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An Interview with Katherine Ellison on ADHD

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 28th 2011

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Katherine EllisonMs. Ellison, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, is an adult with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD, and the mother of a son who also is diagnosed with ADHD. She has written a book, Buzz, about her experiences living with and coming to terms with ADHD in herself and her son. Ms. Ellison reports she has always been a restless and easily bored person. She gravitated towards journalism in part because it offered her an opportunity to work in a highly stimulating, rapidly changing environment which fit her need for constant novelty. Though decorated for the quality of her work (for her 1980s era coverage of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines) she was also prone to make mistakes and several times was nearly sued for inaccurate reportage. As a younger person she was skeptical about the validity of ADHD and critical of parents who allowed their children to be medicated for ADHD. However, as she became a parent of a child with ADHD symptoms and grappled with parenting issues made more difficult by her own tendency towards distraction she came around. Her son was medicated for a period of one year and showed dramatic improvement in terms of his ability to concentrate and to make friends and a decrease in oppositional behaviors. After being diagnosed herself she came to understand and appreciate the role this condition has played in the lives of multiple generations of her family.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Katherine Ellison about ADHD. Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer-Prize winning former foreign correspondent, the mother of two boys, and the author of four books. She spent a total of 15 years covering Asia and Latin America for Knight Ridder newspapers. Her books include most recently The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter, and the even more recently released Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.

Now, here's the interview.

Katherine Ellison, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Katherine Ellison: Thank you very much.

David: Well, it's great to have this opportunity to speak with you. I discovered you as a result of an article that you wrote for The Washington Post that got reprinted in my local paper. And in that article, you wrote about your family's struggle with ADD or attention deficit disorder, and then I discovered that there was actually a book behind the article: Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.

Katherine Ellison: That's right. I was very, very fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to spend a year really looking into what it means to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since both my son and I were diagnosed within months of each other, and I figured that maybe it was the reason - or it had to do with why we were clashing so much. We were fighting all the time, and our relationship was really breaking down, so I just want to do everything I could to try to repair it.

David: Yes. Well, before we get into your book, I think this is a first for me: interviewing a Pulitzer Prize winner. I've interviewed people who've been on Oprah, people who've presented on, people who've been on TV and who've written for the movies, people who have met with the Pope and the Dalai Lama.

Katherine Ellison: Wow.

David: And at least one Rhodes Scholar, but I think you're my first Pulitzer Prize winner.

Katherine Ellison: Well, what an honor.

David: Well, it's an honor for me. So let's start by your recounting the background on your winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Katherine Ellison: Oh, sure. This was - it's actually ancient history now. When I first started out in newspapers, I worked for The San Jose Mercury News. And this was like in 1984, I had the opportunity to work with another reporter on a series about Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, who had taken all this money from the Philippine treasury and invested it in extravagant real estate in the United States.

David: And shoes, right?

Katherine Ellison: And shoes, probably shoes, too. The taxpayers probably paid for her shoes. So I went back and forth to the Philippines a lot, and it was just a very exciting year. It was the year that long - the dictatorship of the Marcos's, that was backed by the United States, finally fell apart, and our series probably had something to do with it, which is why it had that recognition. It was tremendously exciting. I actually got to go into the palace just as the Marcos's were leaving.

David: Well, you write so well that it's not surprising that you got a Pulitzer Prize for this.

Katherine Ellison: Thank you.

David: And of course my reference to shoes is that what I remember about Imelda Marcos was - somehow what came out was that she had this huge collection of shoes.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. One of my favorite souvenirs from that time, I have a picture of myself holding up one of her disco shoes, which had a clear heel and it was this battery-powered flashing light. So she had all sorts of shoes.

David: Yeah. You also mention in the book that the Pulitzer Prize came on the heels of you being sued for $11 million. Now, what the heck was that about? And how is it that you're still financially alive at all?

Katherine Ellison: Well, the suit was dropped, thank goodness.

David: Oh, boy.

Katherine Ellison: But I think it's a kind of an interesting example, although it's rather extreme, of what life can be like for somebody with attention deficit disorder. You can have highs and lows, like look at Michael Phillips, who won all those gold medals at the Olympics and then a couple months later was photographed with a bong. I mean that, for many people, is kind of a typical story.

So, yeah, I made a careless reporting mistake in a story about a trial that I was covering; it was a very high profile trial. Interestingly enough, as I claim in the book - just for my own sake - that what I wrote ended up being true, because I implicated this woman who 10 years later was arrested for this crime. But at the time, she hadn't been charged, so she and her lawyer sued me and the newspaper. But it eventually just went away because they ended up having a lot of troubles of their own.

David: Wow, what a close call. I could just imagine being on the receiving end of that letter.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. I can still remember it very clearly.

David: Yeah, that would activate all of one's nervous system for sure.

Katherine Ellison: And you know what was amazing? I'll tell you just what it was: I was making, as a rookie reporter - I was very successful in some ways: I did a lot of front page stories, and my editors really seemed to like me. But then I started making all these mistakes, and at the time, I found a therapist who said - who told me - and maybe this was true, too - that I was trying to self-destruct for some reason, so we explored what that might be for years and kind of didn't get anywhere. And I think maybe it was simply that I was distracted. Who knows?

David: Yes.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. Many years later, I got my diagnosis. But in the meantime, I learned to just really pay attention to every single thing that I wrote, which I obviously should have done before.

David: Yes. Well, the title of your book is Buzz, which is a very clever device because it does double duty as the pseudonym for your hyperactive son and as the - can I say it? - onomatopoetic title.

Katherine Ellison: That's it. There you go.

David: That's onomatopoeia - onomatopoetic title which suggests high energy, maybe even frazzled high energy.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah.

David: And your book is described as a memoir, but it really is much more than that because not only is it an account of your personal journey with ADD, but is also chock full of information and resources that would be relevant for anyone who's struggling with these issues.

Katherine Ellison: Thank you. That's really my goal. I mean I wanted to write our life story because I think it's pretty interesting the train of events that happened, but I also really - I felt so isolated in dealing with this that one of my goals was really to try to help people who were feeling that same way.

David: Good. Well, let's cut to the chase. The book recounts the challenges of trying to raise a hyperactive son, and in the process, you discover your own attention-related hyperactive issues as well. So let's start with you. How's it possible that such a high-performance, successful journalist and author such as yourself could have these issues?

Katherine Ellison: Well, thanks, David. You know, it's very possible because, as I mentioned before, life can really be a rollercoaster. I do have a lot of energy and I'm kind of an intense person, so when I'm interested in something, I really focus in. And I guess, as I've kind of analyzed it since, it seems like, as a kid, I sort of learned that I was going to have to work a lot harder than I thought just to kind of make up for the silly mistakes that I would make.

And also I'll tell you another thing that was very important is I found some very, very good therapists and guides along the way. So in that way I was extremely lucky that I had - I could find support. Two of my siblings are psychiatrists, so I ended up talking a lot to them through the years.

David: Oh, yeah.

Katherine Ellison: So that was a great - we have a very close family, and that was a great lucky support too. Also, I got into a job, journalism, which is full of people with ADHD. We're all novelty seekers, so I really do believe that if you get yourself into an environment that's conducive to your particular brain, you can do well. But that's a big trick.

David: Yeah. I was intrigued when you pointed that out in the book, that journalism is well suited to someone with ADD, and I guess one of the sort of subtexts of the book, really, is that not only is there deficit, but there are strengths and gifts that come along with that diagnosis as well.

Katherine Ellison: That's obviously a big debate among people who study ADHD: is it a gift, is it a curse? And I do think it is potentially both, and it's a gift only if you do a whole lot of work in managing it.

David: Um-hmm. How did you discover that you had ADD yourself? At what point did you get diagnosed? When did you first suspect it, or did you, before you got diagnosed?

Katherine Ellison: Well, I remember hearing about it in the 1980s, even as I was making these mistakes at the newspaper, and making fun of it because most people I knew, we were all very cynical about it and the meds the people would take for it. It was a joking matter. It wasn't until I realized that something in me was interfering with my parenting that I was motivated to go back to an old psychiatrist and ask him if he thought I was eligible for the diagnosis, and he did think so.

And so then, like lots of people who are sort of making this journey from first recognizing it in their children, I was able to see my life in a new light, which was very helpful. I mean ADHD is a very amorphous kind of disorder. It's kind of a grab bag of symptoms that at the core there's something there, and it does describe a real deficit, a real way of being in the world. And so to have that label ended up being very helpful to me, and I'm grateful to my son for showing me the way.

David: Well, you've already mentioned that you were error prone and that you learned that you had to compensate for certain kinds of mistakes and pay more close attention to what you were doing. Were there other ways that, symptomatically, that this showed up in your life?

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. I'm really, really restless, and I get bored very easily, and apparently this is a common condition for people with ADHD - a low threshold for boredom. And where that was really a problem was when I came home from being a foreign correspondent in Brazil to live in the suburbs and I had these two kids, and while I did have a lot of interesting things to do with my work, caring for the kids day after day is a kind of a - kids can be a boring job; let's face it. It's routine; you don't get a lot of immediate feedback; children can be very interesting, but not all the time; and so that kind of got to be a problem for me, frankly, as much as I love them.

David: Yes, I totally understand that. I've raised four kids myself, and now I've got grandkids, and as you say, I love them dearly and to spend a lot of time with them is difficult because I have all these projects in my own life, and you have to -

Katherine Ellison: Right. Work is so much more interesting.

David: Yeah, you have to slow down to get into sort of their time frame. As you researched ADD, you discovered that there's a strong genetic component and even found this to be the case in your own family's lineage. Do I have that right?

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. I think a lot of people actually aren't aware of just how hereditary this disorder is, and it's really the leading cause. There are other causes; there is a lot of interesting research into some environmental causes such as pesticides and women smoking when they're pregnant. But the most common cause is hereditary, and so I was very intrigued by this because my dad is a very curious character, and I write about him a lot. I have a lot of affection but also a real desire to understand him, because he played kind of an up and down role in my childhood. And I also found that his grandfather had a really interesting story. He was the first of our extended family to leave Poland, which was really terrific. I probably wouldn't be born today if he hadn't. But then there was a family inheritance that he returned to Poland to pick up, and on the way back from that, he stopped in Monte Carlo and gambled it all away at the tables there.

David: Wow.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. So who knows? I can't diagnose him from afar and after all this time, but definitely gambling is one of the risks for people with this disorder because it's very intense stimulation.

David: Yeah, and in fact on the genetic theme, I think you pointed out that if one identical twin suffers from ADD, there's a very high likelihood that the other one will have that. Do you remember the number? I don't quite remember what it was.

Katherine Ellison: I don't think I quoted that if that's a study. That's not coming to mind, but what I did say - I think - is I understand that if you have a child with ADHD, there's like a 40 percent or more chance that one of the parents has it as well; so working backward, yeah.

David: Okay. Maybe I'm misremembering that.

Katherine Ellison: I think that's the one. I can't recall any studies on identical twins. I'm sure there are some.

David: Well, let's turn to your son, who in the book you call Buzz. What was life with Buzz like before diagnosis and treatment?

Katherine Ellison: It was really, really difficult. I mean when he was first a baby, he was very, very high maintenance, but of course we thought, since he was our first child, my husband and I figured that's how all babies are - until his brother came along and slept through the night and wasn't always bumping into doors and things. So he was hyperactive even as a toddler.

But where it really showed up - and this I understand this is pretty typical - is when he was about nine years old, and he started really getting negative reaction at school. Socially, he was becoming kind of an outcast, and he was also getting a lot of pressure from his teachers, who really - it surprised me, because despite all we've learned about this disorder, the depth of misunderstanding in the school can be very harmful to kids, and it really - it kind of amazed me how little teachers really understood about what he was capable of and what he wasn't.

For instance, he would detentions for moving around in the classroom - which he really couldn't help - or sometimes forgetting to bring his binder. And later when we found out - when we had him diagnosed by a nurse psychologist, we found that his working memory is extremely poor, so if you get a kid like that in the classroom and say, "Okay, let's get out your books, kids, and turn to page 17 and get your pencils out," he is lost at "get out your books." So he would get punished for that or get embarrassed for not being able to do those things.

And so he began - another typical case - bringing a lot of that frustration home, picking on his brother, who was much more successful, picking on me. He just wasn't very happy at all.

David: And the results of that testing was paradoxical in a way, you point out, because although it showed that he had this very poor working memory, it also revealed that he's quite bright.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah, and actually it's not paradoxical because you often see in gifted students - I've read statistics that one out of six gifted children have some sort of learning disability. So our brains are just so varied that it's quite common for people to be good in one area and really not so good in another, and that's the case with him. But with him, the unfortunate result was that teachers would think that he was smart because he'd verbally very proficient, but then when he couldn't do those simple things like remembering an instruction or bringing home his homework, they thought he just wasn't trying. So, little by little, all the input he was getting from the outside world was negative.

David: Now, eventually he was diagnosed as having ADD and ODD - oppositional defiant disorder. What's the relationship between ADD and ODD?

Katherine Ellison: Well, first, I really have to say that oppositional defiant disorder is an extremely controversial diagnosis. If ADD is controversial, ODD is about 20 times that, and some people think it's just completely made up, and others think, yeah, of course a child's going to be oppositional if all he's getting from the outside world is this negative feedback. So I've heard estimates of up to 80 percent, but at least about half of the kids with ADHD are also often diagnosed with ODD. And I really have come to believe that it's this syndrome where naturally they start getting this very rebellious attitude towards a world that doesn't understand them and doesn't appreciate their best efforts.

David: In the book it seemed to me that you mostly used ADD. Just now you mentioned ADHD, which actually seems to me to better describe Buzz. What's the distinction there for you in terms of your research into ADD and ADHD?

Katherine Ellison: Okay, so that's a really great question because I know I've been going back and forth, and that's kind of typical I suppose of somebody who's distracted, but the problem is that right now in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is the bible of psychiatry, the diagnosis is ADHD, but it was until 1987 ADD. Now, you have ADHD and you have different subtypes underneath it, but really the proper, formal way to talk about it is ADHD.

David: Okay.

Katherine Ellison: In the book, I said ADD just because it's just so common that people still refer to it as that, and it's kind of the popular idea of attention deficit disorder, and it's also more simple. So maybe we can decide what we'll call it from now on.

David: Okay.

Katherine Ellison: In the book, I ended up calling it quite a lot "clinically distracted."

David: Yeah. Now, you point out that there are many risks and downsides that accompany ADHD; for example, that young adults with the disorder have four times as many car accidents, five times the rate of suicide attempts, ten times as many teen pregnancies, twice as likely to be arrested, and up to three times as likely to abuse alcohol and drugs. This was news to me.

Katherine Ellison: Oh, really? Well, most of these statistics come from Russell Barkley, who is just one of the very, very prominent figures in the field. He's been doing longitudinal research for many, many years, and I call him Dr. Doom in the book, which it's a little familiar. He's sort of the representative of all these things that can go wrong that really are borne out by his statistics, and it's quite frightening if you're a parent and you're looking at these probabilities. You realize that you're going to have to work a whole lot harder to try to spare your child some of these outcomes.

David: Yes, a lot of the account in the book of the memoir is really your really being worried about those kinds of outcomes.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. And actually that was part of my journey, I guess, is I had to stop being so reactive to everything he did. This is kind of common too I think, for parents and children to get into this vicious circle where every thing that your son does that's negative immediately brings forth this image of him in jail. I had to stop thinking the worst all the time, but reading a lot of Russell Barkley didn't help.

David: Yeah. I was intrigued by your account of the ability to postpone gratification as a predictor of ADHD, and you cited Daniel Goleman's marshmallow test. Maybe you could take us through that.

Katherine Ellison: Okay. Well, Daniel Goleman wrote about this test in his book Emotional Intelligence, but he didn't do the test; it was some researchers at Stanford I think in the 1960s. But this is a very famous experiment in which preschoolers were offered the chance of either they could have one marshmallow right away or, if they could wait for a while, they could have two marshmallows, basically. So those who couldn't wait ended up - they followed up with these kids, and they found that they had just much worse outcomes: they were worse students; they had worse employment prospects. So it's an extremely important indicator of how you're going to do in life.

David: Fascinating that such a simple, little test and early in life had such predictive ability. That's just really incredible.

Katherine Ellison: Right, yeah.

David: One of the things you really wrestled with was whether to medicate Buzz or not, and you did a lot of research on the medication issue before making your decision. Perhaps you can share with us some of what you found out.

Katherine Ellison: Sure. In the beginning - I live in the San Francisco Bay area, and I was very crunchy, I guess is the term. I really, really, really, resisted giving my child medication. I felt very strongly that the pharmaceutical industries have a lot of unfair advantages: they can market directly to the public in the United States and New Zealand only; they lobby politicians; they pay researchers. The whole thing just seemed like a bad deal, and I felt sure that there were a lot of probably bad impacts that weren't being publicized because of the great power of these industries.

But we got to a point where my son was just so - he was going downhill so fast. He was getting just such negative input from the world, at school, and so unhappy, that - I have an uncle actually who's a child psychiatrist, and he said, "It's just imperative that you try medication," and I finally came around to trying it with him. My husband also had to be convinced. He was really, really opposed, and we were very judgmental about other parents who medicated their children.

Then my son tried the medication. He had a really great year actually. He made friends; he did better in school; his teachers really liked him; and he got the experience of being more in control of himself, which was pretty great. At the end of that year, he decided that he didn't want to continue with the medication, and we were also still wary of it. I actually spent a lot of time looking into each of the things that people say about the medications. The Internet is full of really scary stories that it's going to make your kid depressed; it's going to make him a midget, a zombie. There's very inflammatory stuff thrown around.

And I sort of tracked down - as wearing my journalist's hat, I looked into each of these reports and found that in fact it looks as if that giving the medication is fairly safe. There is an effect on height that's been documented, and also - and this really struck me - one of the big federal studies found that, after about the first couple of years, the long-term outcomes of medication versus not medication really aren't that different. So, for a lot of reasons, I was okay with him stopping with the medication after a year.

And in fact I found out later that kids on average only stay on the meds for about a year, so that really argues against the meds-for-life strategy. A lot of families feel that meds are going to take care of their problem forever. They don't work for every kid. They don't necessarily help you if they have terrible side effects, and in the long term, you really have to try a lot of other things. I think you just can't avoid that if you're going to help manage this problem.

David: Yeah, I think you said you put - at least for a while, you put both yourself and Buzz - I think you tried it out yourself first before putting him on it - on Methylphenidate? Am I saying that right?

Katherine Ellison: Yes, right, which is Ritalin. Methylphenidate is the component of Ritalin. Ritalin is the formula.

David: Okay. And it seems so paradoxical to give speed to someone who's highly distracted, but you have an interesting discussion in the book on why speed works for ADHD in terms of brain function. Perhaps you can take us through that.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah, I did actually find that really interesting. The theory is that the stimulants stimulate parts of your brain that are involved in inhibition, so it's like improving your braking system or revving up your braking system. So whereas people might think that it's going to make kids more hyperactive, it actually helps them slow down.

David: Yes, and you even suggest that many ADHD people end up unconsciously self-medicating with caffeine or other kinds of stimulants.

Katherine Ellison: Right. I sure have a caffeine habit of many years and, yeah - and I've definitely - the addiction rate is higher. But this is one thing that - it's kind of a sore point with me because a lot of doctors will pressure parents into trying the medication for their children, saying that if they don't, the child is going to wind up trying drugs. I'm not sure that that - from the research that I've seen, that connection has never been proven. It's kind of a way to pressure people. But parents should be aware that these kids do have a tendency, more of a tendency, to explore recreational drugs.

David: I was interested in the portion where you discuss having consulted a Dr. Daniel Amen, who people in the U.S. might have seen on PBS lately. He's periodically there advertising his services, and he does brain scans of people to diagnose various disorders, and I believe you consulted him for yourself. I'm not sure if you took Buzz to him. I was interested because, on my other podcast series, I interviewed him actually before ever seeing him on PBS, and I had some of the same ambivalence about his work that you went through. I wasn't sure what to conclude about his use of brain scans to diagnose such a wide range of neurological problems.

Katherine Ellison: I was really fascinated by him. Our school principal recommended that I read his books and take my son to his clinic. A lot of people turn to his clinics. I said it's like a Lourdes for a lot of parents with kids that they can't manage. He struck me as a really wonderful clinician, very empathetic, very nice man, and I believe that he helps a lot of people. As for his brain scans, they're really, really controversial in the mainstream community, and a few people who are quite respectable and prominent said, "If you include him in your book, you'll just ruin your own credibility" because people think that he is a businessman above all, and promoting these scans when there's really not good evidence that you can diagnose ADHD from a single scan.

I went to see him, and he scanned my brain, and he produced an image of my brain and pointed to one part of it and said, "There's your ADHD" - right? And another expert afterwards, a leading scientist in the field, said, "If somebody says, 'There's your ADHD,' you should grab your purse and run, because it's just not possible." The technology isn't up to prime time.

David: And it is fairly expensive, right, to get that brain scan?

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. For me it was - well, it was $2,000 plus the cost of the trip to Los Angeles. Plus, to have the scan, you have to be injected with radioactive isotope, and that was the main reason that I decided I wasn't - I was very curious about what the scan would show about my son's brain, but I decided that that probably wasn't a fair thing to do to him because it wasn't going to add to my knowledge in any useful way.

David: Yeah, and one can spend a lot of money chasing after cures, as in fact you recount in your book.

Katherine Ellison: I should just add that Dr. Amen says that the radioactive isotope is not a risk to children. I just thought that it was not a risk that was justified by what I would get in return, so it might have been a minimal risk, but it just seemed to me like not a good one to take. And, yes, I talk about what I call the ADHD industrial complex, which is not only the pharmaceutical industry but all these alternative treatments that are often so expensive and mostly unregulated and range from anything from magnetic mattresses to custom-made contact lenses, to the experience of swimming with dolphins. They're all advertised they're going to cure your child's ADHD.

David: Wow. Earlier we were talking about genetics. You cite some very recent research on what's called epigenetics, showing the interaction between the environment and the expression of genetic traits. Can you tell us a little about that?

Katherine Ellison: Sure. This is a pretty fascinating trend in science I think. And it's actually been around for some years now, but there's more and more work on it as there's more and more evidence that actually factors in the environment can change the way the genes are expressed. Michael Meaney at McGill University has done some really cool research with rats for instance, where, as an example, the amount to which a rat's mother will lick and groom the rat will actually change the way that the rat handles stress in later life. So there you have an environmental effect actually changing the way your genes behave. So this idea that genes aren't the only thing that determine your temperament or what kind of nature you're going to have is a very powerful idea.

David: Yeah. I'm not sure if you pointed out - this was a strain of rats that had been bred to be distractable, right?

Katherine Ellison: No, no. I don't that - I don't think so in Michael Meaney's research. I might have missed something, but not that I know of.

David: Okay. I'm probably screwing it up myself.

Katherine Ellison: Not to worry. I mean I'm amazed at how closely you read the book, so thank you for that. No, I'll tell you - there was an experiment with humans actually. Oh, no - they weren't [unclear]. Michael Posner did an experiment, did a study, of children - if I've got this right - who were found to have a gene associated with - or gene variant - associated with ADHD and novelty seeking in particular, and found that the kind of parenting that they had - if it was authoritarian, not great kinds of parenting - could actually make it worse.

And there was also another experiment with low-birthrate babies who would be predisposed to possibly have ADHD, and in that experiment, it was found that the amount of maternal warmth could determine whether those traits were going to appear in later life.

David: Well, I'm impressed that you can remember all of that, because any time I write something, it's like once I get it down on the page, that's out of sight, out of mind.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah. Well, I've been talking a lot about this stuff, so...

David: Yeah. Much of your book is about the stresses of being the mother of a child with ADHD and ODD - if it exists - and you've touched on this somewhat already. Your account is more harrowing than I ever imagined. What's it like raising an ADD or ADHD kid?

Katherine Ellison: Well, everybody's experience obviously is different. In my case, I think the combination of our two hot-headed personalities made it kind of harrowing because we were just getting into a lot of conflict and I wasn't really understanding what was going on. So, again, I had a unique blessing to be able to write this book and really dedicate a year to straightening things out.

And early on, a neuroscientist friend of mine - I was complaining about my son to him while doing an interview, which wasn't very professional, but he suddenly said, "You just have to be calm." And that really hit me because I realized that I wasn't a calm person, and that if I was going to help my son and help my family, I really had to find a way to get calmer. And some of the things that we explored during that year did actually help. So, while things aren't perfect, they're a lot better, and I do feel more capacity to take a breath before I yell and maybe sometimes not yell at all.

David: Yeah. Well, you really struggled with feeling like - I don't know if pariah's the right word, but really feeling like you were a bad mother, like a horrible mother. And yet as you researched this, you discovered that your experiences weren't altogether unique.

Katherine Ellison: Right, and believe me, since I've written the book, I'm getting like literally two to three emails a day from mothers who say, "You've written my story." Which is really sad, although I hope the book offers some comfort. You do get judged socially, and your child might not have a lot of friends, so then both you and he get more isolated. At school, you're kind of embarrassed when you appear on campus. My other son actually is kind of - they say he's the anti-Buzz. He really evolved into a good student and popular, and so, when I walk on campus, I swagger when I'm going to his school. But it's really unfortunate that, even at this day and age, there's so little understanding that parents are judged in this way, because that's the least thing that we need. We really need a lot more support than we're getting.

And I really have to add that, harrowing as it's been and difficult as it's been, my older son is pretty wonderful too. He's got a great sense of humor. I think that he's got a tremendous amount to give the world, and I'm increasingly confident that he will.

David: Yeah, towards the end of the book, he actually completes his bar mitzvah, and you give a wonderful account of that, of his humor and so on, and of your pride and relief that he was able to focus enough to learn the rather demanding material that's required.

Katherine Ellison: That was a wonderful day. We've had our ups and downs since then, but just the fact that he got through that with the grace that he did - he was wearing a white tuxedo at the time - it continues to make me feel very happy and confident that we're on the right path.

David: Yeah. Well, after your year-long experience, a year of looking into all sorts of remedies and practices, you were able to summarize what worked for you and what didn't. For example, you cover meds, which we spoke about already, but also neuro-feedback, vitamin supplements, toxins, exercise, a section that you call "Buyer Beware," meditation, and education. Maybe you can take us through some of the ones that we haven't mentioned yet.

Katherine Ellison: Sure. I hope it's okay to note that people, listeners, can go to my website,, and see articles that I've written. I've tried to be reporting on some other discoveries since the book and before it, so you can find those articles on my website. They've been published in places like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

I looked into neuro-feedback a lot, and I think that there's a lot of hope for that treatment. The problem is it's extremely costly; it takes a lot of time. But it's pretty fascinating. It's basically biofeedback for the brain. You sit with electrodes on your head and look at a computer screen, and you see images like exploding stars or a blossoming garden that progress and reward you; like you'll hear rewarding sounds and see beautiful pictures if you're doing it right, which means that you have to slow down and concentrate and be calm, or you won't. So, it's sort of like a meditation retreat on steroids, because you're getting constant feedback all the time, and you're really kept on your path.

Meditation is so hard for most people who are distracted by nature, so sometimes you just - it could be setting you to fail. But with neuro-feedback, you actually have a lot of support. So I do think that both of us, both my son and I, benefitted from neuro-feedback. It's just an anecdotal report, but more and more we're seeing studies that show that neuro-feedback is very helpful for a lot of brain-based problems.

A lot of the studies are being done in Europe because in the United States I think for some reason the field got a little tarnished when people were making extravagant claims in the '70s. But I think U.S. researchers are beginning to pay more attention to it, and we'll probably see some interesting studies in the next few years.

David: That's fascinating. What about vitamin supplements? In your own experimentation, I think you discarded some claims and there were some that you thought might have some merit.

Katherine Ellison: Yeah, I'm really not sure. People will tell you vitamin B is the thing to take, or ginseng. The only thing that I've seen very convincing research on is fish oil, which I mention in the book. There are a lot of studies that say that fish oil can help people with their focus and with their moods, so Buzz actually today is taking it, so I think he feels like it's doing him some good. For a while he wasn't.

David: You mentioned meditation, and I know that you live not so far from the Spirit Rock Meditation Retreat Center. Did you in fact attend any sessions there or bring a meditation practice into your life?

Katherine Ellison: I tried very hard to, with up and down kind of success. Actually Buzz went to a middle schooler's meditation program for a year, which was fantastic because, even though mostly he played around, got into trouble there, he was exposed to this tool, which I believe that he'll be able to pick up later in life. I mention it's difficult for people with our temperament to do it, but there's lots of research that shows that meditation or yoga especially - there's some research about yoga that really is encouraging. And there you're moving, so that can be very great for kids. And for adults, I find yoga really calming.

Exercise in general - a lot of doctors might not mention it for somebody with ADHD, but there is research to really show that exercise helps a lot. And I think when you were asking before what has helped me achieve anything in my career, I'm a total exercise junkie, and I really do think that that's been very helpful to me.

David: Yes, in fact you mention Dr. Ratey at Harvard, who wrote a book. I think it's called Spark. I actually interviewed him as well.

Katherine Ellison: You've interviewed everybody.

David: Yeah, well, I'm working on it. I'm working on it.

Katherine Ellison: Yes, he's great, and I think there's really something to that, and it's just such a tragedy that schools are cutting back on recess and cutting back on kids moving around. It's just a no-brainer that they need to move.

David: Oh, yes. I totally agree. So speaking of having interviewed everybody, it's time to begin to wind this interview down. I wonder if there's anything else you'd like to say as we conclude.

Katherine Ellison: I would like to say that for people with ADHD - and really anybody - it's so important to find your bliss, as Joseph Campbell I guess would say. As parents, I think we have to try our best to help our children be in places where they can shine. The biggest I guess casualty for somebody with ADHD is the loss of self-esteem, so it's not just being distracted and bumping into things that's your problem. It's the way that the world reacts to you, and this loss of self-confidence and self-esteem I think is the thing that leads to all those bad outcomes, so it's really important to find where you can be strong and nurture that.

David: An excellent thought to close with. Katherine Ellison, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.

Katherine Ellison: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

David: I certainly hope you enjoyed this conversation with Katherine Ellison. I know I had fun in speaking with her. I can really recommend her book Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention to you. It's a very personal account of a year out of her life, and it's written with great verve and humor. At the same time, it's a rich resource for anyone needing accurate information on ADHD. As an investigative reporter, she really knows how to dig into a topic and to weigh the evidence. The book includes chapter notes with references and suggestions for resources to follow up. And, as you heard her suggest, her website is also a rich source of relevant information. Her URL once again is

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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About Katherine Ellison

Katherine EllisonKatherine Ellison is a Pulitzer-prize winning former foreign correspondent, the mother of two boys and the author of four books. She spent a total of 15 years covering Asia and Latin America for Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Her books include, most recently, "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter," and the even more recently released "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention."

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