Living with special needs

March 02, 2012, Friday/ 17:12:00/ ELLE LOFTIS

Marriage can be a tough road, even if both people are from the same culture and background.

As an expat American married to a Turk, making our marriage work in the bustling city of İstanbul has been both challenging and rewarding. Another fact of our life together is that my husband, Can, has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). This, combined with my postpartum depression after our son was born, was an awful combination for a harmonious household.

Like many children worldwide, Can was not diagnosed as a child. Instead, he struggled through school, managing to be successful through hard work and, at times, sheer luck. Many of his teachers singled him out as “naughty” for talking in class, not paying attention, constant fidgeting and forgetfulness. In almost every one of his school photos he is the only one in class missing a piece of his uniform. He was notorious for leaving his book bag, homework and other necessities at home. Some teachers actually visited his house to speak with his parents about his issues, not content with conferences at school or a phone call. Can was embarrassed, but like most kids with ADHD, didn’t really understand what he was doing wrong. As a teacher, I had many students with similar problems.

Can did not give up. He studied hard and was able to be very successful, making it into one of the best universities in Turkey. He continued his education in America and managed to land a good job when he moved back to İstanbul. He is fortunate in that he can generally control his ADHD and has not used medication for it. His job has an erratic schedule and he is very busy. This is great for his short attention span. It also gives him the opportunity to create and encourages his ambition.

In his personal life, things are generally good. He cannot lie, and does not even try to hide things from me. Our relationship is very honest. But it is not always a walk in the park. He zones out a lot when we talk and we end up having the same conversation over and over and over again. There are some days when I just can’t stand it. He will ask me a question, then not listen to my response. I have tried making my responses as quick as possible, allowing for his short attention span, but sometimes it still isn’t short enough. At times I feel he exerts so much of his energy trying to stay focused at work that when he is home, the ADHD gets out of control. I try to be patient with it, but some days I just want to throw things and scream in frustration. Last year these small cracks became large fractures that almost broke our relationship entirely. I wasn’t strong enough emotionally to handle both my own issues as well as Can’s. Our marriage, our household and our life suffered dreadfully. Add cultural differences to the mix and things were not good. I almost walked out of my marriage. We reached the breaking point, forcing us both to face my depression and his disorder head-on.

Great strengths in weaknesses

Have we found a magic cure for both? Hardly. However, we have found ways to enjoy our relationship and celebrate our strengths while confronting and strengthening our weaknesses. I hate the “disorder” part of ADHD. I believe that what some might view as Can’s weaknesses actually are great strengths that only a few people have, and are necessary for society. I try and remember those on bad days, when I have been asked the same exact question five times in a 10-minute span. And I try to remember this when I walk into the kitchen and find Can knee deep in four different projects, all of which he has no idea how to complete. Some days I am too tired to patiently break things down into basic steps for him. Watching him try and leave for work and walking in and out of the door several times because he has forgotten something gets annoying after awhile. It’s hard not to feel that he does these things on purpose to make me angry. Some days I shout at him or have to leave the house for a while to let my temper cool.

To make matters a bit more complicated I believe my mother-in-law suffers from ADHD too. When they are both together, I feel like it is an ADHD convention. Dinners are like musical chairs with one or the other always standing up to get something. The table, large enough to seat six, can’t handle all of the plates and utensils Can and his mom think that four people need. I swallow my irritation when I have to clean up and I still can’t figure out to this day why every one of my plates, bowls and serving trays were used for a very simple dinner. I am very fortunate to have a very spacious kitchen, complete with a walk-in pantry. So there is no need for things to sit out on the counter, as I have plenty of storage space. However, my mother-in-law removes almost everything from my pantry and stacks it on my counters and kitchen table. By now, I know when my mother-in-law is doing something to me that is mean or malicious. However, this is not one of them. Whenever she comes over she makes something for our son Eren, but even the simplest dish takes forever and includes the removing and stacking of my pantry items. Rather than fight about it, I just put everything back when she leaves. Conversing with her is worse than Can, as she hardly ever listens to you. Add to that my slow Turkish, and she zones out before I say even one word. Given our past issues, it is good that we are both limited to very simple, safe conversation topics.

For adults in general, getting help and a diagnosis for ADHD can be challenging -- in Turkey, even more so. Can and I are aware of the problem, but encouraged by the fact that he has had a pretty successful life for over 30 years with ADHD. Our tactic is to find an ADHD coach rather than a therapist. There are none in Turkey at the moment, but there are several in America who do sessions online. This decision is not for everyone, but works well with the goals and needs of Can and our family. Can’s awareness of his problems and his openness to ask for assistance are commendable, and it is the main reason why our marriage survived the difficulties of last year. He helped me out of the dark place of postpartum depression, and I am helping him with his attention difficulties. Marriage is all about working together. In our case, many more things than cultural differences have crossed our path to happiness. Instead of giving up, we have become stronger individually and as a couple. Is our journey over? Not quite. I think it has just started. We have set the foundation for how to deal with any future challenges that may come our way.

Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.