Why I Didn’t Want to Medicate My Daughter With a Magic Pill
When my daughter had trouble in school, I was hesitant to try medication to treat her ADHD. After seeing the results, I think it may be a magic pill.
From childhood, I’ve been wary of magic.
Our culture and media trained me to be. Look at what happens to the prince in Disney’s Princess and the Frog when he goes to the voodoo man to try to get riches. Or there’s the queen in Rumpelstiltskin who almost has to give up her child in exchange for help landing her man. Even in Snow White, it is the magic potion in the apple that almost kills her.
In all of these stories, the message is clear. Magic comes with a price. You don’t get what you expect in the end. It’s better to be honest, do the hard work, and don’t rely on magic shortcuts to get your end rewards.
So you can see my hesitation with parts of modern medicine, especially pills. I mean, there’s always some side effect when you take medicine. So if there’s a way to tough it out, change my diet, add more exercise, or get more sleep, I’d rather do that than some kind of chemical intervention.
All this got challenged when my daughter started kindergarten and began having trouble in school.
Over her first three years of school, we watched a pattern emerge. She started the school year excited and engaged. Then, as the year progressed, the novelty wore off, and the reserves of strength built up over an unstructured summer got worn down, and we heard from the teachers.
“She’s not completing her work,” they said. “She doesn’t seem to be progressing. She’s not playing with the other students. She wiggles out of her seat. I just can’t get her to pay attention at all.”
Some of it I could understand. She had very asynchronous development. Intellectually, she was like a kid in a candy store with an unlimited budget. She could recognize every letter of the alphabet at 17 months old and multiply two digit numbers in her head at six years old. She could create stories in her head with the complexity of a multi-level video game at six. Yet her awareness of her body in space (which I have learned is called proprioceptive awareness) was delayed. She could not keep track of where her feet might need to be to keep from tripping over something, she wiggled incessantly, and you could forget dribbling a basketball.
Despite knowing these things, I didn’t know how to understand what the teachers were telling me. It had to be that she was just young. It must just be that the teachers weren’t trying hard enough to engage her. After all, it couldn’t be that something was wrong with her.
But my husband and I didn’t want to rule out a need for some extra help.
So we went through rounds of specialists: pediatrician, occupational therapist, neuropsychologist, developmental optometrist and finally neurologist. We heard different things, “sensory integration disorder,” “extremely bright and gifted,” “written expression disorder,” “dysgraphia,” and finally “ADHD, predominantly inattentive type.” Through occupational therapy, writing therapy, applied behavioral therapy, in-class intervention, vision therapy, nutritional supplements, a gluten-free food regimen … we tried almost everything to help her. Except medication.
None of it helped her pay attention in school or do her work any faster.
But still, I did not want to put stimulants into my daughter. “I am not putting my child on medication,” I said multiple times.
Was it fear? Was I was afraid of some of the effects that I’d heard other kids go through: the pain of coming off the pills, stimulant dependency, not knowing how to regulate herself when she’s older, bad drug combinations when she’s a teenager, feeling generally weird and not like herself, losing her wonderful imagination, anxiety, lack of appetite, lack of sleep?
Or was the part about not wanting to take the shortcut? Did I think that it was cheating to do it with the meds? Did I think that she would lose out on learning to self-regulate if I gave her a pill?
Or was it a third thing? Was it denial? Did I just not want to believe that my daughter really couldn’t do it on her own?
I think it was all the above.
But, one particularly difficult day, after a very talented and understanding teacher told me my daughter was having trouble staying present through a four-sentence conversation, I watched my sweet girl struggle to pay enough attention to her math homework to even write the number 6.
And I said, “This is enough. It’s too hard on her.” I called her neurologist’s office and said, “It’s time to try medication.”
So they gave us pills. They gave us an extended release version of a fast-acting stimulant. The low dose is metabolized over the course of 10 to 12 hours, just long enough for my daughter to do her schoolwork, but not so long that it’s still in her system when she’s trying to sleep. And there’s no need to use it on weekends or vacations.
I skeptically tried it, watching carefully for side effects. All I saw the first day was my wonderful, playful daughter who maybe had an easier time finishing her thoughts when she spoke.
But at school, her teachers told me it was a radical difference. She did her work without redirection. She stopped rolling around on the floor during carpet time. She expressed opinions without being asked. She began socializing with the other kids and working well in a group project. All in the first week.
I am sure that this little pill really isn’t going to solve all her attention problems on its own. We still have to work on some other skills. As she grows, we will have to change dosage and prescriptions. And sometimes she won’t like it as much as she does right now.
But in the meantime, it’s making me rethink my position on magic.
Because magic isn’t always dark and dangerous in those stories. Sometimes there’s good magic that’s used to counteract the bad magic. And that’s always the magic that comes from a place deep inside of us. A place that comes from the most true form of love.
And I’m hoping that this turns out to be that kind of magic pill.
This piece appeared in Brain, Child-The Magazine for Thinking Mothers (brainchildmag.com).