'Paying Attention' With An ADHD Mother And Son When reporter Katherine Ellison discovered that she and her son both had ADHD, she decided to spend a year studying the disorder-- and how people cope with it. Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention is her account of that year.

'Paying Attention' With An ADHD Mother And Son

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

When journalist Katherine Ellison's oldest son Buzz was diagnosed with ADHD, she already knew his symptoms. It turned out she has ADHD as well. Struggling with her own diagnosis while trying to parent her unusually bright and unusually infuriating son had been an uphill battle.

So Ellison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, took on a new project: a year-long examination of what worked and what didn't when it came to treating and parenting her difficult yet gifted son. The result is a memoir. It's called "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention."

Parents, if ADHD is a diagnosis your child has struggled with, we want to hear from you. Tell us how this diagnosis changed your family culture.

Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later this hour, handicapping this year's Nobel Peace Prize. But first, "Buzz."

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and author of four previous books. She joins us today from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KATHERINE ELLISON (Author, "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention"): Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: So tell us: How far apart were the diagnoses of your son and your own ADHD?

Ms. ELLISON: Just a few months. You know, I found myself in the position of so many parents these days. It's really a funny modern phenomenon. When a child gets diagnosed, suddenly your life starts to make more sense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: They got it from somewhere?

Ms. ELLISON: That's right. And it's so hereditary. People will tell you this disorder doesn't...

LUDDEN: There's some. There is debate about that. There's some evidence it's hereditary, but we don't really know?

Ms. ELLISON: There's a lot of no, it's definitely hereditary, and there was even in a new study in the Lancet just this past week that showed new evidence of the ways in which it's hereditary.

The chances if you have a child with ADHD, it's about 40 percent likely that you have it as well.

LUDDEN: And you had not realized this for yourself.

Ms. ELLISON: I knew something was funny, but I hadn't really gotten, you know, the label yet. And it's really I'm very, actually, grateful to my difficult son for pushing me in that direction, because it's helped my life a lot.

LUDDEN: Can you give us a sense of how the symptoms, you know, manifested themselves in your son and yourself? What all brought this to a head?

Ms. ELLISON: Well, I guess I could start with my son. You had a woman talking about her son or her daughter who was - lost some homework after spending so much time doing it.

Well, the same thing happened with Buzz. And by the way, that's a nickname that I've given my son to protect his privacy. He was losing things, losing friends. The social skills part was a real problem. He was getting into trouble all the time by about, you know, fifth grade. It was really, really bad.

He was in the principal's office all the time and just fighting at home and getting very frustrated. I think the main problem is the world was telling him he wasn't trying, he was a bad kid, and after a while he, I think, started acting like one.

LUDDEN: And this was a change from earlier?

Ms. ELLISON: Yeah, he was very happy, very happy kid when he was little and very interested in school and friends. But as is very common, around the age of nine things started going wrong.

The homework load started getting bigger, and the social demands started getting a little bit more complicated. And none of us really knew what was going on at the time.

LUDDEN: Now, how did his behavior then affect your family?

Ms. ELLISON: Well, he would come home from school very frustrated and he would take that frustration mostly out on me. I didn't realize it at the time, but he'd be asking for very extravagant things, I think probably just to get my attention.

He wanted, you know, a pet wallaby or a trip to Fiji, and he was very serious about these demands.

LUDDEN: A trip to Fiji, that's a new one.

Ms. ELLISON: A new bathroom. And it was hard to take these demands seriously until I realized that what he was asking for was my attention, which was kind of hard to give him, since I was a little distracted myself.

LUDDEN: Well, can you give us a sense of the interplay, the interaction between you and Buzz, an ADHD parent and child? How - you try to describe how basically your own condition may have affected him. You kind of had this negative symbiosis going on, right?

Ms. ELLISON: That's right, and I just didn't I hadn't realized just how much it was taking over my life until I really started paying attention to it. And writing it really helped me realize what was going on.

Like for instance, the book starts out with a terrible fight that we had while I was driving down the highway with the two of my kids in the car, and they were fighting, and I had the radio on, and we were late, and I was thinking about everything that I needed to do that day plus the fact that the stock market was down 300 points and the Himalayan glaciers were retreating.

And once I wrote these things down on paper, like what was going through my mind, I realized that at that moment he was really asking for my attention. He was asking for coffee or a Coke or something, and of course we couldn't stop because we were on the freeway and we were late. But just the fact that my mind was going off in a million different directions made it so that when I finally focused in on him, I started yelling: shut up, shut up, shut up.

And these kind of interactions happen so often in a family like this, and it's not like the locus of the problem is just in this kid with the diagnosis. The dynamic can be very, very difficult.

LUDDEN: You know, we have calls coming in already. Let's take one from Christie(ph) in San Antonio. Hi there.

CHRISTIE (Caller): Hi, oh my God, listening to you, it's like, oh, she thinks like me. Yes, my son, my youngest, six years old, started kindergarten this fall, was just diagnosed just yesterday, severe ADHD, severe impulsivity.

And my husband, at the end of this, the consultation with the doctor, said, you know, Doctor, you have saved our marriage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Oh, no. So really it's the whole family. It's not just the child that has the problem. It's difficult to deal with.

Ms. ELLISON: Marriages break up a lot over this.

CHRISTIE: I'm ADD, and my eldest son is ADD. I am non-medicated. So I have developed the coping mechanisms that a six-year-old does not have. So yes, I'm going to get your book today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ELLISON: Thank you so much.

CHRISTIE: ...nothing else, other than some validation.

LUDDEN: Were you looking for this diagnosis, Christie, or did it kind of surprise you, even though you realized you had it yourself?

CHRISTIE: I recognized it in my son. Unfortunately there were some that were teetering towards what they thought were symptoms of Asperger's. And you know, that can ADHD and ADD can piggyback on Asperger's. But there was just no way. I knew.

And unfortunately, or fortunately for my son now, he has the diagnosis, and he started medicine today. And I've already heard from the teacher, and she's like we started off pretty good.

LUDDEN: Oh. All right. Well, Christie, good luck with everything.

CHRISTIE: Thank you, I can't wait to read the book.

Ms. ELLISON: Thank you so much. And Jennifer, I just want to make the point that Christie said she needed validation. This is a huge issue. There's so much talk in our culture that ADHD doesn't exist, it's bad parenting, it's lazy kids, that there's overdiagnosis.

Well, there probably is some overdiagnosis, but the worse problem is the underdiagnosis. There's a recent surgeon general's report that says up to 25 percent of kids with mental health problems aren't getting adequate treatment.

And I think one big reason is because there's a lot of judgment in society and people who will tell you that this disorder just isn't real.

LUDDEN: Well, you know, reading the book, I do not have a diagnosis. I don't have reason necessarily to suspect, but I might Google you know, I might do some Googling now.

But, you know, it was you know, on some of the, you know, incidences of things that would blow up with you and your kids, I was like, well, we've had that, you know. And some of it is, you know, normal parents, bad things happen too. And so it is hard to see kind of where's the line.

Ms. ELLISON: Well, some of it is societal, definitely. We're in a very unusual time now where I think technology is getting ahead of our brains. I make the point that people with a diagnosis of ADHD are like coal mine canaries because we're just farther out on the spectrum, and other people are catching up.

LUDDEN: You the caller mentioned immediately putting her son on medication, the day after the diagnosis. You agonized quite a while about whether or not to put your son Buzz on medication, ended up coming around full-circle. Tell us about that.

Ms. ELLISON: Yeah, I sure did agonize, and so did my husband, because we're both kind of granola-eating, Prius-driving, you know...

LUDDEN: Up there in San Francisco.

Ms. ELLISON: Yeah, West Coast. You know, we don't like the idea of stimulants, giving a child stimulants. And I still don't really love the idea, but you know, this is one of the hardest things for parents to confront because A) you have so many people telling you that ADHD doesn't exist, it's not a health problem. It's, you know - just parent better. Be a better parent. So there's just a lot of natural resistance to doing this.

Plus, there is a lot of information out there about the stimulants, a lot of which is actually wrong. And I spent some time using the skills I have as an investigative reporter to track down some of the reports that were making me really adamant about not wanting to give him meds.

One was - there was a report that they cause cancer. I tracked it down. It was a small preliminary study in Texas that was pretty immediately refuted by the FDA, but that didn't get as big headlines.

There was a study that it causes depression. It was based on a whole trial with rats that really wasn't at all similar to kids taking pills.

I do continue to have strong reservations about meds, and one thing I'll tell you is that it's not an effective strategy if you only give a child medication. But what we ended up doing is trying out the meds for a year, which helped us get through a real crisis in our family, where things were really going downhill fast.

And they sort of stabilized the situation, and they gave us the breathing room where we could try a lot of other interventions.

LUDDEN: And your teacher, his teachers, noticed a difference. You started getting these unsolicited calls.

Ms. ELLISON: Absolutely. Absolutely. The change in my son was very dramatic, and many parents will tell you this. He was able to relate better to friends and to teachers. He dressed differently. He started wearing nicer clothes. I mean, it really was an amazing change.

LUDDEN: Hmm. But then you took him off later to try other things.

Ms. ELLISON: That's right, after a year. One of the problems is - and many, many parents have this problem too, is that he was experiencing some side effects. They were really interfering with his sleep.

He wasn't happy with that. We weren't happy with that. Also, he felt that you know, there's just, I think, a human tendency to think we don't want to take a pill to help us be normal.

Now, maybe you need to override that. A lot of people really do need medication. But the fact is that people only stay on these meds for about 13 months on average. So as a parent, you have to have that reality in mind. You're not going to be able to rely on the meds only.

LUDDEN: All right. We'll talk with Katherine Ellison in a moment - more in a moment. The book is titled "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention."

Parents, if ADHD is a diagnosis your child has struggled with, we'd like to hear from you. How has this diagnosis changed your family culture? Call us at 800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org.

I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

We're talking with Katherine Ellison about her memoir, "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." In it she says she has a certifiable problem child, but she knows she was part of the problem too, and putting a name on the disorder behind the frustration they caused each other, ADHD, did little to help manage it.

You can read about how Ellison and her son Buzz push each other to the edge in an excerpt from the book at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Parents, if ADHD is a diagnosis your child has struggled with, we'd like to hear from you. Tell us how this diagnosis changed your family culture. How did your family cope? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's take a call now from Alyssa(ph) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Go right ahead.

ALYSSA (Caller): Hi, so glad to hear you. It almost sounds like I'm hearing myself talk about some things. My daughter was diagnosed about three years ago. I was diagnosed about two years ago. And the biggest thing I've noticed is everyone around me, you know, those who don't live in the home and who aren't responsible for getting my daughter ready for school and doing her homework every night kind of want to put their two cents in about the medication and what we need to be doing or what I'm doing wrong and, you know, yadda, yadda, yadda.

LUDDEN: Katherine, sound familiar?

Ms. ELLISON: Absolutely, and...

LUDDEN: Weren't you one of those people doing yadda, yadda, yadda when to your friends?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ELLISON: No, I had so many yadda, yaddas at me. You know, parents are really in a tough position. You know, we're in an era where we the phenomenon, I call it the ADHD industrial complex. It's not only this huge pharmaceutical industry that only in the United States and New Zealand is able to market directly to consumers, so parents are supposed to be conversant about the different brands of stimulants when they go to their doctors.

But also there's all these alternative treatments, special diets, dolphin therapy, balance exercises, all these things that you're supposed to do.

And imagine a mom, because it's usually a mom, who is somewhat distracted herself and is trying to cope with this child and is usually desperate because often it can really lead to a family crisis, where the school is railing against you, the child is obviously struggling, you're unhappy, and you've got all these things coming at you that you have to try right now. We really need a lot more help than we're getting.

LUDDEN: Alyssa, how are you sorting through it all, and is there somewhere you're looking, turning for help?

ALYSSA: Well, we are both medicated, and I try as hard as I can to stick to a routine. And, you know, I really try to impress upon the rest of the family that when she's with them, you know, on the weekend or at grandma's, that she needs to do certain things at certain times and stick to a routine and, you know, just really try to keep things as uniform as possible because things will fall apart so quickly if that doesn't happen.

LUDDEN: Well, thank you for calling us.

ALYSSA: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Katherine Ellison, how did you learn to handle outside judgment?

Ms. ELLISON: Well, I had to make myself kind of the resident expert in the subject. I interviewed the top scientists in the field. I read dozens of scientific papers. I made sure that I knew what I was talking about.

So if somebody would come up to me and recommend dolphin therapy, I could tell them that that wasn't a good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: But it might be fun.

Ms. ELLISON: Oh, absolutely it's fun, and there's lots of things that just simply have a parent and a child interacting together, but you don't have to spend quite that much money.

LUDDEN: All right, let's take another call from Bill in Stockton, California. Hi there.

BILL (Caller): Hi, my name's Bill, and I live here in Stockton. It's over next to the north end of California. At the age of two days old, we knew we had a very interesting child when the hospital (unintelligible) going. And as the years progressed, at about age four, we knew we had a problem, big problem.

We would say, hey, it's time to go to the store. Let's go over to the Smart Foods, and if for some reason we couldn't get into the parking lot or whatever, and we went to another store, we were instantly liars. We were wrong. We deceived him, and on and on and on.

LUDDEN: And at what point did you realize what was going on?

BILL: At about age three we had a clue, but it wasn't until about four and a half that we actually were able to get him in to see a psychiatrist. And he sadly validated everything that we expected.

He was a child who, where everyone else is moping along at a nice, easy 40 or 50 miles an hour, he's doing 70, 80, 90 miles at the same time.

LUDDEN: So how has your family adapted now since you have had the diagnosis and so forth? What what has changed?

BILL: Well, the first thing is we don't tell our son specifically what we're going to do before we do it. And as a result, we have fewer conversations, shall we say.

When it comes time to shut down for the end of the day, the process starts right after dinner. Okay, go get yourself ready. And at 8:00 everything gets turned off. And if we're lucky, by 10:00 in the evening he's quiet. If not, well, maybe it'll be midnight.

This is with a medicated child. For a while we had to use a blood pressure reducing medication the doctor prescribed in order to get him to sleep, to just go to school.

We constantly, as I was just listening to the prior person, we would constantly say, okay, Allen(ph), it's time to calm down, let's relax. And people would look at us and say, huh, what's going on? Because they had no concept of how close we were to a trigger point, at which point he would completely lose control and demand that this, this, this or this happen. Until it happened to them a couple of times. And then they're like, okay, never mind, we'll shut up.

LUDDEN: Katherine Ellison, does this...

BILL: We're constantly backtracking on everything that we want to do. Plan-making doesn't happen. We can have an expectation that we'll do something on a weekend, but I can't plan to go out to any events in the evening, nor can my wife, because it literally takes two of us to keep him calmed down when he does get wound up.

LUDDEN: And he's already on medication, wow. Katherine Ellison, you mentioned there's really no silver bullet, and medication is not the end-all-be-all.

Ms. ELLISON: That's absolutely right, and the caller really brings up this point, which is Edward Hallowell(ph), who's a wonderful authority on ADHD, he's a psychiatrist in Boston, says parents have to be super-parents.

You know, this is not for the fainthearted, and often I think it's really important to find ways, really dedicate some time to calm yourself down so you can be calm for a child like this, because often what happens is you get into this vicious cycle where both of you are hitting your trigger points.

LUDDEN: Wow. Bill, good luck, and thank you.

BILL: Oh, you have no idea.

Ms. ELLISON: I do, I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BILL: It's a good thing that there are two parents here. And I'll go walk out of the house and she'll take care of things for a while.

LUDDEN: So Katherine, what would you suggest? You do write about self-control and ways are there some strategies that Bill could use?

Ms. ELLISON: Absolutely. Absolutely. I would just pay a lot of attention to how stressed and angry you're getting. It's wonderful that there are two parents there. I mean, a lot of people don't have that wonderful good fortune because there are statistics that show, unfortunately, that when you have a child with a diagnosis like this, you're much more likely to divorce.

So I would really urge you to pay attention to your marriage, be good to each other. Understand that you're facing a real challenge. And invest time, really, in meditation, in doing things that are relaxing. Get help if you can. And I know that's a tough call because we had a number of sitters who walked out on us.

LUDDEN: Bill, thank you so much, and good luck. Regi - whoops, here we are Regina(ph) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Go right ahead.

REGINA (Caller): Hi, I'm calling. My son is in the seventh grade. He is ADHD, stressing the H, and I had ADD. He was diagnosed at the end of kindergarten, and a problem that I have finally resolved is I have learned when to talk of my son's ADHD pretty well. Sometimes I still do.

But other times if I know someone has a history or an experience or a child or a family member with ADHD, I'll speak with them, but I don't share things with friends who have no clue because they say things that make it clear that they have no idea what I'm talking about.

And they try to make me feel better and say, oh, all kids do that, oh, he's a boy. And they don't understand - yes, all children do that, all boys do that to a certain extent - that my child does it excessively.

He's not forgetful occasionally. He's forgetful daily. He's forgetful every hour, every minute sometimes, just as I am. But it's a blessing that I have it, to a certain extent, because we can relate with each other.

LUDDEN: And how has your dynamic changed there since his diagnosis? What are some coping strategies you've been able to figure out?

REGINA: One of the best things that we learned, my husband and I are definitely a tag team. And if one of us is pushed to the max, the other could pick up on it and say, you know, tag. You're it. I can't deal with it any longer. And then the other is staying calm. Just - if something drives you nuts, if you can just handle it calmly instead of it turning into a whirlpool, just staying calm and stating the problem instead of riding it with your child. And staying calm and stating the problem has helped so much. You tend to get emotional about it, but you need to just leave the emotions out of it and just deal with the problem like an outsider would.

LUDDEN: Well, Regina, thank you so much for sharing your story.

REGINA: Well, thank you.

LUDDEN: Katherine, any reaction.

Ms. ELLISON: Yeah, definitely. She's really put her finger on it. I think when you're a parent in this situation, life has handed you a challenge, and you can either not accept the challenge and go down in flames or use it as a sort of a vehicle to really - it's almost a spiritual journey. You can find a lot more calm in your life.

LUDDEN: We have an interesting email here I'd like you - to ask you about as well from a listener in California who writes, I'm a school psychologist working at the high school level and wish we would develop classes specifically designed for children with ADHD. I know the official statistics in California are approximately 7 percent of kids have this, but I also know the reality is probably double that. It's time we, as a nation, address the needs of these children who begin as special, bright, funny, happy, creative and wind up angry, lost, and lower achieving. Is that something you'd like to see, Katherine Ellison?

Ms. ELLISON: Oh, absolutely. I so appreciate that because one thing I ran into time after time was I felt as if I had to educate the school and the teachers. And, initially, I was so intimated that that was really hard for me to do. So to hear from somebody who really appreciates what is happening to these children, because they start out with some deficits. And that wouldn't be a problem, except the way the world reacts to them causes such damage to their self-esteem that it's no wonder that a very high proportion of kids with ADHD drop out of high school.

I teach writing at juvenile hall once a week. Most of the kids there have a diagnosis. It's a real tragedy. And when she talks about, you know, that seven - I guess the statistics are really close to one in 10 boys are eligible for the diagnosis, so there are a lot of kids with this.

LUDDEN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take another phone call now. Anna(ph) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Hi there.

ANNA (Caller): Hi. I'm enjoying listening to your show. I have a 12th grade daughter who was diagnosed with ADD early on, and one of the - and we have a large family. I have four children, and she's the oldest one. And one of the skills that we've done is that the coping mechanisms that we teach her, we teach to all of our children. So when everyone comes home from school, there's a three-hour window that there is no technology. There is not a lot of noise in the house. It's quiet. That's when either homework is done or for reading. And we really make it a family thing so that she's not feeling singled out with learning these skills.

And we also have a family calendar where we all get to put down our things that are going on so that if she forgets, that she's backed up by her siblings and say, oh, Emily(ph), don't forget about X and X and X, or, hey, you know, don't forget about such and such. And that we all support as a family all of this going on.

LUDDEN: That's really interesting. And, Katherine, you write a lot about your other son and how this really was an issue with - for him as well.

Ms. ELLISON: Well, that's right. A family is a system, and everybody responds to each other so - and evolves accordingly. What I really like about this caller's comment, she's really giving us an example of super parenting, how tending to the needs of one child can really help the others. And if you do it right and thoughtfully and don't show any favoritism or branding, it can be a great parenting style.

LUDDEN: All right. Anna, thanks for...

ANNA: Well, it's something that has evolved. It did not come out like that quickly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ELLISON: Well, good for you.

ANNA: But thank you for your show.

LUDDEN: Thank you, Anna. Let's take another call now. Dana(ph) is in Mentor, Ohio. Hi, Dana.

DANA (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

DANA: All right. I'm 51 years old, and I have attention deficit disorder. I have a 13-year-old daughter, and she also has attention deficit disorder. I have an 86-year-old father with attention deficit disorder. And as far as keeping my daughter on track in addition to medication, I try to explain to her that when I was young, we didn't have a diagnosis. My father is a guidance councilor, and my mother's a reading specialist, and they called it attention-seeking syndrome when I was young.


DANA: And it wasn't until I was almost 30 years old before my actions were explainable and acceptable or more acceptable in the school systems today.

LUDDEN: And when did your 86-year-old father figure out that he has it?

DANA: Oh, he's still in denial, but bounces from spot to spot, from thing to thing. If he's got the hammer in his hand, he'll - next thing you know, he'll be looking for a screwdriver.

But our lives are like string of pearls without a knot in the end of it. We keep adding pearls, but we never ever seem to get the necklace put together. And so I try to explain to my daughter all the problems that it's caused me in my life and how she needs to focus. So we do a calendar. We do an assignment chart. But the thing is that if you get more than one item that you write down on more than one place, with ADHD, that happens to us and we never seem to get back to the calendar or the assignment chart.

So medication helps. I've been on it for 10 years now. And also seeing some - getting professional help helps as well, and there's a lot of material out there right now. One person talked about hunters and farmers and would say that we with ADHD, we're probably the explorers that came across and discovered the world, whereas the farmers, the other people are the ones that can sit there and watch the seeds grow.

LUDDEN: All right. Dana, thank you so much for your call. And we're running out of time. But Katherine Ellison, a final, brief word?

Ms. ELLISON: Well, I just think that your last caller really made the point that, you know, he's actually made so much more progress. He talks in a self-deprecating way, but look how he's communicating with his daughter. It's really beautiful. And I think that, you know, just recognizing there is a problem, not being in denial, not being victim of the judgment out there can go a long way.

LUDDEN: Katherine Ellison's book is called "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention," and she joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thank you so much.

Ms. ELLISON: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Coming up, the Nobel committee surprised almost everyone last year when it chose President Obama for the prize. Who deserves it this year? It's more complicated than you might think. Stay with us. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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