Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hummingbird Mind: My son Kevin, the climber

To commemorate ADD/ADHD Awareness Week (Sept. 14-18), I offer this essay, "We Are Distracted," which in a slightly different form appeared in the 1996 book In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction, W.W. Norton, edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones.)


We are distracted by the agility of my eight-year-old son Kevin as he clambers up the slick granite rock formation near Rocky Mountain National Park. He is fifty feet above us; we are a bit frightened by the risks he takes, the way he clings like a human fly to the sides of the rock. We all look up and watch one of Kevin's handholds become a fingerhold and just when it's about to become a no-hold, he pushes off the rock with his feet, leaps a three-foot gap between spires, and wraps his arms tightly around the precious purchase he has made with this part of the Rockies.

We are like three slugs on a slab -- Kevin's classmate Freeman, his father Randy, and I. We lean against the cool rock surface of this six-million-year-old mountain and watch Kevin. We look up and Kevin never looks down. It would break his concentration, interrupt his communion with the rock, I think. To concentrate is everything for Kevin. He can't do it for extended periods of time unless he is under the influence of Ritalin, a drug that helps him control his hyperactivity-inspired impulsiveness. Right now as he climbs toward the sharp blue Colorado sky, the Ritalin, a central nervous system stimulant, is working on my son's brain stem arousal system causing to not be aroused. Medical researchers are not sure why a stimulant has the opposite effect on hyperactive kids. Says the 1994 Physician's Desk Reference: There is no "specific evidence which clearly establishes the mechanism whereby Ritalin produces its mental and behavioral effects on children, nor conclusive evidence regarding how these effects relate to the condition of the central nervous system."


When Kevin is in the classroom and a bird flies to a branch on a tree across the street, he will stop everything and look at the bird. A whispered comment at the opposite end of the classroom might as well be a sonic boom. If he is surrounded by too much energy in his orbit, he absorbs the energy. It sometimes causes him to twist and whirl and slam into his playmates; not so much now as when he was toddler and his way of playing was FULL BODY CONTACT. Slam, bam - and there was suddenly a kid crying, one nonplused Kevin and usually a very pissed-off parent, who soon would be in my face, asking me why I didn't control my son on the playground because he was really going to hurt someone someday.


Physicians have been prescribing Ritalin (a.k.a. methylphenidate) for more than 30 years for a condition that has been known as Minimal Brain Damage (MBD), Minimal Brain Dysfunction in Children (MBDC), Attention deficit Disorder (ADD), and ADD with Hyperactivity (ADHD). If some progressive therapists and groups such as CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder) have their way, the official designation may one day be changed to Attention Deficit Syndrome with hyperactivity (ADHS). This alphabet soup can be confusing. Once, on his first day at a new school, my son announced in front of the class that he had ADHD. The next day, several very nervous parents called the school, concerned about the new student who had AIDS. Being a "hyper" kid turns you into one type or pariah; AIDS carriers get special mistreatment. It was weeks before the confusion was straightened out. But the impression had been made. Kevin was different; different is bad.


Some critics, such as noted psychiatrist Peter R. Breggin, regard ADD/ADHD as chimeras, non-conditions, a conspiracy by the entrenched psychiatric establishment to dose our children with drugs. "Just Say No To Ritalin!" could be their battle cry.Thom Hartmann published the 1993 book Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perspective." He once summed up his book this way: "If you lived 10,000 years ago, before the agricultural revolution, and were part of a hunting society, then the ability to have an 'open, highly distractible' state of mind would be an asset. Walking through the woods/jungle, if you didn't notice that flash of light out of the corner of your eye, you may miss either the bunny which is lunch, or get eaten by a tiger."

Hartmann surmises that the ADD hunters were survivors and their DNA went into the gene pool. "Modern people with ADD are those with leftover 'hunter' genes."

There are a few problems with the theory. Since impulsiveness is one of the hallmarks of ADD and ADHD, isn't it likely that the hunter with hyperactivity might charge headlong into a herd of charging mastodons without considering the consequences? Maybe he would neglect to tread carefully in saber-tooth tiger country?


The pharmacist always gives me a yellow sheet with Kevin's Ritalin prescription. Under "Side Effects" it reads: "Decreased appetite; stomach ache; difficulty falling asleep; headache." Under "Cautions:" DO NOT DRIVE, OPERATE MACHINERY, OR DO ANYTHING ELSE that might be dangerous until you know how you react to this medicine." It says nothing about rock climbing, although you might infer that it comes under "dangerous," or at least, risky.


Kevin never has fallen. When he was two, he climbed the highest trees in the park near our Denver home. Fifty-foot-tall pines and spruces. The first time he did this, her looked down at me and said, "You worried, Daddy?"

"Yes," I said, which seemed to please him.

So what if he falls? Randy, Freeman, and I watch him climb and this occurs to them because Randy says, "Does this worry you?"

"Yes," I say, "it worries me." And it thrills me too. I've seen him all alone on the playground because the mothers won't let their kids near him. I've seen him mark time in his room, usually because he's been restricted in some way because he's had trouble at home or on the school bus or on the playground.


Do rock climbers dream about falling or of flying? Do hyperactive kids dream of solitude on a granite mountain? Or do they dream of this: dancing and laughing, surrounded by friends, the mountains a distant mirage?

From the author: This was written 16 years ago, when my son Kevin was eight. At 24, he's a college student in Arizona, doing his own thing.


mpage225 said...


One of my favorites, thanks.


Kevin Shay said...

I love you so much, Dad. The end of this made me cry. Thank you.