Katherine Ellison, Author of 'Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention,' Understands Distraction

katherine ellison

Katherine Ellison deals with ADHD in many different ways. Credit: Nick Rozsa

You don't have to have Attention Deficit Disorder to get a lot out of "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention," the new memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Ellison. Nor do you have to have a child with ADHD. Ellison herself happens to fit into both of the above categories, but she makes a point in her book that our entire society -- this writer included -- is growing increasingly prone to distraction.

Luckily for us, the globetrotting, muckraking Ellison (she was lauded in the '80s for exposing corruption in the Marcos regime in the Philippines) has written a book that can actually hold our attention. In it, she is boldly honest about the frustrating and unpredictable struggles she faced in her unfortunately not-so-unique situation. For instance, her son -- to whom she fittingly assigned the pseudonym, Buzz -- once called the police on Ellison after she took away his GameBoy. But Ellison never plays victim or martyr; she is just as frank about her own distractions and overreactions. The resulting story is as informative as it is entertaining. It's inspirational without being maudlin, and often quite funny.

In a phone interview, ParentDish spoke with Katherine Ellison about her yearlong quest for understanding -- which involved trying out just about every purported ADHD treatment -- and how she and Buzz are faring in the aftermath. The author also showed just how good she is at dealing gracefully with distractions.

Credit: Hyperion Books

ParentDish: Sorry I'm a little late. I forgot my daughter's school had a half-day today, so I had to run and pick her up. Thanks for being flexible.
Katherine Ellison: Thank you for talking to me. My kids are home today, too. I'm hoping we won't have many distractions.

PD: Not a problem. So tell me, how is your son now? He's several years older than he was when the book ended.
KE: He's definitely better, but not completely out of the woods. We just had his parent-teacher conference at school and there were some concerns, but nothing like it was three years ago. He's matured a lot, but it has also helped that I've been able to get calmer myself. I've found ways to curb my reactions to him, and it's improved our relationship a lot.

PD: And how has treating your own ADHD helped other than just in dealing with your son?
KE: One of the more apparent changes for me is that it's been easier to make and keep friends. I'm more conscious of the way I'm relating to people. I'm a better listener; I'm more open. Honestly, just putting a name on this thing helps so much. Something that was always so embarrassing is suddenly comprehensible.

PD: Um, ignore that noise. That's my other phone ringing. I don't need to get it. Please go on.
KE: That's all right. For people with ADD, the distraction isn't the biggest burden -- it's trying to hide your condition. It's like a saying they have in Alcoholics Anonymous: You're only as sick as your secret. Kids with ADD can get so worried that others are going to judge them for their failures, that they spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to cover up their mistakes.

PD: I apologize, that's the other phone again. I can see on the caller ID that it's my daughter's friend. If I don't pick it up, she'll just keep calling. Hold on one second. [Pause] I'm back. I'm really sorry about that. Anyway, you were talking about the difficulty of having to make excuses ...
KE: Well, my son was so worried that people would see him as out of control of his own behavior that he had assumed an outlaw rebel persona. But a lot of his bad behavior stemmed from that worry. He was afraid people would see him as stupid; he's a smart kid -- he's just got some glitches. A critical breakthrough for the two of us was the scene in the book where he broke a window. He was just knocking on it so hard that he shattered it. My first reaction was to say, "Oh, you stupid kid. How could you do that? This is going to cost a fortune to fix. There's glass all over the floor." But I stopped myself and I was able to hear him saying quietly, "I'm such an idiot." This is the way he'd been talking to himself over and over again. When you notice someone doing this, you can intervene before their self-esteem goes down the tubes.

PD: So recognizing and understanding ADHD is the first step toward dealing with it?
KE: It's almost cliché, but you've got to put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child. I had to pay attention to the way I was reacting before I could help my son work on his own issues.

PD: What else worked?
KE: Meds helped us. I'm neutral on meds now, whereas before, I was hysterically opposed. There's a lot of irresponsible garbage out there that says meds will make your kids into zombies, they'll lead to depression, they'll give you cancer. Before you believe it all, you should spend time to track down the studies these claims originated from and see what those studies are based on. There are some important cautions with meds, though, and a lot of side effects. You need to find the right brand, the right dose, etc. They're not a strategy you can rely on for life, but in a crisis, they can help stabilize a child and give that child the experience of reacting with self-control.

My son is off meds now, though. He didn't want to take the meds after the one year, and I certainly didn't want to make him. Buzz was much more interested in neurofeedback [a process in which a patient is connected to a computer screen by electrodes that read their brain waves, and rewarded with pleasing images when they manage to calm and focus their thoughts]. The National Institute of Mental Health is about to release the results of their first federally-funded study on neurofeedback and from what I've heard, it's going to be positive. There are a lot of therapists out there offering it as treatment for ADD and a way to cure stress. And a lot of former skeptics are taking a second look. My son found it so interesting that he just wrote a school report on it.

PD: Okay, this is a bit embarrassing, but there's someone at my door. I'm sorry, but I need to check this out. Please excuse me. [Pause.] Sorry, I didn't realize I'd be getting a delivery today.
KE: It's okay. I understand.

PD: Thanks. You write in the book about how our culture isn't helping when it comes to people trying to maintain focus and attention. I'm trying to completely ignore the iPad and BlackBerry that are also sitting on my desk while I'm talking to you. You're not a fan of all this technology, are you?
KE: Those of us with ADD might be pretty far out in terms of distractions, but other people are getting there. Technology is shortening our attention spans. I find that sad. But maybe that's just the way our society is evolving. It's hard for me to see the benefits.

I'm on Facebook, but I never post anything. A bunch of people follow me on Twitter, but I don't tweet. The Internet is a black hole for me; I could spend whole days surfing. So I admitted to myself that I wasn't in charge. I downloaded a program that prevents me from checking my email unless I reboot my entire computer. I think we all have to admit that the technology has gotten ahead of our brains.

I was at a conference of lawyers recently, and while the speaker was talking, the people in the audience all had their gadgets out; they were only half-listening, half-participating. Not much came out of the meeting. People with ADHD are like the canaries in the coal mine. We're much more vulnerable to this stuff. So maybe we're the ones who'll have to think about what to do to control it. I think that's the way this book is more universal, that it's got something to say to more than just parents of kids with ADHD.

PD: And since somebody is trying to start a web chat with me right now, I'm going to say that, yes, I agree.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.