Pill Pusher

I’ve always been a pill pusher. That is, I push pills away.  Unless my pain is completely unbearable, I will not even take an aspirin. It’s not because I’m macho or have anything to prove, and I certainly don’t look down on people who need to medicate but, like an obedient child of the 80s, I just don’t do drugs. Wouldn’t McGruff be proud?

There is some truth, however, to the idea that I do not take drugs because I am tough. I am not as physically sensitive, it seems, as other people are. Do I have a high threshold for pain? Is my pain less acute and  debilitating than other people’s?   Pain is a complicated subject, but I think that, having been through two labour and deliveries without an epidural  (ok, I had laughing gas on one) would at least prove me to be resilient while also underlining my aversion to medication.

But it’s not all about pain killers. I don’t use any sorts of drug at all and, besides a daily cup of coffee and some occasional social drinking, and I have no desire to. I don’t smoke, vape, eat, snort, inject, or otherwise invite any mind altering substances into my body (does sugar count?) because I like being in my own head. I like to be in control. I like to be functional.  I’m always sure that when I am in my own head I can be productive– and God knows how many of my hours are spent just getting to the point where I am able to focus and be productive. Drug use, I have always feared, would just throw all that off.

I’ve also always been afraid of the long-term effects of medication. When I need them, I want to be able to take a low dose and be done with it. I don’t want to develop a tolerance. Also, I don’t want to become dependent or, worse, addicted to something as restricted as pharmaceuticals, even over-the-counter ones.  I guess that fear is actually one of the biggest factors to my reluctant attitude.  A friend once told me about a promising young man who started university the same year she did.  In the first couple of weeks of the school year they went to a party where he took whatever illicit commodity was going around that night. As my friend put, it, and I can still remember her eyes making their way towards the ceiling as she told me this story, he went up and never came down.  Now, I know that Advil is not LSD and that  Concerta is not meth (though it is a form of crack, from what I understand), I’m not interested in dealing with tolerance, addiction, dependence or the loony bin on account of a temporary affliction or bad mood if I can just handle it on my own.

Do you see where this story is going?

As awareness of ADD and then ADHD started becoming more prevalent in the 90’s, I immediately identified with the symptoms.  Beyond self-diagnosis, however, there didn’t seem to be much I could do about it besides work around my issues and play to my strengths. Certainly, I was not about to jump on the Vitamin R bandwagon that accompanied what seemed to be a trend in mental health.  ADD, if that’s what I had, was something I’d dealt with even before I knew what it was.

For a very long time, I bore the reputation of being  someone who was perpetually late or who pulled all-nighters to get my assignments done on time. My grades in high school will tell you that I probably was not handling the condition as well as I could have. Things perked up in university. My high school had high academic standards, which gave me an edge in comparison with the other fish in the post-secondary pond.  All of a sudden, in University, I thought that I was freed from the burden of actually having to study for courses I didn’t think I was good at (though later it turned out that I actually have quite the aptitude for math if I could only sit my butt down and do the work). I became a decent student.   Most of the evaluations in my  arts degree were essay-based (which I rock) as opposed to multiple choice testing (which confuse me), I became more motivated and also developed organizational strategies.   I managed to have a part-time job, volunteer, and take an extra heavy course load while maintaining, for the most part, a decent average, all without the help of drugs.

At the time,  I thought I was acing university, but in hindsight all I was  really good at was maintaining mediocrity.

I got a dreamt job in my field straight out on university– in California, no less!  In fact, I was told by the committee after the fact that I was hired on the basis of karma. Apparently karma wasn’t enough. I did my job well, but I didn’t do it great.

Eventually, figuring there was something more out there, I continued on my modest way through graduate school where I had to beg and plead and petition off a couple of courses, simply because I had not properly read through the program requirements.  In the end, I presented my thesis, graduated, and then began the most revealing chapter in my personal ADD history: Parenthood.

Marriage had been a bit of a shocker for me, organization-wise, because all of a sudden I had to take the needs of another person into consideration– a person who was also not all that organized, but we worked it out.  Several babies later, and it was clear that I was losing my edge. The strategies that had served me well in the past and kept me afloat were no longer relevant.  There was no home organizing magazine or TV show or guru that could ‘corral’ (as ladies magazines love to say) all of my physical, emotional, and mental clutter into a cute and chic container.  Trust me, I bought a lot of  wicker baskets and bought into the advice of a lot of gurus. In fact, I’d  dreamed up the same or similar strategies long before Hoarders ever became a prime-time TV sensation. But when the box you’ve designated for Legos is dumped out and used as an impromptu dolly bed, and when the shelf labeled ‘long sleeve shirts’ has been emptied on to the floor in a frenzy by a child looking for his favourite bathing suit, and when the Upstairs broom gets repurposed as a downstairs fort beam shortly before a potted plant breaks all over the floor of your bathroom by someone who wanted to open a window to shout instructions to a younger sibling in the yard, and when all this happens before 10am on a Sunday, even an army of Martha Stewarts would not be enough to keep things in check

Well, maybe an army of Martha Stewarts would work, but not just a platoon.

And I tried. I tried so hard.  I wrote schedules, I made lists and I decluttered.  I embraced the chaos and, and gave thanks where it was due.  However, friends and family who counted on me, to say nothing of banks and utilities, did not embrace the chaos along with me.  I couldn’t stay on top of homework or dinners or bills or invitations — at least, not all at once.  I took drastic measures. I hired a cleaner once a week to help keep the debris in check .  I even hired, for a short time, an ADD coach whose job it was to keep me on track.  I started reading more about the condition online and in books. Then came the kicker: a single missed appointment.

My son had presented himself to us with a fever and some unusual symptoms– a red eyes, dry, split lips, and a rash.  The doctor was afraid that it was Kawasaki syndrome, and sent us straight to the hospital where they administered all sorts of tests to rule out the disease.  The results were not immediate, and we were due back for a followup– but instead I sent my son to school that day and missed the appointment. Why? How? How could I forget something so important?  The appointment was on my calendar.  I didn’t have any other pressing appointments that day. How could I have possibly forgotten about this even?

My son was fine.  Though they did not rule out Kawasaki, they also did not find any residual effects from whatever virus he’d had.For me, however, things were different.  I was more angry with myself than I had ever been. The missed appointment was a real wake-up call.

There were a few episodes throughout my life around which my impression of  of mental health drugs was formed.  For many years, I worked with kids as a counselor, group leader, or teacher.  Lots of kids with ADD– diagnosed or otherwise– came through my care.  Some were hyperactive, some were dreamy. Some were medicated, some were not.  Working in camp-like surroundings which allowed for a lot of movement and travel, and which provided a hands-on approach to learning and lots of stimuli, I developed  a very smug view of meds.  They seemed like an easy way out for parents and teachers when, really, it was the system that was failing these children, as far as I was concerned. Of course, when you’re working in a flannel and Birkenstocks kind of  environment where the indoor air was scented with patchouli and body odor (if you could tell one from the other), you’re prone to being a little judgmental. But slowly, over the course of many years, my attitude changed.

I was once leading a hike for a group of 5th graders including a super sweet kid named Brennan. He’d been complaining about hunger but we kept putting him off because it was almost time for lunch.  It must have been unbearable for him because in an uncharacteristic fit of insistence, he threatened to jump off a cliff if he did not get something to eat. He was literally standing at the edge of one at the time, so my coworker lured him away with a bag of trail mix. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I later learned that he was coming off his morning meds which completely eradicated his appetite. Could it be, I thought that this adorable and charming kid was so off kilter that he required medication to help him get through the day?

A couple of years later, I was camping with another group of kids. We were sitting around the fire in the evening when I overheard one of them confide to Jaron,  another counselor, that he was embarrassed about taking his meds. I found Jaron’s response to be very touching, and the scene has stayed clear in my mind. He said:

“I wear glasses.  If I didn’t have my glasses I wouldn’t be able to see. I’d be stumbling into things. Ritalin is like glasses for your brain. It makes things clear. The only difference between us is that glasses are on my face, and people are used to seeing them.”

More recently, I took a lesson from a friend of mine who, incidentally, had been another one of the patchouli-wearing, haughty hippies at my former workplace.Over a decade later, she still smells the same.  The bigger problem, however,  was that her marriage was about to break up, and she was devastated.  Although she and her husband were in counselling and had committed to changing certain behaviors, she was finding it incredibly difficult to give him space or to let things slide. She knew her behavior was irrational, but she said that she was simply unable to control it– a statement which I could not wrap my mind around. If she knew it was wrong, why couldn’t she just walk away? My friend reported the situation to her family doctor, who recognized the problem as being a form of anxiety.  With much apprehension, she agreed to start taking anti-anxiety medication. The first thing she noticed was how much more relaxed she could be at work. She hadn’t realized how wound up she constantly was. After some time, she found that she was able to relate to her husband in a ‘normal’ way in stressful situations– something she had never been able to do before.  Their marriage is much more stable and fulfilling today, and my friend and I agree that it wouldn’t have been the case without the drugs to help it along.

Another friend of mine who is also very hesitant when it comes to medication (I guess I tend to befriend a certain type of person) recently told me that she changed her position. She is an elementary school teacher, and a very good and caring one, in my opinion. She told me that, ultimately, she would prefer to implement differentiated education and to work around the abilities of any child to try and give them tools for learning and living, but that sometimes there are cases she sees where the child is really suffering.  Their behavior, which they can’t help,  sets them apart, makes them difficult to befriend and affects their self esteem and confidence, not to mention their ability to function in the classroom.  In these cases, she tells me, she would hope that parents and doctors would step in to try and alleviate the situation, even with medication, if necessary.

My husband had been encouraging me for a long time to see somebody about my problem. After this episode I finally went for it.  Though the ultimate motivator was concern for my family, I also started asking myself if I could ever realize at me that was not mediocre.  There are so many things I’ve wanted to accomplish, or at least try, and if medication was the vehicle that could get me there, perhaps it was time to try it out. Also, for the first time in many years, I was neither pregnant nor breastfeeding. Until that point, my problem hadn’t seemed urgent enough to complicate it with a baby.

I asked around, got a few names, and made the appointment.  (The process was a story in and of itself.)  At the end of that appointment came the beginning of a new adventure; and it’s name was Concerta.

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(Note: McGruff the Crime Dog is an anthropomorphic animated dog created by Dancer Fitzgerald Sample through the Ad Council and later the National Crime Prevention Council to increase crime awareness and personal safety in the United States.)

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