Journalist turns attention to son, self in ‘Buzz’ memoir about ADHD

Katherine Ellison walks through the kitchen of her wood-shingled San Anselmo home and takes a seat at a table strewn with breakfast placemats on a recent afternoon. At 54, the Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist is a whirlwind of energy.

She is preparing for her younger son’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Rodef Sholom in just a few days, a reporting trip the day after, and she has just returned from speaking at UCLA about her book “Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention.” She wrote the memoir after her older son, then 12, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and she discovered that she, too, had ADHD.

During the event at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, Ellison told an estimated 250 people about her journey with her son, renamed Buzz in the book to protect his privacy, to put their fraught relationship back on a healthy track. The speaker who followed Ellison began by applauding her. Then he said he was perplexed about why she waited so long to medicate the child.

Katherine Ellison

The criticism set Ellison into investigative reporter mode. Her suspicions were confirmed, she says, when she learned the speaker had taken money from pharmaceutical companies that make ADHD drugs. She adds one of the lessons she learned about the pros and cons of medicating kids during her year of paying attention: “The whole debate is all about money.”

Ellison and her husband, Jack Epstein, a San Francisco Chronicle editor she met while both were foreign correspondents, feared the side effects and hesitated to medicate their son in 2005, when he was 9 and in the fourth grade. Ellison writes in “Buzz” about how a couple of organic granola-eating Northern Californians naturally questioned a doctor’s suggestion to give Buzz stimulants to calm him down. They wondered if they would be medicating him to “fit his square peg into the round hole of the flawed public school system.”

Immediately, they found themselves caught in the Ritalin wars.

Those on the anti-medication side point to what Ellison now sees as revved-up claims about the drug’s side effects. At the other extreme, people who prescribe and sell the medication liken an ADHD patient’s need for Ritalin or other stimulants to a diabetic’s need for insulin and accuse parents reluctant to give it to their children of child abuse.

“There’s hysteria on both sides of the issue,” Ellison says. “A big reason I wrote the book is, as a parent, I was caught in this crazy maze. Here I was, this investigative reporter, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and it was hard for me to sort this out.”

She sorted it out the same way she sorts out every story, including the Pulitzer series exposing how Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos looted the Philippines’ treasury — through research and talking to experts. In the end, she remains as objective as a reporter could be with herself and her son as the subjects. She sees a place for medication, but fails to see it as the silver bullet some physicians and drug companies say it is.

Blessed with a book advance, Ellison was able to spend 2008, the year Buzz became a bar mitzvah, sampling ADHD treatments for herself and her child. They found neurofeedback and meditation helped, as did regular exercise and medication.

Now 16 and a junior at Drake High School in San Anselmo, Buzz has chosen not to take the pills. He does work out in a gym six nights a week, and he’s teaching kids in Marin City and San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood about fitness and nutrition.

Ellison exercises most days. “I think that’s one of the things that’s saved my life,” she says.

Katherine Ellison will speak at 10 a.m. Nov. 8 at the Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek. (510) 318-6453 or [email protected]

“Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention”
by Katherine Ellison (304 pages, Voice, $24.99)