ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder): it’s not just for kids anymore. (Nor has it ever been.) While the stereotypes of people who have ADHD as jittery, comically-unfocused young people – or, perhaps, stimulant-guzzling college students – are popular ones, two-thirds of children with ADHD diagnoses continue to experience symptoms into adulthood.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, experienced it on a spectrum — comparable to the framework of the autism spectrum, as autism is also a neurodevelopmental disorder. But you didn’t come here to read statistics on developmental psychology. You came here for some juicy gossip. Well, here it is.
Adults do adult things. I’m an adult man with ADHD, and having ADHD makes me a better sexual partner.
Don’t scoff. Because ADHD involves a disordered regulation of attention, I can really only enjoy sexual activity if I’m taking on an active role. As a result, with almost every sexual partner I’ve had in my adult life, I can only be present during sex by prioritizing them and their pleasure. I tend not to view a sexual encounter as an interaction where both of us have to reciprocate every act, or an instance where I’m obligated to receive physical pleasure at all. Truthfully, I go into a sexual encounter with a goal-oriented mindset, wanting to completely satisfy my partner. I don’t want to unwind; I want to win.
It’s an idiosyncrasy that’s gotten me this far in life, in addition to other quirks of ADHD like having a photographic memory or an anxious leg bounce when I’m not actually anxious. But as much as I’d like for this to lend me a superhuman sexual prowess, there’s a downside to this dysregulation as well. Namely, receiving physical pleasure myself isn’t a low priority for me out of altruism. Having ADHD means, more often than not, that I literally can’t pay attention well enough to receive physical pleasure.
Imagine me, laying on my back, hands clasped behind my neck, ready for someone to devote their time and energy to me. What’s running through my mind isn’t excitement or libidinal anticipation. Usually, it’s anxiety.
Because ADHD involves an inability to regulate dopamine, my brain is yearning for that chemical balance, and my attention span reacts by scrambling for something to focus on. I might be turned on in one train of thought, but my other trains of thought are taking me away from that experience: was that crack in the wall behind my partner there yesterday? Did I forget to Venmo my roommate for rent this month? Did that person respond to my email, or did my email get stuck in the outbox again? And damn, is my partner even enjoying this?
My brain, jumping from thought to menial thought, isn’t able to focus enough to enjoy what’s physically happening on the rest of my body. So even if my partner is totally committed to what’s happening, I’m less able to even enjoy the experience on a base level. And thus, before the situation even should arise, I choreograph the encounter towards giving pleasure and simply tell my partner, “Don’t worry about me this time.”
I understand this about myself so fundamentally that I don’t even try to receive pleasure in a first-time encounter. But this goes a bit deeper than just focus and attention.
The key lies in a little-understood component of ADHD, known as rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD). RSD is a facet of ADHD that is almost universally experienced yet often goes unrecognized. The general sensation is that the perception of rejection — not necessarily the reality — causes a magnified feeling of hurt, a physical sensation as powerful as being punched. I can tell you that, for me, the thought that I might be rejected — or even that I made a small mistake or upset someone — causes my chest to physically ache and blood to rush to my face. It’s not instantaneous, either; another component of ADHD is fixation, and in its worst iteration my RSD can activate and then persist as a fixation for hours after whatever thing triggered it. I’m generally pretty healthy, and I can tell you that RSD makes me feel more physically ill than any headache or bout of nausea that I’ve ever had in my life.
My goal-oriented nature is as much about a biological or physical interruption of pleasure as it is something more psychological: I want to do a good job because I don’t want to be rejected or told I’m failing to pleasure my partner. I’m committed to this at the expense of whether or not my partner ever reciprocates anything to me.
Now, this apprehension towards rejection isn’t localized to people with ADHD — a lot of 20-somethings carry this in various degrees in their dating lives. Humans form bonds for the chemical goodness that comes with connection, and very few people want to be told they’re sexually unfulfilling or that they’re not “enough” for their partner. But what I experience isn’t as simple as a fear of rejection; it’s a complete and total physical aversion to it. No amount of positive psychology or dialectical behavioral therapy can treat the physical symptoms of RSD. It’s as ingrained in my nervous system and brain as a neurotypical human’s instincts to yell when pricked or run when confronted by an angry polar bear.
So, while my sexual Yelp review might (optimistically) be five stars, there’s something deeper at play that I haven’t yet been able to conquer. I’ve rationalized with myself that I like being in the giving role towards my partners, which I genuinely do. But the forced lack of reciprocity does get in the way of true intimacy. Yes, receiving pleasure is an act of vulnerability, and it’s one that doesn’t come easily for me as would other vulnerable acts . But if my partner is willing to take on that active role — and, in fact, receives their own pleasure and joy from it — then my enforced sexual choreography means I miss out on connecting with my partner in a fundamental way.
Granted, this is just my story; other men who live with ADHD will no doubt have experiences different than mine. But know that, for me, it’s complicated! No psychiatrist or counselor told me about these facets of my experience. Although I’ve had an ADHD diagnosis from the age of four, I gained this consciousness from reading Tumblr posts and online articles. And damn, was I annoyed when I found out that this is a common experience!
Listen, I’m chronically self-aware to the point of immobilization. To read an article written by a stranger that impeccably described what I thought I experienced in isolation for twenty-some-odd years was like receiving a parable bathed in a ray of shining light. Ultimately, more clinicians who treat people with ADHD must provide this information in a way which is accessible and digestible, if only so that people like me know that we’re not alone in what we struggle with.
Whether you’re deeply in a relationship or just playing the field, keep this in mind when evaluating your sexual partners, especially because ADHD is not a visible disability. Though as a young millennial I grew up with an awareness of my ADHD, it is still relatively undiagnosed and misunderstood. (In fact, many women with ADHD are not diagnosed until they are adults due to a number of clinical and social factors.) But with my awareness comes responsibility. I have learned to resolve things through healthy communication with my sexual partners. In addition to obtaining consent, it’s important for me to tell them about my boundaries and what they can expect from a sexual encounter from me, in order to put us both at ease.
Sex and intimacy can be labyrinths of both desires and neuroses, and that’s OK. In the short term, I’m fine with my compulsion to “do a good job” with my partners. In the long term, though, I’d like to break out of my comfort zone — whether I really did leave the oven on or not.
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