It’s crisis time. I know because my heart rate is up. A lump in my throat forms. My muscles feel tense and alive. I hear words but it’s a part of the blur around me as I am hit with a thousand stimuli at once. My mind races as I consider potential escapes and threats. Everything is slow and fast at the same time.
Something’s happened, and it’s on me to figure out what it is and safely deal with it. It could be anything — a car crash, a death, a breakup, an arrest — it doesn’t matter. The point is I’m losing control and I must regain that control to make us safe.
My ADHD spikes as my adrenaline increases. In many ways, ADHD symptoms have evolved so that individuals with ADHD are hard-wired to recognize a true threat and assess and react instantaneously, without fear or consideration of long-term consequences.
We skip all the bits we don’t need, including logic, and jump straight into action. Our thoughts are on autopilot: Just stop the threat. Make everyone safe. Do not rest until your mission is complete. Deal with the aftermath later.
The only problem is that this time the big threat consists of… 10 party poppers and a loud “Surprise!”
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But it’s too late. I hear loud bangs and see lots of movement in what should be my empty apartment. I hyperfocus on the bright streamers and the fiery candles thrust into my face along with the loud noises around me. My mind and body are consumed: “We’re under attack: Protect your girlfriend!” I swiftly forgo the non-threatening cues and details. I don’t just ruin the surprise; I decimate it.
My flight-or-fight impulses cause me to shove the homemade cake my adorable grandma was wielding from behind the front door away from me with one hand and launch my partner back down the hall to protect her with the other.
Now grandma’s lying over a bean bag four feet away from her Zimmer frame (walker), her legs and petticoats waving in the air above her, covered in icing that reads ‘Happy Birthday’ and four letters of my name. Meanwhile, I’m standing in the middle of this mess shouting, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” while flapping my arms like a penguin that just drank four espressos.
Everyone’s yelling and looking at me in horror (except for grandma who assures me that “It’s quite alright, dear!” while I slip over my freshly iced floor in a rush to pick her up, and my brother, who is crying with laughter).
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I feel overwhelmed and try to explain myself. I forget to apologize and just start blubbering everything in my head while the place erupts around me. It is chaos!
So, how should I handle this situation and others like it? Here’s my hard-learned process:
- Close your eyes. Shut out everything and take a deep breath. Make sure you enunciate clearly and say, “I’m sorry.” Only say it once. The more you talk, the more it sounds like you are making excuses.
- Remove yourself from the situation and handle your emotions. Tell people where you’re going (behind a bush, a different room, etc.) and let them handle things while you pull yourself together. Otherwise, your stressed-out follow-up will make everyone else’s reaction worse. Give them space to feel their feelings — at least 15 minutes. Take that time to think about what happened.
- Return once you’re calm and apologize again. Explain that you tried to do the right thing at the moment, and you made a mistake. You meant well and you are sorry. (Your motive matters as much as your actions.)
- Do something small to show you care, like tidying up. Take responsibility for your actions; talk to someone you hurt when they are ready. Don’t hate yourself for what you did; remember that very little is completely unforgivable.
- Once everyone’s calm, listen and do what they say is needed to make it right for them. Don’t deviate from their instructions, (unless they tell you to take a long walk off a short cliff or are just being mean) and let them approach you if they don’t want to talk when you first approach them. Take constructive instruction, but not personal criticism (someone just calling you an idiot isn’t helpful).
Finally, keep your rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) in check. Remember not to take what people say in the moment personally, especially if they’re the hot headed type. They have the right to react too, but that doesn’t mean that you’re automatically the worst person ever for reacting the way you did. Even if people tell you to “get out,” it doesn’t mean that they don’t love you — it might even become an endearing story that you laugh about together one day.
Overreacted: Next Steps
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