Take a Ritalin: Is it Really the Doctor's Fault You're So Messed Up?

We Live in A World Unkind to Its Hyper Children

My hyper brother, Donnie - 1969  Three years before his death.
My hyper brother, Donnie - 1969 Three years before his death.

It's Not Just the Doctor's Fault

Lately there's been a veritable war being waged against physicians and the pharmaceutical industry by people who have been harmed by the medication they have taken. One of the major complaints by young adults moving out on their own is that some doctor gave them Ritalin for ADHD and they got addicted and it ruined their health.

First lets address that mythology. With most "addictive" meds, you don't become addicted just by using them. You become addicted by using them when you no longer need them. I took both morphine and oxycodone during a series of kidney stone "events". I used the drugs to combat the pain. When the pain slowed down to where it responded to aspirin, I quit. I only once took oxycodone when I didn't really need it. After that, I knew why people get hooked on the stuff. You feel really good. You think you're downright brilliant. I wrote for six hours on a book I'm working on while on the oxycodone. Thought it was the most brilliant thing I'd ever written. When I looked the next day, i realized that it was self-indulgent gibberish. I never take pain pills or anything addictive when I don't need it to keep from screaming.

Like oxycodone, you don't get addicted to Ritalin if you really have ADHD. There are three mental conditions that look like ADHD:

  1. One is childhood depression and early onset bipolar.
  2. The other is Tourette's Syndrome. Neither responds to Ritalin and Cylert stimulant meds. You'll see no effect. If you see no effect and don't take the kid off right now, he will become addicted.
  3. The third thing that looks like ADHD is a true deficit of attention. It responds miraculously to light doses of Ritalin. The meds help folk with low glucose production in the frontal lobes of the brain (the attention centers) to focus by stimulating the lethargic part of the brain that's not helping you focus.

The tragedy is that we could avoid having to use stimulant medications at all if we could let these kids hold off school until the age of ten or so when their bodies and emotions have grown up a little more. We could very likely avoid medication altogether in most cases if our schools started training 10-12 year olds for future careers instead of putting them arbitrarily into classroooms not designed for kids with this unique learning style.


The last school I taught at was a one-teacher church school with 14 kids on 7 reading levels. They averaged 3 grade levels behind on standard achievement tests. Eight out of the 14 would have been diagnosable with ADHD. Many were at the school because they couldn't learn in other traditional schools. In one year, I redesigned my teaching style to deal with the different learning styles most of my kids had. It was a movable feast. I taught on the fly. Sometimes we'd study the same subject for days if the subject caught the kids' attention. We learned how to think outside the box, how to apply logic and how to be good people. The kids worked on projects rather than being arbitrarily assigned to a "40 minutes then shift" class schedule. These kids could focus for hours I found. What was killing them was having to shift focus arbitrarily because the clock said we had to. We stumbled through the year with me learning as much about the ADHD learning style as the kids were.

At the end of they year we tested the kids. They all came up an average of three grade levels. The parents began having prayer bands praying I would stay and teach their kids another year. The school board, five ex-teachers and a bookkeeper, meanwhile had asked me to leave. My room didn't look like a traditional classroom when I was having class in it. Kids were cross-teaching each other. I had young kids participating in the older kids' classes and older kids helping the younger ones with theirs. It was too much for the traditionalists. I left teaching. I couldn't bear teaching the German style regimented classroom, graded, locked curriculum that you had to use to keep your job - not when kids were not learning.

I'm ADHD myself. I ping all over the place. In a hunter/gatherer society, I would have been a hunter and a valued member of society. In our current gatherer/accountant society, it's harder for people like me to find a place. The schools and parents want to shift responsibility for helping these kids succeed. They look to medical science to give them some kind of chemical shortcut that will make ADHD kids more like the kids who are going to grow up to be CPAs.

But psychiatrists and physicians are only able to help from the medical end. They are limited to the tools they have. Your doctor can't prescribe a different type of school. He can't send a note to your kid's principal that says, "Let this kid loose in the forests and meadows to run and play and don't make him go to school till he's ten and emotionally ready for it."

The problem is systemic. The docs get the blame because they're an easy target. We think they ought to be able to prescribe something or do a little operation and fix things. Some things aren't going to be fixed till we change the way we think about how we cope with children who have different learning styles and different energy levels. We need to change how we think about education, medicine, child-development, socialization and the role of recreation in preparing children for life.

That won't be happening till we learn to think more broadly about so-called mental disorders. Psychologists merely describe mental disorders and give them names based on how they put us at odds with the society and in which cultures we grow up.They develop treatments designed to move those with "mental illness" back toward fitting into those round holes we've made for them.

Perhaps instead of trying to shave off the corners of our little square pegs, we need to do a better job enlarging our round holes to the square pegs we've given birth to. Perhaps, instead of trying to fit our children into our idea of what they should become, we should find out what they're good at and train them to be really good at that and then guide them to the life's work at which they are most likely to succeed.

The Ritalin over-prescription problem is symptomatic of the great flaw in how our government increasingly looks at its citizens. Every year we become more analyzed and sorted to be stuck into nice tidy slots that seem to the central planners to be best for our well-being and least likely to allow us to make trouble. A kid who's energy level and scattered attention disrupts the classroom must be deviant in some way, it is reasoned, so he gets a "diagnosis" and a nice pill to settle him down.

And don't get me wrong, there's a place for medications with mental disorders, but that needs to be the careful decision of the family and the child himself (or herself). The doctor is an advisor in the process, not the unquestioned fearless leader. We tend to start imposing "cures" on people when we start boxing them into arbitrary groups by skin color, language, negative "behaviors" religion, ethnicity or political persuasion and finding to our dismay that some people refused to be boxed. But if we rugged individualists don't like the box central planning puts us in, they want to give us something that makes them "better" - more like the box they had in mind for us.

Jesus once had a friend named Martha who complained to Him that her sister Mary wasn't doing the household chores she was "supposed" to be doing. Jesus told Martha to let it go; that she was "worried about many things" but that she needn't be. He told his disciples the same thing about another similar incident with Mary. Jesus' point was that each of us should do what we do best and be content and the rest of us need to tend to our own business.

We get into trouble when we try to fit someone into a box for which he or she is not suited. Mental illness is real, make no mistake about that. It can be effectively treated and drugs are often a key part of that treatment. But medications aren't magic. They have to be taken carefully. They should not be used as a chemical restraint or a punishment for bad behavior in lieu of a "good spanking". They should not be used to create the Stepford kid you wanted to replace the one you've got.

I used to have Mom's bring their kids to our day care center dosed up on Robitussin or Benadryl to make them calm until they could get them to the center. It wasn't that these kids had colds or hay fever. They were just full of sauce first thing in the morning. And why not. They'd just slept 9 hours. What are they supposed to be but rested and raring to go? Doctors had nothing to do with that. These were over-the-counter meds being used as psychotropics because Mom didn't like little Festus's behavior.

People rage against the physician for "putting them on meds", but the decision whether or not to give you medication was not his alone or even primarily his. It wasn't the drug company that put that pill in your mouth. The person to blame was your own parent who went out and bought the medication without thinking about it. Your mom didn't ask you what you thought about it most likely. She just handed you the pill and a glass of water more likely.. And if you had trouble with the medication it was likely because it didn't work and they kept upping the dose. It was likely the Ritalin still didn't work because you had something else that only looked like ADHD.

If Ritalin works it's one of the most amazing effects in psycho-pharmacology. But if you don't see the child become more focused almost instantly, then it's unlikely that any amount of stimulant medication is going to work and you should drop it like a hot rock. Increasing the dose will only turn your into a speed-freak zombie or damage his body. If it doesn't work stop it. Start with very low doses with ADHD stimulant meds. If you get some effect, but not enough, raise the amount very very carefully till the kid can get through class without turning over desks and flower pots. And never take Ritalin, Cylert or other stimulant meds. And don't give your kid ADHD stimulants when he or she is not at school and you doesn't really need it.

As a consumer of medical services, we need to quit being passive and letting medicine be something that is done to us. We have to educate ourselves, educate our doctors by giving them good information and we must communicate what is happening to us to the doctor in order to avoid bad side effects or wasting time on meds that aren't working. They don't sometimes and you have to try something else.

The trouble is people often decide that if one pill works, two pills work twice as well. Not so. People also will keep taking the medicine that isn't working and add the new med on top of it. I've seen kids come into the treatment center where I worked on enough meds to tranquilize a horse. I've seen them on one med that was an upper and one that was a downer AT THE SAME TIME. They were canceling each other out. They pick these meds up like a snowball from seeing doctor after doctor as they passed through the system.

I don't blame that on the doctors. I blame it on the people responsible for the child. They either don't tell the doctor everything about the child or they actually want the kid zombified so he'll be easier to "handle". There are plenty of things wrong with the system alright but you can't blame it all on the people trying to help.

The problem is that we're rapidly becoming a boxed society - one where everyone is supposed to fit into his place. It's no accident that we work in cubicles, drive home in box-like cars to box-like apartments and houses and get our entertainment from boxes as we sit in our boxy chairs eating boxed food. People in boxes are much easier for those in central-planning to control. We're less trouble.when we're safely tucked in our places.

We were founded and settled as a country by hyper people who had been kicked out of every decent country on the planet. Once we got here and cleared the brush, built towns and cities, the so-called normal folk, the bean counters, began increase in number and to take over things. When that happened the hyper, hunter/explorers were pushed out. "Go West, young man," said Horace Greeley, as much to get us out of the decent towns in the East as to enlarge the boundaries of the country. We hyper dudes percolated west. The Daniel Boones, Davy Crockets and Jim Bridgers never stayed anywhere long. They pushed the trails rest till the hyper migration ran smack into the Pacific Ocean and invented the film industry - a career haven for the hyper if there ever was one. As the box people take over and began "managing" the rest of us trouble-makers, there becomes increasingly less and less room for people who behave differently, think differently or who don't sit still well.

We ADHD folk used to become hunters or cowboys or cavalry soldiers. There was a place for us then. Not so much anymore, and it's a shame. We need to take back our lives and reduce the power of the bean counters before they count us right into the gulags as incorrigibles.

I'm just sayin'

Tom King

(c) 2013 by Tom King: All Rights Reserved

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