ADHD Road Trip: Stay Calm and Breathe
Every family road trip brings its own crises and stress. Read one family’s tale of how they stay calm and manage anxiety even when circumstances are tense.
On and on, she just keeps on trying,
And she smiles when she feels like crying,
On and on, on and on, on and on.
– Stephen Bishop
Thump. Thump thump. Thump thump thump. “Dad, that sound. Hear that? There’s something wrong with the car!” yells my teenage daughter from the far back seat.
“Don’t hear anything, car’s fine,” I say. “Try not to worry so much.” I do hear something, but I’m sure it’s a bass run under Backstabbers that I’m singing along to with the O’Jays. Our teenage daughter Coco, like me, is ADHD and, like me, has difficulty with anxiety. But hers is more intense than mine. She seems to expect disaster with any new sound, sight, or insect bite. In a flash, she can go from mild concern to doomsday certain with no middle zone.
I used to panic right along with her, which was exhausting for us both. Lately, I’ve been consciously staying calm and sharing my breathing strategy with her in the hope of modeling a more adult, tranquil path through life. Life is hard enough for learning disabled kids, it’s important to help them see the difference between the imagined difficulties and the real ones.
Thinking about this parenting improvement puts me in a good mood. The Christmas trip to my mother’s house in Delaware, with all of the fear and anxiety I heaped on it, is nearly over. I’m no slouch at imagining difficulties myself, so these are good teaching moments. Sort of. Anyway, right now, I’m in a good mood. My wife’s napping beside me, daughter’s buckled in back, it’s 30 minutes to Chapel Hill where I will pick up my mother-in-law from her sister’s, then we drive straight on through with no unnecessary stops until we all four roll into our gorgeous cracked, overgrown, pine-cone covered driveway in Georgia. I start to pull out from between the two semis that have our minivan sandwiched, headed south on I -85 in North Carolina.
Thump, thump. “There, you have to hear that!” Coco says. “We hit something, I know it!”
“Don’t worry, hon, I promise we’ll be home safe and sound tonight,” I tell her calm as pie. Good parent me. I hit the left blinker, and accelerate into the left lane, singing with the O’Jays, “They smile in your face, all the time they want to take your place…” Thump, thump, thump, thump. Thumpthumpthump, THUMPTHUMPTHUMPTHUMP.
“Dad! Omigod!” The minivan lurches to the right, and I tap the brakes and head back across the right lane toward the shoulder.
“Stay calm, Coco,” I say, reciting our ADHD mantra, “And breathe.” The semi behind us brakes, then blasts his air horn as he roars past us. My wife Margaret startles from her nap, the road atlas falling off her lap.
“What? What is it?” she says, quickly snapping awake, turning around to keep an eye on traffic coming up behind us and, her voice calm, saying to Coco, “It’s just a flat, honey,” she says. “Your dad is good with this kind of thing.” With a bump and a shudder as the wind from the passing traffic buffets us, I get the van stopped on the shoulder, push the hazard blinker, set the emergency brake, and finally breathe. Coco unsnaps her seat belt and clambers into the middle back seat, closer to Margaret. She’s freaked, fighting tears, but not hyperventilating. I don’t know about me.
“I told Dad I heard it, Mom,” Coco says. “I told him and told him, but he wouldn’t listen.” I catch Margaret’s eye and nod. Yep, that’s me all right. Then I close my eyes, lean back, give myself a second to stay calm, and breathe before I dig out the spare and change the tire.
It’s started to snow while the three of us unpack the back of the minivan looking for the spare tire. First the good luggage, then totes with opened Christmas presents, then out comes the yellow duffle with the broken zipper, the plastic bags with who knows what about ready to rip through the side, and finally my parents’ rusty old gas grill, that we couldn’t say no to. Could sure say no to it now. Finally it’s all out. But there’s no spare tire anywhere.
“This can’t be true.” I stare hard at the open wheel well cover in the now emptied back of the minivan, trying to make what I see turn into what I imagined I’d see. The I-85 holiday traffic thunders by a few feet from me, Margaret, and Coco, and our luggage, presents, bags, and rusted grill parts perched on the dirt and gravel highway shoulder. Coco is just this side of frantic imagining us turned into three little white roadside crosses unless we immediately get back in the van and call a tow truck. “She’s got a point,” Margaret says before she joins Coco inside.
“I know, I know…” I say, but I can’t let it go. This makes no sense. The jack was there and the tire iron with an odd little square socket on the other end of the lug wrench. “Where the hell is the spare tire?” I haul off and kick the bumper. “I wouldn’t have done something as stupid as taking out the spare to make room when I was packing would I?”
“How would I know?” Margaret says. “That’s your top-secret private operation.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t!” I yell. I’m unraveling because it sounds to me exactly like something I’d do. It’s so embarrassing that it’s beyond my ability to cope.
I’m about to kick the bumper again when Coco calls out, “Stay calm and breathe, Dad!” So I do. And then I start shoving luggage back into the rear of the minivan. I look up expecting to see Margaret ticked off at me, the ill-tempered mental-defective, but no. She’s smiling at me, sweetly amused. I’ll never figure her out.
“OK, OK, go ahead and call roadside assistance,” I tell her. “Number’s in the glove compartment.”
A few minutes later, Margaret’s digging through the glove compartment and I’m squeezing the last of the luggage into the back, when Coco looks up from her smartphone grinning. “I know where the spare is!” It hadn’t occurred to me to Google the missing spare tire problem, but it had occurred to Coco and there it was pictured on her phone – a teeny spare up front, underneath the minivan. She scrolls the screen and lo, between the front seats under a little rubber plug is a bolt you turn with the odd little square socket on the tire iron to lower the spare.
Saved by our calm, tech-savvy teenager, we set to solving the problem again. Working together against the forces of fate, like the people in those Alaska shows. But the last lug nut won’t budge no matter what, so instead of me kicking it, we’re about to call the tow truck when an Oldsmobile pulls up and a good Samaritan with a hydraulic jack in his trunk steps out.
He says he can help us. So instead Margaret calls her Mom to tell her we’re running late. Then the Oldsmobile says the lug nut is stuck, he has to cut it, but he has a saw. OK, we say. He gets the teeny spare on, great. It won’t last long enough to get us to Georgia. He has a friend with a used-tire store just off the next exit. Follow him. OK, and then we’re following Oldsmobile off the Interstate into the woods of North Carolina, looking for a tire. “Breathe, Dad,” Coco says.
“You too,” I say.
Next: Tires and more tires and rain and home. Triumph awaits.
Updated on May 10, 2021