Today is the day I will put my 11-year-old son on drugs. It has been a long time coming.
Let’s start at the beginning.
On the day Drew was born, I was so exhausted I slept non-stop for almost 12 hours. Reveling in his new dad status, my husband spent that time proudly carrying our firstborn in his arms all over the hospital. When I woke up, he told me our baby had been exceptionally alert throughout the day. His big dark eyes seemed keenly watchful; he didn’t cry or fuss; and he didn’t sleep—a harbinger of things to come, but we didn’t know it then.
As a baby, Drew always did things early, which we were secretly proud of. He was crawling at four months, pulling himself up at six months, and walking and talking at 10 months. By the time he was a toddler, we started to realize those early accomplishments had a lot to do with the fact he just couldn’t stop. Not for one moment. If we coaxed him to sit still, another part of his body would start twitching. If I held on to his twisting hands to make them stop, his legs would start jiggling. Other parents told us that when their kids had been over to our place for a playdate, they’d fall asleep instantly on the car ride home. We laughingly called that being “Drewed.”
When Drew was around three years old, seeing him in preschool next to other kids classed as high energy made me realize he wasn’t just energetic, he was unrelentingly restless. It seemed like he was driven by a motor that he couldn’t shut off. I took him to my naturopath, who said she wasn’t the diagnosing type, but if she were, the diagnosis would clearly be ADHD. We are not going there, I told myself. Love and determination are going to fix this.
I’ve always preferred the holistic route: using essential oils, herbal remedies and supplements to treat what ails me. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not all granola and berries: My children are vaccinated and I would never attempt to treat a critical illness without my doctor and our healthcare system. Drew and I are alive today thanks to the amazing medical treatment I received after an emergency C-section. Still, my first response to Drew’s growing list of symptoms was to try and treat the root causes naturally.
We started with an elimination diet that involved cutting out all the foods commonly linked to sensitivities to determine if something Drew was eating was hyping him up. That meant no gluten, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, preservatives, sugar or food colouring. This diet is obviously not an easy sell to a five year old. “Yes sweetie, I know that the other children will be having birthday cake at the party, but don’t worry, I’ve made you a flourless vegan pumpkin cookie.” I felt like other parents were giving me the side eye, when I pulled out my rice crackers on playdates and asked them to please not give my son a grilled cheese sandwich, while their kids tucked in. But the real kicker about the elimination diet wasn’t how hard or socially awkward it turned out to be. It’s that it didn’t work. Not for us. We tried for several months, with no obvious improvement and a significant increase in meltdowns and stress, before we moved on to the next thing.
Through the elementary school years we tried: high doses of magnesium, said to promote relaxation; L-Theanine, said to calm the central nervous system; tart cherry juice, said to improve sleep; and essential oils, such as vetiver and lavender, said to instill a sense of tranquility. Then there was neurofeedback, which was recommended as a way of helping Drew learn self-regulation. And then binaural beats—purported to help kids nod off more easily at night, because maybe he was just overtired? And so the list goes on. We spent thousands of dollars on remedies, hundreds of hours on research, and more tears than I can count in our search for a solution.
Actually when I say we, I should be a little more precise. My husband works in child and youth mental health (irony alert) and was already much more comfortable exploring pharmaceutical options. He indulged my desire to find a natural solution, but at times got frustrated with my refusal to look at the solutions that were right in front of our noses.
Drew’s teachers were starting to call us in for meetings. Our son had to be walked step-by-step through routine tasks day after day, as if it were the first time. His desk was a disaster, and he would often forget to turn in homework—even if it was done—or simply forget what he had been doing from one moment to the next. We knew from the great conversations we had with him on all kinds of topics that he was smart and insightful, and he had a memory that was bordering on photographic, but his grades did not reflect those strengths at all.
Drew was starting to feel worn down by his struggles at school. He became increasingly snappy at home. And our patience wore thinner than a used tissue with the constant need to direct a boy of his age in the basics of daily life. “Put on your pyjamas. Clean your teeth. Use the bathroom. Get into bed.” Our home saw tears on a near-daily basis. His and mine.
The real wake-up call came when Drew told us he felt discouraged every day. Every single day. This was a bright 11-year-old with a once-cheerful disposition. He had always had this gift of creating make-believe worlds and transporting his brother, his friends and us there into his happy place, but as the age for imaginary play was being replaced with a world of team sports and structured games, a rift was forming between him and his peers and the teen years were looking anything but bright.
At that same time, I read that there was a correlation between untreated ADD and adolescent substance abuse. Finally something flipped in my thinking. The goal should not be for my son to stay un-medicated, the goal should be the best function of his brain.
We consulted with pediatric specialists; I took my son for testing and a formal diagnosis; and finally we were able to talk with Drew about how his brain functions differently. Every time we had a medical appointment and the subject of medication came up, my husband looked over silently, before handing me a pre-emptive tissue. But we all knew it was time.
And now, here we are. The mom who treats a headache with peppermint oil (it’s a real thing and it’s amazing—try it!) and considers a regular-strength Tylenol pulling out the “big guns” is about to give her 11 year-old the really, really big guns: stimulant meds.
I didn’t end up being the holistic hero I thought my son needed me to be, but what I’ve realized is that my son needs me to keeping trying and to find what’s best for him. And you know what? I am hopeful.