Living with Ritalin

2010-05-24 00:00

RITALIN has a very bad name. In most parents, the very word conjures up images of robotic children, chemically manipulated into silence. I have to say, that was my initial prejudice.

It was indeed a prejudice, because I knew virtually nothing about the drug. When confronted with the possibility of using it on one of my children, my immediate reaction to it was: “I am not going to drug my child.”

But of course, that was a lie, and it was easily exposed. I drug my child when he has a cold. I drug my child when he has an infection of one sort or another. I drug my child when he has a temperature. And I do it without any hesitation. I have even considered (believe me) drugging him when he didn’t need it, but I have restrained myself. I am happy to get him inoculated with anything that might be around. Flu, measles, mumps and the rest of it. I believe in drugs.

And besides that, I could never be accused of being drug-free myself. I am a complete sissy with illness. I spurn natural remedies. I have tried them — I really have. But besides the dent in my pocket, I have noticed very little other effect. So yes, I am prepared to accept that if I had fed him vast quantities of fish oil, there may have been some positive result — but I doubt it. I really doubt it.

Joshua, our youngest son, was kept in the orphanage for three months too long. There were some worries about the size of his head and other things — but the end result was that when we got him, he was a child whose lights had almost gone off. He didn’t cry. He didn’t complain about anything. He just sat and watched, with large, staring eyes. It was so bad that our childminder called her sister and said to her that she really didn’t know why we had brought him home. Joshua­ seemed like a seriously damaged child.

And three weeks later, this child woke up. My God did he wake up. He just wouldn’t stop. And yes, he was delightful and charming as well, but as he grew and as he went to school, these became his stand-out characteristics: he was over-busy. He seemed never able to complete a task; he became worryingly devious and dishonest. The name Joshua would be yelled, shouted, screamed 150 times a day, as you would tell him not to do this and not to do that. We initially put it down to an exploring nature.

But, at the same time, his record at school was also not too good. He fought with others. He interfered with other’s work. He got himself and those around him into trouble. His lack of concentration meant that his work was not good, although his intelligence was obvious.

We met with his occupational therapist­ and she seemed to me to be going around the houses on the issue of drugs. Eventually I asked her straight out, making it clear that I was not averse to considering them. She said yes. She thought he could be an ideal candidate, so we started to explore further.

A friend of mine, a long-time teacher­, told me what it was like to teach attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) pupils. She said that if she were teaching something at the front of the class, she could immediately recognise a child with attention deficit. If there was a water sprinkler outside on the lawn, every flash of light would get his or her attention. If there was an ant on the floor, then that would. If there was a ceiling fan going round — and so on.

The doctor we consulted described it to us in terms of receptors in the brain. He held out his fingers separating them as wide as he could from each other and with the forefinger on his other hand he pointed to the tips. These were the receptors and past them whooshes a vast amount of information. The job of the receptors is to distinguish that information which is necessary to the current task from that which is not — and to discard that which is unnecessary. The ADD or ADHD child cannot do that.

Ritalin has been found to do that task. It usually works, apparently. We were told that if we did not notice an immediate and positive change in the child, then it was the wrong drug for him. You play around with it until you find the correct dosage and then the child will be on it for as long as it is useful. It isn’t habit forming and can be stopped at any time.

But there are, usually and unfortunately some significant side effects. Sleeplessness is one. Joshua now goes to sleep at around 11 pm. This stretches one’s patience a good three hours past reasonable endurance levels­. And eating. He has dropped weight fairly dramatically. He eats virtually nothing during the day and with no real commitment during the other meals in the morning and at night. This represents a fairly dramatic change in behaviour for him.

But he has also become quieter, more obedient — in every possible way. Far less dishonest and deceitful. Far less scheming. More careful in everything and less damaging and wilfully   destructive.   But   he  now has this curious, uncharacteristic quietness­ about him. If you tell him to hold your hand — that is what he does.

At the same time, we have noticed a high rise in what is sometimes inappropriate emotionality. He will cry over the simplest thing. And real tears flow.

His interactions and play with his brother have been far less fractious. He seems to remember more and retain more and is generally more polite and more concerned about the wellbeing of the other.

But, for me there is something creepy about it all. I cannot stop thinking about the Stepford Wives — that group of women who were chemically dealt with, so that all possible irritating feminist rebellion is brought to a halt. Is that what we are doing? Are we chemically manipulating his brain, to suit ourselves? Or to benefit him? For the moment, it seems to be doing both.

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