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Object Permanence: Why ADHD Makes Me ‘Forget’ My Friends

Many people who deal with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), myself included, deal with a common symptom around object permanence. In a nutshell, a lack of object permanence means things can be “out of sight, out of mind.” What this means is that people with ADHD often struggle to find things in their surroundings if it’s not in plain sight. It’s why I always seem to be losing things because if I can’t see it, I have no idea where it is. My room often has clothes all over the bed and floor, and drawers are half-open — it looks chaotic but I know exactly where everything is because I can see it all, whereas when everything is neatly tucked away into a drawer, I have no idea where anything is.

The same concept can be applied to people. If I’m not seeing a friend very often — if they are “out of sight, out of mind” — I really struggle to keep in touch with them. I forget their birthdays, I forget to check-in, I forget to respond to their texts. It’s not because I like them any less — it just slips my mind if they’re not consistently front and center. One of my best friends lives an ocean away; I forgot to do something for her birthday, and I can’t remember the last time we talked, but I love her dearly. Another friend is coming to visit me next month and I cannot wait, despite us not having caught up in months.

On the other side of the object permanence coin is “emotional permanence,” which is something I struggle with immensely as someone who has ADHD. Emotional permanence issues are similar to object permanence issues, except instead of it applying to objects, it applies to the way a person feels about me. If you have a strong sense of emotional permanence, you’ll feel secure and confident in your relationships even if you don’t have constant proof of them going well. I don’t have this, so if I’m not consistently getting reassurance from my friends that they like me or love me, I think they hate me or I think our friendship is deteriorating. Just because they told me they love me last week, doesn’t mean I still hold that to be true this week, because I don’t have that permanence.

This concept can also be related to “object constancy,” which according to BetterHelp is the ability to “believe that a relationship remains stable and intact, despite the presence of setbacks, conflict, or disagreements.” I seriously lack emotional permanence and object constancy, which creates a lot of anxiety in my relationships, and particularly strong friendships, because I don’t have consistent reassurance that they love and care about me. Most friendships don’t show consistent affection, so it’s very easy for me to feel like my friends hate me or don’t want to talk to me. I notice every time a friend doesn’t say “I love you” when they usually do, or I get sensitive if a friend seems quieter than usual. Realistically, I know that they still care about me and don’t need to constantly say it, but because I struggle with that constancy and permanence, it doesn’t matter.

To cope with this, I’ve started to take screenshots whenever my friends text me how much they love me or say something particularly nice. I go back to these when I feel insecure in our friendship and re-read it again and again, hoping that it makes me feel like they still love me, but it’s hard. It’s hard because I don’t want to seem needy and ask them to reiterate how much they care about me again and again, but it’s so hard to believe that without it consistently being there. My friends’ love for me is like the second sock I can never seem to find. I’m left with endless piles of single socks, just like I’m left with the endless feeling of all my friendships being one-sided because I feel more invested than they are — because the emotional permanence slips away.

I’ve found that when I explain my ADHD symptoms to people, they’re quite understanding of the absent-minded nature I have when it comes to physical items. They understand I lose my keys, I lose my socks, I even lose my shoes — but that understanding doesn’t apply to emotions and feelings. They don’t understand that I also misplace the love they have for me, the care they have for me, and I can’t find it when I really need it. I constantly need it to be right in front of my face for it to be on my mind.

At the same time, I recognize that while this is hard for me, it’s hard for my support system too. It must be difficult to feel like they’re never on my mind because they’re “out of sight, out of mind” and they may feel unimportant when I forget to call them, or forget their birthdays. I hope my friends know that they’re always in my heart, even when I don’t remember them, or I mess up on remembering things. I also hope that they are OK with me needing them to try extra hard to help me feel that emotional permanence or object constancy. I try my best to work on it, and not feel so unloved all the time, but it doesn’t come easy. I hope they don’t mind reminding me of how much they love and care about me. At the end of the day, I know I love them, and they love me in return, but it’s always nice to be reminded, isn’t it?

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash