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I Drugged My ADHD Kid

It’s not a magical cure and it hasn’t been without its share of side effects.

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Illustration of mother and son holding hands walking by large floating pills
Cat O'Neil
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When my daughter was five, she was exactly the kind of child any kindergarten teacher dreams of teaching. She was attentive, focused, well-behaved and eager to please. If she was told to paint a picture of her family, she would promptly tie on her smock, arrange her supplies and create an age-appropriate and exceptionally adorable depiction of herself, her parents and her baby brother. If she had extra time she might paint the dog and painstakingly label everyone on the page for clarity. She nailed sharing and was a boss at taking turns. She used phrases like “thank you” and “good afternoon” and offered a smile and solid eye contact to any adult who requested her attention.

I remember watching the little boys in her class running wild, turning everything into a gun and refusing to listen to their parents. And I can remember being extremely judge-y, thinking how horrible the kids were and wondering what the parents were thinking. Couldn’t they control their own children?

And then, a few years later, my son turned into one of those wild little five-year-old boys.

Every time the phone would ring with that blocked caller ID from his school ... and it rang every single day ... my stomach would tie itself into a knot. I would answer with my eyes squeezed shut, afraid to exhale as I listened to the same words over and over again. “He’s having a rough day again.”

My son, who seemed so sweet and cooperative at home, was completely self-destructing at school. He was spending his kindergarten year crawling under tables, running out of rooms, climbing bathroom stalls and once even throwing legos at a teacher. By December, the school had recommended that we get him evaluated. He wasn’t attending regular class any more. He was spending his days with the “special help” teacher, printing out photos off the internet and killing time until dismissal. While my son’s peers were learning to read and write and be part of a classroom community, my little guy was wasting away because for some reason he couldn’t seem to manage himself in the classroom.

“He can’t control his body.”

“He isn’t following classroom rules.”

“It’s not fair to the other students.”

I blamed him, I blamed the school and I blamed myself. Yet none of the responsible parties seemed to be able to improve the situation. No amount of encouragement, discipline, dietary changes, sleep scheduling or reward systems made an impact. My son was literally unable to attend school.

When the evaluation was complete, a neuropsychologist diagnosed my son with ADHD and recommended medication. I recoiled at the suggestion that I should medicate my child. I refused! I was NOT going to be one of those lazy parents who drugged their kid because they weren’t willing to parent. I consulted therapists. I met with educational advisors. I read books and I joined chat groups online. Meanwhile, my little guy started to clue in to the fact that he wasn’t cutting it at school and his self-esteem took a major nose-dive.

One night, my son came into my room while I was sleeping and woke me up by kissing me on the cheek.

“Mommy? Are you up?”

“What’s up buddy?” I yawned.

“I need to stay home from school because I have a bad fever.”

I checked his temp and he was cool as a cucumber, but this was the first of many nights in a row when my little guy played sick to avoid having to go to school and feel like a failure. Other kids were starting to notice that my son was a “problem," and the playdate invitations were starting to dry up. The rest of his class was reading and my son wasn’t able to sit still long enough to turn a page. Relationships were forming in the classroom and my child wasn’t able to stay in the room to participate. Something had to change.

So I pulled him out of that school and put him in another. I put him in our local, zoned public school, which didn’t have a particularly amazing reputation but was just fine, and free, and directly across the street. And they had to accept him. So three weeks into January I found myself sitting in a tiny, kindergartener-sized chair at a tiny desk listening to a very calm, experienced teacher tell me her impressions of my son after his first week.

“He’s really bright,” she said. “If they recommended medication you should give it a try. He’s missing a lot and he really wants to learn.”

I started to protest but she cut me off.

“It’s up to you. I’ll keep him busy in my classroom either way but if the doctor says to try it, in my experience, it’s worth a shot.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic. And then my son’s psychiatrist presented me with some more logic.

“Just try it once,” he said. “It’s not like anti-depressants that stay in the system. Think of it more like aspirin in that it wears off and then it’s gone until you take the next pill.”

So one morning I tried it. I drugged my son. And it was the best day he’d had in school so far, and every day after that got better.

It’s not a magical cure and it hasn’t been without its share of side effects. Most ADHD medications mess with your appetite and make it harder to sleep. Our life is pretty regimented in terms of eating and sleeping schedules, always maximizing our caloric intake at breakfast before medicating, rushing to complete homework before the medication wears off and then packing in a big dinner to make up for the skipped snack and uneaten lunch during the school day. The first prescription was so hard on his appetite that he started to lose weight, and we had to switch to another drug. But we did find our way, and my son did start to participate in school, and by the end of first grade, he had caught up to his peers.

Today he is reading above grade level and basically knocking it out of the park at school. He has lots of friends, he loves his fourth grade teacher and he is learning every day. But the best part is that my son is proud of himself. He wants to go to school. He wants to be around the other kids, and he wants to learn.

I’ll be honest. I still flinch a little when I hand him a pill each morning. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely comfortable with the fact that I’m one of those lazy parents who drugs their kid to go to school. But I’ve seen the extreme side of ADHD and I know it’s real. Just like depression or anxiety or any other invisible illness that we treat with medication. So I’ll absorb a little discomfort each morning if it means my son can be successful and feel proud of himself.

About a week after I first started drugging my kid, the parents were invited into the classroom for a kindergarten “share and care” day. We were still new at the school and I didn’t know many of the other parents. But when I walked into the room, everyone said "hi" to me and knew whose mom I was. Several kids came up to say hello, and a few parents gave me their phone numbers because their children were requesting playdates. And when it was my son’s turn to “share and care," he presented a painting he had made special for that day.

It was a family portrait featuring my son, his big sister, his parents and his dog.

He even labeled each one for clarity.