A Personal Chat With Timothy Denevi, Author of the ADHD Memoir ‘Hyper’

Today, Timothy Denevi is a highly successful adult. He's a college professor and accomplished writer with a bright future, all of which belies his troubled past. As a boy, Denevi suffered from frequent emotional outbursts. His parents were troubled by sporadic episodes of physical violence and bouts that would alienate his peers.

Medical examinations were inconclusive: One doctor suggested that his behavior might be the result of brain damage. Another one, food allergies. They prescribed powerful drugs that made the symptoms worse, and special diets that did nothing. The family’s persistence finally paid off when a specialist diagnosed him with what we now call Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neuropsychiatric ailment characterized by inattentiveness, restlessness, and impulsivity.

Denevi’s newly published book, Hyper, is a personal memoir and history of a misunderstood illness that affects 9% of our nation’s children and more than 4% of its adults. It is Denevi’s story, but in some ways, Hyper is the story of all of us who have lived -- or continue to live -- with ADHD. I am one of them.

Denevi and I recently spoke about Hyper and compared our personal experiences with the disorder.

Signature: I had problems as a child that were very clearly caused by or at least exacerbated by untreated ADHD. I really enjoyed Hyper, but it dredged up some pretty painful and even embarrassing memories for me. Was this a difficult book to write? Also, what did you hope to accomplish in writing it?

Timothy Denevi: There's a great quote by the writer James Salter, in his excellent memoir Burning the Days, about how the process of completing the book took much longer than he'd ever expected: he was "wearied" by moments of self-revelation and would need to stop writing for weeks at a time to deal with the emotion that was subsequently dredged up.

I did feel this way at certain points in the narrative -- a fist-fight scene from fifth grade with another boy comes to mind, its shocking violence -- but to be honest, it seems as if I've already spent much of my life embarrassing myself, and to address this capacity for embarrassment, as we might as well call it, in the context of memoir -- using the opportunity for reflection that the genre provides -- was actually helpful in establishing a narrative distance between the past-me and the present-me.

An example of this type of writing that helped in the book's composition is Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, which is a work of fabulist fiction, but which very much depends on the main character's interrogation, from a point in the present, of embarrassing mistakes he's made in the past.

SIG: The standardized tests I took as a boy classified me as "gifted," but problems with near-constant daydreaming, distractibility and inattentiveness prevented me from performing academically and earned me a reputation for being lazy, indifferent, sullen, and even resistant to learning. I switched school districts as a child, and later, my high school counselor suggested that I might be "slow." Your own struggle was with hyperactivity and impulsiveness. How did that color other people’s interactions with you? What kind of reputation did you earn, if any?

TD: Well, first and foremost, traits like overactivity and distractibility led to an enormous amount of conflict -- with teachers, with others students, and with my parents too. My reputation in this sense -- as a child who struggled with even the most basic tasks -- was pretty well-established early on.

I remember playing Whiffle ball in a friend's front yard when I was fourteen, and accidentally hitting a passing car with a foul ball; the motorist stopped and I tried to explain, honestly, that I hadn't meant for it to happen, and she narrowed her eyes and said, "Oh I know all about you, Timmy Denevi." It was devastating.

The issue of perception is probably one of the reasons I don't want to live in the Bay Area; I hate running into people who only know this original version of me -- who place it like stained glass across the person I am now, coloring my own attempts at independence even now.

SIG: Are there any advantages to ADHD? My constant daydreaming seemed to have at least enabled my creativity a little bit, although follow-through was always a problem.

TD: Sure. In my case, as a college instructor, a bit of overactivity goes a long way when you roll into your classroom at nine am and your sleepy students are desperately in need of a little excitement. I think it's different with each person, but I do think it's dangerous to conflate these traits -- distractibility, overactivity, impulsivity -- into a broader argument about advantage; the conflict they often tend to generate will often outweigh any benefits they might bring, and it's only after a child has made it to adulthood successfully that he or she will, in their own personal narratives, highlight the positive aspects.

SIG: Most of my teachers dismissed me out of hand, and my parents thought punishment was the answer to my problems. Your parents sound like they started out a great deal more supportive than mine ever were, and that you had a few good experiences with some of your educators along the way. How much of a difference did that make? Did you know other young people with parents who weren't nearly as understanding?

TD: What I found in my research is that harsh forms of punishment don't work at all to diminish the main aspects of ADHD; instead, they just help to increase the developmental lag that's so problematic with the disorder; they create a huge degree of further conflict, so what the child is really learning is how to fight with other people -- how to punish others.

Harsh, unjust, and illogical punishments diminish resiliency and make daily navigation all the more difficult. In my case, the disciplinary system at my Catholic high school, while not a problem for other children, was a nightmare for me, and even to this day, when I find myself overreacting to a power-play by someone in my adult life, I can't help but wonder how much of that response has to do with the punishments I experienced almost two decades ago.

SIG: I had a few teachers who truly made me miserable as a child. You had some of those, too. I’m wondering if it might have been hard to determine whether a teacher was really as bad as you remembered him or her or whether your own problems colored these memories. Is that particularly important when it comes to writing a memoir?

TD: Writing this book, I was very lucky to be able to rely on my family's own capacity for storytelling; my mother and father have always retold the events of these past years at family gatherings -- highlighting all of our past experiences, not just the terrible ones -- and their perspectives have helped immensely with the book's composition. That being said, I think that all memoir is inherently subjective, and that any time we tell a story we're making an argument for the way we once saw the world -- for our own point of view. I'm reminded of the quote by William Maxwell in his hybridized work of fiction/nonfiction So Long, See You Tomorrow:

"What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidentially as memory -- meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion -- is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw."

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SIG: You’ve got a graduate degree in creative nonfiction. ADHD can make education difficult, especially higher education. Many drop out. How did you manage to beat the odds in such an astounding way?

TD: Academics were much harder at the primary and secondary level when I was forced to engage a wide range of subjects, many of which, like penmanship, were especially difficult for me. But once I made it through to college things were easier because I only had to take classes in subjects that interested me. It turned out that I was actually really intrigued by ancient Rome, and Russian literature, and literary genres like magic realism, and as a result, I was willing to push forward in a way I wouldn't have been, were the subject trigonometry, etc... Which isn't to conflate effort with willpower; I think it's more about finding one thing and trying to do that one thing right (to paraphrase my favorite musician, Dan Bejar). In grad school, the social interactions with other adult students -- the extreme competition, the junior high-esque communication and conflict -- was especially difficult, but structurally, I was able to create my own routines and work with brilliant professors who were genuinely interested in helping me.

SIG: The "mental health memoir" has become a sub-genre of its own. Have any of them inspired you to tell your own story?

TD: What has inspired me, I think, are memoirs that search out the question of identity: works like Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, Passage to Ararat by Michael J. Arlen, and Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje -- books that are formally creative, brutally honest, and lyric in their intelligence; that risk something both personally and in the sense of trying to make good art.

SIG: I began treatment for ADHD as an adult, and in a way, the diagnosis was a relief: I felt like I had solved a particularly difficult puzzle. I can’t imagine that a childhood diagnosis offered you any similar comforts, or did it? Were there times at which you were thankful to at least have some kind of explanation for your own difficulties?

TD: It tended to rely on the person doing the explaining; my child psychologist Laurie, who's featured prominently in the book, did a fantastic job articulating why I kept finding myself in so much conflict with everyone else, and in this sense, my time with her was incredibly helpful.

SIG: My own diagnosis led me to investigate my family tree. I discovered that there were generations of men on my father’s side of the family who suffered from the same problems I do. You wrote that your own father was probably more like you than he’d like to admit. Is there a history of ADHD or ADHD-like problems in your own family?

TD: That's very interesting. I do think that many members of my family -- especially my grandfathers -- struggled with overactivity, inattention, and restlessness, but their cultural experiences were so different; both were raised in immigrant families, environments in which many family members only spoke Italian, and their own parents didn't take part in their childhood care as directly and thoroughly as my own did, so I try not to conflate my environmental experience with theirs, especially since, when it comes to socio-economic status, I've been much luckier. But, yes; many of my family members have struggled with these traits, and some have been diagnosed and take medication that, in my opinion, genuinely helps them.

SIG: Your book alternates a personal history with a scientific history of ADHD. I gather that things could have been much worse for me had I been born a hundred years ago. Based on your own research, what could have happened then to a person like me?

TD: People sometimes ask me if ADHD has always existed, and while I'd answer yes -- there’s always been a subset of the population that's been more impulsive and inattentive than the rest -- the two biggest differences between the present and centuries back are child mortality and compulsory education. It's very hard to conceptualize, now, that for a a long time "childhood" wasn't even thought of as a developmental stage -- a moment in your life during which the person you might become could be influenced by your environment. Children, if they beat the odds and survived, simply became adults; they were always who they were going to be.

Sigmund Freud helped change this perspective perhaps more than anyone else. When it comes to ADHD, compulsory school attendance added an environmental factor that specifically highlighted these types of traits, and as a result, the harms of ADHD -- at least in the way we talk about them today -- only began to be articulated when childhood in the Western world began to include the K-12 experience we're all familiar with, today.

One hundred years ago, physical abuse was probably what an overactive child had in store, and someone with really severe attention and hyperactivity issues would be at risk of dropping out of the educational system at a very early age. Of course, because institutional prejudice -- especially along race and gender lines, were so much more exaggerated then than now -- it can seem hard to see through the perspective of our own present-day privilege and really understand what things would've been like at that time.

SIG: What was the most shocking thing you learned during the writing of Hyper?

TD: I was really blown away by the conflation of Social Darwinism and medicine at the beginning of the twentieth century -- that only a hundred years ago, one of the most famous and respected British doctors, Alfred Tredgold, was actually in favor of executing people with mental illness, as to keep from polluting the gene pool. This shouldn't be shocking, considering the degrees of horror that would play out on such a large scale throughout the twentieth century, but still, to come across it while researching was a shock.

SIG: In my own case, my ADHD seems to have come bundled with obsessive compulsive disorder. I understand that this kind of comorbidity isn’t uncommon. Have you ever had problems with your own mood or anxiety level? If so, has it ever been difficult to tell where anxiety and ADHD ends and anxiety caused by ADHD begins?

TD: Comorbidity is a very complex and difficult concept to understand -- one that, from what I've seen in the literature, is still being fleshed out. The problem is that we're not talking about strictly biological or strictly environmental disorders; they seem to exist at a point equidistant between our biology and our environment. That's why it's so hard to tell the primary symptom -- what causes what -- and where one can end and the other begins. For me, mood is an issue -- going too high and low -- and it's something I'm constantly trying to keep in check through environmental adjustments: exercise, eating right, sleeping well, etc…

SIG: We’re always getting closer to understanding the genetics and neurological science of ADHD, but there’s a lot of skepticism in the general public regarding even the very existence of the disease. Sometimes it seems like the moment you mention ADHD you’ll find yourself surrounded by armchair neuroscientists. I’ve seen similar responses to other forms of mental illness, but no reaction has been as strong as the one to ADHD. Why do you think that is?

TD: That's an excellent observation. Firstly, it has to do with the fact that the category of these symptoms falls near the borderline of normal functionality; as Dr. Xavier F. Castellanos once said about the disorder: "People with ADHD can do anything; they just don't do it quite so well. It's a disorder of efficiency, or inefficiency." As a result, people tend to see it as a matter of willpower, which makes them suspicious of biological explanations -- which is basically the argument: "if you just try harder you'll be able to sit still."

Secondly, neuroscience is a relatively modern area of study. When I was growing up, Freudian theory supposed that everyone was a blank slate and all aberrant behavior had to do with experiential trauma and depression. We now know that this isn't really true, but it's been a difficult swing to a more modern understanding, what current researchers call the G-E effect: the way genetic and environment work in tandem to cause mental illness. With ADHD, the heritability is very high, which is to say: the environment rarely causes it, but it sure can make it worse.

SIG: I try to be "out" about my problems because I feel that it’s important to fight stigma. Mostly it’s been just fine, but I’ve had some people start "pathologizing" me; to see everything I do as a manifestation of my condition. Are you worried about becoming "Mr. ADHD" in people’s minds or that colleagues might start treating you differently?

TD: That's a good question. When I was younger, yes; now what I realize is that my personality is what it is, and for whatever reason, it doesn't seem nearly as exaggerated as it once was. In terms of perception, the best thing I can do is do my job well, and I'm lucky that I'm in a profession, academia, that allows for structural flexibility in terms of how I spend my time getting done what I need to. As for writing, my next book is on 20th-Century Catholicism, my personal experience with spirituality, and the academic study of the historical Jesus, which is about as far away from ADHD as you can get. I like to think that writing about a subject is an attempt to free yourself from it. Not that you ever leave it behind forever, but I definitely don't plan to write book after book on ADHD in the way some authors have.

SIG: Medications like Adderall and Ritalin seem to really help alleviate the symptoms of ADHD, but they’re short-term solutions. How do you manage your condition? Do you think that we’ll ever be able to permanently "cure"ADHD through gene therapy or other cutting-edge techniques?

TD: I think it's fair to say that I'll always be on the lookout for how to best deal with restlessness and inattention -- two traits that continue to cause conflict and harm in my life. Right now, a low daily dosage of medication combined with environmental adjustments seems to help. But I have no idea where I'll be at in five years. Speaking for myself at least, it's about management, not eradication.

SIG: If there’s one thing that you hope people will walk away with after reading Hyper, what is it?

TD: I hope that, in the end, they reach their own conclusions about both my past and also the history of the disorder. My goal was to articulate a specific point of view and also to provide context -- to have these dual threads work in dialogue together -- and if the reader can do their own emotional and intellectual work to fill in the spaces left open and come to their own conclusions, whatever these conclusions might be, then I think they'll have engaged the book in a meaningful way -- which is the most a writer can ask for!