My Mental Health: 11 Ways ADHD Can Impact Working Memory

brain, hand, grey

Photo by hainguyenrp on Pixabay

Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.

Will Self

Working memory issues plague a lot of ADHDers like me. I really would lose my head if it wasn’t screwed on tight. I’ve been accused of walking through life with my head in the clouds and it’s not completely untrue. I am often so lost in my own thoughts that I have no concept of my surroundings.

Working Memory

Poor working memory, also known as short-term memory, is a lot more than just misplacing your keys and not remembering appointments. Your working memory can help you to:

  • Pay attention
  • Follow instructions
  • Plan
  • Organize
  • Reach goals
  • Schedule time
  • Stay on track
  • See how things fit together
brain, anatomy, human
working memory

An impaired working memory can sometimes make you seem unmotivated or oppositional. When I was younger, I learned quickly that, “I don’t remember,” wasn’t an acceptable answer. No one believed that. So I would lie instead; make something up. Then I would get in trouble for the lie.

It uses a lot of energy and effort to keep up with a defective short-term memory, as a weaker working memory means your brain has to work harder at each new task. This can leave us feeling drained and tired.

Because we are easily distracted, we often don’t absorb information that would normally be processed by short-term memory. It makes us less aware of our surroundings and more likely to forget important information.

In Real Life

I thought the easiest way to explain ADHD and working memory issues is to give you some real examples of how working memory issues affect me.

Please note, the types of things on this list happen to a lot of people, even without ADHD. That said, they happen for us much more frequently, so as to interfere in our lives. Sometimes a great deal.

1. Forgetting what you were going to say (sometimes while you’re saying it).

We’ve all been there. You were going to say something, it’s right on the tip of your tongue and, suddenly, it’s just gone. This happens to the ADHDer fairly often. Sometimes it will happen to me in the middle of a sentence. Suddenly I can’t remember what I was going to say, nor can I remember what I was even talking about.

The response to this is usually laughter because, honestly, it’s relatable. We’ve all been there. However, for me, this is an excruciating experience, as it happens to me so often.

When I’m talking to a friend, they usually get me back on track, but I’ve done it in the middle of impassioned work meetings. People have used it to point out that I’m “an airhead.” My negative self-talk tells me it makes me looks stupid.

2. Misplacing things.

Check it out. Everybody, and I mean everybody, misplaces things. Everyone. It’s just a frustrating part of life. But I misplace things so often that there are some weeks that I spend accumulative hours looking for lost keys, glasses, lighters, remotes, phones. I really would lose my head if it weren’t screwed on.

Famous last words for an ADHDer? “I’m just going to hide this somewhere safe.” It’s going to be safe, alright. It’s going to be so safe that it won’t be seen for the next 6 years…until you stumble across it while looking for something else.

We have a hard time holding on to the “picture” of where we put things.

3. Forgetting important info and events.

Have you ever heard of the ADHD tax? It’s basically an extra fee that we, as ADHDers, pay because of our symptoms. Late fees, the cost of ruined foods that we didn’t eat in time, speeding tickets, etc. Well, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve paid that tax because I forgot about an appointment and got charged the missed appointment fee.

For many people with ADHD, a calendar or planner of some sort is a must in order to keep their lives together and their obligations straight. I used both. I recommend some kind of analog/digital combo.

4. Forgetting to reach out to your loved ones.

I know how this sounds. Honestly, I do. How do you forget, right? “If you cared you wouldn’t forget.” Trust me, we’ve heard it before. Here’s the truth…we really do care. Most of the time, we care a lot. But our memory issues allow to simply forget to do every day things, like reach out.

We’re also forgetting to shower and brush our teeth, to be sure.

5. Forgetting Your Meds

Ask any ADHD person, getting our medications every month has got to be one of the most frustrating parts of having ADHD. They make you jump through hoops to get it, they “run out” for days at a time, and they look down their noses at us all the while. The reason? Because it’s addictive.

So addictive, in fact, that we quite often forget to take them. Most people I know who are on meds have to set several alarms every day to remember their medication and sometimes even that doesn’t work.

reminder, bow, red ribbon

6. Not being able to remember if you took the meds or not.

Similar to #5, but a bit more frustrating, is wondering to yourself, “Did I take them or did I just think about taking them?” You remember thinking you needed to. You remember walking to that side of the room. You remember holding the bottle in your hand. But you can’t remember actually taking the pill.

My best advice in this scenario would be to get a day-of-the-week pill organizer. As long as you remember to fill them weekly (I’m looking at you, lady in the mirror!), they work beautifully. If you haven’t taken it, it’s still there. If you have, it’s gone. Voila.

7. Looking for your phone while you’re on the phone.

Again, chalk this one up to distraction and poor working memory. This is something that most people have done, but you might find yourself doing it more often.

Similarly, looking for your glasses while they are on your head and looking for any object that is in your hand. It may give people a chuckle, but it can be frustrating.

8. Forgetting to eat/drink and use the bathroom.

There is more to this than just working memory issues. People with ADHD have poor interoception, which means they may have a hard time sensing the internal state of the body. Plainly stated, you may not realize that you have to use the bathroom until you’re about to pee in your pants or that you’re hungry until you are famished.

Doubly, when in a hyperfocus state, we usually don’t have eyes for anything but the project at hand. I can easily write for six hours straight and never leave my computer chair. I have to be reminded to eat and take breaks when I’m in this state.

9. “Forgetting” to be mad soon after an incident, even when the anger is warranted.

This is one of the most frustrating symptoms for me. Because of my trauma background, I tend to people-please, avoid confrontation, and subsequently be treated as a doormat. The fact that I can’t remember to stay angry, even after I’ve been treated poorly, makes this worse.

The biggest problem is, the anger doesn’t just disappear. I’ve only just forgotten about it. It’s still there and it gets pushed down deep and not dealt with properly. Not healthy for anyone involved, honestly. Especially me. It makes for an interesting time in therapy, to be sure.

10. Food going bad because you forgot to eat it.

This is a joke among many ADHDers in the community. Many of us have experienced the frustration of opening the crisper drawer only to find a disgusting, molded, mushy mess of what used to be fresh produce. Because it wasn’t in our line of sight, it was forgotten about.

This is a perfect example of the ADHD tax; a way to explain the extra money that ADHDers pay for things like late fees, spoiled food, and overdrafts. We often incur these debts out of procrastination, forgetfulness, or ignoring our responsibilities.

11. Not being able to readily recall information that you know.

This one is frustrating for many of us. Being asked, “Can you give me an example?” can strike fear in the heart of an ADHDer. We have a hard time instantly recalling information that we know like the back of our hands.

I’ve spent the last year of my life researching and learning about all things ADHD and mental illness, yet every time that I am asked to do a creative collaboration with someone, I am immediately panicked that I really know nothing and I will be found out at any moment.

Similarly, every time someone asks me what my book is about, my mind goes blank and the phrase, “And then shenanigans ensue,” leaves my mouth. I haven’t ironed out the fine art of the 5-second elevator pitch just yet.

In Conclusion

There are a wide variety of ways that working memory affects the life of an ADHDer. What I’ve listed here is only the tip of the iceberg, but I hope it gives you some idea of the ways that people with ADHD struggle with short-term memory.

It can be frustrating and disheartening to forget things often or to not be able to recall information that you know you have inside your brain. Be kind to yourselves and to each other; allow yourself grace and don’t allow it to make you question your worth or intelligence.

We might be the most forgetful lot on the planet, but are so much more than that too.

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