Distracted Play Sparks a Conservation About ADD/ADHD

By, Talia W.

Distracted by Lisa Loomer, Winsor’s spring play, depicts one mother’s experiences with her son, Jesse’s, behavioral challenges and explores the ways in which she learns how to parent him. The play presents the questions, “Who wouldn’t have attention deficit problems?” and “When do those problems qualify as a medical condition?” Although these questions are valid, they discount the real and challenging experiences of people with ADD/ADHD. Mr. J, the director, stated that he chose the play because he “thought it would spark a spirited discussion within our community.” I personally felt that Distracted presented a one-sided picture of ADHD, so it is extremely important that the play is followed up with further discussion of the issue.

Penelope M., who played the mother, also wrestled with the play’s messaging around treating ADHD with Ritalin, stating, “As someone medicated for mental health issues myself, my character’s disgust with medication felt morally wrong to me.” However, as an actor, she recognized that her job was to play the character regardless of her personal beliefs. Jane W., one of the stage managers, also noted the narrative around medication; “I was prevented from going on antidepressants I really needed for so so long because of the ideas that psychotropic drugs ‘change’ you or turn you into a zombie—and honestly, I feel like this play does perpetuate that notion to a degree where it’s inaccurate.” Mr. J explained, “Loomer represents multiple points of view throughout the play, some pro-medication and some anti-medication. I did not want to come down on one side or the other.” However, although the play was well-acted and directed, I found that Loomer’s script itself was ultimately anti-medication. While there were characters who expressed pro-medication opinions, those characters were written comically or as villains, especially the psychiatrist, Dr. Jinks, who is most closely associated with Ritalin. Meanwhile, the anti-medication characters were upheld, as the protagonist ultimately decides against medication for her child. Although the production of the play was intended simply to spark unbiased discussion, the content of the play itself clearly came down on one side, as Jesse’s family finally decides to forgo medication.

Furthermore, in Jesse’s mother’s conflict of whether to medicate Jesse, Ritalin is demonized and presented as a fad. The play never truly speaks to Ritalin’s medical use and potential benefits. One character in the play defends Ritalin and Adderall and says that with the drugs, Jesse “someday might even be able to get a P.h.D. and help others.” However, there never seems to be a serious discussion about how medications, such as Ritalin and Adderall, can be an important and healthy part of the toolbox that people with ADHD use in their daily life. Moreover, medication is not the only option for support; in reality, those with ADHD can be recommended to meet with a behavior specialist and others to better support their deficits.

One character in the play is a frequent proponent of the idea that everyone has ADHD to some extent and that it’s not something that needs treatment. This common narrative undermines the reality of ADHD as a medically diagnosed condition, as Loomer chose to have the family in the play to come to the conclusion that the only treatment their son needed was their “attention.” This incomplete portrayal is harmful and offensive to those who have ADD/ADHD and to their families. At one point in the play, one of the other mothers in the community, Sherry, makes a joke about how families and students try to get diagnosed with ADHD so that they can abuse extra time. I found the joke offensive especially because many people with ADHD struggle to find support within their communities. The play promotes the idea that we need to police ADHD rather than focus on providing support for those with a learning disability. While some may try to ‘scam the system,’ Loomer’s inclusion of this joke casts unnecessary doubt and suspicion on those who do have ADHD and seek support.

The process of being diagnosed with ADD/ADHD is extremely time-consuming and expensive. In my case, I had two neuropsychs, or neuropsychological assessments, which both required multiple days of appointments—each appointment lasting 4-8 hours—and both resulted with the same diagnosis explained in a fifteen to twenty page report which described the results of the fifteen tests administered. While there may be people who spend their time and resources on this in order to ‘scam the system,’ the play seemed to imply that a majority of people were attempting to abuse the support provided. However, many students with ADHD are forced to seek extra support outside of school because many schools are unable to provide adequate support. At Winsor, English conferences are a wonderful support for all students. However, for a student with ADHD who has resources, they might also need an outside writing tutor, an executive function coach, behavioral cognitive therapy, medication, and a strong work ethic to improve their writing. I speak from personal experience and trust me when I say that none of this is fun, and most students, including me, would prefer to be doing things like reading a book, watching TV, or getting their homework done instead. I think it is fair to say that many, myself included, would prefer not to have a disorder or need medication.

This opinion piece is proof that the play did start a discussion within our Winsor community, and I am glad that the drama program chose to put on a show about this issue. However, in my opinion, Distracted takes a very narrow, biased stance on the issue. The play came across as judgemental of families who do choose to use medication as a tool to manage ADHD. One of the most significant quotes of Distracted, coming at the end of Act 1, is, “Would Ritalin be a better mother than I am?” Through this question, Loomer seems to suggest that Ritalin is merely a substitution for parenting rather than a valuable tool.

I want to appreciate students’ sensitivity to the issues of mental health in our community. I would ask for others to approach these discussions with inquiry and curiosity instead of judgment. The family’s decision in Distracted may be true to the experiences of some who deal with ADHD, but it is certainly not the only correct conclusion. For many in our community, Distracted may be the only depiction they have of ADHD, so it is therefore important that it is followed up with information about the other sides of the argument.

Perhaps a student-run panel of students with mental health issues and learning disabilities as well as medical professionals from outside the Winsor community who specialize in diagnosing and treating these disorders would be a good way to continue the conversation about these issues and to provide a more complete picture. Until then, for those who remain curious, there are many resources available. A good start is PBS’s website entitled Misunderstood Minds. I welcome you to Google it.

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