From the first time I watched Supernatural several years ago I felt a connection with Dean Winchester. He makes complete sense to me. I just get him. I understand why he does and says certain things. Recently I realized this is partly because Dean exhibits many traits associated with, and used to confirm diagnoses of, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – just like me.
Dean Winchester Has ADHD
I am not a medical professional and I could not diagnose Dean were he, in fact, a real person, but my experience with ADHD in my family, friends, and in my coaching practice leads me to strongly suspect that if he were real, he would qualify.
Beware of spoilers up to season 10!
ADHD is subdivided into three sub-types and I think Dean has the ‘primarily hyperactive’ sub-type. One solid example of this is season 1, episode 18 where Dean describes himself as a child…
“It was the third night in this crap motel room and I was climbing the walls. I had to get some air.”
Despite the order to remain in the room, given by the father he worshiped and feared, Dean was physically unable to stay put. It is very likely he had been punished for similar behavior before, but fear of retribution was not enough to make him obey.
One of the clearest examples of his physical hyperactivity are the scenes in which Dean is required to wait. In season 5, episode 21, the brothers are watching surveillance cameras. Sam does not move throughout the time-lapse shot, but Dean is shown in different positions, pacing, eating, and eventually falls asleep. In season 2, episode 7, he reacts with irritation at Sam’s suggestion that there will be a wait time. Dean proceeds to make a series of irritating noises, then uses his brother’s annoyance as an excuse to bolt for the door.
The Deeper Symptoms Of ADHD
Black and White World…
A lesser known symptom of ADHD is that of black and white thinking. Dean exhibits this in his rigid attitude toward any supernatural being. In season 7, episode 3 he fights with Sam over it and then kills a “monster” against Sam’s express wishes. In that same episode, circumstances demonstrate that reality is not so cut-and-dried as he believes, and yet he still fights against it because he simply cannot think any other way. In later seasons he begins to break out of this, but it is a struggle.
Then there’s distractibility, a classic symptom that ADHD is widely known for. In season 1, episode 2 Sam is attempting to explain details of the hunt they are on, but Dean is completely distracted by a picture. “Dude, look at the size of this friggin’ bear.” Sam continues to fill Dean in about the case, switching to the role bears may play in it. He knows it would be difficult to tear his brother’s focus away so he changes tack.
In season 8, episode 13, Dean remarks on the ‘marvelous’ water pressure. This is obviously very important to him, though I doubt Sam even noticed. This is a rare example of the ADHD trait of physical sensitivity. Dean was probably expected to ‘tough it out’ when he was a kid if something bothered his skin.
I can see him taking a 12-inch knife to all the tags in his clothing.
Impulsivity is another trait that Dean exhibits. In the pilot episode, he sasses law enforcement in order to help Sam escape. In season 1, episode 13 it is revealed that Dean told the secret that monsters exist to a girl. Although he was in love with her he barely knew her, and this was a cardinal rule of their father’s: don’t tell civilians the truth. In season 5, episode 22 it is mentioned he drove two days to a Jayhawks game. In season 8, episode 13 he assumes a scimitar is blunt and proceeds to accidentally cut himself on it.
On the other hand, impulsivity has probably saved his, Sam’s, and John’s life in the past. This trait means he would not think before acting to protect people from harm. Sometimes that split second means the difference between life and death.
Delayed Maturity And Playfulness…
Another double-edged sword is that of delayed maturity and playfulness. One of the things that attracts viewers to the character is his light-heartedness. ADHD is often subject to a delay in the maturation of the brain and “adult” behaviors and mindsets. In season 1, episode 17, Dean initiates a prank war with his brother, despite the fact he is well beyond the physical age generally acceptable for this kind of behavior. Sam participates, but he likely would not have initiated it and even tries to reason his older brother out of it before it escalates. In season 6, episode 3, Dean races his brother to a destination, Sam then sarcastically remarks on how “mature” this is. In season 8, episode 11, Dean throws himself enthusiastically into the imaginary world of live action role play.
One of the key aspects of an ADHD individual’s inability to function day-to-day is that of executive function. The nature of Dean’s life as a hunter eliminates many of the challenges of executive function. He doesn’t own enough stuff to ever have too big a mess, due to the restrictions of the Impala. The Impala itself is a confined enough space that he is able to keep it clean. He almost never has to remember appointments. The adrenaline of a hunt, the defined end point, and the fact that Sam does most of the boring research means Dean is able to follow through with a case. He never has to worry about procrastination because everything he does is urgent and this allows him to focus.
There are times, however, that Dean’s executive function breaks down. In season 2, episode 15, the brothers are trapped for longer than normal in a hotel room and Dean’s lack of organization and ability to clean really bothers Sam. “It’s not food anymore, Dean! It’s Darwinism!” I believe this is also (in part) why his “normal, apple-pie life” with Lisa at the beginning of season 6 broke down. Lisa would expect Dean to pull his weight, but he never had to learn the coping mechanisms many people with ADHD develop in order to manage an ordinary life. When the novelty wore off he would begin to forget things, leave his socks on the floor, and show up late to things they had planned.
Focus And Interest…
People with ADHD have a nearly impossible time focusing on something that does not interest them. Despite a fundamentally honest nature, Dean hustles pool in season 1, episode 8, and in season 10, episode 17. As he says “Hmm, honest, or fun and easy. There’s no contest.” In season 10, episode 8, he says “I’m gonna swallow a bag of knives if I have to keep looking at this stuff.” It is physically painful for him to focus on an area of disinterest. Dean is also much more enthusiastic about a hunt that involves strippers or James Dean’s car because these are subjects of interest for him. Dean’s stay in Purgatory is an example of an environment perfectly suited to him. It provided nonstop adrenaline and dopamine, which allowed his brain to remain active. This is why in season 8, episode 1, he says “It felt pure.”
Anytime we see Dean staring into the flames of a funeral pyre, I can almost guarantee you he is ruminating. Sometimes we even see flashback scenes of the events he is reliving and blaming himself for. This is not brainstorming ideas or working on a problem. Dean is dwelling hopelessly on the subject of his sadness, anger, despair, and other negative emotions. This is a common trait of ADHD.
Poor Emotional Regulation…
A set of symptoms unfortunately not recognized in the DSM-5 but acknowledged by industry professionals is that of poor emotional regulation. Dean exhibits this in abundance. Two good examples are in the pilot episode when he grabs his brother’s collar and shakes him after Sam mentions a painful memory. Also in season 7, episode 3, Dean punches Sam for stealing the Impala.
Within the fandom, Dean is famous for his deep sense of self-loathing. This is common in those with ADHD, to varying degrees. Season 3, episode 10 is a good example…
“Oh I get it, I’m my own worst nightmare.”
“I know how worthless you feel, how you look into the mirror and hate what you see.”
Season 8, episode 14 provides a similar glimpse of how Dean sees himself… “I’m a grunt, Sam, you’re not.”
One of the most harmful traits of ADHD is that of heavy substance abuse. Dean exhibits this in almost every form. He drinks to excess, has a long history of meaningless sexual relations, frequents strip clubs, eats large amounts of unhealthy food, and has been known to take drugs and gamble. All of these behaviors are designed to produce dopamine that his brain does not produce enough of naturally.
Surprising as it may seem, there are some positive things about Dean that may be attributed to ADHD. In season 1, episode 4, he proudly tells Sam he made an EMF meter out of an old CD player. In season 2, episode 13, he substitutes a proper altar cloth for a SpongeBob placemat. These are both examples of his creativity.
Dean can get really into things at times. His exuberance over Colt’s journal, and excitement at getting to dress up as a cowboy in season 6, episode 18, is delightful, as is his enthusiasm for all things James Dean in season 5, episode 5.
A lot of people with ADHD have a strong sense of justice and morality. In season 9, episode 5 Dean, ensures the dog they met on the case gets a good home. He continually mentions “innocent people” when talking about the motivation for hunting. Almost all of the people he saves are strangers to him, yet he feels compelled to fight on their behalf regardless: it’s simply the right thing to do.
Despite the fact research bores him stupid, Dean’s strong work ethic forces him to continue with this grueling task.
It is also my private opinion that other hunters are likely to have ADHD. Their impulsive nature is more likely to land them in a situation that would reveal the darker aspects of the world to them. Once aware of what lies in the dark, their sense of morality and desire for action would lead them into life as a hunter. As I’ve mentioned, the lifestyle is perfect for this brain type.
There are many other examples of Dean’s ADHD, but I’ve hit the highlights here. His complexity as a character is in part due to this aspect of him, his virtues and his faults. If you’ve found yourself thinking “But, doesn’t everyone do that?” you may want to speak with your doctor about ADHD.