Part 1: How Time Blindness Effects Relationships

In my relationship history, there have been times – ok a lot of times – when I functioned at a primal level, manifesting chaos and uproar in the lives of others. I heard an old recovering drunk describe the way he drove down a street in a blackout, tagging cars on either side: He called it Driving by braille.

When I crashed through the lives of others this way, I was fleeing some very real threats, internal and external, physical and spiritual. I had no sense of relationships over time, only an experience of the immediate present. I am sure some of the folks I ran with, ran into, ran over, ran from, were living at the same level of futureless urgency for their own reasons.

But many of them were living more – ah nuanced patterns. These folks were trying to cultivate a relationship life like a garden, and I was whizzing through like a cat with its tail on fire.

Since that time, I have had a chance to come face to face with my perception of time. When I am at my baseline of untreated ADHD symptoms, time is a whirlwind of incomprehensible warnings, a string of late-stage alerts.

When I communicate with others about things in time (quick, name something that can’t be assigned a time attribute), I am at a bit of a disadvantage here. Whether it’s a spouse, child, co-worker, manager, employee, every interaction involves some negotiation about the timing of events, commitments, decisions.

Whether you’re planning a date or a work project, you’re not just negotiating the event itself. (In Chicago AA we called this “Cash register honesty”. When you first get clean, you have to begin with the most basic level of true or false values you can assign to your actions. Did you steal the money from the cash register, Yes or No. Are we going to meet Friday at 7am at the food truck, Yes or No.)

What is also being negotiated is trust. Is anyone sending signals that they may be unreliable? Is anyone being overbearing or overly controlling? Are people doing what they said they would do?

But Why the Problems with Time?

For my non-time-blind readers, yes, I realize this is the kind of thing you learned in what, middle school. Lots of us didn’t. Reasons abound.

  • My brain is wired differently from birth. (ADHD etc.) This probably means I have difficulty estimating, planning, prioritizing, and completing tasks around time. And being bad at something, I may try to compensate by avoiding it, which compounds the problem.
  • My brain might have started out normally but was interrupted by trauma during the developmental window allocated for such learning. (High ACE Score.) See Picking out cereal.
  • How the hell should I know.
  • All the above.

It May Not Be Your Fault, But It’s Your Problem

Regardless of the reason, my time-blind readers will recognize that horrible sinking feeling you get when you start realizing that things have shifted in a relationship, but you don’t really know why and are maybe afraid to find out.

You may be hoping you’ve reached the end of the beginning, and that things are going to move to some kind of next phase, whatever the hell you think that’s going to be. But in fact, it just might be the beginning of the end, which is way different.

How do you know? You can feel a lessening of expectations, a release of certain tensions. Over a series of interactions, you’ve unknowingly answered a whole series of unspoken questions, and now the other person has moved pieces around on the board. Next time you’re together, things are slightly different. Maybe you get a whiff of something burning, but without any confidence you could change things, maybe you just ignore it and keep going as before.

At some point after that, you get a surprise. “Maybe we should see other people,” or “You’ve been put on a Performance Improvement Plan,” or “We’re breaking up the band.”

Relationships always have an arc. Even if you’re always living in the moment, other people are moving from one stage to another, consciously or not. Hallmark built its business on marking these transitions, and I have studiously avoided being aware of them.

One particular phase has been on my mind lately. I call it the Dance of Death.

With Apologies to Celine, Hans Holbein the Younger, and half the aspiring middle-school t-shirt designers on the planet, the Dance of Death is the phase wherein you keep making the same mistake, and the other person is struggling to negotiate what to do about it.

I guess with me, horrible relationship mistakes are just too good not to repeat endlessly. Thinking about the many times I’ve forgotten date nights makes me physically ill. I can feel the other person negotiating with themselves, going through a decision tree about how to deal with me and whatever agreement I’ve forgotten, neglected, or outright broken.

I bet you know this feeling. You’re dancing along, thinking everything is jake, and any missteps you make are forgivable and minor. But out of the corner of your eye, you keep catching these fleeting glimpses of the Grateful Dead logo.

Now, there are really only two kinds of creative workers in the world, as far as I am concerned: Those who help you ignore reality, and those who encourage you to face it. And there is certainly a time to embrace the pretty, soft, comfy creations of entertainment. But if you’re caught in the Dance of Death I’m describing, optimistic and gauzy is only going to make the surprise more unpleasant.

When I come back to the table after one of these fuck-up, I am going to start from the mood I’m in, using my own judgements about what is up, without necessarily considering the direction I think the relationship is heading. Effectively, it’s always right now, and I’m always at the beginning again. Which can seem charming during the Beginning of a relationship.

But the other person is not at the beginning again. They’re working through a decision tree on where this relationship is heading. Are we going to get more serious about dating, or go to the friend zone. Are we in a tough spot in an otherwise solid marriage, or is it time to plan an exit.

Art Break

Here’s my ADHD / Trauma Film Festival with Awards

  1. Most straightforward depiction of common ADHD traits presented in a non-threatening way: Ellen DeGeneres as Dory in Finding Nemo.
  2. Most gritty portrayal of ADHD symptoms and their consequences in an actually threatening way: Colin Farrell as Ray in In Bruges.
  3. Best example of a character navigating life from a background of childhood trauma: Mark Ruffalo as Terry in You Can Count On Me.
  4. Best example of a character dealing with recent trauma: Jeremy Renner as SFC James in Hurt Locker.

OK, I Get It – Time-Blindness is Bad and I Have It. Now What?

Glad you asked!

Here is what I have learned so far about time blindness and how to deal with it:

Time blindness is a core issue for ADHDers. This means we need to treat it as a serious problem that deserves attention, creativity, persistence, and willingness.

Spectacles Versus Eyepatch

How do you attack a problem that has remained hazy and undefined for so long? Put another way, how do you go after something you’ve been deliberately avoiding for most of your life?

Here’s an open secret: Curiosity will get you a lot farther than willingness.

You’ll need to balance using spectacles (helping eyes that don’t work as well as they should) and the eyepatch (forcing a weak eye to work by covering up a strong eye).

You have to start getting curious about how to balance accommodation (changing things outside myself to make up for a weakness in this area) and strength training (where you deliberately practice a skill you are weak on to build up strength.)

Practically speaking, this means I use my daily life as a field of practice. As I make my list of things I need to do every morning, I choose 3 or 4 tasks and take a stab at estimating how long it’s going to take me to do. When I start the task, I write down the start time. When I finish, I write that time down. Now I compare this against my estimate. If I practice this with a few tasks every day, I will gradually get more precise, and will also build the time-tracking muscle in my mind.

Now the Good News

If you’ve read this far, you’ve earned the right to some good news. Working on time-management pays off on all the other ADHD problems.

Vicente, my main man with the letters after his name, tells me that working on time management skills actually lights up the parts of the brain where all the other executive function problems are thought to operate. What does this mean?

This means that according to lots of people who spend all their time trying to figure out how to treat these weird brain differences, the one area of intervention that makes the most difference (aside from getting started on stimulant meds,) is deliberate practice with time estimation, planning, prioritization, scheduling, and tracking.

The most direct way to address the whole bouquet of ADHD symptoms that are shoving you into the Dance of Death again and again is to work daily on time management.

And that goes for all the other problems that we associate with ADHD, whether they make it into the most recent DSM or not. Emotional dysregulation did not make the cut the last time ADHD was officially defined, but I bet it will soon.

So get your meds right, and then start breaking off a few minutes every day to practice your time game.

Here’s a link to my day-starter, which is how I have been carving out a little time every day to get my mind right. It has grown and changed since I started it at the very beginning of lockdown.

Like this page so you can be notified when I get around to pushing out Part 2. Use the comments to tell me how you’re doing with time blindness. Or don’t. No skin off my ass either way.

About This 2-Parter

In Part 1, I’ve introduced some ideas on how time blindness can effect relationships, some ideas on balancing accommodation with strength training, and one specific thing you can do every day to address your weakness in dealing with time.

In Part 2, I’ll talk more about solutions, including tips on negotiations and self-advocacy.

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