me) had been on my younger self.
My final session with Dr B was less emotionally fraught. It was surprisingly kinda fun. She performed a series of cognitive tests as part of a more official ADHD evaluation. I blew her mind with some of my abilities (like repeating a ridiculously long series of random numbers) and we both laughed when my short-term memory failed me miserably (like when I had to repeat anything in backward order and never got past the first word, character or digit).
“I can’t believe you made it to 35 without anyone figuring this out,” Dr B said as she handed me a referral sheet she’d filled out by hand.
“Almost 36,” I said, noticing that on the line for diagnosis, she had written “ADHD & gifted”.
Before I left, she gave me the name of a psychiatrist who would take my insurance – and give me meds.
The diagnosis has helped Kyle to be a little more understanding when I forget we have plans or insist he buy me broccoli only to let it rot in the bottom of the fridge. The medication helps me maintain my focus on work during the day so I can be more present with my family (there are four of us now) in the evenings. And couples therapy taught me that in a relationship, trying harder is usually a good thing.
But let’s not pretend that’s my happy ending, because it’s not.
When I wrote this essay a few years ago, I believed my ADHD diagnosis had saved my marriage. In reality, it just prolonged the inevitable – which isn’t nothing, especially with young kids. But it turns out there was a lot more we didn’t know about ourselves or each other when we got married, and no amount of trying harder could transform temperaments, alter attachment styles or undo a decade of resentment.
In November of 2023, after lots of therapy, I decided to choose my own joy and separated from my husband. Perhaps if I’d been diagnosed when I was younger, I would have had a better understanding of my needs and limitations going into the relationship, but as I enter this new chapter of life, I’m hopeful and so grateful for the self-awareness I’ve gained along the way.
This is an edited excerpt from Emily Farris’s memoir, I’ll Just Be Five More Minutes, out now.