Giving in to Ritalin

I hate it, but my son needs it.

Published November 30, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Recent headlines say everything about the epidemic of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: "Ritalin: A cure for brattiness?" and "Johnny Get Your Pills." Then there are the buzz words: "drugged children," "overworked parents," "frequently absent parents." The insinuation in all of this is that ADHD is a figment of our national imagination. These kids are simply unruly and their parents so career-oriented that they'd rather their kids pop pills than spend time with them. One teacher suggests that these children are unruly because "they don't have anything inside. They are so used to being entertained."

Then there is the specter of a Brave New World in which children are subjected to "cosmetic psychopharmacology," for no other reason than to simply "narrow the gap between I.Q. and performance." These parents want to give their children an edge and are willing to give the kids drugs so they get higher scores on their spelling tests.

I'm one of those people who hates the idea of giving children drugs -- for any reason. I don't even like antibiotics; my pediatrician practices homeopathy. And I, too, am horrified by the indisputable facts: There has been a 700 percent increase in prescriptions of Ritalin in the last nine years; Americans consume 90 percent of all the Ritalin in the world; the Office of Drug Enforcement "estimates that by the year 2000, fully 15 percent of school-age children will be taking Ritalin for something."

But for what? one writer asked recently, "brattiness, boredom, reluctance, defiance? Whose attention is truly deficient -- kids' or parents' (or both?)?"

That's what it all seems to boil down to: ADHD is some sort of bogus malady and the only thing wrong with these obnoxious children is their parents. And now I am one of those parents.

How did I arrive at this door? Kicking and screaming.

I knew my son was extraordinary early on in his life. There was the time when he stood up in his high chair and flexed all of his muscles like an iron man. He was 5 months old. He looked like he was having a seizure of some sort and was about to burst, he had so much pent-up energy. My partner, Lisa, and I filmed him, he looked so strange.

At 6 months he scuttled side to side like a crab in his crib, then at 10 months, he walked across my grandmother's kitchen floor. After those first tentative steps, he ran everywhere and if he fell down, he'd pop right up like one of those inflatable boxing clowns. I bought him a toy motorcycle and trotted after him as he zoomed up and down our street, Fred Flintstone-style, a hundred times a day. He wore shoes out in weeks, dragging the toes on the pavement to stop himself.

Inside, despite massive childproofing efforts, he got into everything. Once he poured a gallon of olive oil onto the kitchen floor while I was washing dishes not more than three feet away from him. In what seemed like split seconds he climbed the bookshelves, knocked lamps over, poured bleach on the carpet. I couldn't blink my eyes, it seemed, without him getting into something.

Then there was that other side to him. I knew he was a wild man -- I couldn't take my eyes off of him for 30 seconds -- but he also had a soft, pensive side. Once while he was taking a nap, I stepped outside to water the plants. I looked through the window at him. He was lying in his crib, playing with his feet, looking around the room. He stayed like this for a long time, musing, content to be by himself.

When he was older, a walk down the block to the playground would take over an hour. Zachary looked at everything; he'd lie belly down on the gray sidewalk to get a better look at a line of ants. I loved walking with him because he slowed me down, made me notice the squirrels' teeth marks on the acorns.

He was such a sensual child. He had a make-up kit and he'd rub his cheek with the soft brush until he fell asleep. A tube of Chap Stick could send him into ecstasy; he rubbed it around and around on his lips until he was glassy-eyed. This paradox was what kept me from believing my son had ADHD years later.

Then he went to school, a retro-hippie-run day care, called the Cooperative Early School. Zachary achieved notoriety there for figuring out how to unlock the childproof lock on the gate. Indoors he was a hellion. One of his teachers there, a normally blissed-out woman, remembered Zachary years later as "the kid who ruined my classroom." He was 3 years old at the time.

Lisa and I pulled him out of that school after the counselors got so angry with him for pooping on the playground for the third time that they put him in time-out for nearly two hours. Never mind that he was pretending to be an armadillo and that he pooped behind a shed. Clearly, his inability to listen had stretched their limits.

Next was the Montessori School. How does a child get kicked out of a Montessori School, a school that prides itself on its philosophy to nurture each child, to encourage him to be self-directed, an active explorer? Well, Zachary was a bit too active of an explorer -- he escaped the building, which was located on a busy road, then knocked on the front door to be let back in. He hid in closets and under computer tables. Worst of all, he refused to participate in circle time and became so disruptive other children couldn't participate either.

His teachers began showing signs of stress. Zachary began spitting at them, hitting them. In a short time, they quit trying to work with him at all, and simply recorded his behavior each hour he was there, producing a laundry list of obnoxious behaviors that they'd hand to me at 1 o'clock when I went to pick him up. They didn't mention the lists in the letter they wrote later to say that they felt the school and Zachary had ceased being a good fit.

At the time of Zachary's entrance into preschool, Lisa and I were breaking up. I thought surely some of his behavior was triggered by the shifts in our lives together, and if not by the shifts, then by the fact that we were two women. Maybe we didn't know how to raise a boy. The teachers would imply this too, coyly asking, "And how do you discipline him at home?" "Are there any men in his life?" I often felt, and still do feel at times, like the mother of the misfit boy in Anne Tyler's short story "Teenage Wasteland:"

Had she really done all she could have? She longed she ached, for a time machine. Given one more chance, she'd do it perfectly, hug him more, praise him more, or perhaps praise him less. Oh, who can say ...

Tyler's fictional boy gets lost in the crowd and disappears. Zachary's problem seemed to be an inability to get lost in a crowd, to blend in. Even strangers would come up to me at parks and say, after a few a minutes of watching Zachary, "He's just like my son. He has ADD doesn't he?"

"Nooooo," I would reply. "He's just a spirited child." I couldn't see how someone would perceive Zachary as deficient in anything. He's a wonder. Yes, he requires more work than most kids, but I figure that's the price you pay for having a kid who can't walk to the car without pretending he's tip-toeing across a log, trying to keep his feet from being eaten by alligators.

People often comment on how bright he is. But all the things about Zachary that I find exciting and positive -- his constant motion, the way his mind darts this way then that, proved to work against him in a school setting.

He attended a private Catholic school for one year, we pulled him out at the end of kindergarten because they insinuated that if he couldn't read by the time he entered the first grade, he would be held back. There was no way he was going to perform well under that kind of pressure. Not only that, but his teacher carried a cowbell onto the playground, jangling it loudly at children who failed to swing straight.

One day before we pulled him out, I parked next to the playground, waiting for the school bell to ring. Children swarmed over the sand, swinging, jumping rope, playing chase. My eye was drawn to a kid who'd put a box over his head. He careened wildly around the playground, a couple of other boys in tow. They'd get close enough to touch him, then box-boy would whirl away and they'd back off. They laughed hysterically as he whipped himself in circles, like a cat with its head stuck in a can.

He looked like he'd go over the edge any minute, start head-butting somebody or something with his box. I waited for the teacher to jangle the cowbell -- if anybody deserved it, this kid did. I could see he was out of control, and I was relieved. Someone else had a kid like Zachary. The school bell rang and the children scattered. Box-boy slowed down, wobbly as a top, then BAM! He popped the box up high off his head. It was Zachary. My heart sank.

Lisa found a private school that advertised itself as focusing on the arts. It was a small school, and the staff was open to working with Zachary, or so it seemed. In retrospect, I see that the only reason he didn't get kicked out for three years was that Lisa was forever in the office pleading Zachary's case. She literally bullied them into keeping him.

Hardly a day went by without Zachary committing some indiscretion, some mild, some scary. He called one teacher an "ass"; he called another one an idiot. He played too rough on the playground, wouldn't listen in class. In a conference, the principal said that Zachary was going to ruin her school. She said she'd never seen such a rude child. One day after he insulted a substitute teacher, the principal grabbed him by the chin and threatened to "break his face." So we were at that place again, the place where the adults in authority wanted to kill him.

His behavior was inexplicable. Over the last three years we had tried everything -- changes in diet, homoeopathic remedies, therapy, behavior modification programs. He suffered the loss of every privilege he had and practically lived in time-out. Lisa and I blamed each other. I thought she worked too late, didn't spend enough time with Zachary; she thought I was too easy on him. She got off earlier a couple of days a week and I considered spanking Zachary. I didn't know what else to do.

A couple of days before Zachary finally got asked to leave his school, I drove him over to a car wash to check on his business. The owner of the car wash, a white-haired man in his late 60s, had agreed to save aluminum cans for Zachary. When we drove up, he came over to my truck and leaned in the window. "This kid has the best manners of any kid I know," he said. "We love him around here."

It wasn't the first time I had heard this about my son. From the time he was 4 years old he has sold stuff in front of our house: green peppers and tomatoes from our garden, lemonade, sodas, refrigerator magnets he's made. Over the years, people have commented often on how well-behaved he was, how polite, how sweet, how gentlemanly. They've predicted that he'd be successful. I turned to Zachary after the man left. "Did you hear that?" I asked. "He says you have good manners. Why can't you use them in school?"

He shrugged. "Because they don't pay me."

On the surface, that is just the sort of comment you'd expect from an obnoxious brat, but I knew there was truth in the words. Zachary loves to sell things, but the money doesn't really matter to him. He once sold Susan B. Anthony dollars for a dollar each, and when his friends ran out of money, he lowered the price to 50 cents. When he was 6, he donated the $13 he'd saved from a lemonade stand to the local homeless shelter.

He will stand on the side of the road for hours waiting for a customer, only to give them a cup of lemonade if they don't have cash. In short, he loves to interact positively with people, and he can do this as Junior Salesman. I don't know why he can't be a Junior Salesman in school, but I suspect he's like a person with a fear of bridges: He's in control as long as he's on a regular road, but when he approaches a bridge, the panic takes over.

What I do know about my son is this: School wasn't paying him. School had become a place where he was bad, where nothing he did was good, where the adults in control wanted to "break his face." They didn't predict he'd be successful; they predicted he'd end up in jail. He engendered such negative feelings in people that he had gotten to the point where he simply didn't believe anything good about himself anymore.

On one of those particularly trying days, he spent two grueling hours on his homework, really fighting his body to do it. Watching him was like watching one of those cheesy horror movies where the boy turns, writhing and moaning, into a werewolf, his bones cracking and elongating, his skin stretching and tearing.

Finally, the bumps and thumps in Zachary's room subsided. Wadded balls of paper and snapped-in-half yellow No. 2 pencils littered the floor. He came out and sat down at the piano and began picking out tunes. For a half an hour he played soft made-up songs and I stood in the kitchen and listened. When he finished, I told him how much I enjoyed the music, how soothed I felt. "You're just saying that," he said. "You don't mean it."

In the last few months before he left his school, Zachary turned into a very angry child. When I picked him up at school, he got into the car with a scowl on his face. He complained about every little thing. He picked on his little brothers. This was the beginning of the end for him. When Lisa took him to be evaluated, he threw such a fit that the psychologist couldn't even test him. She called Lisa to come pick him up and declared that he was "oppositionally defiant," which in layman's terms means "this kid is a major asshole and you are going to suffer the rest of your life."

Zachary is now at a public school and he takes 10 milligrams of Ritalin twice a day. He has not turned into a sheep, like I thought he would, nor has he lost his creative edge. He still stands at the end of our driveway, engaging in elaborate swordplay against imaginary foes with his stick and garbage can lid.

After four weeks, he has made friends, and he has stopped being so angry. Even though the Ritalin is out of his system by the time he gets home, he does his homework without banging on the walls or snapping pencils in half. His teacher declared him "a joy to work with." He goes to therapy twice a month, and he actually talks to the therapist. I hate to say it but I believe that Ritalin is working for him.

I hate it because deep down I feel that if it weren't for school, Zachary wouldn't need this drug. I hate it because I read the articles and understand what is written between lines about parents "relieved to blame a neurological glitch" or "seeking a quick fix." I hate it because I feel that our culture doesn't have room for wild men like Zachary, because I suspect that he is like the child one writer described as "an evolutionary remnant, a hunter personality trapped in a culture of desk jockeys."

But the fact is, Zachary isn't a caveman and his brain isn't functioning the way it's supposed to. This is made abundantly clear to me every time I spend more energy reeling Zachary in than I do on both of his two younger brothers put together. I hope that eventually I can develop the attitude a friend of mine has developed about her own son's ADHD.

"I'm so proud of myself for having caught it so soon," she said. "He is so much happier now." With pride like that, she must not be reading the same articles I'm reading.

By Karen Shoemaker

Karen Shoemaker is the pen name of a writer who lives in Florida.

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