Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention tells the oldest story in the world, a story familiar to anyone who has read the Old Testament, Greek myths, or Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s the story of a wayward, willful child and a parent driven to desperation, a story of full-force collision between an older generation’s best intentions and a younger generation’s intractable resistance.
Katherine Ellison’s new memoir, however, takes a distinctly modern turn. Buzz, Ellison’s twelve-year-old son (and the wayward, willful child of the story) has been diagnosed with both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder — ADHD and ODD. This diagnostic alphabet soup means he’s clinically distracted and a pain in the neck. So just how should a parent respond when their nine-year-old child calls 911 to report that his mother took his Game Boy away? What is a mother to do with a son who brandishes a knife at her, who flounders socially and academically and who, by age twelve, has an e-mail address that begins upyours@. . . .
If you are Ellison, you drop everything and take a year, as her subtitle promises, to pay attention. You look in the mirror and confront the fact that your family life is in ruins and that you’re close to a point where either you or your child will have to leave home. Rather than reach that point, Ellison spends the year searching for ways she and Buzz can coexist, and perhaps even enjoy one another’s company.
But as Ellison — an author and Pulitzer-winning journalist — works to help Buzz, she discovers that she too has ADHD, a late-life diagnosis that both frustrates and drives her quest. Restless, curious and persistent by nature, she uses her investigative skills to explore the myriad treatments available to parents and children with ADHD. She crisscrosses the country, talking to clinicians, parents, researchers, and ADHD sufferers, looking for insight into her and her son’s condition. The journey, both into herself and out into the world, forces Ellison to confront what she describes as a storm of ping-pong balls in her head, and to understand and connect with her impulsive, unpredictable son.
Ellison’s journey begins, quite literally, with a detour. She swerves into the emergency lane on the highway as she drives — too fast and too late — to an appointment. Buzz, seated in the front seat, demands coffee NOW and his younger brother Max cowers in the back. Ellison tries to remain calm but ends up yelling, “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” in response to the boys’ squabbling. This is par for the course: Buzz pushes her buttons, and she explodes on a regular basis. Who wouldn’t? Buzz swears, throws shoes, and makes escalating and impractical demands. He wants a wallaby, his own bathroom, a trip to Fiji, a Karelian bear dog, fancy phones and electronics, and a white tuxedo to wear to his bar mitzvah. He seems impervious to punishment and consequences, and is far too clever for his own good. At one point, when Ellison tries to compromise, he wails, “I don’t negotiate with terrorists!”
In Buzz, Ellison takes a long, hard look at her son and tries to tease apart the difference between lack of motivation and disability, between can’t and won’t. She wants to discover why he behaves as he does, and why she reacts as she does. But to be the change she wants to see in her son, as Ellison puts it, she must first confront her own feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, and envy (for all those “well-rested, youthful-looking, skiing- and bowling- and yucking-it-up-with-their-kids parents”) and then dig deep into her own history and her own freighted genetic makeup.
Ellison is a questing spirit, a modern-day Odysseus, who comes from a long line of chronic wanderers. Her great-grandfather fled a small Polish town to seek fortune in the United States. Her father, a “budget breaker, a bon vivant, a blurter of unwelcome truths,” left Minnesota for California. And Ellison herself became a foreign correspondent in her early twenties, running away from home, as she says, in a socially sanctioned way. She spent the 1980s and ’90s in a succession of newspaper jobs — “magnets for restless, impatient people” — and flew from one disaster zone and political coup to another.
“Who needs Ritalin,” Ellison asks wryly, “when you can cover coups?”
By her late thirties, Ellison had traveled the world, lived in Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro, won a Pulitzer prize, covered soccer matches, samba parades, currency speculation, drug trafficking, child labor, and Amazon deforestation. She never missed a flight nor a deadline.
And then everything changed: She became a mother.
Ellison worked through Buzz’s infancy, but gave up foreign reporting shortly after her youngest son Max was born. She opted to stay home and write freelance (she penned The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter during her children’s early years). But after decades on an adrenaline high, chasing the next big story, Ellison was virtually undone by the “day-in, day-out marathon” of mothering: the sibling bickering, the pee on the toilet seat, and the innumerable phone calls from the school begging her to retrieve her son. Ellison clearly loves Buzz — says she would lay down her life for him — but as the constant interruptions started to take their toll, she grew increasingly resentful and craved time to concentrate on her own work. “For this I went to Stanford?” she mused.
During her “year of paying attention,” Ellison turns this dilemma on its head by making Buzz, motherhood and ADHD the focus of her work. With the doggedness of an investigative journalist, Ellison researches treatments for ADHD, from the conventional to the experimental. And after much soul-searching, she agrees to have Buzz try many of these options, including talk therapy, neurofeedback, meditation and medication. Gradually, Ellison notices that Buzz is less provocative and she less reactive. While their life together is far from serene, Buzz begins to show flashes of humor and empathy. He plays a mean game of table tennis, complete with showboat moves, and he snuggles with Ellison as she reads to him at night. Buzz even writes her a card — “You’re the greatest mom ever” — which immediately finds a place on her office wall.
Ellison does not come down squarely on the side of a single approach to ADHD. Rather, she sorts evenhandedly through a plethora of information and opinion. Everything and everyone she encounters is grist for her mill and, as a result, Buzz is suffused with embracing intelligence. Ellison is unafraid to venture into deep clinical waters and she gives a fascinating history of methylphenidate, known by the brand names Ritalin, Concerta and others. She digs up both the pros and cons of such medication, the academic and the trivial (who knew that Ritalin was named after the wife of the chemist who first identified it?) and she provides a detailed explanation of how stimulants can help to focus the mind and regulate mood. Ellison has the gumption to attempt a DIY neurofeedback procedure, and covers herself and Buzz with goop as electrodes and wires go flying every which way. And she befriends a high school drop-out turned Harvard lecturer, a man whose father feared he’d become a “smart criminal,” and who instead became a successful advocate and academic — and, in a fitting twist, a mentor to Buzz.
Although aimed at parents of children with ADHD, Buzz speaks just as eloquently to parents of neurotypical children. Ellison is wickedly funny, and her writing is irreverent, mordant, and always compelling. She calls things just as she sees them: After Buzz begins taking stimulants, she admits that while “Mr. Hyde was gone, Mr. Intensely Annoying was still hanging around.” And although Buzz’s behavior improves, at times dramatically, Ellison is quick to acknowledge the frequent setbacks and the mammoth challenges of raising this particular child. Wisely, she eschews the kind of triumphant closure found in so many stories of difficult or disabled children. Even as Buzz performs — white tux and all — at his bar mitzvah, she confesses that she doesn’t know what will become him. Nonetheless, her year of paying attention, of seeing herself, her son, and the world through the prism of ADHD changes her irrevocably. Above all, Ellison learns that running away doesn’t work, that every journey brings you back to yourself, and that no matter where you go, there you are.
Ultimately, Buzz is a book about finding the home harbor, no matter how flawed and imperfect, and about Ellison coming to terms with the fact that no matter how much her child pushes her away, he still needs her for solace, and for refuge. I challenge anyone who embarks on this journey through Buzz’s thirteenth year not to be moved and inspired by Ellison’s courage, persistence, and willingness to laugh. And I challenge anyone not to cry, as I did, when Ellison scrolls through the list of contacts on her son’s much-coveted phone, only to find that they read, in all their redundant entirety,