ADHD Open Space
ADHD Open Space Podcast
Living with Adult ADHD: What Short-Term Memory Dysfunction Looks Like.

Living with Adult ADHD: What Short-Term Memory Dysfunction Looks Like.

It’s easy to spot when you know what to look for.

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Executives in my head lazing around.
Executives in my head lazing around.

There’s a whole lot of theoretical and empirical data out there about ADHD. One of the frameworks lies in the area of “executive dysfunction” — something characterized by Kristen Carder as a sort of Inside-Out-esque team of executives in your head, each in charge of a different department. One of these departments is working memory.

What are the other five, you ask? I don’t remember…

That’s ok, though, because I want to give a couple of quick examples of how this works in everyday life. Or, perhaps a better way to put it: how it doesn’twork.

Episode 1: In which I go get chicken.

A couple of weeks ago we decided to splurge and get some fried chicken from our favorite chain. I offered to go get it, asking my partner “Would text me what you want?” I wanted to be sure to get her order right; last time I had to text her last-minute at the window to find out if it should be regular or spicy.

She shrugged. “It’s just the same as last time…” and rattled off the specifics of the order.

I repeated it back to her, and she nodded. Perfect! I had the information. I was off to hunt for deep-fried fowl.

car speeding off
me & Morrigan the Prius off to provide like the hunters we are!

Twenty minutes later I returned and handed her a bag containing her two-piece meal and my three-piece meal.

She looked at me quizzically. “You got a two-piece?

I quizzicalled back at her: “No, you said you wanted same as last time, a two-piece, spicy.

She shook her head. “No, I asked for a three-piece. You repeated it back to me, remember?

And there was the dysfunction. I had repeated it back to her, I’m sure. But rather than bother to retain “three-piece” my brain focused on the other information: same as last time and spicy. I hadn’t been able to hold the information that I had spoken aloud in my head during the ten-minute drive to the chicken place.

Episode 2: Efficiently insisting on the entirely unnecessary.

The more recent example happened just last night.

Our jobs require us to have two cars in our single-lane driveway; my partner uses hers to commute to the office each day, while I have occasional meetings and networking events to attend.

That means the normal configuration of cars in our single-lane driveway is first mine, then hers, so that she can get out every morning as I’m sitting down in my home office.

Very Accurate Diagram of our driveway in the winter.
Very Accurate Diagram of our driveway in the winter.

Last night I was out running errands, and she got home before me. When I finally got home, I stopped before the driveway and texted her: We should move cars.

Why? you might ask, but only if you don’t live in Wisconsin. It’s a well-known principle of the North that it’s harder to rearrange cars in the cold and bitter light of February mornings. Since I was already in the car it made sense that my partner would just run out and move her car now, rather than putting it off for our future selves.

I called my partner on the phone, confident that she would be impressed and likely even a little turned on by my foresight. “We should move the cars,” I said.

There was a pause on the line. Then a sigh, and a disheartened “…ok. Let me put on some warmer clothes and my boots.”

I was a little surprised. She knew I was coming home…she wouldn’t already be in pajamas if we had to move the cars… I shook my head. Guess I’m not the only one who needs to get better at planning ahead, eh?

We moved the cars, and then as we were doing the boot-and-coats-off ritual in the foyer, she gave me a sidelong look. “You remember I’m taking tomorrow off, right?”

I felt the heat rush to my face. We didn’t need to move the cars. She’s taking tomorrow off-

“…because it’s my birthday.” I could tell by the tone in her voice what she was really wondering. Did Gray forget that tomorrow’s my birthday…and therefore there was no need to move the cars?

I was embarrassed. I was mad at myself, for not thinking it through, for ruining her cozy warm night, and also a little bit at her. “Why didn’t you remind me of that when I called you?” I asked, only a little defensively.

“I figured you knew I was taking the day off, you must have had a good reason to want to move the cars.”

And there was the dysfunction.

It’s true that I knew that her birthday was tomorrow. It’s true that I knew that she was taking the day off — it had been planned for weeks.

It’s also true that neither of those things were accessible to me when I called her. At least, not when I’d been driving errands for two hours during a snowstorm, and was still very focused on getting home.

What have we learned?

There’s a few lessons here. Some are simple, like if you think you’re going to remember it, write it down anyway, or if you’re tired and stressed and think you have a Really Good Idea, spend a little more time thinking through It.

Some are for my partner, like never assume that his irrational behavior is for a rational reason; it’s worth asking why.

But the harder ones are things like not beating myself up for getting things wrong, or assuming that something being temporarily inaccessible means I’ve forgotten it — or worse, that it doesn’t mean anything to me.

That’s a hard one for my partner, as well, because our entire culture is built around this idea that “well, if they can’t be bothered to remember things about you, obviously you’re not important to them.

If you think that, I’d like you to try, just for a moment, to imagine that you didwant to remember things about the people who were important to you, that you tried really hard to do so — and you kept forgetting anyway, because that’s just how your brain is.

And that’s the hardest lesson of all. That’s just how your brain is, Gray. It’s both a relief and a rage; Thank the gods, it wasn’t that I was lazy or stupid or uncaring, and also Curse you, genetic lottery that gave me this brain!.

This is not what I wanted when I said I was a lifelong learner.

I unclench my fists.

I wipe the tears.

I pull out my notebook and pen.

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ADHD Open Space
ADHD Open Space Podcast
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