The Decision to Medicate

The fourth pharmacy I tried finally took the prescription from my hands. "Yes, we have this," the pharmacist replied. "But just so you know, it is a controlled substance. You will need to have a new prescription handwritten from your doctor every month to obtain refills."

I nodded my head and looked away quickly, trying to hold it together. She filled the bottle with thirty innocuous-looking capsules and sent it to me through a chute in a bag filled with paperwork. "Do you have any questions?"

Yes. Yes, I have a million questions. "No, thank you," I said, and I rolled up my car window and drove away, the tears already down my cheeks as I made the turn out of the pharmacy parking lot.

When I was pregnant with my son, I followed every rule. I took all my prenatal vitamins. I didn't drink artificial sweeteners, didn't eat deli meat, didn't let a drop of alcohol pass my lips. I craved Thai food and wasabi, but I wouldn't eat it with raw sushi, only cooked. I wouldn't let my bathwater get too hot and I didn't take so much as a Tylenol. I was the kind of pregnant woman who found reassurance and security in the "rules;" I didn't mind playing it safe for nine months. It made me feel better, like I was guaranteeing something with my puritanical abstinence. I was relieved when he was born hale and hearty.

Ten years later, in the worn passenger seat of my beleaguered minivan, I had a bottle of amphetamines with that baby's name on it. I held the bottle in my hand as I read through the literature in the parking lot of Starbucks, unable to take it home quite yet. Among the potential side effects: increased blood pressure and heart rate, psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices, addiction, sudden death. I placed my head on the steering wheel and opened the floodgates.

We are the family that never has Motrin handy when someone has a headache or a fever. We don't even take vitamins. We're not opposed to medication, but we take it so rarely that we're always throwing out expired bottles. I try to find the "safest" sunscreen, I give my boys the kind of deodorant that doesn't have aluminum or parabens in it, and I buy organic produce and milk. In general, I am risk-averse. The thought of putting my child on what is essentially speed is, frankly, horrifying to me.

This is a child I exclusively breastfed for over a year just to avoid changing the "flora and fauna of his gut" by introducing formula into his diet. That notion seems so ridiculous and naive to me now, as I change his brain chemistry with drugs. On purpose.

Years of questions came before that moment I placed my head on my steering wheel. Is this normal? Why isn't he happy? Why does he hate school? Why is he angry all the time? Can we help him? How do we help him? Will he always be like this? There were so many nights I cried myself to sleep, so many times I begged for an answer. I read books and websites. We saw doctors, counselors, therapists, psychiatrists. We tried cognitive behavioral therapy, breathing exercises, and coping strategies. As it turns out, the human brain is is not simple. There are no easy, sure answers.

I read articles that terrified me, others that shamed me. I considered alternative schools or homeschooling, but that is not what my son wanted, and his issues were not confined, or even really centered around, school. He wanted stability and to stay with his friends, the people who make him happiest; I couldn't take him away from them. I worked with his teachers, all of whom loved him, worked with him and me, emailed and called me regularly. After three years of trying everything else, we exhausted all our other possibilities. It was time to try medication.

So we did, but not without great reluctance and hesitation. Not without hearts so heavy that I had moments when I seriously considered the thought that I just couldn't do it. How do you give your child a controlled substance, addictive drugs, and act like it's a normal thing to do? No mother ever starts a journey with a child thinking that she will end up medicating her baby. But on the other hand, how do you not try everything in your power to help your child who struggles every day of his life with demons you cannot beat down through sheer force of will and all the therapy money can buy? I said I would do anything to make the world easier for my little boy, who loves so fiercely and works so hard and yet still struggles. I had to try.

Parenting, from start to finish, is one big leap of faith. All we do – from the moment someone places a baby in our eager arms to the moment we watch our grown children walk away from us under their own power – is gather the information we have at any given moment and make the best decision we can with that information. There are always a million unknowns, a million what-ifs, a million possibilities at play, but in the end, we have to trust ourselves and make a decision. It's the most frightening part of parenting: at some point, we are forced to understand that no matter how many rules we follow and no matter how much research we do, we can never know or control everything. There are no guarantees. We might make the wrong decision. We might make the right one. We can't see that far ahead, but we have to move forward anyway.

So we hold our children's hands, and we jump.

I can't say yet if medication is the answer, or if it will change my son's life our our family's. I can't say if it will finally lift the burden of whatever weighs down his shoulders and his heart and allow him to smile more often at home and maybe even enjoy school, where he has always received mostly As and he is well loved, but he has been miserable. I can say that I have seen flashes of light, glimpses of smiles I would not have seen before, and a calm in our house that we have never known in the past few weeks.

And for the first time in a long time, I have hope.

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