How Hyperfocus Helps in an Emergency
My ADHD son called home after a car accident, unhurt, but terrified. I rushed to help him, thankful for my own ADHD perspective and ability to hyperfocus when it matters the most.
It’s 1:30 in the morning. I’m sitting downstairs in the living room of our new house on the old couch that I brought back from my parents’ house in the minivan on this last trip. An hour and a half ago I told my wife, Margaret, that I needed to read a little bit before going to sleep. But I’m really up waiting for our 22-year-old son, Harry, who has ADHD and central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), to get home safe from work. He’s finally gotten his license and he’s proudly driving back and forth to work in a well-preserved ’98 Cherokee we found for him. He’s also been tooling around town with friends and staying out late, spending more on gas and fun than he makes flipping burgers. After I fronted him gas money to get to work, he promised tonight that he’d drive straight home after he clocked out. His shift at the fast-food joint ended an hour ago. It’s a 10-minute drive away. He’s not answering his cell.
Of course, I’ve been through this before with him. The first time I picked him up from preschool, he was not anywhere any of the other kids were, inside or out. Frantic, I was sure he’d been kidnapped or somehow wandered off into traffic when a teacher pointed him out sitting in the fork of a tree. “He’s different, calm,” she said. “He stays up there and looks at things.” These days, just as I get frantic, he shows up, still the calm one, and tells me he forgot he’d promised to give the assistant manager a ride home or that he pulled over to talk on the cell with friends and lost track of time. He and Margaret both say he’s old enough now and responsible enough to keep his own hours. Fine — but I’m not calm. And when he walks in the front door tonight, he and I are going to have a serious discussion about responsibility. He better not be drinking or getting high after what we went through with him last year. If he is, I swear I’ll kill him. I notice that I’m up from the couch and pacing in circles around the coffee table. I stretch out on the couch again. I try to refocus on my book, but the fictional, plot-driven violence on the page can’t keep the “bleeding son in mangled wreckage calling for his dad on a lonely road” loop from playing in my head.
I’ve jumped back into family life here in Georgia with a vengeance after returning from my latest trip — the third in a series of two-week visits — to Delaware to help my mom and dad handle the ongoing saga of my dad’s brain injury. It is something that all of us, especially Dad, are having trouble understanding or accepting. After stints in a hospital and two treatment facilities, Dad’s back home with Mom and we’ll hope for the best. But my fix-it energy still burns even though I’m back home. Margaret’s hoping that within a few days I’ll wind down and stop driving everyone — her, our two kids, her mother, and our dog — nuts. I want to, believe me, and I will, but right now I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve got to stay active and vigilant — whip things into shape, get the kids to do their chores, and most of all, do everything I can to keep everyone in this family safe. I know I’m probably taking it to extremes, but I’ve learned to trust what I feel.
The weeks and months since we moved from Hawaii have all tumbled together, and sometimes I’m not sure what happened when or what caused what in the recent tumultuous events our family has been going through. It’s as if everything we know about ourselves — our parents, kids, business, health — is being plowed under and turned upside down over and over again before anything has had a chance to grow. Before, this kind of murky emotional confusion used to make me miserable and anxious. I’d feel powerless, frozen in its grip. But then I learned to take conscious advantage of the power of the ADD/ADHD perspective. It’s more than using hyperfocus — it’s trusting where your hyperfocus takes you.
Think about it. If every day of your ADD/ADHD life you wake up already engulfed in a roaring overwhelming flood of extremely urgent but completely confused and unrelated information hitting you non-stop, all at once, all the time, then the crushing cascade of events in a family crisis or any other calamity shouldn’t be overwhelming — it should feel like old home week. I think that most ADD/ADHD veterans know that no matter how much rains down, their attention is held only by what really interests them. They accept that despite their nods to others, nothing else has even registered except for that one project or problem that’s caught their interest and they’ve focused on like a laser. Especially in stressful situations, they’ve learned to trust that they’re doing the right thing and that they’ll see whatever it is through to completion … or until they’re not interested anymore. Then, sometimes, it can get messy.
But everybody makes mistakes and I’d rather do that than do nothing. So I say, “Bring it on.” I sit up on the couch and realize I just said that out loud. Talking in my sleep — oh, great. But I wasn’t asleep really. I was eye-rest-thinking. Who’s playing music? It’s my phone. I flip it open.
“Dad? Dad?” It’s Harry, my son. He’s freaked. My turn to be way calm, tell him it’s okay.
“Talk to me, Harry. Where are you? What’s going on?”
“We’re near Perry, I think … Oh man, Dad, oh man, this effing huge truck ran us off the road. I can’t believe it. Me and Jamaal and Del, we were just…”
“Are you hurt? Is anyone hurt?”
“What? No, I don’t think so … But Dad, this effing guy ran us into a ditch and then we hit this wall … I don’t know what to do.” Harry’s voice is cracking.
“Hang up and call 911 — now,” I tell him, “then call me right back.”
Harry clicks off. I get up, put on shoes, get my jacket and keys, and stay focused.