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Putting Adult ADHD Coping Skills to the Test

Deep-breathing exercises, medication, and listening to relaxing music all help me cope with my day-to-day struggles with ADHD, but what about when out-of-the-ordinary stress strikes?

“Why am I short of attention?
Got a short little span of attention,
And whoa, my nights are so long.
Where’s my wife and family?
What if I die here?
Who’ll be my role model?
Now that my role model is gone.”

– “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon

Crammed into an airport van on the way from my new home in Warner Robins, Georgia, to the Atlanta airport, I stare out at the summer-green fields and trees blurring by. With Beethoven turned way up on my iPod, I plan to bury the ache of missing my family move in and adjust to our new home I left barely an hour ago and drown out the nightmare of my dad’s brain injury I am heading toward now. But I can’t figure out how to get my earbuds to stay in place. Every bump on the road pops one or the other out, replacing furious classical music with the irritated drawl of the driver moaning about airport traffic. The ache and the nightmare rush back in, and I’m transformed into a selfish 2-year-old holding my breath and squeezing my eyes shut: I don’t want to go — you can’t make me. No! No! No!

At the airport, I try calming myself with deep-breathing exercises while I wait at the gate, because on top of all my other neurotic self-obsessions (the diagnosed ones among them include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and bipolar disorder), I detest flying. The waiting, herding, and lack of control, combined with having to jam all 6 feet and 1 inches and 225 pounds of myself into an airline seat sucks my soul down into a dark, hot, and angry place. By the third time the drink cart clipped my elbow during last month’s marathon flight from Honolulu to Atlanta, my daughter was convinced my head would explode.

“Grow up,” I tell myself as I seven-eight-nine-ten exhale. “The flight from Atlanta to Baltimore is only an hour and 45 minutes.” (Full disclosure: Philadelphia International Airport is actually closer to my parents’ house, but the flight is a full two hours and never lands on time, requiring me to sit still a half hour longer in the air. So I opt for the shorter flight and longer drive, following my motto: Take care of your neurotic self-obsessions and they will take care of you.)

On the plane, I’m squeezed between two teenagers even bigger than I am, who, despite being friends — I make a wild guess as they pass chips and cookies back and forth, their crumbs raining down on me — won’t switch seats with me. Neither one likes sitting in the middle.

Keeping my elbows tucked in, I breathe, turn up the Beethoven playing on my iPod, and read. I shake my head “No” to the flight attendant offering drinks, the plane hits an air pocket and both ear buds fall out, the aisle teen spills root beer on my lap, and the window teen knocks over my water bottle. Arms, napkins, and apologies fly around my face. Pringles drop between the pages of my open book.

I took my ADHD meds right before the flight, as well as the new beta-blocker for my panic attacks, so, jaw-clenched, my exterior remains peaceful and quiet. Inside my dark, hot head, however, I scream like a banshee and beat everyone within reach into a senseless, bloody pulp. No peace for the crazy, but I try. I close my eyes and flash back to last year’s visit with my parents. Once academics, they’re now in their mid-eighties, living in retirement.

I’m in the backyard helping Dad light the charcoal on the grill. He leans on his rolling walker with one hand and drinks a martini with the other. Unlike me, my dad could always handle his liquor. But lately, his crippling disk pain has him popping Percocet and drinking much more than he used to. Dad sips his gin as I finish readying the “chimney charcoal starter” we’re using to get the grill going: Crumpled newspaper gets put at the bottom of the starter’s aluminum tube and I add briquettes on top, per my dad’s careful instructions.

“The back’s bad these days, huh?” I ask as I light the paper.

Dad squints at me. “Yes, it is,” he says. “And how much I drink is none of your business.” He puts down his martini on his walker’s built-in seat and picks up the can of liquid charcoal lighter next to his cane lying on the seat’s edge.

“Um, I don’t think you’re supposed to use charcoal lighter with the charcoal chimney starter, Dad…”

“Shit, that thing never works.” He squirts the charcoal lighter on the grill and whomp — the charcoal chimney’s engulfed in a tower of flame. He puts down the charcoal lighter and picks up his martini. “Go see if your mother needs help in the kitchen.”

Inside, the water’s boiling on the stove for potatoes but Mom’s not in the kitchen or the living room. “Mom?”

Her reply is faint and quavering, “In here… I could use some help…”

I find her on the floor in their bedroom, where she’s fallen. She laughs as I help her up and sit her on the bed. “I was getting dizzy so I came in for a pill but I dropped them and I bent over to pick them up and kept going down. Now all the pills are hiding under the bed behind the dust bunnies.” I get her a pill and some water. “I’m fine,” she says, “but you better not leave your father out there by himself too long. He’ll burn the house down.”

In the backyard, the charcoal grill smolders near the walker, but Dad’s not there. “Dad?” I call out. Getting no reply, I run to the side yard. I find him lying on the lawn, the martini glass spilled on the coiled hose. “Dad! Are you all right?” Using all his energy trying to grab his cane that’s fallen in his pepper patch, out of reach, he doesn’t answer. I grab the cane and help him up. “What are you doing over here?”

“Weeding, as if it’s any of your business,” he says. Then he laughs and shakes his head. “The damn hose gave me a start. Looked like a snake for a second.” He pulls free from me and leaning on his cane, heads back to the grill, flicking grass off his shorts with his free hand. “If you really want to help, you can get me another martini.”

I pick up the cocktail glass. My father leans on his walker and squirts more charcoal lighter on grill. The flames brighten his face.

When I land in Baltimore, my brother, Rob (a kind, non-neurotic, nondrinker who lives near my parents and also prefers flying in and out of Baltimore), picks me up and takes me to Mom and Dad’s house.

The mood in the car during the hour-and-a-half drive to Delaware is subdued as Rob fills me in on the medical news. Dad’s at a rehab place, but he’s not recovered enough from the brain surgery to start therapy. He recognizes family but is also convinced his mother is alive, playing cards, and mixing drinks in the room next to his.

“I bet he wants to go over there for cocktails,” I say.

“You got it,” Rob hoots.

We laugh like our parents do, deflecting the pain, trying to keep our family alive.

Mom, who’s been awaiting my arrival with Rob’s wife and kids, greets me with Italian takeout and Häagen-Dazs. Tonight we’ll have pizza and ice cream. Tomorrow, I’ll see my dad.

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