by Arianna Huffington
“I have a little problem with the idea of somebody giving my son drugs to keep
him nice and quiet. Maybe I don’t think nice and quiet is such a good thing.”
So says the father in Distracted, a powerful new play about the difficulties of
parenting a child diagnosed with ADD. The play, written by Lisa Loomer and
starring Rita Wilson, is having its world premiere at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum.
It’s a stinging indictment of our pill-for-every-ill culture, in which parents of
hyperactive children find themselves being pressured — sometimes subtly,
sometimes overtly — by doctors, teachers, and school administrators to medicate
their kids. In the case of Jesse, the boy in the play, the pressure comes in the
form of a threat that, unless something changes, he’ll be put in a special ed class.
At its best, art can change the way we see the world, enriching the national
conversation by offering stories that touch people’s hearts in a way that rhetorical
arguments and op-ed pieces (and, yes, blogs) rarely can.
I got the same feeling when I recently saw Distracted with my 17-year-old
daughter. “I don’t know what to do,” cries the father in the play during an
argument about whether to give his son Ritalin. “I just want him to be… a
What parent can’t relate to that? I was particularly touched by the play because
with both of my daughters, at different stages of their lives, I had a doctor and a
teacher suggest I put them on medication. In both cases I decided against it —
and my girls both made it through difficult periods un-medicated, stronger
and more able to navigate life’s ups and downs.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t children who benefit from medication.
Clearly, there are kids with chemical imbalances who are helped by prescription
Indeed, one of the best things about Distracted is the way it gives both sides of
the ADD debate a full airing. In fact, two of the most memorable moments in the
play come when a teacher, at her wits’ end, says of a problem child, “My entire
class is learning disabled when he’s there,” and when one of the actors playing a
pro-Ritalin doctor breaks character and says, “You think I would even remember
my fucking lines if it weren’t for Ritalin? Before Ritalin, I couldn’t even get to my
auditions on time!”
But the play also makes clear that, as a culture, we have gotten into the habit
of treating childhood as a disease — and of turning to drugs as the default (and
cost-conscious-HMO-friendly) solution. There can be no argument that we are in
the midst of a legal-drugging epidemic: America now has over a million kids on
antidepressants like Prozac, and more than seven million on Ritalin.
The madness of the pill-popping phenomenon is nicely summed up in this
exchange from the play:
Doctor: People with untreated ADD are three times more likely to abuse drugs.
Mama: And by “untreated” you mean –? Doctor: Un-medicated. Mama: So, if my
son takes a drug, he’s less likely to take…drugs?
And later, the Doctor has this to say about the potential side effects of Ritalin:
“The most common are loss of appetite, delayed growth, and insomnia, but
we can always add another drug like Clonidine to help the insomnia. Some
children develop tics, but we can add a little Tenex to control that.”
The play also effectively raises a mirror to the parents in the crowd, forcing us to
question how much our Blackberry-and-cell-phone-driven, multi-tasking, media
overloaded ways are impacting our kids. As Rita Wilson’s character puts it at the
end of the play: “What if the best thing I can give my son for Attention Deficit
Disorder is my… attention?”
I left the theater grateful that this cultural crisis had been dramatically presented
in such a moving and engaging way. In a show business world increasingly
driven by fluff, it’s wonderful to see a production designed to make people think.
And to see an actress like Rita Wilson, who never leaves the stage during the
play, throw herself and her gifts into such an important subject.
Hamlet told us, “The play is the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the
king.” Distracted will catch the conscience of anyone who sees it. And in modern
America, when enough people are galvanized, the kings — whether political or
medical or directly watching over the FDA — take heed.
To drug or not to drug our kids, that is the question we need to be asking —
ourselves, our political leaders, and our medical establishment.
(Use the inside right scroll bar to read “Living in an A.D.D World” by Erik Piepenburg)
by Erik Piepenburg
In Lisa Loomer’s new play “Distracted,” Cynthia Nixon portrays the mother of a
child who may or may not have attention deficit disorder. The play, which is
running Off Broadway at the Laura Pels Theater in a production of the
Roundabout Theater Company, begins as Mama tries to quietly meditate, only to
be interrupted by the screeching voice of her demanding child.
(In his review, Ben Brantley writes that the play “feels like little more than a
compilation of jokes and observations that have been made, ad nauseam, about
this disorder during the last decade.”)
Ms. Loomer, who lives in Los Angeles, said she was inspired to write the play
shortly after her own child first enrolled in school.
“What I was seeing,” she said, “was an increasing number of children being
diagnosed with A.D.D., with bipolar disorder, with anxiety disorder, with
Motherhood, the medical establishment and parenting are familiar topics in the
work of Ms. Loomer, whose previous plays include “The Waiting Room,” about
three women of different centuries who meet in a modern-day doctor’s waiting
room, and “Living Out,” about Anglo power moms and their Latina nannies in Los
Ms. Loomer sat down before a preview of “Distracted” to talk about bringing the
world of ADD to the stage. Following are excerpts from her comments:
A.D.D. in an A.D.D. World “I was reading in the news about the increasing use
of medication for children. I wondered, were we better at diagnosing these
things? What was causing the increase in diagnoses and the increase in the use
of medication? Was it drug companies seeking to make a profit? Did we live in an
increasingly difficult world? . . . What does the increasing use of Ritalin say about
us as a society at a time when we feel like we’re falling behind the Chinese,
falling behind the Indians. Are we struggling to keep up? Why are we consuming
these stimulants? It’s a complex answer. Everyone in this play presents a point of
view that I encountered in researching and writing this play.”
A Mom’s View “The play is basically the mother’s journey. She’s the one
who does the changing in this play, not the child. She goes from someone
who believes that if you ask the right questions, if you go to the right experts you
can fix things. That position is eventually challenged in the play. This may not be
something she can fix. It may not even be something that needs to be fixed.
What she learns is to think less in terms of the problem child and be more
present with the child, with who he is.”
Names “A.D.D. has been called a lot of different things. Probably in the 50s we
called those kids juvenile delinquents or Dennis the Menace. They were called
hyperactive. For a while they were called minimally brain damaged. A.D.D. is a
pretty recent diagnosis.”
Making a Diagnosis “A.D.D. is a fairly subjective diagnosis. There is no blood
test for it. There is a checklist. What intrigues me is who is doing the checking?
What are the influences on that point of view? This is an A.D.D. society, and I
don’t know whether this is a dysfunction or a difference. There are people in
the play who know, and you’ll hear from them. I want the audience to leave the
theater thinking about that. . . I’m not a doctor. I’m not a psychiatrist. But I think
that there is something in the last scene that people will leave the theater with. I
don’t want to give it away. Some people will understand what I’m intending.
Some people may be frustrated by it. Some people might misinterpret it. But
there is a point of view.”