“How Ritalin Saved My Child”
“I thought my son was fine just the way he was. But if he was going to make it through school, something needed to change.” One parent’s story of making the difficult, but necessary decision to treat her son’s ADHD symptoms with the medication Ritalin.
Recent headlines say it all about the popular view of ADHD: “Ritalin: A cure for brattiness?” and “Johnny Get Your Pills.”
ADHD is simply a figment of our national imagination. These kids are just unruly and their parents so career-oriented that they’d rather see their children pop pills than spend time with them. Or parents want to give their children an edge and are willing to give them drugs to get higher scores on their spelling tests. It all seems to boil down to: ADHD is some sort of bogus malady, and the only thing wrong with these obnoxious children is their parents.
I’m one of those people who hate the idea of giving children drugs – for any reason. I don’t even like antibiotics; my pediatrician practices homeopathy. And now I am one of those parents who gives medication to her child. How did I arrive at this door? Kicking and screaming.
From Wild to Mild — and Back
I knew my son, Zachary, was extraordinary early on. There was the time he stood up in his high chair and flexed his muscles like an iron man. He was five months old. My partner, Lisa, and I filmed him, he looked so strange.
At 10 months, he walked across my grandmother’s kitchen floor. After those first tentative steps, he ran everywhere. I bought him a toy motorcycle and trotted after him as he zoomed down our street, Fred Flintstone-style, a hundred times a day. He wore out shoes in weeks, dragging the toes on the pavement to stop himself.
Inside the house, despite massive childproofing efforts, he got into everything. Once he poured a gallon of olive oil onto the kitchen floor while I was washing dishes not more than three feet away. In what seemed like split seconds, he climbed the bookshelves, knocked lamps over, poured bleach on the carpet.
Then there was that other side to him — a soft, pensive side. Once, during nap time, I stepped outside to water the plants. I looked through the window. He was lying in his crib, playing with his feet, looking around. He stayed like this for a long time, musing, content.
When he was older, a walk down the block to the playground would take over an hour. Zachary looked at everything. He’d lie belly-down on the gray sidewalk to get a better look at a line of ants. I loved walking with him because he slowed me down, made me notice the squirrels’ teeth marks on the acorns. The paradox, between his wild and pensive sides, was what kept me from believing my son had ADHD years later.
Armadillo Boy Goes to School
At age three, Zachary went to pre-school, where he achieved notoriety for figuring out how to unlock the childproof latch on the gate. Lisa and I pulled him out of that school after the counselors got so angry with him for pooping on the playground that they put him in time-out for two hours. Never mind that he was pretending to be an armadillo and that he pooped behind a shed. Clearly, his inability to listen had stretched their limits.
Next was the Montessori school. How does a child get kicked out of a school that prides itself on its philosophy to nurture each child, to encourage him to be self-directed, an active explorer? Well, Zachary was a bit too active an explorer, even for them. He hid in closets and under computer tables. He refused to participate in circle time and became so disruptive that the other children couldn’t participate either.
Strangers would come up to me at parks and say, after a few minutes of watching Zachary, “He’s just like my son. He has ADHD, doesn’t he?” I would reply, “Nooooo, he’s just a spirited child.”
I couldn’t see how someone would perceive Zachary as deficient in anything. Yes, he requires more work than most kids, but I figure that’s the price you pay for having a kid who can’t walk to the car without pretending he’s tip-toeing across a log, trying to keep his feet from being eaten by alligators.
He attended a private Catholic school for kindergarten, but we pulled him out at the end of the year because they insinuated that if he couldn’t read by the time he entered the first grade, he would be held back. There was no way he was going to perform well under that kind of pressure. Not only that, but his teacher carried a cowbell on the playground, jangling it loudly at children who failed to swing straight.
One day before we pulled him out, I parked next to the playground, waiting for the school bell to ring. My eye was drawn to a kid who had put a box over his head and was careening wildly around the playground, a couple of other boys in tow. I waited for the teacher to jangle the cowbell. I could see the boy was out of control, and I was relieved. Someone else had a kid like Zachary. The school bell rang and the children scattered. Box Boy slowed down, wobbly as a top, then BAM, popped the box up high off his head. It was Zachary. My heart sank.
Lisa found a private school that advertised itself as focusing on the arts, and seemed open to working with Zachary. In retrospect, I see that the only reason they didn’t kick him out for three years was that Lisa was forever in the office pleading his case. She literally bullied the school into keeping him.
Hardly a day went by without Zachary’s committing some indiscretion. He played too rough on the playground. He called one teacher an “ass,” another an “idiot.” In a conference, the principal said she’d never seen such a rude child. One day after he insulted a substitute teacher, she grabbed him by the chin and threatened to “break his face.” Now we were at the place where the adults in authority wanted to kill him.
Zero Options — and an Insight
Lisa and I tried everything — changes in nutrition, homeopathic remedies, therapy, behavior-modification programs. He suffered the loss of every privilege he had and practically lived in time-out. Lisa and I blamed each other. I thought she didn’t spend enough time with Zachary. She thought I was too easy on him.
A couple of days before Zachary finally was asked to leave that school, I drove him over to a car wash to check on his recycling business. The owner of the car wash had agreed to save aluminum cans for Zachary. When we drove up, the man came over to my truck and leaned in the window.
“This kid has the best manners of any kid I know,” he said. “We love him around here.” After the man left, I turned to Zachary. “Did you hear that?” I asked. “He says you have good manners. Why can’t you use them in school?” He shrugged. “Because they don’t pay me.”
On the surface, that is just the sort of comment you’d expect from an obnoxious brat, but I knew there was truth in the words. School wasn’t “paying” him. It had become a place where he was bad, where the adults in control wanted to “break his face.”
In the last few months before he left that school, Zachary turned into a very angry child. He complained about every little thing. He picked on his little brothers. This was the beginning of the end for him. When Lisa took him to be evaluated, he threw such a fit that the psychologist couldn’t test him. She called Lisa to come pick him up and declared that he was “oppositionally defiant,” which, in layman’s terms, means “this kid is a major jerk and you are going to suffer for the rest of your life.”
Giving In, Moving On
Zachary is now at a public school. He takes 10 milligrams of Ritalin twice a day. He has not turned into a sheep, as I thought he would, nor has he lost his creative edge. He still stands at the end of our driveway, engaging in elaborate swordplay against imaginary foes with his stick and garbage can lid. After four weeks of taking the medication, he’s made friends and has stopped being so angry. He does his homework without banging on the walls or snapping pencils in half. His teacher declared him “a joy to work with.” He goes to therapy twice a month, and he actually talks to the therapist. I hate to say it, but I believe that Ritalin is working for him.
I hate it because, deep down, I feel that, if it weren’t for school, Zachary wouldn’t need this drug. I hate it because I read the articles and understand what is written between the lines about parents “relieved to blame a neurological glitch” or “seeking a quick fix.” I hate it because I feel that our culture doesn’t have room for wild men like Zachary, because I suspect that he is like the child one writer described as “an evolutionary remnant, a hunter personality trapped in a culture of desk jockeys.”
But Zachary isn’t a caveman, and his brain isn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to. This is made abundantly clear to me every time I spend more energy reeling in Zachary than I do on his two younger brothers put together. I hope that eventually I can develop the attitude a friend of mine has about her own son’s ADHD.
“I’m so proud of myself for having caught it so soon,” she said to me recently. “He is so much happier now.” With pride like that, she must not be reading the same articles I’m reading.
This article first appeared on salon.com. An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission.