Side Effects May Include: Humiliation, Judgment, and Stigma
Two recent encounters at the pharmacy convinced me: If you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, you shouldn’t yell “narcotic” when I ask for ADHD meds.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word narcotic as “a drug (such as cocaine, heroin, or marijuana) that affects the brain and that is usually dangerous and illegal.” If you’re the parent of a child with ADHD, who, after profound and often heart-wrenching consultation with medical professionals, has determined your child would be helped by the use of a small dose of stimulant medication, it’s apparently a word you have to catch when thrown at you where you would least expect it: the pharmacy.
The first in this series of unfortunate events occurred months ago. The pharmacy had difficulty getting my son’s medication. We were running very low, so I asked the pharmacist if he could give my son a couple of doses to hold him over while we waited for the rest of the medication to arrive. This didn’t strike me as unreasonable. The pharmacy had made this overture once before when there were similar complications with my high blood pressure medication. The person to whom I proposed my idea took a step back, looked at me in disbelief, and audibly replied, “Ma’am, that medication is a narcotic. We can’t do that for narcotics.”
I ran into this a second time more recently. My son’s medication required a slight change, and there were complications filling the prescription. I decided to call the pharmacy ahead of time – and ahead of a significant snowstorm – to ensure the quantity we needed would be in stock. Once again, I was hit with the same word from the same person: “Ma’am, we can’t give that information out over the phone for narcotics.”
I’d like to believe this individual’s use of this word was purely innocent – that perhaps it’s the word she has always used, that she doesn’t understand its nuance, that she’s using it in the strictest pharmaceutical sense.
To the layperson, though, “narcotic” has connotations – and judgmental ones at that. Even the dictionary definition points to its unsavory implications. Just a superficial scratch below the surface yields the word’s most repellent features: “Narcotics are illegal drugs. Illegal drugs are procured by addicts and criminals. Therefore, narcotics must be terrible, and those who turn to them equally terrible.”
This is not the English teacher or wordsmith-wannabe in me speaking. It isn’t the protective, defensive mother either. Ask anyone what he thinks of when he hears the word narcotic, and I doubt images of my sweet son and his law-abiding mother would come to mind.
There are other ways to describe the medication he needs: “stimulant,” yes, but also “controlled substance,” or, possibly, indeed preferably, “your son’s prescription.” These gentler alternatives exist not to sugarcoat the truth – I am acutely aware of the chemicals my son takes and why – but to show respect, especially to a person who must endure something others may not fully understand.
To the pharmacy’s credit, when I brought this up to the manager, she was professional and responsive. However, parents of children with ADHD, not to mention people with ADHD themselves – though no strangers to judgment – are not immune to it. There is something particularly raw about encountering it at the pharmacy where you are picking up the item that tends to elicit the most misunderstanding and prejudice.
My son is not an addict, and I am not a dealer. He is a sweet eight-year-old boy with a dopamine deficiency who is diagnosed with ADHD. I am a mother who has cried more tears than I can count over each moment that led to that diagnosis. Hard work and the medication we pick up every month at our pharmacy have transformed my son’s life. They have brought him peace and stability and have allowed him to thrive in school and out. This path has not been easy – tremendously rewarding, yes, but still not a path I would wish on anyone.
So if you see me at the pharmacy picking up my son’s medication, know that that our story is more complicated than just a worn-out mother picking up some “narcotics” to quiet her energetic son. It’s more complicated than my words could express and, therefore, more complicated than most will ever know.