Everything will be fine
Two sorta-related stories about genetics, mental disorders and walking on a Texas service road
Two or three months ago, I was diagnosed with adult ADHD.
“Not just ADD?” I blurt out. I was hoping for something a little milder, I guess.
“No,” Doctor Quesada says. He has a calm manner and looks up from his laptop as he talks to me with a softness to his voice, and he kind of reminds me of a slightly effeminate Latin Casey Kasem. “You do this thing with your fingers when you’re idle. I don’t even think you notice it. This stretching, wiggling thing.”
Kareem has told me the same thing. I picked it up once watching a K-Pop video, and the girls did this choreography with their hands that looked neat. Was I doing that throughout the day? A thirty eight year old man probably shouldn’t be doing that, should he?
I tuck my hands between my legs and the couch I’m sitting on and suck in my stomach by instinct.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, should it? Concentration was always an issue for me my entire life. I only remember things like appointments or where my keys are by being neurotic about where everything is at all times, Google Calendars and web applications that send notes to myself after six hours, one week, three months. Contact this group, write a document to send, set up an appointment for next Wednesday. Check my appointments, to make sure I haven’t forgotten, again and again. Coping mechanisms, I am told, and I’ve certainly heard that term my entire life.
In college, I barely graduated above the minimum GPA necessary, and I wrote off my terrible study habits due to the co-ed community service fraternity I joined and the lack of interest from Dad ticking the “Computer Science and Engineering Major” checkbox in my college application. But that was every Asian American growing up, and we all assumed that the only way for me to keep up with everyone else was with more studying on my part, and more yelling and discipline on theirs.
But still. Anything with the word hyperactivity makes it sound like I’m a seven year old pretending he’s a tractor trailer on a playground. As a kid I remember marching into the living room, turning it to channel two and acting out every single dancer from Solid Gold in front of my parents and his naval buddy friends. That’s just being a kid, right?
“We’ll give you Vyvanse, thirty milligrams,” he says while he scribbles notes on a green branded Post-It Note and hands it to me.
Growing up I played a little game with myself: if I could live a perfectly normal life by 29 — that was the age Angela had her most severe schizophrenic episode, the one that caused her to completely break from society — I would be okay, and any faulty genetics I had running in my DNA wouldn’t betray me. When my thirtieth birthday rolled around and I didn’t hear Jesus or Satan’s voice in my head like my sister did, I belted Living on a Prayer at a San Francisco karaoke bar full of my friends, silently thinking to myself this is it I have nothing to worry about anymore all the while coming down from all the drugs I took the day before because I didn’t want to feel that awful emptiness like I always did, not on my thirtieth birthday, no sir.
I’m thirty eight now. Well played, fate.
“We’ll have you take it for thirty days. It’s a lower dosage than usual, but we’ll have you ramp up to see how you feel about it. Who else in your family has it?”
That last fucking sentence. “Excuse me?”
“Who else in your family has it?” Doctor Quesada repeats. “Because, you know, it’s genetic.”
“I’m not sure,” I say. But that is a lie, because I have ideas.
The only family I’ve ever really known or grown up with have been on my dad’s side. We all spent Thanksgiving and Christmases together growing up, and all the cousins grew up to be normal adults, for the most part: Chris and Grace are the attractive, popular cousins, Bernie and Darren the smart ones.
Angela and I were always the freaks: The crazy daughter, the gay son.
In contrast, I met my maternal’s grandfather once, in Taiwan when I was ten — he looked like one of those old men you see in illustrated children books about Chinese folk tales, with their wrinkles and their wizened eyes — I don’t remember much past that. There’s a photo of me where I’m holding a live shrimp at what I’m assuming was his shrimp farm in Kaohsiung, one part grinning to the camera and one part terror because most my experience with shrimp up to that point was in the frozen foods aisle at Safeway, pink masses of seafood protein jammed inside a sealable plastic bag.
His wife was not there, was never brought up. Inevitably, as curious as kids would get, I would ask Dad why I’ve never met Grandma before — usually in the parking lot or on a car ride, somewhere where Mom wasn’t around. And he would start getting mad and would talk faster and louder — all in Chinese, using words I couldn’t understand, getting angrier and angrier as the minutes passed by. When he realized I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, he would sigh and tap his temple with his finger. “Sick.” There would be constant retells of this; sometimes on my end, but mostly on his, when he was mad at Mom for whatever reason.
In later years he would pair this with an additional story: that my maternal grandfather — the old man at the shrimp farm — asked my father to marry his youngest daughter.
“Like, an arranged marriage?” I asked. Dad’s dad had an arranged marriage as well. Grandma was wife number two and she hated the other wives. I had to give a report on it in my World War II class.
Dad paused. “Suggested.”
And then finally, in high school, he would add another caveat, that final straw making me avoid the topic as much as I could: your grandmother — on your mother’s side, he emphasized — was the reason why Angela was sick. I imagined a faceless Chinese woman in a qipao, poisoning my family tree, and as an angsty teenager wanting to get the fuck out of dodge as quickly as possible I didn’t know whether I hated these people I didn’t know more, or my dad for telling me all of this.
It’s four forty-five in the morning, and I’m lying in the bed of a room at the Aloft, a budget hotel room in a strip mall minutes from the San Antonio Airport. It will be my second day in town for work, but my third day taking the full dosage of this pill.
I’m learning really quickly the primary side effect of Vyvanse is insomnia. Why wouldn’t it be insomnia?, I think to myself. It’s a fucking amphetamine.
The word amphetamine causes a trigger moment.
Sighing makes me feel a little better, so I try to close my eyes, and a deep breath. What was supposed to be a way to meditate turns into a mental and physical audit: Where are you? How are you feeling, right this second?
I start asking myself questions. Am I high? No, it doesn’t feel like that - I’m just really fucking awake. I need to go to work in an hour. Fuck. I catch myself say that out loud into the darkness of the room and I sit up in the bed out of frustration. I’ve been lying in this bed for a couple hours now, body tired but mind racing, for the past several hours.
I make it to about 6:15 in the morning before I scour the internet. On a ADHD forum, there’s a post that explains one particular woman’s routine: she takes it every morning when she wakes up, at 6am so the effects can gently subside throughout the whole day. She uses the word “refreshed” in the forum post and that convinces me more than it should that it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
“Maybe that what I need,” I think to myself in a tremendous lapse of judgement. “My body just needs to reset, that’s all.”
Unlike the forty minutes it usually takes for me to feel the effects of the medication, it takes what feels like twenty minutes before I notice something: a huge jolt of energy — the most alert I’ve been over the past week. Wrong move, champ, I think to myself. My body starts to shake and I have a sudden and urgent need to put on some makeshift workout clothes, try to walk this energy off, something. When I take the elevator down to the lobby, it’s softly playing four-to-the-floor deep house music, the kind they play in the lounges in South Beach. It’ll be a nice soundtrack I can play to my head, I think to myself, as I bolt out the sliding glass doors, past the girl at the reception desk and into the Texan dawn.
The following facts are the only things my mother has told me about my maternal grandmother: she liked to paint. She gambled too much, so you shouldn’t gamble when you grow up, Mom would tell me.
That’s all I got. Mom has no antidotes about her quirks or terrible habits. Dad would usually drop hints when he would get upset at her, which was often. “Do you know that no one knows when your mother’s birthday is? Her brothers and sisters had to fill in her gift certificate for her.”
I have no reason to believe he would be lying. I imagine my maternal grandmother a beautiful, young rich Chinese woman from one of those period movies like Raise the Red Lantern, lying fetal position on a bed smoking opium and ignoring her children.
The day I graduated from college, my parents drove up from the Bay Area and when I answered the door to my apartment in my cap and gown I discovered they brought in a pretty girl Taiwanese my age — a cousin I was meeting for the very first time. I did my best to be polite, making small talk in my broken Mandarin. If I had any warning, I may have presented a list of questions about mom’s side of the family, or learn how to say the sentences better.
“Have you ever met our grandmother?” I asked.
Her face darkened. “Yes.” A longer pause, as if she was trying to figure out what to say. “She didn’t like girls very much.”
I nodded and changed the subject. In the ending of Raise the Red Lantern — spoiler alert — the beautiful rich young Chinese woman goes crazy, walking around her giant palace completely catatonic. Sometimes I imagine my maternal grandmother like that, too.
San Antonio is a working class city. It’s only an hours drive from Austin, but less craft breweries with organic ingredients and more 24-hour taquerias. Its nicknamed “Military City USA” due to all the bases here. And you see a bunch of them if you walk around the Alamo and the neighboring Riverwalk — young black and white kids, crew cuts and ironed shirts and perfect postures. It’s an unfamiliar sight to what you see in my old home of San Francisco or my new home of Miami, albeit in completely different ways.
I’m at the hotel’s “airport location,” though, which means we’re by Loop 410, nestled in a strip mall. This is where I’m power walking, a deserted shopping mall the size of three city blocks with closed a Panda Express and cinema megaplex.
I walk past the tire shop and cross the street into the darkness. There’s an illuminated Starbucks with a single employee inside but no customers inside. The girl behind the counter briefly looks up at me and I think we make contact, but maybe not; it’s too dark outside, and with a streetlight every two or three blocks or so, everything around me is shades of dark blues and purples, hints that there will be a sunrise.
But not for a couple of hours. You’re going to be tired for a couple of hours, I think to myself. But I keep walking. I’ll be okay. I need to be okay.
There’s only one other thing that is a brightly lit as this Starbucks, and it looks like a sign for a diner of some sort, and like a moth to a light I head towards it. I imagine how a State Trooper would see this, some short fat Asian guy power-walking through an industrial road. But at this point, my heart is beating and I could almost taste the anxiety at the back of my throat and I just need to walk some more, work of this, whatever this is.
I’ve had friends ask why I haven’t gone on a quest to find more information about my Mom’s side of the family. It would be great writing material, they point out, and that would be true. Are they like the one aunt I met in Hong Kong, who was polite but didn’t strike up much of a conversation, or like my mom’s younger brother who overstayed his welcome until they were shouted out of the house? Do they call their sons and daughters every afternoon and talk about nothing for twenty minutes? Are there other cousins out there with your face?
One is the communication issue: I’m an American, albeit one who speaks broken Mandarin to his mom because that’s the way we communicate. I can say that my dinner was delicious or that we went to an Italian restaurant or that it’s very hot and muggy in Florida right now. What’s Chinese for “I’m visiting you in Taiwan to learn if our family has a history of mental illness?”
Two, mom hasn’t really brought up the subject of family, so I haven’t either. A couple of years ago, right after the divorce, she was ready to visit Taiwan for a month or two, to visit relatives, before a frantic middle-of-the-night phone call two or three days before she was supposed to board her plane.
“Ernie, I need you to help me call the airlines and ask how to give refunds. I’ve decided to cancel the trip.”
There’s a noticeable pause on the other end. “I don’t want to inconvenience them.”
I would ask if she could just stay at a hotel, but staying at a hotel if you’re visiting family is sacrilege. Offering to stay at a hotel to a Chinese family member is the equivalent of calling them and letting them know that they are terrible hosts, and thusly, terrible people. I tried it with my mom last week when I offered to stay at a hotel while visiting her in California. Didn’t go too well.
And just as much as mom not reaching out to her family, very little of my family has reached out to my mom, save for the crazy uncle who showed up in our living room. I wonder why they haven’t reached out, and I wonder what they say about us. Do they know we exist?
If they know, do they think we’re crazy?
What if they’re right?
I’ve been walking and walking and the shaking is subsiding a little bit now, I think. By the time a semi truck whooshes by me on the left a couple of feet from me, I come to my senses and I try to do the same mental audit I did back in my hotel room.
How do I feel? I’m completely alert right now, I say to myself. I can feel my heart beating through the headphones I’m wearing, I think to myself, and it just occurs now that I’ve been wearing a pair of headphones without listening to music or a podcast. My face is damp, a combination of sweat and it’s just about to begin to rain, and the summer storms I’ve witnessed in San Antonio can be just as intense as the storms in Miami.
Where am I? I’m standing on the side of a dirt road somewhere in rural San Antonio. There are houses and fences, maybe a warehouse or two. The brightly lit sign is actually a well-lit taqueria, open early so truckers and night-shifters can have their cups of coffee and breakfast tacos. It’s an oasis of warm reds and oranges inside the restaurant in a world of concrete freeways and drizzling rain and trucks driving too fast on country roads. I would muster the courage and walk in and grab a bite to eat, but this isn’t my world and I’m not very hungry right now.
Why have I been walking? My mind blanks.
The laser focus part of the medication kicks in again, replacing my need to reach a far-away taqueria with a different objective: retrace your steps.
“I’ll be okay,” I try to convince to myself out loud. And a voice pops in my head: you will, you know. Everything will be fine. For a brief second I panic, because voices are how it started for my sister, but to accept this message that’s being delivered to me: I’ll be okay, everything will be fine.
And I turn around and start walking back, away from the lights and people, but back to where I need to be. I need to be at work in an hour or two. The other remote co-workers staying at the hotel will ask how I am in the lobby, and I will say I had a tough time sleeping, but otherwise, okay. We will all climb in a rental car and drive to the office together.
I will be okay. Everything will be fine.