Audra McDonald is a fabulously talented singer/actress who deservedly became the first person ever to win six Tony awards this week. I fell in love with her Bess, opposite Norm Lewis, in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, although she could sing the want ads and I’d be mesmerized.
On June 8, 2014, she won the record-setting Tony award for her role playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. She gave a stirring acceptance speech that was itself a small masterwork. Except for the part where she stepped in a small pile of A-D-H-Doo-Doo.
Some quick background. June 8, MacDonald began her emotion-filled acceptance speech: “I want to thank my mom and my dad up in heaven for disobeying the doctors’ orders and not medicating the hyperactive girl and finding out what she was into instead and pushing her into the theater.”
June 9, Belinda Luscombe responded in a Time Magazine opinion piece titled Sorry, Audra McDonald — My Kid Needs His ADHD Meds. “I’m sure that you were not personally judging me and other concerned parents when you thanked your parents for not putting you on Ritalin. I’m sure you weren’t trying to prescribe from the podium. And obviously, you have thrived, against some serious odds. But damn it, you’re not making it any easier to live with our hard decisions.”
June 10, McDonald doubled down in a Time follow-up titled Audra McDonald: Why I Thanked My Parents for Not Putting Me on ADHD Medication. She described how her parents “decided to encourage me to audition to be a member of [a dance] troupe, in hopes that it might be a good outlet for my energy” and added that “If they had decided to try another tactic (medication or anything else), and I had stayed on what had been my path up until that point — I have no doubt that while my life might have been a fantastic one, it would not have been one in the theater.”
Really?!? When we put kids on medication, they don’t succeed in theater? Incidentally, McDonald offered that she had been placed on anti-depressants as a child without implying that they had limited her future options.
Think about this for just a second. Ms. McDonald gets 43 seconds to accept a Tony award. She’s more experienced at this than anybody else. She could have thanked her parents for driving her to countless rehearsals or any of the thousand things they undoubtedly did to encourage her. Why, why, why didn’t she?
The medication line wasn’t a throwaway. It was carefully planned. McDonald’s heart-felt belief is that ADHD medication would have killed her career. Her parents faced a juncture at which every expert wanted to medicate her for her own good. Then, in a flash of insight, they found a way out that saved her and launched her career. She is a professional at delivering lines and she told the ‘central crisis’ story of her life in a single sentence: “disobeying the doctors…not medicating the hyperactive girl…finding out what she was into…pushing her into the theater.”
When Luscombe called out the comments in “Sorry, Audra…”, McDonald could have minimized the medication line, but didn’t. She expressed support for Luscombe’s decision to medicate her son, but reiterated her contention that medication and theater were mutually exclusive options for her.
I believe that she wants to respect parents’ choices, but–if ‘not medicating’ launches careers–what sane parent would choose medication? She must be assuming, as many others do, that ADHD medication steals something from the people who take it, and that avoiding it is somehow courageous.
I work with a whole troupe of patients who are singers, musicians, dancers, comedians and actors performing at various levels from local community theater to Broadway. Treating their ADHD means treating their craft. Sculpting the medication doses around their performances approaches its own art form. Every one of them finds his or her talent improved–not impaired by treatment, once it’s optimized. We don’t spend peoples’ gifts to purchase better attention.
What the medical experts didn’t know when McDonald was a hyperactive little girl was that ADHD medications strengthen weak self-control areas of the brain, without suppressing normal function. Years ago, her parents were probably told that ADHD medications turn down the energy in the brain and she might still understand it that way.
If medication kills theater careers, experts were about to throw young McDonald over a point-of-no-return cliff, and her parents saved her. If she finds out that the medication myth is false, the drama is gone and the story that she’s always believed collapses. Except that it doesn’t. Her talent is second to none, and her career trajectory is the best version of her story.
She doesn’t know what it’s like to be on the medications or what her life would have been with them. No one knows what lies beyond the life choices we reject. She was just leveraging a common misconception to highlight her parents’ love and involvement.
I wish Ms. McDonald had left ADHD medication out of her award speech. It wasn’t the point and no one watching the Tony awards should expect neuroscience updates. To the ADHD community: it was a mistake, but it wasn’t about us. Let’s get over it.
Postscript: If you are not familiar with Audra McDonald’s work, go to YouTube and search for ‘Audra McDonald Porgy & Bess’. Close your eyes, listen to her perfectly crystal clear voice and forget everything you just read here. An artist this talented deserves to be remembered for her craft, not the misstep at the award ceremony.