Guest Blogs

Piece of My Heart: Letting My Son with ADHD Make His Own Mistakes

When my ADHD son, a McDonald’s night-shifter who’s couch surfing in Hawaii, got a homemade tattoo I nearly lost it. Then I remember my own ADHD, alcoholic self at that age.

This week I got a middle-of-the-night call from our 23-year-old son, Harry, who moved to Hawaii almost a year ago.

“Hey, Dad? What do you think it is when your arm hurts bad and kind of swells up, like a pimple but bigger?” he asks. “Plus I think I’ve got a fever.”

I tell him to get to an ER; he’s got an infection. Probably from that stupid tattoo he never should have gotten. He says thanks for the advice but, he’s at a friend’s house — too far to go to a hospital tonight and, besides, he’s tired. Maybe he’ll go tomorrow.

“That’s a brilliant idea, Harry,” I say, “If you want to lose your freaking arm! What the hell is wrong with you?”

At this point, my wife Margaret takes the phone from me before I go into a rant about the pure insanity of Harry having his friend try out his new tattoo gun on him the week before, which we discovered via photos on Facebook of Harry’s two huge tattoos, one on each shoulder. After some low-intensity conversation, while I sit on the bed holding my head and mumbling darkly to myself, Margaret convinces Harry to get to the ER tonight and to call us back when he sees the doctor.

But Harry’s call has me rolling in worry of blood infection, amputation, and tearful prosthetic fittings. Harry has ADHD, as do his sister Coco and I. Unlike us, he also has Auditory Processing Disorder. Neither of his disorders are very severe, and both seemed to be helped by low-dosage ADHD meds. But he’s no longer interested in taking meds. His only interest in ADHD and APD has been whether they qualify him for SSI — which they don’t.

So he works the night shift full time at a McDonalds, and stays with friends as he works out a more permanent place to live – and perhaps even figures out what he’s going to do with his life. Either that or he’s just sitting there in the middle of the Pacific smoking pot and playing video games. So what if he is? He’s a sweet guy and he seems happy. But that’s no way to lead your life, is it? And that’s when I remember 1968.

I’m 19 and stretched out across a mattress on the floor of my rented room, way-deep-down drunk with my hand around an almost-empty fifth of J&B scotch I got Wino Will to buy for me last night. Except for my bare feet, I’m still in the greasy work clothes from my night shift in the restaurant kitchen up the block. I’ve got my stereo turned up to the max, my head sandwiched between the speakers, and Janis Joplin wailing “Piece of My Heart.”

That’s why I don’t hear the knocking on my door. I finally realize that someone wants my attention when a hand on my shoulder shakes my eyes open and I’m looking at my mother and father leaning over me. They look scared and horrified. Dad’s real upset, turns off the stereo, and pulls me up on my feet. Mom is looking around my little rental with her hand over her mouth. I can’t figure out why they’re here. They live way on the other side of town. “Hey guys,” I say, “What’s up?”

“We haven’t heard from you in weeks,” Dad says.

I say I’ve been doing extra shifts at the Hofbrau, been kinda busy.

“And we couldn’t get ahold of you when we got the notice from the college that you dropped out,” Mom says.

“Because your phone’s disconnected,” Dad says.

I try to explain that I’m working more hours so I can get my phone turned back on and that I just couldn’t take all the stupid regimentation of college anymore – a German class at 7:40 AM is just stupid and none of it was worth the trouble. But I’m having trouble getting my point across because my professor parents can’t even conceive of college being boring. And also I’m drunk and high and want to lie back down and listen to Janis – which is why I sit back down on my mattress. I lean over to re-set one of the speakers back up that got knocked over when my guests arrived.

“You’re drunk at 10 in the morning and living in filth,” Dad says.

I tell him I work nights, so cocktail hour is sort of, you know, switched around. Patience with thick-headed parents doesn’t come easy to a 19-year-old drunk pot-head, but I’m doing my best. I check to see that the Janis LP didn’t get scratched in all the excitement.

Dad throws up his hands. “Don’t you care about anything? What the hell is wrong with you?”

I look at him, not sure what he wants me to say to that. I tell him it’d be good if he stopped yelling. I think he’s upsetting Mom.

“Maybe you’re getting sick,” Mom says, “Do you think you need a doctor?”

“Really, I don’t know what you guys’ problem is,” I say, “I’m cool. Okay?” I crank the stereo up as Mom and Dad walk out, closing the door. Sorry, but I’m glad they split; they were bringing me down. I lie back between the speakers again and Janis screams to come on, come on, take it – take another little piece of her heart now, baby.

Years later, my mother told me that on the way home, after she and my father left my room in the flophouse, they pulled the car over to the side of the road, held each other, and he wept in despair. “I’d never seen your father so bereft. He was certain that his son was lost to him forever.” She said she told him to be patient and not be so hard on me — or himself.

Like my father did with me, I have trouble accepting the stubborn carelessness that seems to have become my son’s guiding force since adolescence. And as my father did, I work at being more like my wife, who listens more and judges less than I do.