Crossing Lines in the Ritalin Wars: One Mother's Perspective

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Ritalin Katherine Ellison

Katherine Ellison writes about her son in her memoir "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." Courtesy Katherine Ellison

I once lost a friend whom I had berated for "drugging" his son who had been diagnosed with ADHD -- a story I tell in my new memoir, "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention."

I live in Marin County, Calif., drive a Prius and began eating organic fruit long before it was hip. I breast-fed my kids nearly up until they asked me to stop. Never, ever, would Big Pharma have access to my babies' brains, I vowed.

Stimulants turn kids into "zombies," I lectured my friend, catching him by surprise in the middle of a Hanukkah party one cold December night. The drugs cause heart attacks and lead to depression. He was an intellectual, for heaven's sake, and normally a skeptic, especially about corporate power. Didn't he know how to use the Internet?

"You don't understand," my friend muttered, shooting me a look that told me two things: I might never be able to apologize sufficiently for my ignorance, and those cozy dinners with our spouses at his house had come to an end.

Over the next six months, I'd think about that evening again and again.

My own son also had been diagnosed with ADHD, at age 9. By his 12th birthday, our family life was a nightmare. He was failing at school and flailing angrily at home, taking his enormous frustrations out on his younger brother, his father and me. He'd lost friends and a great deal of his former self-esteem.

You're only as happy as your least happy child, the saying goes. I'd never been more miserable.

At the height of our crisis, after an afternoon when my son had threatened me, and then himself, with a butcher knife, my uncle, a child psychiatrist, insisted on talking to me and my husband, who shared my antipathy toward meds.

He listened to us, on the phone, for nearly an hour, and then simply said it was "imperative" that we try medication. The drugs were safe enough, he assured us -- and clearly safer than our son's trajectory.

The next day, my husband and I stood in front of our first-born child as he ate breakfast, and I held out the pill I never thought I'd let inside our house, much less his mouth. He saw the determination in our faces, and seemed to trust that we had his best interests in our hearts. He gulped it down.

The next several months brought peace back to our home. Our son's grades shot up; his meltdowns declined and, best of all, he acquired a best friend. He showed no sign of being a "zombie" or depressed; instead, he seemed full of new confidence and cheer.

I did my best to ignore the shrill protests from hitherto like-minded friends and even my son's new after-school tutor, who peremptorily quit after telling me she wouldn't work with "kids who are drugged." Our new domestic calm, meanwhile, gave me the mental energy to apply my professional skills as an investigative reporter to investigate some of those Internet reports.

To my great relief, I found reason to agree with my uncle -- that the meds were "safe enough." Speaking directly with the authors of several published scientific studies, I discovered their results had frequently been misinterpreted or hyped, when they hadn't been seriously challenged by other researchers. My reporting also uncovered a useful retort to friends who questioned my choice on moral grounds. Even the Dalai Lama's brother, I found, has taken lithium for many years to treat his diagnosed depression.

There are many downsides to the meds, to be sure. There's credible evidence that stimulants can stunt a child's growth, and we took the cardiovascular risks, albeit tiny, so seriously that we made sure to have our son's heart tested from the start.

There are other serious problems, of course, including the potential for abuse, and the broader danger that parents might regard the pills as a panacea, when they're anything but that. Medication, I'm now convinced, must be part of a broader, time-consuming and often costly strategy, or you may as well give your child a sugar pill.

Finally, you can't count on someone with ADHD or almost any other mental health issue to take meds indefinitely: Surveys show most kids quit within a year. (My own son took two years off meds after his banner year, while we tried alternatives, but has recently asked to begin them again.)

All that said, I finally did end up apologizing to my friend.

It didn't work. But now, at least, I understand why.

Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of four books, including "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention," a hilarious and heartrending account of one mother's journey to understand and reconnect with her high-spirited preteen son. Learn about Katherine's work and read her blog on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.