Our path to Ritalin —?one family’s story

2013-09-23 00:00

AFTER her first two weeks on Ritalin, my daughter Julia said: “It feels like the first two weeks of my life that I’ve been at school.” A few weeks afterwards, her new dance teacher asked: “Sorry, do you mind if I ask you, do you have ADD?” Julia had forgotten to take her Ritalin that day.

Our prescribing doctor said we would know quickly if it was working. “Julia’s reaction will not be ambiguous; it will either work or it won’t,” he said.

We were cautioned that she might eat less and sleep less. Her eating has been fine. She might have insomnia from the Ritalin, but she has always had sleep difficulties as her mind races through various exciting things, such as pending holidays, or a birthday.

Having worked as a Montessori preschool teacher, I noticed early on that Julia was easily distracted and battled to focus on more close-ended tasks. Each year at school, I’d meet with her teachers to discuss ways of helping her concentrate. They were always very accommodating and helpful. At one point, she was allowed water on her table and small snacks to nibble on to keep her focused. She was allowed to take inconspicuous strolls around the class, and even sit on a soft cushion, all in the hope that she would focus.

I would share tips that help me, like mind-mapping, working for no more than 20 minutes at a time or reading with a ruler or finger guiding me down the page. We tried mindfulness techniques, using her breath to anchor her in the present and help her to focus. We tried tissue salts, vitamins and tonics, diet, sleep hygiene and no TV, at all.

In the end, it seemed a bit absurd not to give Ritalin a try. She was aware that certain tasks were unusually difficult for her. She had begun saying things like: “You think I’m brain damaged”.

It’s about harm reduction. While there are serious side-effects to taking Ritalin, there are serious side-effects to not medicating ADD or ADHD and being easily distracted, not understanding work that other pupils find effortless, consistently answering test papers incorrectly, and leaving out sections because your mind is racing and is easily distracted. There is a higher incidence among people diagnosed with ADD or ADHD of substance abuse in later years. There is also a risk of Ritalin abuse, where it is snorted, more often amoung university students. My experience as a psychologist is that mostly people who abuse substances are doing it to provide some relief from the experience of difficult feelings, like perpetual distraction, the accompanying low self-esteem and anxiety. Reducing the need for relief from emotional distress by using a carefully chosen drug, such as Ritalin, managed sensibly, seems to be the path of least harm.

• Susan Spencer is a psychologist and manager of the addiction unit at a private psychiatric clinic in Scottsville.

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