Timothy Denevi's third-grade teacher might not have predicted that he'd ever earn his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, teach writing at the college level and have his first book published by Simon & Schuster. More days than not, she dragged Denevi's desk into the hallway, a punishment for disrupting her class -- asking unrelated questions out of turn, touching other students, leaving his desk to wander around the room.
In "Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD" (Simon & Schuster, $26), Denevi conjures his earliest memories of childhood with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, navigating tantrums and fistfights, complicated relationships with teachers who couldn't or wouldn't help, and a medicine cabinet that included at times Ritalin, Dexedrine and Nortriptyline. His memoir is spliced with historical, social and medical context, following research and attitudes toward ADHD from the early 20th century on.
Denevi recently discussed "Hyper" by telephone; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What made you write this book and what did you hope to accomplish?
Whenever I would come across the topic of ADHD recently in public discourse, I'd always been kind of struck and bewildered by the extremes to which everyone discussed it. So either everybody said it was strictly biological in nature and treating ADHD was like treating bad vision with a pair of glasses. Or there was the converse argument that science is trying to take over our personalities, that normal childhood behavior is being pathologized. Every child's situation -- while it might fall along a continuum -- is different. It's really a messy thing, and the more individualized the approach, the more pragmatic the approach, the better.
What surprised you most in your research?
I had just assumed that the '80s and '90s were when people started to have these discussions about ADHD, hyperactivity, medication, attention. In fact, there was research into hyperactivity all the way from George Frederic Still, the British doctor in the early 20th century, to Dr. Charles Bradley, who was one of the first people to research stimulants.
[The discussion] is starting to change now, just in the past few years. Any time you see a good New York Times article on ADHD -- even if it's about overmedication -- they say that it's a valid disorder and 3 to 5 percent really do suffer overactivity or a degree of inattention that's way outside what normal children experience.
What do you remember about your own diagnosis? How did you understand things at the time?
One of the things I noticed when I was young is that people would react to me very negatively, and I didn't see my own behavior, I just saw the reflection of my behavior and responses. So suddenly someone would be yelling at me, like a teacher or a man at a counter telling me to be quiet. And I hadn't even realized that I'm being this loud or that I'm bouncing off the walls. I didn't see, often, what was causing the agitation -- which was my own actions, and that was very hard for me.
As an adult who's now reflected on and written about your experiences, what would you tell parents who are beginning the journey with their own child?
The most important thing is to constantly do your best to see the best version of your child. It's very hard, because if your child is having a lot of conflict based on these traits, you begin to see through the eyes of people who see your child negatively. It's important to understand that it's hard, a lot of people are going through it, and there's a lot of information out there. Even though it still seems bewildering, there are more paths through to the future than there used to be.
How does this affect you today?
I'm still more overactive than most 35-year-olds. I'm still louder than most people around me. I realize there are benefits to that -- like a class of sleepy 19-year-olds at 9 a.m. could benefit from me telling a story with my hands. But on top of that, I realize that it's up to me to do this. It's always going to exist, so if I don't take the steps -- exercise, eat right, take medication if it's working, not drink too much -- I'm going to find myself back in the conflict-based environment in which I grew up. I'd rather lead a life where I'm being nice to and getting along with the people I love and being a productive member of the society around me.