My ADHD son is leaving the nest this month. I'm trying to keep my own ADHD-induced anxiety and panic under control so as not to embarrass him when we say good-bye.
by Frank South
As I mentioned at the end of my last post, my 22-year-old son, Harry, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) and central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), is moving out on his own, a decision everyone in our family participated in and we all agree is the right one for him and for all of us, too. But as the time shortens before Harry leaves, my anxiety grows, and my wife, Margaret, picks up on it. “He’ll be fine, Frank,” she says. “He needs to go out on his own to grow into a man.”
She’s right, of course. I’ve said the same thing myself. But lately my commitment to Harry’s adulthood has been clouded by memories of his childhood. As he was growing up in California, our house had a tiny basement that had just enough room for a TV and a small couch, which became a mini man cave for Harry and me. We played video games and watched cartoon videotapes and rooted for Wile E. Coyote to one day get something from ACME that worked. And we went on fishing weekends together up at Big Bear Lake, just the two of us.
His form of ADD/ADHD presents differently than mine. He’s quiet by nature and withdraws even more when overwhelmed or upset. The first trip, floating on the lake with our fishing lines out, I started worrying and kept asking if he was all right until Harry said, “Stop, Dad. I’m fine. Try to relax, OK?”
Now, at the end of the month, he’ll be packing up and moving back to Hawaii where, before moving here to Georgia, we’d spent the last 10 years and where he has a bunch of supportive friends who are at a similar point in their lives. He plans to get another fast-food job, get a place with a couple of roommates, go to community college part time, and God willing, begin to find out what he wants to do with his life. After making sure he packs enough underwear and socks, we'll have a family good-bye tamale dinner party with all of us -- his cousin, uncle, aunt, nana, sister, and parents. Then we'll blink back tears, hug him, and slip him twenties.
The morning after the party, because she’s concerned that she’ll cry and be clingy at the Atlanta airport, which would upset her and embarrass Harry, the plan is for Margaret to say good-bye to her son at the house. I’ll drive him and his two 60-pound suitcases to the plane without her. It seems odd that Margaret, the only non-ADHD, even-keel type in our immediate family, is opting out of the airport trip to avoid an emotional display. After all, she’s the together one. I’m the ADD/ADHD adult prone to panic attacks and other basket-case behaviors that in cases like these verge on the perversely sentimental and corny.
Of the two of us, I’m much more likely to be caught emotionally flat-footed when we watch him walking away from us at the airport to take his first uncertain solo steps into adulthood. I’m also sure that Margaret is aware that I’m much more likely than she is to break into sobs, dash across the waiting area, and tackle him as he checks his bags. My arms wrapped around his neck, I’ll beg to him through my tears, “Be careful, Harry. Don’t talk to strangers, take your meds, and find a nice strong-willed girl to whip you into shape, someone who knows what she wants from a man and won’t settle for less from you.” Finally, Margaret would be forced to pry me loose, free our son, and drag me kicking and keening back to our minivan.
Wait, that’s why she’s not going with us to the airport -- it’s a together person’s trick. Like Wile E. Coyote, I somehow manage to be shocked every time an anvil falls out of the sky and smashes down on my head just like it has done countless times before. But people who have it together, like my wife, remember things like cause and effect. They can sense when life is going to get messy ahead of time. They know what to do to avoid being flattened by the sight of either their son walking off into an uncertain future or their husband scrambling after him, baying like a wounded beast. “When we smell trouble coming down,” they chant at their secret, Road Runner-only, smarty-pants meetings, “we get out of town.”
One family member who won’t be nearly so upset by Harry’s departure as me or her mother is our 15-year-old daughter, Coco. The other day when I was driving her back home from school she said, “I’d like to sit down and watch Hornblower with you again sometime.”
“Sure,” I said. “That’d be fun for all of us.”
“No,” she said. “I mean just you and me.”
She loves her brother and all, and being ADD/ADHD herself, she’s had some empathy for him and his struggles. But her form of the disability is closer to mine; she’s easily overwhelmed and prone to bursts of panic. I can only imagine the relief she must feel at the prospect of simply not sharing a bathroom with Harry anymore. In terms of privacy and sanitation, that will be a brand-new world. She’ll also have undivided attention from her mother and me.
But as her days as a newly minted only child begin to accumulate, it might become too much to take. With her thoughts no longer interrupted, contradicted, and ridiculed by a guy seven years older and twice her size, Coco could become delirious and need private time with her dad and to be sedated with vanilla ice cream and her Horatio Hornblower DVDs. Let’s hope I’ll evolve enough in the next few years to not freak out completely when Coco announces it’s her time to leave the nest.
How I handle her brother’s exit should be one step in the right direction. Having picked up clues from both Margaret and Harry, I’m pretty sure the airport trip should go off without a hitch. It’s in our nature, for Wile E. Coyote and me, to always be standing under the falling anvil, but we can still learn something from the together ones. I’ve looked ahead, seen what’s coming and made a plan. I already bought the Harry Chapin song, burned it on a CD, and preset it in the minivan.
Harry and I will talk about the benefits of Hawaiian living on the drive up to Atlanta. Curbside at the airport, we’ll do our manly hugs and shoulder whacks, and I’ll wish him luck, slip him another twenty, turn away, and head to the parking garage.
No matter what, I will not weep. When I’m on the I-75 heading home, I will push the button on the CD player and sing along to “Cat’s Cradle.” When you coming home son? I don't know when, but we'll get together then, Dad. You know we'll have a good time then. Then I’ll weep, the corny, sentimental song repeating over and over, all the way home.