The XX Factor

ADHD: a Metaphor That Demands Our Attention

In the past decade, ADHD has gone from a dubious diagnosis often misread as “boys being boys” (and sometimes secretly considered a shorthand for poor parenting) to a readily acknowledged neurological disorder that reveals itself not just in behavior but in imaging studies and genetics. But the disorder’s legitimacy remains new enough for Dr. Perri Klass to worry (in the New York Times) that the casual use of the term as shorthand for much that’s changing about our society will degrade it. “A.D.H.D.,” she says, “is not a metaphor. It is not the restlessness and rambunctiousness that happen when grade-schoolers are deprived of recess, or the distraction of socially minded teenagers in the smartphone era. Nor is it the reason your colleagues check their e-mail in meetings and even (spare me!) conversations.”

All true. But when a writer as talented and honest as Katherine Ellison uses ADHD as the focus for her memoir of learning to become the parent her twelve-year-old son needs, ( Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention ) the result resonates with people whose distraction comes from the ready availability of a slew of information options rather than a possible lack of dopamine in their brain circuits. Most kids, and most parents, don’t have a clinical issue with attention. But Ellison is proof that many of the things that help someone with the disorder are things the rest of us would do better not to ignore.

After twelve years of shuffling and shuttling “Buzz,” feeding, clothing and entertaining him, Ellison is caught by her eldest son’s sudden plea that she “understand him.” For all the hours she’s put into his welfare, his diagnosis, and his treatment, she’s given far less of herself to the question of how Buzz came to be the person he is so far, and how she can help him-him, her particular son, attention-deficit, oppositional, defiant, difficult and growing up fast-become the best person he has within him. She’s been “parenting.” But she hasn’t been paying attention.

The particular crossroads of tedium and tenderness that is the life of the new parent has been well-covered. There’s been far less said about parenting’s middle age, when the squalling infant and the prattling toddler become people-smaller than us, but less noticeably so, still irrational, but noticeably less so. Our middle grade and middle school kids require that we as parents be something at once more and less than just parents. They require us to be ourselves. Buzz is the story of how Ellison makes the disorder and her sons the focus of her next year. She spends a fair amount of time on attempting to cure, reframe or just learn to live with ADHD, but even more on learning to enjoy living with the boys themselves. That means eliminating distractions in her own life and figuring out which “issues” she has with Buzz are really issues she has with herself.

Klass, like many doctors and scientists who work in the field, is anxious to insist that ADHD is neither a metaphor for a modern life of electronics nor its logical conclusion. But just as “schizo” quickly encompasses our personal indecision and “manic” our shared tendency to vacillate between joy and anxiety, ADHD is a logical shorthand for the way we allow ourselves to become distracted from the things that really matter. I downloaded Buzz to my Kindle at the recommendation of a friend, but when I looked for it in the bookstore, I found it tucked away on the parenting shelves with the ADHD advice and studies. That may fit Dr. Klass’s vision of a clinical disorder unsullied by casual analogy, but it’s still a disappointment. A book on taking a year in the middle of our parenting careers to truly pay attention to what we’re doing any why? I’d put that on a big table right in the middle of the store.