Tuesday, March 21, 2017

ADHD: Who Are You Again…and Again?

If there is one attribute of ADHD that embarrasses me the most, it is my inability to remember names. Like many adults with ADHD, I have problems with short-term, or working, memory. I forget what I’ve heard all the time, unless I make an extreme effort to force the information into long-term memory. When it comes to social events and names, I’m simply horrible at it.

I still remember an incident in college where I saw somebody I recognized from a quarter mile away. I made way across the quad, rushed up to them making waving motions, and promptly forgot their name mid-sentence as I said, “Hey…(insert awkward silence here)”. He even called me on it rather unkindly. Yeah, that was embarrassing. To be honest, I’d probably still be embarrassed about it, except I’ve forgotten his name again. Oh, well.

I thought days were far behind me because I’ve become more adept at redirecting the conversation until my memory caught up. There used to be days where I’d have a friendly conversation, then walk away none the wiser who I had been speaking with, so these days I’m more honest about the problem. After all, everybody forgets names! I found it smooths things over. That is, until I met Juliette.[1]

In January, I started physical therapy again because my surgeries were done. It was time to get my strength back up. As I sat in the waiting area filling out paperwork, a pretty, young woman came out to call me back. I made small talk with her and wondered if she was new, but she wasn’t new. Oh, well then, we must not have worked together much before. No, she cheerily corrected me. We had worked together before. Oh…then…crud! I had done it again. I had forgotten somebody.

I stared hard at her, probably harder than was comfortable, almost willing myself to remember her. Long, brown hair, a healthy glow, striking eyes, a friendly disposition… How on earth had I forgotten this person? Then there it was. The tickle deep in the back of my mind. Yes, there she was in my memory, but by this time, Juliette was on a roll. She had begun to list the times we worked together, including the fact that she was the person who had always called to remind me about my upcoming appointments. I was gobsmacked.

I made my apologies, and she seemed to have a bemused look upon her face, so perhaps I had not offended her as deeply as I feared, but still, forgetting somebody I work with is troubling to me. I feel it is disrespectful, regardless of my excuse. Later that night I listened to old voicemails from last Summer, many of them unlistened to. Yes, indeed. There was Juliette over and over again on my iPhone. Embarrassing.

Working memory is poor for adults with ADHD because of its ephemeral nature. These are the memories that don’t stick deeply. Think of it this way: There is only so much room in your hands to carry things. Eventually, you have to put something down to make room for something else. We prioritize what gets carried first and what has to wait until our hands are free. Since adults with ADHD have issues with inhibition, new information always receives top priority. Old information is discarded simply because there is no room for it. That’s why, for example, I don’t memorize shopping lists when I head out to the store. I write everything down. Even if I limit my list to three or four things, there will always be something new and distracting on my way to the checkout aisle. Milk, OJ, and eggs turns into Milk, that guy cut me off, and wow! That’s a great sale! Do I have enough room in my cart for this case? Hold on, let me move the cookies behind the candle, paper towels, and milk. Wait. Did I forget something?

Even worse is if somebody relays commands and information to me by voice. Unlike other ADHD adults, I process information visually, not audibly, which seems to be opposite what other studies have shown. That means I have problems retaining information told to me. Tell me something important, and it literally travels in one ear and out the other. This is why ToDo lists are so key to my coping strategies. The iPhone becomes my working memory. As long as you are willing to train yourself, using a smart device to record your tasks can help bypass this ADHD shortcoming.

Over the last two months, I’ve made sure to use Juliette’s name whenever I see her. I do the same any time that I talk to her on the phone. I am certain that I have smoothed things over. I hoped that through repetition, I could commit her name to my long-term memory. That’s why I was so relaxed when I called the clinic this morning.

“Hello, I need to cancel my physical therapy appointment today. Something’s come up. Is Jane or Elle available?”
“Jane’s eating lunch right now.”
“I see… Well, I don’t want to go into details because I don’t know you. Maybe I’ll…”
“Oh, you know me!”
“I do‽”
“Yes, I’m Juliette.”

  1. I’ve changed the names. Here’s hoping I don’t call her “Juliette” the next time I see her.  ↩

If you have problems with ADHD short-term memory, I haven't written a book about that, but here's my list of books anyway.