This blog is about the side of ADHD that hardly gets a mention because it makes you bleed inside, where nobody has to clean it up.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is defined as “extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life.” That’s when it’s defined at all, that is; it currently isn’t a diagnostic criteria for ADHD, and it’s rarely discussed by therapists. I mod a page for ADHDers and hardly a week goes by without someone asking what RSD is and being shocked at the realization that it’s been a massive influence on their life and their therapist never mentioned it. When it is mentioned, it’s often of the purpose of invalidating it. Everyone is upset by rejection and criticism; it’s an essential part of being a social animal. If we didn’t care about the opinion of the people around us, we’d be even more dysfunctional than we are now. ADHDers just make a big fuss about RSD because of the whole emotional dysregulation thing. We’ve just gotta learn that our feelings are unjustified and how to put a lid on them, and it will all be a-OK.
That’s the theory, anyway. Problem is, this theory is a load of shit.
One of the common issues with ADHDers is that our feelings are very big and very deep, but often fleeting. We can swing from very high to very low and vice versa with incredible speed, and those sudden extremes are often misinterpreted as superficial at best, performative at worst. If we were happy five minutes ago and now we’re in the throes of despair, surely we must be pretending! Or maybe we’re feeling normal-sized feelings, and we’re just constitutionally incapable of modulating our responses to them. It’s part of the condition, innit? We don’t feel better or worse than anyone else; we just can’t control our reactions. We need to learn to express our regular emotions in a regular way, and we’ll be fixed.
Problem is, ADHD feelings really are that big and that deep. Our reactions may be inappropriate, but they are not disproportionate – they are inappropriate with regards to social expectations, but they are proportionate to our internal state. It would be peachy if we could just dial that shit down at will, but the only way to do that is to turn ALL our feelings down (hello, depression and dissociation) or to sublimate them all into an overarching, all-consuming alternative feeling (hello, anxiety and anger). And yes, we can learn to respond to our feelings so they don’t spill all over the place, but that’s hard, and it’s harder when we’re hurting. And when RSD kicks in, we’re hurting big time.
For me, having RSD is like having a bad ankle. I step on something wobbly, my ankle gives way, and I’m suddenly on the floor, unable to stand back up and near-blind with pain. It shouldn’t be like that; thousands of people step on the same damn thing every day and nothing happens to them. The problem is entirely with me and my goddamn ankle. I can’t expect the world to be perfectly flat just to accommodate my problems. I just need to take more care, or to learn to fall over and get back up again.
Thing is, in that moment I fucking can’t, because my ankle is busted and will not hold my weight. And that’s frustrating to those around me, because I tripped over my own feet and now I’m making a fuss and holy hell, why can’t I just keep my shit together? So I crawl around, or hold on to the furniture, and that’s still not normal and still not OK and still frustrates those around me. And I don’t like that, not a bit, so I put my weight on my busted ankle as carefully as I can and still fall over again or hurt myself worse, which is clearly my fault, and the frustration around me mounts until the only solution is to take myself out of the game for a bit, to keep myself away from people and their demands until I’m ready to meet them. Sometimes that takes a long time, because my healing takes a long time, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do to speed it up. Sometimes I am overly optimistic, or forced by circumstances, and I get back out there and pop goes my ankle again and I’m worse off than ever. Sometimes I give myself time to heal, and when I come back out it’s too late, and the people I was trying to shield from the consequences of my weakness have long gone.
If you’re now wondering “Who the fuck could be so insensitive as to force an injured person to push through pain like that??” The answer is: you, probably, if you know any ADHDers and have discounted their feelings because you couldn’t share them. Our pain may be inexplicable, objectively unjustified, and “all in our head”, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not real, debilitating, or cumulative. And the kicker is that by discounting it or punishing us for it, you’re adding to it. You’re stomping on our dislocated ankle in an effort to convince us that we are alright. And if we care about you at all, the fact that it’s you doing it is the worst pain of all.
For me, RSD is a sudden depression that undoes in a moment the work of years and sinks me into a world where joy, hope, and beauty are nothing but mockery, and there’s no way out. RSD is the pain of a cracked sternum that stays for days or weeks. RSD is the certainty that I am incapable of real, functional human connections that won’t eviscerate me. RSD is having to think and rethink everything I do or say, because I was doing my level best and I still fucked up and I wrecked everything, so I must be ever vigilant even though I know that it will do no good, because I’m just not good at this. I don’t have what it takes to be a proper human. I never will.
RSD is knowing that my mother was right in forcing me to mask to the point where I couldn’t even remember who I was. RSD is the voice of all the teachers who couldn’t stand me, all the schoolmates who pushed me around, all the exes who took such great pains to explain to me in words and deeds that I am inherently wrong and worthless. RSD is sympathizing with my grandmother’s disappointment at being saddled with such a substandard grandchild. My grandmother lived to 93 and never smiled at me, not once, and my RSD understands that. I’m nothing to smile about.
RSD is stupid, and wrong, and all in my head, and I know it. But it’s in my head in the way that my amygdala is in my head: I can’t just take it out, and I can’t stop it doing its thing. I can choose how to react to what it does, up to a point, but that’s about it. And, in the moment, it’s hellishly hard.
Sometimes all I can do is to get myself out of the way of people, because that’s the best thing I can do to stop things getting worse. Sometimes I do my level best to carry on as normal, even though everything fucking hurts. Sometimes my best efforts avail me nothing, because I can’t meet social expectations, and seeing the disappointment in people’s eyes just gives me another dose of the thing that fucked me up in the first place, and the whole thing spirals out of my control until I am truly fucked, inside and out.
Sometimes nothing much happens, and everything is still fucked, because the experience has taught me that it’s not safe to be me around a certain person. Then I gotta decide: do I want to keep them and hurt myself, or lose them to save myself? Which might sound a bit extreme, but you gotta remember: easily dislocated ankle, and some humans are the living embodiment of high heels. It ain’t their fault, but we’re just not a good fit. That doesn’t mean that losing them doesn’t hurt. The more you care about them, the more they can hurt you, and the more it hurts to lose them. The accountancy of pain is an awful game to play and no way to live, but sometimes all available choices are bad. The only thing I’ve got left is damage limitation. It’s a good way to survive, but in the long-term it really takes it out of you.
The title of this blog is 72 hours because 72 hours ago a friend yelled at me. She yelled at me because she misunderstood what I was saying, because she was stressed out, because of the quarantine. When I tried to clarify my position, she yelled at me some more until she eventually stopped yelling long enough to hear me, and then she laughed, and then we were fine.
Only I wasn’t fine. I was eviscerated with pain, and I couldn’t explain it to her because our brains aren’t tuned the same. I could try to bridge the gap with words, but I honestly don’t think she’d get it because ultimately, rationally, I don’t get it either. I am, quite literally, hurting over nothing, because our relationship has not been damaged by a poxy miscommunication… except that it has, because she hurt me, and that hurt was real even though the issue between us was not. So we’ve spent the last three days hanging out like normal even though things between us are nothing but, even though I’ve spent a truly ludicrous amount of time leaking water out of my eyes and listening to The Eels. I know I’ll be alright, though; had it been really bad, it would have been Robyn Hitchcock. I only hide the knives for Syd Barrett, anyway. So I’m fine-ish. I mean, I am up at 1 o’clock in the bleeding morning writing blogs people won’t read about shit nobody much cares about, and tomorrow I will be tired as all hell, but, yannow, I’ll get on with it. I know I can: I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. But it never gets any fucking easier.
This is what RSD is like for me, and there’s not a fucking thing I can do about it – and yes, I’ve tried, and no, this isn’t a request for your advice on therapy or nutrition or meditation, and if you even think of asking me whether I’ve tried yoooga I’ll spit in your eye. I don’t even fucking know why I’m writing this because the people who’ll get it don’t need to read about it; but hey, I’m fucking trying. I know I am, because my grandma told me so.