Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD

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9781476702575: Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD
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The first book of its kind, this compelling and moving memoir about what it’s like to be a child with ADHD also explains the history of the diagnosis and how we have come to medicate more than four million children today.

Among the first generation of boys prescribed medication for hyperactivity in the 1980s, Timothy Denevi took Ritalin at the age of six, and during the first week, it triggered a psychotic reaction. Doctors recommended behavior therapy, then antidepressants. Nothing worked. As Timothy’s parents and doctors sought to treat his behavior, he was subjected to a liquid diet, a sleep-deprived EEG, and bizarre behavioral assessments before finding help in therapy combined with medication. In Hyper, Timothy describes how he makes his way through school, knowing he is a problem for those who love him, longing to be able to be good and fit in, hanging out with boys who have similar symptoms but meet different ends, and finally realizing he has to come to grips with his disorder before his life spins out of control.

Skillfully and seamlessly using his own experience as a springboard, Denevi also reveals the origins of ADHD, from the late nineteenth century when hyperactivity was attributed to defective moral conscience, demons, or head trauma, through the twentieth century when food additives, bad parenting, and even government conspiracies were blamed, to the most recent genetic research. He traces drug treatment from Benzedrine in 1937 through the common usage of the stupefying chlorpromazine and brand new Ritalin in the 1950s to the use of antidepressants in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Riveting, thought-provoking, and deeply intelligent, this is a remarkable book both for its sensitive portrait of a child’s experience as well as for its ability to illuminate a remarkably complex and controversial mental condition. Rick Lavoie, author of It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend, says Hyper is “a significant and singular contribution to our field.”

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About the Author:

Timothy Denevi received his MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa. His writing has appeared in various magazines including The Atlantic, Time, Gulf Coast, and Arts & Letters, and he’s been awarded fellowships by The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. He lives near Washington, DC and teaches in the MFA program at George Mason University. Hyper is his first book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Hyper 1

The Evil Logic of Clenched Hands

It’s late afternoon, suddenly evening. The shadows in dense fingers along the wall. As if in a dream the color begins to drain from the wallpaper. The door is gauzy, the carpet insubstantial. Puzzle pieces litter the floor like flat, monstrous teeth. Or maybe not. In truth the details are a blur; for minutes I’ve been standing near the door, sobbing, screaming, the world reduced to darkness and light beneath the thing I feel.

Northern California, 1984: I’m five years old. It’s my very first complete memory: I was having dinner with my parents and one-year-old sister and refused, when asked, to give something up. A toy car, baseball card—it doesn’t matter; I was ordered from the kitchen and into my room. All I needed to do was serve the time-out.

But the memory never changes. What I wanted is gone, I’ve lost it forever, and perhaps the last identifiable emotion is something deeper than anger, a sense of desperation akin to homesickness; there’s no way back to the place I just left.

Later, standing in the middle of my room, I’m voiceless, tensed, my face briny with sweat. There’s pain; I’ve been dragging the corner of a building block across my chest. It’s still in my fist, the color of sand. I drop it, look up. As if for the first time, I see them: my parents.

They’re enormous. My father, Mike: his dark hair, the slope of his neck and shoulders, mustache; he’s crouching, trying to catch my eye.

“Timmy!” he shouts.

For an instant they seem like strangers, a reflection. I feel a terrifying crush of loneliness, something I hate to recall even now. But I’m not the only one who’s been shouting.

My mother, Patty, is sitting next to him, her cheeks thinly drawn as if she’s been attempting to speak the entire time. Her eyes are small and bright. Huge lashes. She’s crying.

And like that the tantrum is over. The room is measured and still. Once again I’m me: a skinny, sensitive boy who can be bargained with.


What would you do? Your child won’t stop screaming. Maybe he’s sick, exhausted—any trigger could have started it. Then, miraculously, he calms down. Later you talk to him, emphasizing that such behavior is unacceptable, that there are consequences for his actions, and that most of all you love him very much. Of course you wonder how you might have handled it differently. He has had problems before, serious ones, but this is something altogether new.

By this point my parents had been married for almost a decade. There’s a story they like to tell about their college days, right after they first started dating. A party at Santa Clara University, the early 1970s: My mother walks into a crowded dorm room. My father is sitting down. Already he’s a standout baseball player, and on his lap is a preening, blond-haired girl, a freshman, who seems to be nuzzling him. My mother screams. Not at my father. She’s telling everyone else to leave. The girl looks up—“Do you think I should go too, Mike?” But before he can answer, my mother is dragging her by the ponytail into the hallway. Only after the room has cleared out does she turn to my father and slap him. (“What was I supposed to do?” he likes to say. “The girl sat on my lap.”)

Another story: they’re seniors. For the last four years they’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship—recently they’ve broken up. My mother is going out on a few dates, my father is miserable. And yet, they still spend a lot of their time together. My father has been drafted by the Kansas City Royals. This particular afternoon he’s just finished practice. In a few weeks he’ll be reporting to a minor-league affiliate in Florida.

“I was thinking we should get married,” he says to her.

She straightens up. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Come on,” he says happily, impulsively. “You know I can’t live without you.”

And it was true, for both of them, has been ever since. But then my parents have always had too much in common. They were born, unbelievably, on the same morning of the same year—February 19, 1953—at Bay Area hospitals forty miles apart. Both my grandfathers were authoritative, first-generation Italians, parlaying whatever advantage they could find—the GI Bill, an athletic scholarship—into college and, later, moderate financial success. Both my grandmothers were Irish, beautiful, mildly alcoholic, and between them raised nine children in three decades.

Growing up, my mother wanted to be an actress. At Santa Clara she acted in plays, her black hair down to her waist. Even today the family home is decorated like a personal stage: crucifixes, family photos, and poems about dogs. But now, in her early sixties, she has only enough energy to engage the people closest to her. It wasn’t always that way.

My father loved everything about baseball. At nine, the youngest on the team, he won the local Little League championship with a bases-loaded double. He was drafted at eighteen by the Chicago Cubs but went to college instead. He grew up surrounded by a large, excitable family, and I have a feeling he probably had more in common with me than he’d like to admit; but his mother, Jo Ann, would ignore his most egregious behavior, while his father, Pietro, would swing at him with an open hand. He hated high school; his father was the football coach. But he loved Santa Clara, and his coaches there adored him. Following an All-American senior season, he settled with my mother on a four-year plan to make it into the major leagues. Five years later, he was injured and demoted from Triple-A, so he came home to take a job in the real estate business. My mother was already pregnant with me.


The San Francisco Bay Area, 1984: That September we were part of a family gathering in Los Gatos. The commotion! My Italian aunts and uncles speaking in loud voices, eyeing one another from behind their drinks. I kept running from group to group, shouting until I was shaking, hoarse. Then I wandered into the silence of the garage and saw, perched on a shelf, an enormous fishing pole.

I froze. I’d never seen anything like it: the slacked line, the fleshy handle. I could hear family members behind the door. The air was heated, dirty. I stared at the object for what felt like minutes. It didn’t move. And then I understood: this was some sort of marvelous tool, textured, intricate, meant above all to be held in your hands. I climbed the bench and was reaching for it when my father walked in.

“Oh!” he said. “Goomba!”

In the whirlwind of the party he’d been eating and drinking, keeping track of my sister, and socializing. Who knows how he ended up in the garage precisely at this moment, but he was genuinely happy to see me—discovering his young son in the midst of such an earnest mission. A light switched on. I was scooped off the counter and carried outside.

The afternoon, its dried canvas of grass and juniper bushes. Uncles and aunts crowded along the patio, talking with bright, hurried gestures. I started shouting about the garage. I had been so close: the lure, the feathered tip, the hem of mysterious wire. I kicked and twisted, my fury amplified by a complete lack of power. Nothing helped. It was happening again.

“Hey,” my father said. He looked around for my mother.

The sky was a domed, colorless vault. The grass emptied of texture. I writhed, screamed, clicked my jaw. Shadows advanced and retreated, the ghosted angles of hands. My own voice buzzed, a reminder of something meaningful. But the world was cheap; it receded. The best way I can describe it now is in terms of a religious experience: the departure, however brief, into a space where something so limited as people—their bodies—couldn’t possibly matter.

Then the backyard was silent, windless. Aunts and uncles stood over me, blocking the sky, a fabulation of adulthood, mouths and noses etched into their faces.

Suddenly my mother broke through the crowd. She’d been changing my sister, noticing, finally, the silence in the backyard. And just like that I was taken up and away—a clutch so overwhelming that I could feel her earring on my cheek, its metallic chill.


My mother always talked about my colicky first few years. Sleepless nights, ear infections, antibiotics and cold medicines, digestion problems, and at eight months old a serious case of pneumonia. I was born early, hyperreactive to light and sound. She was sure I couldn’t digest dairy; the special replacement formula cost over $100 a month. When my sister, Katie, arrived I started preschool in Los Gatos, but on the very first day I bit another boy on the ankle. I couldn’t sit still long enough to fall asleep during nap time or share with the other children. My mother consulted the teachers, planned strategies, and talked to friends, but no matter what she tried, my irritable behavior continued; it was, if anything, getting worse.

A year before the onset of my tantrums my mother had written to National Jewish Health (NJH) in Denver. She’d read about something called the Feingold diet, a treatment for behavior problems caused by allergic reactions to food additives put forth by Benjamin F. Feingold, MD. It was all the rage back then, though the evidence and methodology behind it had already been refuted. Nevertheless, in June we drove across a third of the country so that the doctors at NJH could put me on a liquid diet. After a week new foods were introduced; I’d spend whole days eating only carrots, then potatoes. It was like this for two months, until they finally determined that I wasn’t allergic to anything; my constant oversensitivity to the world, its agitation of people and places, couldn’t be explained by any physical discomfort.

Today a diagnosis would have been clearer. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has become the most studied childhood condition in the world. The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—published in editions over the past fifty years by the American Psychiatric Association—now divides ADHD into three subtypes: inattention, hyperactivity-impulsivity, and both.

To be diagnosed under the hyperactivity/impulsivity subtype, a child should meet six out of nine possible symptoms:

1. Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet or squirms in seat

2. Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected (e.g., leaves his or her place in the classroom)

3. Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is inappropriate

4. Often unable to play or engage in leisure activities quietly

5. Is often “on the go” or acts as if “driven by a motor” (e.g., is unable to be or uncomfortable being still for extended time)

6. Often talks excessively

7. Often blurts out answers before a question has been completed (e.g., completes people’s sentences; cannot wait for turn in conversation)

8. Often has difficulty waiting his or her turn (e.g., while waiting in line)

9. Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations, games, or activities; may start using other people’s things without asking or receiving permission)

Listing these now is like running into someone who’s wearing an outfit identical to mine—as a child I met every single one of the criteria—but how do you evaluate such behavior as being inconsistent with normal development?

The most comprehensive approach today involves gathering information from everyone involved. The goal is to limit the biases of each person—parent, child, teacher—in order to accurately judge the situation. Doctors should employ scales and aptitude tests, interview parents and teachers, review school records and grades, and eventually conduct observations in multiple environments. Of course there are shortcuts to a diagnosis, but before the physician in charge can label it ADHD, the assessment should include a decent amount of evidence-based evaluation.


In the fall of 1984 my parents took me to see Dr. Atkinson, our family pediatrician in Los Gatos. He was a short, wiry man in his early fifties with a blooming paunch. The tantrums had been going on for months—similar to the first, often triggered by objects. I was moody and excitable. Dietary causes had been dismissed. Atkinson’s first intention was to rule things out, the most frightening of which, given my symptoms, was epilepsy. He ordered a series of tests.

I remember a weekend afternoon with my father. My mother was off with my sister somewhere. We were at the local hospital where I was being examined: the waiting room, forms, doctors, my histrionics as a nurse drew blood. I’m not sure if there’s anything in the world my father hates more than this type of situation; he has never been—and I say this without judgment since the same can be said of me—a patient man.

Before we left they needed a urine sample. We were herded into a small bathroom. Through the thin walls we could hear shuffling, wet coughs.

“I want to hold the cup please,” I told him.

“We’re almost done.”

“But Daddy.”


“I said please.”

He sighed and handed me the sterile cup, and it accidentally slipped from my hand into the toilet.

I looked up, aware of the consequence; it was the last straw. My father was staring back. Then he laughed. Maybe he snorted. He was seeing it: the walk down the corridor, the explanation, the additional delay. Were the situations reversed—had he, a quarter of a century earlier, made this type of mistake—his own father might have slapped him across the face. Instead, he bent over the toilet and fished out the cup.

“No big deal,” he said.

“But it’s dirty,” I replied.

He squinted. “You’re right.” Quickly, he rinsed the cup in the sink and held it inside the rim of the toilet. “Aim and fire.”

I pulled down my pants, but I couldn’t pee. I was terrified; at any moment a doctor could burst in and yell at us for taking too long.

He began moving the cup from side to side. “Try and hit it.”

“Hit what?”

“The target.”

And just like that I was peeing all over his hand, into the cup, onto the harsh floor.

“I win!” I shouted. “Daddy, you lose!”

My young father. I’m proud of him. And I don’t mean it condescendingly. I can understand what he must have felt: taking your son to the doctor, the nurses, the demands, the broken boundary of privacy—the goal always being not to freak out your child; after all, he’s sensing things more keenly than you are. In truth, the simplest maneuvers convince: a game, a distraction. But only if you can find a way to remain calm yourself.

At the dinner table that evening the phone rang.

My mother answered it. “Wait,” she said. “What?”

“Who is it?” my father asked.

She covered the receiver. “The hospital. It’s about the tests.”

My father rose to join her and quickly explained about the contaminated cup, how he didn’t think, at the time, that it would be a big deal.

“I ask you to do one simple thing.” She uncovered the receiver. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?” She listened. Eventually she hung up. Then she pointed a finger at him.

He held up his palms.

“Everything’s fine,” she said. “But listen to me: this is serious. I can’t handle it without you.”

And that was all it took—as if he’d been waiting for this moment ever since we left the hospital. “Shut up!” he shouted, pointing back. “Don’t say another word!”

Instantly she was at him. Then came the accusations: You’re lazy! You overreact to ev...

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