Is ADHD Family Life Messier or Richer?
How one dad copes when ADHD symptoms, family stress, and life’s daily demands collide.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing is going to be all right.” –Bob Marley
“Mom says to tell you that now I have the most expensive hair in the house,” my daughter, Coco, tells me over the phone from our home in Georgia. Coco called me as soon as my wife, Margaret, brought her back from the salon where Coco apparently got a major, life-changing, going-back-to-school, radical cut and dye job. For the last 10 days, Coco and Margaret have waited patiently for me to get back from my latest trip to my parents’ place in Delaware to help my mother take care of my father who is living with dementia from a brain injury he suffered last year. But Coco starts her sophomore year in high school in three days, Margaret starts teaching middle school part time the same week, the carpet in my mother-in-law’s room in our house needs to be shampooed, the dog needs to go to the groomer, new furniture needs to be assembled (yes, the same furniture I mentioned in my last post — the one about procrastination), the yard’s a mess, and they needed me back home yesterday.
I tell Coco that I thought her long blond hair looked great already. I ask her what it looks like now, but she won’t say. “OK, then are you even more beautiful than you were before?” I ask her.
“What? I don’t know. It’s cool, though. But I’m not telling you anything about it until you get back and see for yourself,” Coco says. “And Mom isn’t telling you either!” she yells to my wife who’s with her in our living room. Coco’s 15 years old and, like me, has ADHD and a bit of a problem with her temper.
“Watch your tone, sweetie,” I say over the phone from my parent’s house in Delaware. I’ve got the phone cradled on my shoulder as I clear dinner dishes from their dining room table.
“I’m just kidding around, Dad,” Coco says.
My 87-year-old father glares at me as I take away his dinner plate. I smile back at him. He shakes his head and looks away. He’s been even more confused and irritable lately. My mother thinks the recurring pain from yet another fall he took recently has intensified his spells of dementia. Whatever the cause, all we can do at this point is stay as cheerful and calm as possible so that he doesn’t get more agitated and hurt himself again.
“OK,” I say to Coco. “But still that’s your mother you’re talk—…”
The cell phone begins to slip away from my ear, and I press my shoulder and head together harder to keep it from falling as I head to the kitchen with the dirty dishes. For some reason this causes my lower back, which I strained this afternoon pulling weeds in my parents’ yard, to spasm.
“Dad?” Coco asks. “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, honey,” I tell her.
“For God’s sake!” my father yells. “Stop all this, right now!” He tries to lurch up from the dining room table but he’s stuck halfway, one hand on the table and the other on his wheeled walker.
“Darling, sit back down,” my mother says from the kitchen, where she’s getting ice cream. “Just for a second, OK?”
“No, damn it, it’s not OK at all! Why won’t you listen?” my father yells, his voice straining. And ignoring her and me, as he ignores everyone these days, he continues struggling to stand, bending over, teetering dangerously on unsteady legs.
I know none of this is my father’s fault. He’s suffered a traumatic brain injury, and as a result, he has recurring headaches and back pain, has bouts of dementia and depression, and copes by drinking. But a rush of irrational anger surges through me. I know I’m in an ADHD overload. I can feel my heart racing and my breath quickening, but I don’t care. I should take a minute, do my deep-breathing exercises, and let the storm settle in my brain. But I don’t want it to settle. Though part of me fights to stay calm, the truth is, I want to explode. My cell phone squeezed between my ear and my shoulder, the dirty plates and silver rattling in my hands, I snap. “Stop acting up,” I yell at my father. “And sit back down!”
My mother looks over at me, startled. The only bright spot in all of this is that my 89-year-old mother, who continues to be strong and lucid, seems determined to plow on with good cheer through her 90s. But doing what? Being a permanent caretaker for this irritable, demanding man who, lost in his own pain and confusion, lashes out at those, especially my mother, who just want to try to help? Why does she let herself be used like this? It’s a terrible, dark, heartbreaking trap that I suddenly have no patience for, and here I am taking it out on my defenseless father.
Over the phone, real concern in her voice, Coco asks, “What’s going on, Dad?” And I realize, as I told Coco a minute ago, that I had better watch my tone. I tell Coco everything’s fine and that I’ll call her right back. I let the phone fall to the carpet, place the plates back on the table, and help my dad get up. But my mother is quickly by me. “It’s all right,” she says with a pat on my shoulder. “Talk to Coco. I’ve got him.” As she holds out a steadying hand for Dad, she tells him, “You should listen to your son, you know. He’s trying to help you.” “Nonsense,” my father says.
I pick up the phone and take the dishes into the kitchen. After the kitchen’s clean, dishwasher cycling, and Mom’s got Dad in his chair peacefully eating mocha java ice cream with a martini on the side, I go to the guest bedroom and call Coco back. I assure her that everybody’s fine in Delaware and that I’ll be getting on the plane home tomorrow.
“I can’t wait for you to come home,” Coco says. “There’s a centipede in the garage you’ve got to get rid of and a huge dead cockroach in the living room behind the couch. And oh yeah, my new bed was delivered. You’re going to put it together as soon as you’re back, right?”
I tell Coco I’ll take care of all that. I tell her I love her, that I’ll see her tomorrow, and to put her mother on. I lie down on the bed. As Margaret and I talk, my breathing and heart rate slow, my back spasm eases, and I feel calmer and a little more human. Margaret says she knows how much my mother and father have needed me. They’re OK now, I tell her; things have settled down. She says she’s sorry to put more pressure on me, I tell her she isn’t. She’s sorry that they need me so much at home too. “Thank God you do,” I tell her.
As Margaret and I talk, joking and comforting each other, I realize how much I treasure the sound of her voice. And suddenly I understand that my mother isn’t being used. She knows she’s needed by her husband, a man she loves and vowed to have and hold in sickness and in health over 60 years ago, and that means the world to her. Then my anger at my father and the pain his injury and disease have brought us begins to ebb under the influence of my mother, my daughter, and my wife’s gentle voice.
As I fly home to Georgia the next day, I begin to see that family is a messy proposition, full of conflicting needs, and maybe an ADHD family is a little messier and more conflicted than most, I don’t know. But I do know that the world can be a dangerous and uncaring place. And I know that to need those you love, and to be needed by them in return, is a profound gift. When you have that, you have proof that no matter how tough the times, every little thing will be all right.
When I walk into the house from the airport, Coco runs down the stairs and jumps into my arms nearly knocking me over and wraps me in a hug. Then she steps back and says, “What do you think?”
Her hair is a little shorter. And deep black. And in the middle front, a purple stripe down each side. It’s not what I would have picked out as a look for her. It’s not anything really that I could imagine. I miss her blond hair. But as she stands there smiling expectantly at me, I can see that she loves it and that when you give it a chance, the black frames her face dramatically and the purple brings out the sparkling blue in her eyes.
“It’s gorgeous,” I say.