To Medicate or Not to Medicate … That is the Question

The story of one of my worst days ever ….

Dr.: He needs to be on medication to make him sleep and take away his anxiety.

Me: He’s only 18 months old.

Dr.: He needs to sleep, you and your husband need to sleep. This will help him.

Me:  He’s only 18 months old.

Dr.: When was the last time the two of you slept longer than 30 minutes at a time?

Me: 6 months ago.

Me: Will he be on them forever? Are they addicting? Do people actually give their “babies” drugs like this? Are you sure this is okay?

Dr.: Please trust me.

Me: OK.

That day, by far was one of the hardest days of my life. I was being faced with the decision of putting my little boy on a drug that was normally used on adults in psych. wards. He was 18 months old and something was very “not right” with him, but this was terrifying.

When I left the office with a prescription, and had a few minutes to process my decision, I can distinctly remember breathing a sigh of relief. I knew that my boy needed help, and was hopeful that this would make a difference. That night, for the first time in 6 months, he slept for 6 hours in a row. It took me a few nights to trust that he would actually sleep and stay in his room and not wander my house, or escape or hurt himself or whatever else “awake” toddlers did. But it worked, it actually worked.

That day changed my little boys life and mine. It was our first step into “real change” and our first try at correction with medication. It was terrifying and life saving all at the same time.

5 months later, we were back at the doctors office, as my son had taken a turn for the worst. He had stopped talking, stopped walking, and was in an anxious state of “craziness” (for lack of a better word) all the time. Just being at the doctors office was challenging as he threw himself around the room, crying, yelling and refusing to sit still. I explained everything to the Doctor, and he said the words again. Let’s try some medication. Ritalin. As soon as he said that, I froze. Ritalin for a 2-year-old. Really? He proceeded to tell me that he felt like my little man was a perfect candidate and that it would make a significant difference in his life. He told me that if Ritalin works, the changes are obvious within a day, so if it doesn’t work, we stop. That gave me an “out”, and I agreed to give it a try.

At noon, I gave my boy his first dosage. He was 23 months old. By 6:00 pm, I had a different child. It was the first step towards “calm waters”. He was walking and talking normally, and he was happy. He was letting us touch him and hold him without lashing out. It was amazing.

The next morning, I called his doctor and we had a telephone party. He was just as thrilled as we were, and had only ever heard about the miracles that Ritalin could accomplish, but had never seen it before. He was “the kid” that this drug was developed for, and I’ve never been so thankful for something in all my life.

As the boy got older, his needs and issues grew and/or changed. Over the years, we’ve tried many different drugs, dosages, and therapies. Many, I flat-out refused, and many we tried. For every one that worked, 2 didn’t. It was a very long and trying process, but it was worth it.

He’s almost 13 years old now, and still takes 5 different drugs every day. His dosages are less than half of what they were though, which we are thrilled about.  My goal is to get him off them completely, but for now, he’s doing incredibly well, so we will maintain this course. For now.

I can say 100% without question that if I hadn’t agreed to that first step so many years ago, that I would not have the boy that I have today. These medications changed his life.

Lots of my kids have been on medications for some reason or another but 2 of them stand out in my mind to this day. I will never forget when one of them came home from school and asked me “if I knew that his teacher had brown hair”?  It was February. She had been his teacher the entire year, and he had never noticed her hair colour until he was on meds. The other boy also came home from school and told me that “his teacher has a really squeaky voice”, again, it was 6 months into the school year.

I asked them what it felt like to be on the meds, as I truly was curious because my little 2-year-old couldn’t tell me. Their words were simple, but very insightful. They both said that they felt like they could finally focus and actually see things. Words and faces and sounds were no longer jumbled about and just “bouncing off of them”. They felt normal, or what they thought normal should feel like. They felt free.

At that moment, I knew that these medications weren’t about me, and whether or not they were right or wrong to take, but about them. They needed some success in their lives, and that became my focus.

I’m not saying that all kids should be on meds, NOT AT ALL. In fact, I believe that many children are over-medicated or improperly medicated. I think that pills are many doctors’ first response as opposed to real diagnosis or treatment. BUT, I do believe that medications can truly change their lives, if handled correctly.

Meds shouldn’t be seen as a way to make your child be good or quiet or turn them into little robots. Instead, look at them as a way of giving power back to your child. If he can feel even a tiny bit of success or peace, he’s able to focus more and work on what he needs to work on. Imagine that your head is spinning out of control and then someone asking you to read a book or do some math. Imagine that the sounds that we hear have been amplified 25 times and being expected to sit in a desk and focus on your work. Imagine what it feels like to always be in trouble for acting out, not sitting still or bouncing around in your desk. Now imagine spending your days being confused, scared, anxious, embarrassed and isolated and being expected to somehow be “normal”. As adults, that would take many of us down, but those are expectations we put on our children all the time because we refuse to “put them on meds”. No, pills are not the be all to end all, but they should be an option.

If you are presented with putting your child on medication, my challenge to you is this. Do not immediately shut it down. I’m not saying you go blindly into an appointment, and just put your child on whatever pill is handed to you. What I am saying is to listen to your doctors words, do some research, ask friends that are dealing with similar things and then make a decision. If you’ve tried meds and they’re not working, try a different one or switch up a dosage. If you feel like they’re making your child worse, or giving them horrible side effects, take them off. But most importantly, be prepared to change “you”. Do not expect medications to make you a better parent. Kids with special needs, learning issues and challenging behaviours need a different kind of parenting. You MUST change and you must do better as well. Pills or no pills.

If you’ve started your child on meds, do not feel guilty about it. Ignore the judgemental words and ignorant comments. Only you know your child and what they need. Watch them and see if they’re actually helping, watch for side effects, take note of changes. Ask them how they’re feeling, do they feel better or worse, happy or sad? Ask teachers, caregivers, family members if they’ve seen changes. Make sure that you are very “present” in their therapy and treatment. Don’t just hand over a pill and wait for a miracle. It’s going to be work.

If you are the friend to a parent that has chosen medications or some alternative type therapies to help their children, be gracious. Ask questions but respect their choices. I can guarantee you that they’ve already struggled and wrestled with their decisions, and don’t need any more guilt thrown their way.

Look at your child’s face. If they need help, get them help. If you’re given a scary diagnosis, it’s okay. Look at that as the first step to something better as knowledge is always power. Our kids deserve to have us fight for them, and give them the best of everything that we’ve got. If that “fight” involves meds, so be it. If you choose a different path, that’s okay too. Just please know that there are many, many healthy success stories that involve prescription medications. Not everything you’ve read about or heard about is bad. My son is living proof of that.

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4 thoughts on “To Medicate or Not to Medicate … That is the Question

  1. shandracarlson February 2, 2013 at 9:41 am Reply

    April, if I had not watched you and your boy walk through that process I likely would have resisted any attempts at putting my son on medication when it came time to consider it for him. Taking 2.5 hours to go to sleep at night, crazy crazy nightmares (I wouldn’t want to sleep either with the dreams he had), anxiety that I could not understand and suicidal actions were more than I knew how to deal with for a 9 yr old. My peace factor was hearing you say, “You’ll know within 24 hours if it’s right.” He was put on a different medication, but it changed his life too. I prefer natural remedies and tried all kinds of things – but nothing was easing my little guy’s inner turmoil. Thank you for being a voice for children and putting words in writing that help others understand. Our world is predisposed to judgment and you do a pretty darn good job of working through all of that!

    • this mom's got something to say ... February 2, 2013 at 4:03 pm Reply

      I am so thankful that my experiences with my boy helped you on your journey. Being a Mom is tough enough without having to question something like this. Our boys future is so much brighter and better now because we stepped out of the norm. Love you Friend.

  2. Paula February 4, 2013 at 8:23 pm Reply

    Good article. I can relate to your two foster children who noticed things on meds that were jumbled before. Our son suddenly noticed that two neighbours houses were beside each other. His mind had been so jumbled, he hadn’t noticed before.

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