Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How Ritalin ruined my childhood

Guest post from Peter Jung @ | Cross posted at EduPeter.

I like Adderall. I don't take it often at all, but I have a prescription that I can get filled whenever. When I need to write a 20 page paper in a few days, I take a pill, drink a caffeine drink, and turn into a robot for a while. Normally, I don't need to take pills to succeed in a class- I pay attention well enough, keep up on the reading, and take decent notes. If I lapse in any of these things, it's not something that can be attributed to any deficits in my ability to pay attention, but another source, such as frustration with the teacher's lecturing style, exhaustion from sleep deprivation, or something of the sort.

I don't have ADD, at least not in a way that impedes my learning in any real way. So, then, why can I get Adderall?

When I was 6, ADHD was a big thing. Everybody's kid had it, which explained any number of frustrating behaviors that their kids would engage in. I was a kid that engaged in frustrating behaviors, who also had a bit of neurological damage thrown in there. The neurological damage caused a speech impediment and gross motor dysfunction, which led to me going through physical and speech therapy for many years, but caused no apparent cognitive deficits.

What my parents and first grade teacher saw was a kid who would wander off, get frustrated easily, cry when faced with math homework, and had a hard time paying attention, preferring to draw constantly instead. My parents and teacher had a lot of frustrations with me concerning math homework around this time, and finally decided they needed to see a doctor about me. After taking a test that involved me staring at a computer monitor, trying to determine which orientation a blip of light was facing, I was diagnosed with ADD.

From my perspective, first grade was a really hard time for me. I loved to read and draw, but didn't really get along with any of the other kids. They were often mean to me, and I found I preferred to be alone with my drawings. My teacher would force the entire class to do these idiotic 'two minute timings' that involved 200 basic math problems, and a two minute time limit.

Of course, most kids blew through these. I looked at the seemingly endless pile of problems, and the two minute time limit, and had the first grade equivalent of a mental breakdown. I mean, two minutes? Who can do two HUNDRED problems in TWO MINUTES?! Two minutes is not a lot of time! 200 is a VERY LARGE NUMBER. NOBODY IN THEIR RIGHT MIND SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO THIS. I DON'T LIKE THIS SCHOOL PLACE ANYMORE.

So, while such thoughts flew around my head, the unfinished two minute timings piled up, and my teacher decided that I needed to stay in during lunch and recess every day to finish them. I would just stare at them, occasionally attempt to finish one and get discouraged, then just draw. So, I missed recess for a good chunk of my first grade year, which led to me spending every recess inside with the teacher after that. Part of it was I liked to draw more than I liked being outside, but another part of it was that I was very shy, and didn't really like how the other kids treated me. Having missed that year made me feel like an outsider, and I was too introverted to try to make friends.

Of course, that led to me going to the emotional counseling support group with all the junior sociopaths in the school. I would just talk about my collection of toy robots, or stay quiet.

Anyway, Ritalin happened around the beginning of second grade. I was given a time release pill that I was supposed to swallow so it would dissolve slowly over the day. Well, that didn't happen, as I had a gag reflex. I chewed it, and got a day's worth of Ritalin in a very short period of time.

I really don't remember much else from that point on. I have pretty vivid memories of my childhood up until taking Ritalin, and then... nothing. I have seen reports of my behavior that are pretty disturbing, and found artifacts from that time period that seem to imply some degree of massive depression, although my memories are a haze. What I do remember is being a complete loner who was content to sit in the back and draw or read all day. I also remember being able to see the logical circuits for traffic lights, and other patterns.

In 5th grade, my mom became so tired of hearing all these problems with me, and had the district give me an IQ test. The next day I was placed in the highly capable program, although I still tended to prefer to disengage and draw, as I was still pretty introverted.

Somehow, I managed to skate through elementary school, but in 6th grade, by month three, I was doing terribly. I was failing one class, and doing badly in all the rest. I didn't know what was going on, but I started to get scared, as no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't do well. They apparently made an IEP for me that involved me sitting at the front of the classroom so I would pay attention better, and the teacher could keep track of me. It was all very frustrating for everyone involved.

Finally, a math teacher asked me if I could see what she was writing.

I told her I could, and then she asked me what she was writing. I told her the wrong answer.

Within weeks, I had glasses and my grades went from Fs to Bs. I was still on Ritalin, which made me very socially awkward and led to a lot of bullying, which made my entire middle school experience a horrible mess of bruises and cuts.

By 8th grade, my parents took me off the Ritalin, and I began making actual friends with the nerdy kids. I'm still friends with some of them today, and hang out with one on a weekly basis. I slowly learned how to socialize, and became more like a normal person that wasn't stoned out of their mind.

By 12th grade, I was pretty much normal. I had been in the IB program for the first two years of high school, then switched over to Running Start, which allowed me to take a few classes at the community college to knock out high school credits, and get free college credit. I still took a few classes at the high school, but they were all classes I was interested in- Calculus, Advanced Biology, Weight Training, Art, etc. I had a good group of geeky friends, and could make friends easily. I was really awkward around girls, but not in an unusual way. I was a pretty stereotypical nerd.

One day, I got pulled out of class to talk with the school psychologist. He asks me to sit down and tells me I have an IEP. I ask what that is, and he tells me that it's something that has to do with my mental health issues. At that point, I had begun conversing with the ceiling about how this man was not to be trusted, and the psychologist just laughed. So, I asked what this was all about, and he describes the IEP to me- I am to sit in front of the class and the teacher is to make sure I'm paying attention. Now, I had forgotten about this IEP thing, and generally sat in the front of the class because I was a teacher's pet, but I was rather shocked. He told me I had Static Encephalopathy, which explained why I needed physical therapy and speech therapy, but didn't really explain why I had to sit in front.

I ask him when this IEP was made. He tells me, beginning of 6th grade. I take off my glasses and gesture with them, "I got these a few months into 6th grade."

He chuckles, and shreds the document.

I think most of my problems with Ritalin could have been avoided with two simple things. If the teacher had just sat down with me and really talked with me about the two minute timings, and offered to let me do 10 problems instead of 200, I could have shown her I was competent. Also, if someone had given me a vision test earlier, I would have avoided being consistently high and losing so much of my childhood.

Even so, I think I did okay. I am largely self educated, having read the entire time-life science series of books my dad found at a garage sale in a summer, and spending so much time in the corner reading. I have no difficulty with math, social skills, or academic ability. I just think it is very important that a kid is consulted when dealing with medication, as often, kids know exactly what's up. Sometimes, yes, medications are necessary, but the application of them is so often done as a blunt weapon rather than a precise tool. With me, the problems were easily solvable, not based on any neurological deficit. As such, I feel that the psychologist's diagnosis was most certainly wrong.

Although, I must say, it is nice being able to get Adderall legally. And I use it honestly, only when I need to really cram or finish a project. Still, the feeling I have while on it is incredibly potent, and the idea that I was on this stuff for years frightens me greatly, just from the possibility that it might have impeded my brain's development. Thus far, I think I've developed normally, but I can't really tell.

In any case, I just thought I'd throw that out there, as a story of someone who went through elementary and middle school in a drugged out haze because he needed glasses.
Peter Jung is a graduate student interested in information technology and DIY Education. http://www.linkedin.com/pub/peter-jung/13/6/5a6


  1. Wow - thanks for sharing. Vision is SO important. We are lucky to have caught our daughters poor eyesight early. I cannot imagine the difficulty she would have had in school. I am glad to hear that things got better.

  2. sorry you were a victim of teachers looking for "quick fixes" instead of really trying to dig down and find out what the heck was wrong. I still hear stories like this all the time, when someone is "outside" of the norm and doesn't fit the assembly-line style of eductation, it throws their whole system out of whack and they can't deal. So they look for easy solutions like ADD and drugs. So many issues could be taken care of (not all kids learn the same way!) if teachers, in conjunction with parents, could just take a little more time and really try to figure what the heck is going on instead of trying to fit the kids into some pre-defined group of problem children..

  3. A classic example of the dangers of "labelling" individuals who don't fit the standardised mould. Many times, "learning disabilities" are actually teaching difficulties. I lived in a small community and attended a school that offered absolutely NO arts programs. If I'd been allowed to attend a music class, my teachers might have seen someone different than the kid who ignored math and staged elaborate rock concerts in his head. I don't think the term ADD was even in the books when I was in school, so I was labelled "Retarded" and dismissed as not trying hard enough. Today, approaching 60 years of age, I am regarded as a smart man and a great musician, still actively performing and drawing upon my years of experience to teach others.

  4. very interesting. glad you were able to work out your issues. my story is similar, though sounds less drastic than yours. I'm currently working on a graphic novel about it (www.raisedonritalin.com). always nice to find stories of others with similar experiences.

  5. To the other anonymous poster, I don't think you get to blame teachers for student's being medicated. A professional physician or psychatrist began medicating people. A teacher does not write a perscription or take the child to the doctor's office. They report behaviour or learning difficulties to the parents, who then make a personal decision to go the route of a doctor and accepting drug therapy over other alternatives.

    A poorly behaved student is disrupting the learning of a lot of people. That is NOT to say they must be medicated, but that their individual difficulties cannot come before the rest of the groups. It is unforunate that in this particular instance other mitigating factors were overlooked that could have helped the student be more successful and have an easier time at school.

    I saw how negatively ritatlin affected a friend in elementary school, she was not herself after taking her medication and as groupd of 4th grade friends often convinced her not to take it. Even though she did then disrupt class frequently and cause a disturbance. So I'm not advocating for it's use and it's unfortunate that it passed it's clinical trials and was given out without parents and students being made extremely aware of these problems.

    There is no perfect solution for every problem and every path can have its pros and cons.

  6. @Anonymous,
    I blame EVERY teacher who is unaware of and does not advise parents to investigate the numerous alternatives to drugging a child and possibly ruining their lives. Parents usually are not informed of the risks. Instead they are often being bullied at schools by teachers and staff into putting their kids on meds.

    I believe that is criminal and I blame teachers if they are any part of the decision without informing parents of all the risks and all the alternatives.

    I just read an article about this today in fact which you can read at this link http://lauragraceweldon.com/2012/01/02/school-add-isnt-homeschool-add

    I have heard similar stories from many parents including the one I wrote about just yesterday on my blog at this link http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-doctors-and-teachers-may-not-tell.html

    I don't care if someone else is pulling the trigger. If a teacher doesn't bother to inform herself of the alternatives and risks and share that with the parent, she is an accomplice to a very serious crime.

  7. Lisa, as always your hypberbolic language does nothing but turn me off to any sort of reply you have to other people's opinions in your post.

    I never said teacher's cannot make parents aware of drawbacks they know about from particular medicine. But the last time I checked classroom teacher's didn't get lists of side effects and updated dossiers on medications each year. They aren't doctor's or pharmacists or the children's parents as you and many of your guest posters remind us all the time.

    And no I won't read any of your carefully gleaned information on the topic, because I easily see the serious bias in what you post and the places you choose information from. You don't have to convince me of the danger's of medication, I know and still yet I know that everything isn't black and white when making those decisions.

  8. Such a powerful message! Have you read, "Jillian's Story: How Vision Therapy Changed My Daughter's Life?" It's the amazing story of a little girl who went undiagnosed with Amblyopia (monocular blindness)despite being screened by her pediatrician and pre-school volunteers. Anyone diagnosed with ADD/ADHD needs to go back to a qualified optometrist for a comprehensive eye exam before taking medication.

  9. Thank you for sharing!!! As the parent of a child who has lived a lot of your symptoms, I know first hand my own frustration and my son's, and the temptation to think it can simply be cured with a pill. It just breaks my heart to read some of this because it, in part, describes my 5th grade son - he wears glasses and did 9 months of eye therapy and is doing much better now. He still has trouble focusing and works slow, but we are SO fortunate to be at a school that has implemented a 504 with the purpose of helping him be successful in ways that he is comfotable with. It is a journey year by year, but we are determined to find root issues and therapies, rather than medicate. I wonder what my son will think when he looks back....

  10. @Anonymous, I never said teachers were doctors or pharmacists, but they absolutely should know the pros and cons of what happens when their students are medicated. If a teacher can't bother to find out what will happen to a child who is medicated, I blame them. Teachers are entrusted with parent's greatest treasures. They do expect they'll take the time to find out if something is harmful to their children. If they don't have the time, they can read my blog.

    You are right about my bias. It is always on the side of the child. Here is what is black and white anonymous. If a parent doesn't try, and a teacher doesn't recommend, alternatives to medication they are at great risk of hurting children. That is irresponsible. Black and white.

  11. You have made a completely false dichotomy of what I said. And I think you are pretty well aware of that. It's okay, I see you do it to every single commenter who comes to your blog with a different point of view than yourself.

    Yes it doesn't matter how many people you wrongly accuse and point fingers at, always is always and there are no two sides for you.

    You are deliberately avoiding the issue that teachers cannot make medical decisions for children. You are asking the person lowest in the entire equation to take the blame from the way your responses are written. Out of the teacher, physician/psychiatrist, parent and child why are you looking solely at the one who has the least authority over the medication? The teacher and school cannot mandate medication or prescribe it. They can only give it under the orders of the doctor and parent.

  12. @Anonymous, I'm asking teachers to take responsibility to share the facts with parents about the possible serious consequences of medicating as well as the numerous alternatives. Knowledge is power. Parents deserve the information.

    The fact that you could take a stand in opposition to that is both disappointing and frightening.

  13. The medicating of a child in school is usually a process that begins with the teacher. The teacher may not be able to make medical decisions for a child, but they are certainly a link in the chain that leads to medication.

    When we were in the principal's office for my son's problems in class, She handed me a pamphlet about kids with "difficulties." Very nice pamphlet with a nice big ad for Concerta in it.

    Teachers are indeed complicit in the medicating of school children. Teachers are the MOST influential factor in medicating school children. Just because they can't write the scrip is no argument at all.

  14. Lisa and Anonymous, your exchange is unfortunate, and inflamatory.

    There is only one issue to discuss- whether kids should, or should not be medicated to alter disposition (behavior.) The fact is (although everyone has an opinion- albeit some appear to project theirs as gospel,)this is a medical issue far before it is a school issue.

    Teachers, if they are responsible will not even mention the word medication as they are completely and utterly ill-equipped to provide any sort of information about something they are NOT trained or qualified to comment on.

    Medicating children is the absolute responsibility of a doctor- no other- in consultation with the ultimate decision makers- the parents. If the decision to medicate is made, then it becomes a school issue as the adminsitration of meds should be known and adjusted for.

    It's too bad medical services and educational services weren't more synergized so perhaps we could work more closely and professionally connected, but for now they aren't. Kids can go to the doctor with their parents and get medication with no knowledge of the school or teacher any time they want.

  15. @Sean Grainger

    I do not completely agree with your statement "Medicating children is the absolute responsibility of a doctor - no other."
    I do agree that a doctor writes the ultimate prescription. However, from my experience, the steps to reach that point are almost entirely those of the school system. I can only relate the facts for my child's case.
    The teacher made notes as early as kindergarten that my child was not making progress as expected. At no time was there a behavioral component to these comments. The teacher called the first meeting with me, the parent and showed me a 12 page form that she had completed and asked me to take it to my family doctor. The family doctor asked whether there were behavioral issues and when report cards showed no behavioral concerns, his declined to make an ADHD diagnosis. This fact was relayed to the teacher, who then in consultation with administration and the school psychologist called and Identification, Placement and Review meeting. At this meeting, 6 people from the school system gave reasons why my son would never progress without medication. I was also told that my son strained the teacher's resources, as he was the only child functioning at his level. The school psychologist showed me testing and statistics that my son would continue on a downhill spiral, without meds. The administrator told me that he would have to be sent to a school nearly an hours bus ride from home, if I refused to agree to medicate my son. They gave me the psychologists reports to take to my family doctor, who again said no to medication.
    The school started to make the arrangements to change the school placement of my son. I recontacted my doctor, who asked if I wanted a second opinion and suggested I ask the school for the name of a psychologist. The minute I scheduled an appointment with the psychologist, the school stopped the plans to move my son. The psychologist concurred with the school, that not medicating my son would cause undue hardship for the poor classroom teacher. She showed me statistics that kids on meds could make gains of up to a year very quickly and often were at grade level within 8 months of beginning meds. She also told me that statistics showed that kids were more likely to end up in legal trouble if unmedicated. I left that appointment with a prescription in hand and 2 years worth of refills. He was not going to be monitored by the prescribing doctor. I was told that the teacher would let me know if the medications were not working.
    I felt bullied by the school, either you medicate your son or we will not provide him with all the services in a school close to home. We will make it very inconvenient for you to deal with a school at such a distance. We will make it inconvenient for your family, with the increased bussing time. Your son's permanent record will show that you did not agree with the school on this matter. This will follow him all the way to university. He was only 6.
    My family doctor did change the prescription for the medication 17 months later, when my son's weight became an issue. At that time he pointed out again that he was not happy to be prescribing the medication, but that he understood the pressure that the school system had placed on the family.
    Now, my son is paying the ultimate price. And the system is off the hook.
    That was 14 years ago. I know that far more research is available now. But, I do know that last night, I spent more than an hour on the phone with a niece feeling the same pressure from the school that I felt those many years ago.

  16. I would like to add
    Is the teacher ultimately responsible? Her goal was class management. Was the administrator responsible, the school psychologist? They were only sharing statistics provided to them by the pharmaceutical companies about the safety of the meds. Ultimately, it was the pharmaceutical companies at fault.
    But we still allow them to skew the statistics to their favour. It is a big money making venture. If the teachers and the schools are not given full information, then they will continue to bully those who do not want medicate.

  17. Sean Granger: You say, "There is only one issue to discuss- whether kids should, or should not be medicated to alter disposition (behavior.) The fact is (although everyone has an opinion- albeit some appear to project theirs as gospel,)this is a medical issue far before it is a school issue."

    Your second sentence contradicts your first sentence. Behavior issues in school is not intrinsically a medical issue.

  18. I have to say that it's complicated for sure. As a former teacher, I see where the teachers are not writing prescriptions; but as a former foster mother and biological mother and an outrageously ADHD 7yo, I definitely see where parents (and therefore doctors) are put in a position to medicate or suffer harassment (and in many cases, the child suffers the wrath). But I have seen teachers (despite the liability issues) suggest that parents talk to their doctors "to see if medication is appropriate". Some of the better teachers know that they aren't supposed to advise outside of their domain, but there are fewer good teachers that know their craft than the opposite.

    I do NOT hold teachers accountable for telling parents the alternatives to medication--I hold the doctors responsible and the parents responsible for seeking those out if their doctors are inept. In this day and age of the internet, alternatives are not hard to find although support may be. The doctors have no problem writing a prescription for medication. For one, they (in their heart of hearts) believe it's safe enough and will quiet and please their patient--and ease the problem of a child in a setting that doesn't work for them. Pills are easy. Doctors are NOT TRAINED in nutrition--so they wouldn't have a clue about dietary interactions or alternatives. They're not going to suggest to a working parent that they quit their job and homeschool or find a more appropriate setting (which would cost tuition).

    I DO hold the education system at large accountable for putting our children in age-inappropriate learning situations where the teacher's frustrations with age-appropriate behaviors results in "medicating into submission". As Jo Tracey alluded to, the goal is ultimately classroom management if only so you can cover the curriculum in the timeframe alloted. That's hard to do with disruptions. And in fact, how you handle those disruptions can dictate how the rest of the class views and respects (or doesn't) you going forward. So to have one kid you CAN'T manage has a ripple effect. Compliance is critical.

    So to say a teacher is not vested in obtaining that compliance is ludicrous. THEY are also not going to recommend an alternative setting--as most of them view it as "taking their job away".

    But there are alternatives if parents are willing to look and hold their children's well-being paramount enough to take the less-traveled roads that are completely accessible to most people if they want it.

  19. Interesting how this comment thread has suddenly turned into being about the teachers. The article is about "someone who went through elementary and middle school in a drugged out haze because he needed glasses." The author is providing a valuable insight from the point of view of a STUDENT.

    It's important for teachers to get these perspectives - if only to try testing a child's visual acuity FIRST - when there is an issue in the classroom. But I think it would do so much more good if we all (parents and teachers) take more time to put ourselves in the shoes of these kids in the desks, rather than immediately taking sides for the adults.

    1. I would also like to point out that it was a teacher that discovered and reported my vision problems, before people attack teachers. One teacher went straight for the pill solution, but it took a particularly observant teacher to notice I was having a hard time seeing.

  20. @Sean Grainger,
    When it comes to protecting kids, you are right. I can become inflammatory. Fortunately, as result there are some educators and parents that will now think twice if they decide to medicate without investigating alternatives. Additionally, it is a fact, not my opinion, that when you drug children with ADD / ADHD meds, you are putting them at risk. If an educator is involved with putting children at risk and they don’t bother to look into it more deeply, then, yep, I do blame that educator. The educator should get involved. The educator should share with parents information that exists about the damage they may be doing to children and alternatives. To clarify, I don’t only blame the educator. I blame all parties involved (pharma companies, teachers, admins, school psychologist, doctor, etc.) with advising that parents consider this without sharing the risks and alternatives. When adults take it upon themselves to drug young people they are responsible and research must go beyond the pharam companies pamphlets and brochures.

    The doctor is not the last say. The pharma companies are spending millions to pepper them with information, brochures, and research that makes the pharma companies and the doctors rich. Many doctors are paid oodles by pharma companies to promote their products. There are many other experts that can be consulted before subjecting children to a potentially life-altering drug.

    The medical services and ed services are synergized. The pharma companies are all too happy to be a part of that. They pay the doctors to go to the school, do the talk, hand out their (pharam company’s) brochures and the doc and pharma companies get richer and possibly at a child’s expense. Educators and parents should be armed with the alternatives that are available even though there’s no big pharma company pushing for that info to be shared. Fortunately, the more people like me, Peter Jung, Jo Tracy etc., write about this, the more likely this information will be to come up in a simple Google search.

  21. You know, some districts have actually caught on to the vision thing. The problem is called "convergence insufficiency" and presents EXACTLY like ADHD. It's not hard to check for and not expensive to correct (no more expensive than any other vision problem). Many require that the kids be screened for vision and hearing before they will do IEP testing (since auditory problems are equally problematic). This reduces their costs for IEP testing and removes a burden on the district.

    No question that this has turned towards talking about teachers. I think the original article has sent all of us running for answers in preventing another case like the author... which makes us turn to teachers, doctors, parents--because none of us hold the CHILD accountable. But it is in sympathy for that child's experience and desire to stop it from happening by identifying the source.

  22. @Tyler Read a bit of your comic, greatly enjoyed it. Bookmarked, and will read it later.

    Question, did you ever have any really interesting hallucinations? I remember seeing logic circuits for traffic lights and the like, being able to trace the pathways people made through crowds and their social interactions, and easily visualize objects from more than one perspective. It was trippy stuff.

  23. @Peter,
    Thank you for your story and for weighing in. I appreciate your caveat about attacking teachers. I do want to clarify that I don't think anyone here was attacking all teachers. As I stated, the teachers, administrators, doctors, etc. that I blame are those who do not bother to 1) find out and advise parents to the harmful effects of drugging a child and possibly ruining their lives 2) inform them about the numerous alternatives to this option.

    I hold teachers accountable for keeping children as safe as possible and if they have any conversations with parents about the possibility of their children having ADD / ADHD I hold them responsible for knowing facts beyond those provided by the pharma companies.

  24. Almost identical experience. Even glasses changing my world. Trees have leaves! Thank God, my mom refused Ritalin and this was early 70's Ritalin. Had to be some wacky stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  25. I have seen that "stoned" kid in my class way too many times! I would much rather have a student hanging upside down off their chair reading a book than "stoned". My daughter is currently in first grade and having "problems" at school. She is super smart and finds school undesirable to say the least. The teacher said something to me about "lack of attention" and I wanted to choke her! She can focus just fine if it is worth focusing on. But a handwriting worksheet that is a mile long with drive her to tears. I have taught for 9 years and have lots of training on sensory issues and things of that nature, way more than the typical teacher. There lies her problem and the school is not set up to deal with it! Poor kid. I am so close to pulling her out!