'Paying Attention' With An ADHD Mother And Son

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Thousands of American teens struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which often causes anxiety and loneliness. iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Thousands of American teens struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which often causes anxiety and loneliness.

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Investigative reporter Katherine Ellison's son, Buzz, was charming and bright. But he was also driving her crazy. Both mother and son were constantly at odds, and Buzz was anxious, angry and lonely.

When Buzz was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Ellison was already familiar with its symptoms — she soon learned that she had ADHD as well.

Struggling with her own diagnosis while trying to be an effective parent was proving an uphill battle. As Ellison's and Buzz's mutual frustration mounted, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist decided to spend a year doing what came most naturally to her: investigating.

Ellison's memoir, Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, chronicles the year she spent studying the disorder, its causes, and what worked and what didn't when it came to treating her son.

Excerpt: 'Buzz'

Cover of 'Buzz'
Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention
By Katherine Ellison
Hardcover, 304 pages
Voice
List price: $24.99

A September fog hangs over the Golden Gate Bridge as I speed southward in our dented brown Prius.  One son sits beside me, the other in the back.

Damn, damn, damn, I'm late again!

I swerve in time to avoid missing the exit to Highway 280, and gun the car toward Silicon Valley. The boys are out of school for yet another "staff development day," and I'm planning to drop them off with my parents while I have coffee with a friend and then meet with a venture capitalist who wants my help to write a speech. But I've left home so late I'll barely have time to give my folks a quick hello at the drop-off — sure to evoke their rolled eyes and weary headshakes.

Yikes! I nearly hit the car in front of me as my head turns to referee another fratricidal fight. We argue a lot in my family. Except for Jack, my even-keeled spouse, we're moody, high-maintenance types. Which goes double for my eldest son, Buzz, who just turned 12, and each day fulfills my mother's old, cheerful curse.  "One day," she'd say, when I was growing up, "you'll have a child just like you." A noodge, she meant, with a chronically urgent agenda, never able to take "no" for an answer.

My mother was right about that, and more. Buzz is the nickname I've given my son, inspired by the way he usually affects me — like an unexpected jolt of electricity.  Three years ago, at age 9, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), with a side order of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).  The first diagnosis signifies a problem of distraction and poor self-control. The second means that he can often be a brat.

The point is, I have a certifiable problem child, while I'm also certifiably part of the problem. Call it Diagnosis Envy Disorder, but Buzz's new status inspired me to check in with Dr. Y., the psychiatrist I first began seeing in my twenties, to ask if he thought I, too, might be clinically distracted. He said he did, indeed.

This alphabet-soupy new lens on our life helps explain our chronic chaos, but so far has done little to reduce it. Not that I haven't tried. Most recently, I've encouraged everyone in my family, including even-keeled Jack, to take fish oil supplements. Research suggests they're good for general brain health and mood.

Suddenly, Buzz squirms in his seat, tugs on the visor of his Dodgers cap, and announces: "I want coffee."

"Oh, Buzz," I say immediately. "You know that's not good for you."

"I NEED coffee."

He never drinks coffee. Okay, I've let him have it maybe once or twice. But what was the final word on whether it stunts your growth?

"Either a coffee or a Coke," he growls.

Buzz is sitting up in front to minimize the risk of bodily harm for his 9-year-old brother, Max. Sometimes this works, but sometimes he gets upset and throws things or jerks back his seat to ram Max's knees. Will now be one of those times? My heart is expanding, and not in a good way. It seems to be pressing against my lungs.

"Neither one is good for you, and we can't stop now, as you know," I say automatically, switching lanes to overtake a slower car.  My voice is wonderfully calm. Hurray for me! "We're on the freeway," I add.

"COFFEE!"

Boom! My mind is off to the races. I should never, ever have given him Coke that first time — when was that again? To be sure, it's always there at kids' birthday parties; after age 3, a parent basically loses control. But that's no excuse, since on several occasions I've bribed him with sodas for good behavior. And of course, I drink Diet Pepsi in front of him ... What a bad mom! But what if he needs it? I certainly need it. Could he be trying to muster his focus? Or is he just pushing my buttons — again? Oh, man, I'm never going to make it in time, no matter if we stop or not.  Fantastic: late for the first meeting with a new client. I can't do anything right. And why on earth am I meeting my friend Pete today, when I should be using the time to squirrel away somewhere and finish the proposal for that book on plastic pollution that I promised my agent I'd deliver last month?

The radio news, before Buzz irritably switched it off, said the stock market is down 300 points this week. So much for the retirement fund! But why am I worrying about that, when bisphenol-whatever from plastic debris in the ocean is making its way up the food chain, and the Himalayan glaciers are retreating, threatening to leave several hundreds of millions of Asians without water? Not to mention the California snowpack —

"I waaaaaaaaaant CAWFEE!"

I love Buzz and Max with a passion that continues to surprise me. They've already helped make me a better person than I ever could have been without them. What I want most of all right now is to model healthy behavior for their sake.

"SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" I yell.

"Mom," Max pipes up from the back seat. "I don't think the fish oil is working."

**

Few things in life are ever quite this plain, yet it's at this moment, following this latest train-of-thought-wreck, that I take a breath, squeeze into the exit lane, and decide how I'll spend the next year. I won't write that book about plastic, after all.  The topic is unquestionably important, but a project with a shorter deadline is vying for my limited attention. In this final year before Buzz hits his teens, I need to see if both of us can sharpen our focus and cool down our irritable ways.

That's why I get this daring idea. What if I could dedicate a whole year to that goal? A year in which I'd put other work aside, making it my full-time job to seek the best path for a distracted parent intent on helping her distracted child.  A year, in other words, of paying attention to attention.

I've always been good at deadlines. I spent more than two decades as a newspaper reporter, mostly based in Latin America, and delivered my babies at ages 38 and 41, timed with the last ticks of my biological clock. Now I look at Buzz, who despite everything, occasionally still wants to be with me, and remind myself I've got at best another year in which he may still want to learn what I have to teach.

And maybe there's something both of us can learn by looking through this Attention Deficit lens, murky prism that it is. Perhaps it can even help clear up the mystery of my own history of unreasonable extremes: of screw-ups alternating with heady success, of buying high and selling low, and — so like my Buzz — of constant cravings for conflict and caffeine. It may even illuminate how I managed to win a Pulitzer Prize just three years after being sued for $11 million for a careless reporting mistake, then realized my childhood dream of becoming a foreign correspondent, only to break my leg by running into a manhole in Managua while chasing Nicaragua's newly elected president — and did I mention that she was on crutches at the time?

Most urgently, I hope this new frame of reference can help me understand why I'm having such a tough time with Buzz. After spending most of my life feeling insecure about my smarts, I've finally, on the cusp of old age, come to trust them.

So why do I keep landing in these stupid situations?

From Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention by Katherine Ellison. Copyright 2010. Published by Voice. All Rights Reserved.

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