I was diagnosed with ADHD at 46. After my diagnosis, I had a long talk with my sister (who does not have ADHD). One of the most startling things she told me was when we were kids, we’d be happily playing, when – POW! –I’d have an angry outburst. It scared her.
Hearing my sister’s story brought tears to my eyes. I was filled with shame and remorse. I’d had no idea how my moods had affected her.
When we were kids, I also had no idea why I couldn’t control my impulsive anger.
Today, I understand that effort and willpower are no match for undiagnosed ADHD. And I now know why I couldn’t control my anger or other sudden mood swings.
ADHD anger at home
Sudden, hot tempers are common for those of us with (untreated or under-treated) ADHD. The reasons might not be straightforward, but I’m sure impulsivity and mood swings don’t help.
As a child (and an adult, before my diagnosis), if I felt anxious or worried, these sudden bursts of anger were much more frequent.
Being punished as a child for my anger only increased my anxiety; I couldn’t control or predict my angry outbursts, making me worry constantly. A vicious cycle began: angry outburst – punishment – anxiety and worry, leading to inability to control angry outburst… and so on.
My self-trust plummeted. Worse, my mom didn’t trust me either. She was convinced I could stop this behavior if I wanted to, and repeatedly said so. As a result, not only did I have anger management problems, but I was misjudged as willfully defiant.
This led to profound identity confusion. I knew I was a kind and loving person. I was doing my best, but how could I convince my mom of that? Not knowing about ADHD, we were both perplexed (albeit for different reasons).
As a child who was repeatedly criticized, I became an adult with a heightened sensitivity to criticism. I’d become defensive if I even thought I’d been criticized. As a young adult, this only led to more angry lashing out. The vicious cycle continued.
An angry snowball rolling into adulthood
As an adult with untreated ADHD, I had no idea why this was happening in spite of my efforts to “control” it. Now I know that my brain and neurophysiology were not allowing me to do so, in spite of sheer will power, various kinds of therapy, reading about anger management and psychology, etc.
It was frustrating (and baffling) to know myself as kind and loving, but having my behavior portray me as the opposite. How could I convince anyone else that I was not an angry beast if I was acting like one? After all, they could control their anger. What was wrong with me?
ADHD is not an excuse for angry outbursts; but it can be an explanation. I’ve had to work to let go of crushing regret after a lifetime of tempestuous relationships. I have to forgive myself for what I didn’t know. I’m grateful for my new understanding, the starting point for change.
Much as it’s difficult for the person on the receiving end of the anger, it’s also hard to be the one dishing it out.
As an adult, another vicious circle emerges: angry outbursts repel others; you’re left alone. Untreated, you try and fail again; having hurt yet another, you self-isolate. Again, you’re alone.
As an echo of childhood, when I found myself as an adult again acting in a way that wasn’t congruent with my value of kindness and compassion, again, I lost self-esteem; I grieved over lost relationships (be it friends, co-workers, or romantic partners); when this develops into a lifelong pattern, dysthymia (a low-grade depression) set in.
No wonder someone with undiagnosed ADHD can become convinced that they just weren’t cut out for relationships.
Giving up is not the answer…ADHD treatment is!
Thanks to my sis and others, I can see how living with someone with impulsive and seemingly irrational anger would make someone a nervous wreck!
I’m happy to say that with ADHD treatment, I’m handling anger much better these days.
Yoga, meditation, spending time relaxing and having fun with friends, a healthy diet, ADHD medication (key for me), and so on have all but eliminated the sudden, angry outbursts I used to have.
If I can do it (as have others), I know these angry outbursts CAN be understood and managed. They can even disappear with the right treatment. It takes knowledge, consistent effort, and willingness – but it CAN be done!
Hang in there!
NOTE: This post was revised from my guest post at www.adhdmarriage.com (website of Melissa Orlov and Dr. Edward Hallowell).
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Last reviewed: 15 Jun 2012