Blog posts with a category of ADD/ADHD.

Michael Phelps: Life isn’t paved with Gold

FCBK 1By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

“I feel fulfilled. It was what I wanted.” – Swimmer Michael Phelps after the 2016 Rio Olympics

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time; a man of wealth and esteem who is admired world-wide, has reached a state fulfillment, as the above quote attests. But the back story tells a far different tale. Phelps has struggled with mental disorders and conditions his entire life. Thanks to his strength, resources and wonderful family led by his mother, Debbie, a single mom, he seems to finally be in the clear.

What it says for the rest of us, is that living a human life is rarely easy, even for those who are fabulously successful and can afford the best professional help.

As a 9-year-old struggling to pay attention in class, Phelps was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that affects an estimated four million children and phelpsadolescents in the United States. He simply couldn’t sit still or pay attention.

In a recent blog I explained that I’m ADD, but didn’t have the “hyper” component and it didn’t greatly affect my school performance like it did Phelps’ and millions of others. Like Phelps, who took up swimming at 9, I’ve always had laser like focus – but only for things I’m interested in, which is a characteristic of people with ADD.

With the help of  medication and behavior therapy — and the support of his mother, Phelps channeled his energies into swimming, and by age 15 became the youngest male record holder in modern sports.  Debbie and his two sisters had become a team, paying attention to his eating habits by restricting things like sugar. They also instituted restrictions on some of his activities to teach him time management, and he began making choices that helped him use his time more wisely.

Fast forward 12 years to the 2012 London Olympics where, at 27, Phelps ran his medal count to 18. He was the undisputed greatest swimmer of all time, but in his private world, wrestled with inner demons that sapped his sense of self.

“I went in with no self-confidence, no self-love,” Phelps said in an interview on NBC’s “Dateline” following the London games. “I think the biggest thing was, I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.” He also admitted that he had been struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse and that nobody except his closest friends and family knew about it.

“100%, I was lost, pushing a lot people out of my life — people that I wanted and needed in my life. I was running and escaping from whatever it was I was running from.” It took a life-changing run-in with the law in 2014 for Phelps to realize he needed help. He was arrested for driving under the influence for a second time and it provided a major call for self-analysis.

“I was in the lowest place I’ve ever been,” he told Dateline. “Honestly, I sort of, at one point, I just — I felt like I didn’t want to see another day. I felt like it should be over.”

depressionIn other words, a man who had achieved world fame as the greatest in history at his chosen pursuit was ready to commit suicide. It’s called depression, a condition Phelps shares with some 15 million, or 7% of his fellow Americans.

Phelps went into rehab in October 2014, where he says he cried himself to sleep the first several nights. In treatment he addressed many of the underlying issues affecting his health, including a turbulent relationship with his father dating back to childhood.

Before his recent Rio Olympic heroics, Phelps said, “I’m having fun again. This is something I haven’t had in a really long time.” His fiancée, Nicole, just gave birth to their son a few months ago. And becoming a dad has been the “best feeling” he’s ever felt in his life.

So, why was New Oakland created 25 years ago by Dr. Ismail Sendi? Because he realized that a staggering 1 in 4 Americans suffers from any number of mental disorders and illnesses such as those that plagued Michael Phelps. And Dr. Sendi also felt deeply that every child and adult deserves a loving family and competent professionals to guide them out of the woods to experience love, success and self-respect.

When celebrities speak out about their mental health struggles, it’s worth noting because their courage can be contagious. It’s why I wrote about golf and TV personality David Feherty recently for his wonderful interview on HBO’s Real Sports about his colossal struggle with depression.

It’s also why I feel that Phelps is equally worthy of universal admiration for openly discussing his struggles as he is his for Olympic medal haul. His courage allows him to symbolically say, “Out of the pool, I’m just like you. I admitted I needed help. You can too. And hopefully you’ll find the great personal and professional I support I had.”




A.D.H.D. and proud of it!


By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

I traveled with the Pistons for many years as a TV reporter and was taken aback one day when our brilliant conditioning coach, Arnie Kander, casually mentioned that most great NBA players were A.D.H.D., (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and that it actually helped them achieve and maintain their amazing focus and skill.

Frankly, that made no sense at all to me.

I was sure that A.D.H.D. meant an inability to focus and stay on task. I’d assumed that a player with A.D.H.D. would be dribbling and suddenly remember they forgot to lock their car and would probably throw the ball away. Obviously, I had more to learn.

A staggering 11% of kids and 5% of adults are believed to have A.D.H.D. and are prescribed Ritalin and Adderall by the millions. People with A.D.H.D have sluggish reward circuits that make adhd2normally interesting activities seem dull and would explain, in part, why people with A.D.H.D. find repetitive and routine tasks unrewarding and even painfully boring.

Psychostimulants like Adderall and Ritalin help the disorder by blocking the transport of dopamine back into neurons, thus increasing its level in the brain. Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior.

Dr. Richard A. Friedman, writing in the New York Times, notes that recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that until relatively recently had a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with most people, people with A.D.H.D. have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and under-stimulating.

They get impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world. In other words, people with A.D.H.D. have a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture.

“From the standpoint of teachers, parents and the world at large,” states Friedman, “the problem with people with A.D.H.D. looks like a lack of focus and attention and impulsive behavior. But the real problem is that, to their brain, the world they live in essentially feels not very interesting.”

That perfectly describes why I hated so much about school, as well as why I never believed I was A.D.H.D. I would to fight to stay awake in classes I found boring. My college economics class was a 45-minute nap. I remember walking in and hoping that I wouldn’t snore if I did fall out. But in classes I liked, like those in the broadcast department, I was a focused killer. Didn’t that mean that I wasn’t A.D.H.D.?

Friedman describes a patient who was taking Adderall. “She hankered for exciting and varied experiences and resorted to alcohol to relieve boredom. But when something was new and stimulating, she had laser-like focus. I knew that she loved painting and asked her how long she could maintain her interest in her art. ‘No problem,’ she said.’  I can paint for hours at a stretch.’”

adhd1Before we invented agriculture 10,000 years ago and started living more sedentary (and boring) lives, we were on the move: hunting, gathering and on the lookout for danger. The environment was as unpredictable as our next meal. Having a rapidly shifting but intense attention span and a taste for novelty was an advantage, as it is today for the painter and the NBA player, who, quite likely, would have been pre-historic success stories.

I was that way too. I could research baseball statistics for hours; wrote 3 books and did thousands of sportscasts with pretty consistent concentration.

As an adult, I learned to fight my A.D.H.D by constantly reminding myself to stay on task. As I began the unsavory task of paying bills online today, I heard a text come in on my phone. As I reached for the phone I reminded myself it can wait, and stuck my face back in the bills. A minute later I remembered I’d forgotten to put the milk away, and after getting halfway out of my chair, reminded myself it could wait. Two minutes later I saw a letter on my desk I’d forgotten to mail, and as I started to rise, reminded myself that the mailman won’t be here for hours.

New Oakland’s founder, the late Dr. Ismail Sendi, was appalled at the over-prescription of drugs for kids with A.D.H.D. The condition is real, but so many factors may add to a child’s being distracted. It could be from stress at home, a learning disability, an unstimulating learning environment and many other factors. If you have any questions about A.D.H.D., please call New Oakland.

Finally, as for my day described above, fifteen minutes later the bills were paid, and even though my bank account had just become considerably smaller, I felt quite good that I’d resisted flitting from one thing to another, having successfully combated yet another bout with my A.D.H.D.



The drug world: taming a wild frontier


Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

As a collegian in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and therefore a 40-plus year observer of drug use and abuse in America, I can’t help but reflect with amazement on the changes I’ve seen. It’s as if the drug world has turned upside down:

  • Marijuana has gone from “Reefer Madness” to being viewed by many as a miracle drug that appears to be rapidly on its way to full legal status, treating many things, like epileptic seizures in children
  • Heroin has gone from an urban ghetto drug to rampant and deadly use in affluent suburbs
  • Opium has gone from a rarely seen substance, to its prescription opioid derivatives sitting in bowls for the taking in NFL training rooms as well as becoming the number 1 source of American drug addiction and death
  • Doctors, not drug dealers, are the now the most prolific narcotics distributors in America

Across America, drug overdoses now kill more Americans drugsthan guns or cars do. According to a recent New York Times editorial, this stems from the mid-90s when pharmaceutical companies argued that doctors were under-treating pain and aggressively marketed opioids like OxyContin.

Even after executives of the company that made OxyContin pleaded guilty to a variety of criminal charges, profits still rolled in, and many users who could no longer get or afford prescriptions for it turned to heroin, which is cheaper and produces the same effect.

Here are a few examples of the non-recreational variety:

  • A.D.H.D drugs, often unnecessarily prescribed, are an $11 billion a year industry
  • Antipsychotic drug prescriptions for children have grown 7-fold in the last 20 years
  • Johnson & Johnson registered $30 billion in sales of Risperdal before paying a $2 billion penalty for deceptively marketing its dangerous side effects for children

It goes without saying, of course, that prescription drugs are literally lifesavers. And when wonderful medications aren’t curing malaria, lowering cholesterol or blood pressure and preventing heart attacks, antipsychotic drugs are also helping millions of people of all ages with mental illnesses to lead productive, happy lives.

That’s why solving this problem is so difficult, and to solve it we have return to our core principles and values about how prescription medicines should be used. When New Oakland’s founder, the late Dr. Ismail Sendi, opened the doors to the first of New Oakland’s now seven locations in the early 90’s, prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to children was viewed as a very delicate matter. According to Harvard psychiatrist and former director of the National Institute of Mental health, Dr. Steven Hyman, “Children, because their brains are still developing, are not just small adults.”

As Dr. Sendi continually reminded us, a deep and thorough mental health diagnosis the only way to bridge the potentially deadly gap between the right medication and unnecessary over-prescription or the wrong prescription.

Today, New Oakland medical director, Dr. David Harris, carries on that essential philosophy.“We treat each patient and family individually after our extensive diagnostic procedures,” says Dr. Harris.  “Our team of doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and therapists determine what the best course of treatment might be and whether medication needs to be part of the solution.”


In respect and deference to Dr. Sendi’s example, New Oakland continually strives to be a standard bearer of proper procedure, always putting the patient’s health and safety first when it comes to prescribing medications.

It’s because in a rapidly changing landscape for both the proper use and abuse of medications, rigorously following that philosophy can often be of life and death consequence.