How Ritalin ruined my childhood

Guest post from Peter Jung @ | Cross posted at EduPeter.

I like Adderall. I don't take it often at all, but I have a prescription that I can get filled whenever. When I need to write a 20 page paper in a few days, I take a pill, drink a caffeine drink, and turn into a robot for a while. Normally, I don't need to take pills to succeed in a class- I pay attention well enough, keep up on the reading, and take decent notes. If I lapse in any of these things, it's not something that can be attributed to any deficits in my ability to pay attention, but another source, such as frustration with the teacher's lecturing style, exhaustion from sleep deprivation, or something of the sort.

I don't have ADD, at least not in a way that impedes my learning in any real way. So, then, why can I get Adderall?

When I was 6, ADHD was a big thing. Everybody's kid had it, which explained any number of frustrating behaviors that their kids would engage in. I was a kid that engaged in frustrating behaviors, who also had a bit of neurological damage thrown in there. The neurological damage caused a speech impediment and gross motor dysfunction, which led to me going through physical and speech therapy for many years, but caused no apparent cognitive deficits.

What my parents and first grade teacher saw was a kid who would wander off, get frustrated easily, cry when faced with math homework, and had a hard time paying attention, preferring to draw constantly instead. My parents and teacher had a lot of frustrations with me concerning math homework around this time, and finally decided they needed to see a doctor about me. After taking a test that involved me staring at a computer monitor, trying to determine which orientation a blip of light was facing, I was diagnosed with ADD.

From my perspective, first grade was a really hard time for me. I loved to read and draw, but didn't really get along with any of the other kids. They were often mean to me, and I found I preferred to be alone with my drawings. My teacher would force the entire class to do these idiotic 'two minute timings' that involved 200 basic math problems, and a two minute time limit.

Of course, most kids blew through these. I looked at the seemingly endless pile of problems, and the two minute time limit, and had the first grade equivalent of a mental breakdown. I mean, two minutes? Who can do two HUNDRED problems in TWO MINUTES?! Two minutes is not a lot of time! 200 is a VERY LARGE NUMBER. NOBODY IN THEIR RIGHT MIND SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO THIS. I DON'T LIKE THIS SCHOOL PLACE ANYMORE.

So, while such thoughts flew around my head, the unfinished two minute timings piled up, and my teacher decided that I needed to stay in during lunch and recess every day to finish them. I would just stare at them, occasionally attempt to finish one and get discouraged, then just draw. So, I missed recess for a good chunk of my first grade year, which led to me spending every recess inside with the teacher after that. Part of it was I liked to draw more than I liked being outside, but another part of it was that I was very shy, and didn't really like how the other kids treated me. Having missed that year made me feel like an outsider, and I was too introverted to try to make friends.

Of course, that led to me going to the emotional counseling support group with all the junior sociopaths in the school. I would just talk about my collection of toy robots, or stay quiet.

Anyway, Ritalin happened around the beginning of second grade. I was given a time release pill that I was supposed to swallow so it would dissolve slowly over the day. Well, that didn't happen, as I had a gag reflex. I chewed it, and got a day's worth of Ritalin in a very short period of time.

I really don't remember much else from that point on. I have pretty vivid memories of my childhood up until taking Ritalin, and then... nothing. I have seen reports of my behavior that are pretty disturbing, and found artifacts from that time period that seem to imply some degree of massive depression, although my memories are a haze. What I do remember is being a complete loner who was content to sit in the back and draw or read all day. I also remember being able to see the logical circuits for traffic lights, and other patterns.

In 5th grade, my mom became so tired of hearing all these problems with me, and had the district give me an IQ test. The next day I was placed in the highly capable program, although I still tended to prefer to disengage and draw, as I was still pretty introverted.

Somehow, I managed to skate through elementary school, but in 6th grade, by month three, I was doing terribly. I was failing one class, and doing badly in all the rest. I didn't know what was going on, but I started to get scared, as no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't do well. They apparently made an IEP for me that involved me sitting at the front of the classroom so I would pay attention better, and the teacher could keep track of me. It was all very frustrating for everyone involved.

Finally, a math teacher asked me if I could see what she was writing.

I told her I could, and then she asked me what she was writing. I told her the wrong answer.

Within weeks, I had glasses and my grades went from Fs to Bs. I was still on Ritalin, which made me very socially awkward and led to a lot of bullying, which made my entire middle school experience a horrible mess of bruises and cuts.

By 8th grade, my parents took me off the Ritalin, and I began making actual friends with the nerdy kids. I'm still friends with some of them today, and hang out with one on a weekly basis. I slowly learned how to socialize, and became more like a normal person that wasn't stoned out of their mind.

By 12th grade, I was pretty much normal. I had been in the IB program for the first two years of high school, then switched over to Running Start, which allowed me to take a few classes at the community college to knock out high school credits, and get free college credit. I still took a few classes at the high school, but they were all classes I was interested in- Calculus, Advanced Biology, Weight Training, Art, etc. I had a good group of geeky friends, and could make friends easily. I was really awkward around girls, but not in an unusual way. I was a pretty stereotypical nerd.

One day, I got pulled out of class to talk with the school psychologist. He asks me to sit down and tells me I have an IEP. I ask what that is, and he tells me that it's something that has to do with my mental health issues. At that point, I had begun conversing with the ceiling about how this man was not to be trusted, and the psychologist just laughed. So, I asked what this was all about, and he describes the IEP to me- I am to sit in front of the class and the teacher is to make sure I'm paying attention. Now, I had forgotten about this IEP thing, and generally sat in the front of the class because I was a teacher's pet, but I was rather shocked. He told me I had Static Encephalopathy, which explained why I needed physical therapy and speech therapy, but didn't really explain why I had to sit in front.

I ask him when this IEP was made. He tells me, beginning of 6th grade. I take off my glasses and gesture with them, "I got these a few months into 6th grade."

He chuckles, and shreds the document.

I think most of my problems with Ritalin could have been avoided with two simple things. If the teacher had just sat down with me and really talked with me about the two minute timings, and offered to let me do 10 problems instead of 200, I could have shown her I was competent. Also, if someone had given me a vision test earlier, I would have avoided being consistently high and losing so much of my childhood.

Even so, I think I did okay. I am largely self educated, having read the entire time-life science series of books my dad found at a garage sale in a summer, and spending so much time in the corner reading. I have no difficulty with math, social skills, or academic ability. I just think it is very important that a kid is consulted when dealing with medication, as often, kids know exactly what's up. Sometimes, yes, medications are necessary, but the application of them is so often done as a blunt weapon rather than a precise tool. With me, the problems were easily solvable, not based on any neurological deficit. As such, I feel that the psychologist's diagnosis was most certainly wrong.

Although, I must say, it is nice being able to get Adderall legally. And I use it honestly, only when I need to really cram or finish a project. Still, the feeling I have while on it is incredibly potent, and the idea that I was on this stuff for years frightens me greatly, just from the possibility that it might have impeded my brain's development. Thus far, I think I've developed normally, but I can't really tell.

In any case, I just thought I'd throw that out there, as a story of someone who went through elementary and middle school in a drugged out haze because he needed glasses.
Peter Jung is a graduate student interested in information technology and DIY Education.
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