“No wonder our lives is caught up in the daily superstition
That the world’s about to end, who give a fuck?
We never do listen.”
– Kendrick Lamar, “A.D.H.D”
We’re born, we mewl and puke, then we start moving around autonomously, making decisions (good or otherwise), asking questions, and adjusting to others’ expectations of us. We enter school around age five, and that begins a three-year period in childhood—I’m going to call this period “kidhood”—that constitutes the first instance1 in an American life when a person could really find themselves failing to gel with the world, or at least with the way they’re supposed to be in the world. It’s the first time—at least in my experience—when the word “behavior” starts getting tossed around, when teachers make examples of kids whose classroom behavior is in some way inappropriate. It’s the first time there’s sense to be made: tables to be set, concepts to be mastered, aspects of the adult world to aspire to (firefighting, dog-owning), and aspects of the child world to eschew (transitional objects, Santa Claus). As a result, it’s the first time things can appear to go wrong, brain-wise.
ADHD is the childhood disorder of deviation from a socially acceptable norm. It’s characterized by the inability to focus on one task at a time, an excess of energy, tendencies towards boredom and daydreaming.2 According to the CDC, 11% of kids ages 6-17 (6.4 million) had been diagnosed with ADHD by 2011. That was up from 7.3% in 2003 and 9.5% in 2007–-it’s reasonable to expect that the number has climbed higher since. The schoolroom lore was that you got ADHD from eating too much sugar. Adults said you got it by watching too much TV, which they’d never done, and playing too many video games, which they’d definitely never done. ADHD was disruptive to the learning process, was supposedly linked to the unholy trinity of adolescent misbehavior: dropouts, drugs, and crime.
When I was in elementary school in the mid-’90s, I came home every day, made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and potato chips, and watched a VHS of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. After the movie ended, I’d play outside for hours with my friend Brett, then I’d come back in and eat dinner, read, watch more TV (recorded episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, Eureeka’s Castle, Fraggle Rock) and go to sleep. This was what I did from kindergarten through the third grade, which was when I lost interest in The Nightmare Before Christmas and started watching Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon almost exclusively, flipping to PBS on the occasion that I was feeling the embarrassing tug of nostalgia for the “baby shows” I’d watched just a few years before, shows I was now making fun of with other third graders in order to prove how grown up I’d become. I watched Rugrats (about babies, but not for babies); Ed, Edd, n Eddy; Doug; Hey Arnold; Dexter’s Laboratory; The Ren & Stimpy Show; The Powderpuff Girls; Cow and Chicken. I watched the commercials in between, too. Squads of boys faced off with Nerf guns that had sights and could shoot a gross ectoplasmic substance that didn’t look like water. Girls sat behind pink tables and happily combed a single doll’s head of rayon hair, or told the camera how much they loved a plastic pony that fed on fake grass. Sometimes instead of playing outside, Brett and I went upstairs to his bedroom and played Nintendo on his TV. He destroyed me in Donkey Kong and Super Mario World. I came home embarrassed by my lack of skill. Eventually my uncle bought me a PS1 for Christmas and I played Crash Bandicoot and Spiro, games Brett said were stupid, a comment that did much to poison—and eventually destroy—our young friendship.
When I went to sleep, Crash and Spiro were in my dreams, collecting gemstones and busting open treasure chests. So was TV: I was dialoguing with Bubbles, my favorite Powderpuff Girl, about how easy it would be to climb a hill that went on forever. I was flying on the back of the dragon from Eureeka’s Castle over a forest that must have been redwoods, populated by people with the unarticulated joints of Playmobil figurines, Jack Skellington stalking suspiciously among them. From very early on, my imaginative world was a fusion of experiences I’d had, experiences I could imagine having, and the cartoon worlds of TV shows and Disney movies. My play usually took the form of storytelling, and it was by turns rapid-paced and meditative, with the occasional break for a “commercial.” I told stories in three dramatic acts, like sitcoms. Sometimes one character would monologue nonsense for the entire length of the sitcom, Lucky-in-Waiting for Godot-style. When I closed my eyes, I sometimes saw the expansive hills and forests of my dreams. Other times I saw the strobing colors of a Nerf commercial.
My best friend in the third grade was Jack, who had darting eyes and an obsession with proving his strength.3 Jack and I got along well because we were a similar mashup of energy, rapid monologuing, and a desire to do strange and risky things. Our school abutted a forest, and Jack and I were fond of rigging the woody vines so we could swing from one tree to another. Although I was a dutiful little learner, our teacher disliked both of us: me because I was a perfectionist who rubbed her the wrong way,4 and Jack because he seemed to be completely at odds with being in school. He moved restlessly from activity to activity, stopping and re-starting assignments in fits and roving the classroom when he was supposed to be sitting down on the carpet and listening to our teacher read aloud from The Boxcar Children. I would be sitting at a table filling out multiplication cards while he did this, and I recognized how he must be feeling then: there was probably a warmth spreading across his brain, a hot, swelling panic that made you think of going to get a book, getting the book and then getting distracted by the dog on the cover and going to the window to see if there was a dog out there. Cut, cut, cut—this was just how every kid’s mind worked, I thought. It was like sometimes you closed your eyes and there was the Nerf commercial or the opening credits of Hey Arnold. But then sometimes you closed your eyes and you saw the hills and forests.
I was directly implicated in the incident that led to Jack being pulled out of school. We had designed a game in the woods—a game in three acts—that would involve us getting revenge on a bully fond of shin-kicking us. The only act that really mattered was the final one, where we’d face off with the bully in a clearing, me swinging down from a tree on a vine and landing in front of the bully to scare him, Jack yanking on dismembered branch that would drop a boulder mere inches from where the bully was standing. The boulder was really just a fist-sized piece of dryvit we’d found outside the toolshed at the back of our school, and it was sitting suspended from some plant vines by means of a pulley system of my devising. The goal was to scare the bully, not hurt him. We’d planned everything very carefully so no one would get hurt. The best-laid plans, though: I got distracted by a crow cawing a few inches from my perch in the tree, missed my cue, swung down too late and agitated the boulder, which fell as I swung and got the bully on the way down. He howled in pain, blood leaking from his hairline, and shot me a look of horror across the clearing, where I’d landed just behind Jack, who was equally horrified.
Our teacher was eager to blame Jack for the whole thing—I endured some time-outs, but he was the one had to sit through parent-teacher conferences where he was told he was a failing student with ADHD.5 His mother refused the diagnosis, and when our teacher told her she’d suspend him if she didn’t try him on Ritalin, Jack’s mom pulled him out altogether. A few months later, most likely at the urging of a medical professional, his mom tried him on the Ritalin anyway: he moved with focus and purpose, regarded me calmly as I monologued about ideas I’d had to build spaceships or infiltrate the Power Rangers’ universe. He didn’t think these things were impossible per se, but his enthusiasm for them no longer matched my own. We spent all our time outside; Jack’s mother had forbidden TV in his household. They took him off Ritalin and tried Concerta, took him off Concerta and tried vitamins. He grew into a slow-moving, deliberate adult: this, I think, is the adult he would’ve been no matter what.
As I grew up, the number of ADHD-sufferers in my cohort began to outnumber the unaffected. In high school, kids sold their Adderall, sales peaking during the SAT and ACT. Think pieces in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times echoed the familiar panic of our parents in the ’90s, when they’d all sat around in their stonewashed jeans and big glasses and worried about our overexposure to TV and video games, the bright colors and jump cuts rotting our attention spans. This had always seemed to be a manufactured concern to me, like making the false claim that most rocks are made of hardened dragon shit and then wondering in a panic where all the dragons were coming from.6 But then there was no reliable way to insert myself into the mind of a Baby Boomer and determine once and for all that they don’t think in strobing colors and jump cuts, any more than it’s possible to determine whether this method of thinking is somehow a direct cause of the attention-deficit brain. It certainly never panned out that way for me.
Much more imprint-forging than screen exposure are the relationships we make and the environments we find ourselves in. From my observation, the kids who were labeled ADHD seemed to be under some kind of extreme stress: they were “disordered” because of their less-than-mainstream interests, their disinclination to do the schoolwork as it was presented to them. Despite being my best friend, Jack was always a bit of a loner, happier in nature than he was in the classroom. Later on, I met others with ADHD kidhoods: Black kids alienated by racial politics in the classroom, young dudes prone to wild outbursts because their fathers hit them, children of immigrants who worked demanding after-school jobs and translated for their parents. The disorder cut across socioeconomic barriers easily, and its causes seemed to be—like the causes of many mental disorders—unnamable and multifarious. Some people claimed the medication helped them, but nearly everyone hated its side effects, and everyone resented the teacher who’d first identified their classroom behavior as inappropriate. Without the dynamics of that classroom, would their ADHD have “emerged” as it did? Would they have been diagnosed with ADHD at all? Not surprisingly, the answers I got were as various as the people I asked.
Well into my twenties, long after Jack had become a professional saxophonist on the east coast, I made a friend in Iowa who shared my enthusiasm for amphetamines. He’d been on Adderall since he was eleven, and I asked him if that had anything to do with our present shared interest. He said “absolutely” so enthusiastically that I thought he might’ve just been telling me what I wanted to hear. I told him to be serious and he said he was being serious, that he was convinced his brain just worked better on stimulants. He’d been jumpy and unfocused for years, and he’d found something that made him productive. What was so wrong with that? I conceded there was nothing wrong with that, and instead of engaging in a tedious discussion of what constituted productivity, what it was that made a brain work well versus poorly, and where and when he’d gathered his information, we rolled up a twenty and started blowing rails.
1 Barring any other extreme and/or traumatic circumstances.
2 It’s really fun to see “daydreaming” listed as a symptom in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
3 I’m sure at least one reader of this column is at this point brain-racking in an attempt to figure out why I had so many close male friends in elementary school. For you, dear reader, I’m sincerely sorry. If you’re worrying about mixed-gender friendships among elementary school kids in the ’90s, then you’re an anachronism in more ways than I care to explain.
4 This was a “we’re age-old nemeses”-kind of thing: her antipathy seemed to arise from a grudge she’d developed against me on a different cosmic plane.
5 Our teacher was hardly a qualified psychiatrist, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her.
6 Besides Eureeka’s Castle.