Guest Blogs

ADHD On the Road: Lots of Fear and Blame Behind the Wheel

One father describes the ADHD emotions that bubble up on a family road trip for the holidays: the fear, the blame, and the anxiety.

I’m behind the wheel of a 2006 minivan, over-packed with luggage, presents, pillows, blankets, trip food, and beverages going 70 miles per hour on I-70 North somewhere south of Atlanta. We are on our 2013 Christmas trip that is seared my memory. It is the prime example of everything warm and life affirming about family, and, at the same time, of the personal misery and terror barely under the surface of life, fate, and relatives during the holidays.

Not just the holidays-any day: because fear is especially contagious to an ADHD brain at any time of year. I think it is, anyway. There’s no proof of this that I know of. Maybe it’s me, again, finding an excuse for a set of confused and frightened reactions to the world around me. But maybe not.

Chicken Little seems like a prime ADHD candidate. As a kid, I empathized with that guy. He didn’t demand that Clucky Lucky, or whoever, jump into his terrified life. But they did, which spooked him even more and, in the end, he got blamed for everything. So there’s some scientific proof right there. Also, closer and dearer to my life, I’ve often seen Coco, my 18-year-old daughter diagnosed with ADHD, catch and ride the “scare wave.” So there are at least two of us. And we’re both on this trip.

Crammed into this small heated space on wheels are Coco, me, Margaret, my definitively not ADHD wife, and Peg, my 87-year-old mother-in-law who lives with us. She is prone to anxiety attacks and is so worried over her long-awaited visit with her sisters that she’s frantic and hyperventilating-her breaths coming out in angry little yips.

We’ve driven 70 miles when Peg announces that she left her wallet at home and that we have to drive back to get it. She needs her ID, money, and cards when she gets to her sister’s house in North Carolina. She knows exactly where she left it-right in the middle of the pillow on her bed. She wouldn’t have forgotten it if Margaret hadn’t been pushing and rushing her to get out of the house this morning. “This is all your fault, Margaret,” she tells her daughter.

I’ve been married to Margaret for close to 30 years and, in all that time, I’ve never ever said to her, “This is all your fault.” You’ll have to take it on faith that it’s not due to any fear on my part. It has more to do with respect and our commitment to do our best to keep each other whole. Besides, ask my therapist, I blame myself for everything. And I don’t like to share.

But I’ve noticed that Peg sometimes finds that blaming her eldest daughter Margaret to be an emotionally freeing exercise and calming to her nerves. Because Margaret most times doesn’t argue or fight back, choosing instead to keep the peace and go along. This was not one of those times.

Tucked into my ADHD hyperfocus, tunnel-vision driving mode, I didn’t register much of this at the time. I glanced at Peggy in the rear-view mirror, nodded with no comment and a sigh of defeat, slowed down, turned on the blinker, and headed toward an exit. At that point, my wife Margaret caught my eye and quietly said, “Don’t you dare turn this car around.” There was something in her tone, and honestly, this time some fear did play a part.

Off went the blinker, and we’re back up to 70 mph in a flash. I tucked deeper into the driving mode tunnel as Margaret got into it with her mother. I don’t remember the particular back and forth due to being in hyperfocus driving mode, but I did hear in Margaret’s tone of voice a calm, compassionate, but unbending reason. We’re not turning around. She’s sure the wallet’s here somewhere. If it’s not, Peg will have to do without. Peg could sense there was no winning here, and got more worked up, saying that she couldn’t believe how Margaret has treated her. After all she did for her. What have I ever done to deserve this? You see how she treats me? Do you?

Which would have probably have been the precursor to a grumbling armistice, but, for Coco, paddling up to catch the “scare wave” in her Nana’s voice and take it to heart.

“Mom, Nana, really it’s all right, we’ll find the wallet! Don’t argue about it, OK?” Coco says, leaning forward from the far back seat.

“There’s nothing to get upset about, Coco,” Margaret said. “We were just talking it out. It’s settled now.”

“For you, maybe.” Peg mumbled “Not for me.”

“I have to pee anyway, so can’t we just stop someplace and then we can look for the wallet. I’m sure I can find it. Please?” Coco pleaded.

My ears poked up out of driving mode tunnel, hearing the touch of alarm growing in Coco’s speech. Margaret and I shared a married-mind-meld glance, and I slowed down and hit the blinker again, angling for the next exit with services.

“OK, we’re stopping, but understand, Mom, we’re not going back,” Margaret says.

“I understand perfectly, Margaret,” Peg said. She then turned to the far back where her granddaughter was sitting, still up and concerned like a meerkat, “Thank you, Coco.”

We stopped at a McDonald’s and everyone peed. Later while we were searching through the luggage, Coco found the missing wallet under Peg’s seat. But as she went through going her luggage Peg noticed that she had left something behind. “It’s blue, a blue nylon bag. You remember I handed it to you, Frank?” I did remember a blue nylon bag; I just didn’t know what I did with it.

“I have to have that bag, Frank,” Peg says, her voice rising. “It has my underwear in it, and my toiletry items, and a couple of little presents for my sisters. Really it’s the only bag I care about.” Then I remembered. I must have left it in the garage when I was pulling things out and repacking for the fifth time. I had insisted on controlling the packing, told Peg and everybody to calm down, and that I knew what I was doing. Leave me alone, I’ve got this. Trust me. Peggy nodded and shrugged as she got into the minivan, and Coco helped her buckle her seat belt. Now there were sincere no-baloney tears in her eyes. I apologized, promised to fix it somehow. She was quiet, said she knows we can’t go back. It’s OK.

Outside the car, I told Margaret I know we can probably replace all of this for her when we get to North Carolina, but still, I should have let her check behind me. She said, “Let’s get rolling, nobody blames you.” Oh, yeah? I do, I said to myself. In a way, I was glad. It would give me something to chew on all the way to North Carolina. The sky is falling, the sky is falling, and it’s all my fault.

Next blog: The drop-off in North Carolina, Christmas in Delaware, old family fear-and storms on the horizon.