A Steady Diet of Drano and Gravel

Do you know what’s making me very happy right now? Newspapers and television and magazines have backed off on the headlines that say,

American Children are Overmedicated by Selfish Parents for Their Own Convenience and American Childhood Is on a Highway to Hell and We Are All Doomed Because Parents Are Lazy and Have No Values and the Pharmaceutical Industry Has Duped Them and We’re All Going to DIE!!!

Or something like that.

Much of the blogosphere is still abuzz on the topic, but the mainstream media, at least, has backed away from the issue.

That? That’s a good thing, because no one likes to turn on the TV to be vilified by people who know little and care even less.

Know what the problem is? People think they know lots and lots of shit. Shit they don’t know.

Back up, before I go in a circle.

In the years between my divorce and my remarriage, I attended a large Presbyterian church. The only reason that church worked for me was because I was part of a weekly Bible study populated by open-minded people who knew how to disagree respectfully. The church itself? Quite conservative in some ways (ultimately the reason we left, but that’s a story for another time), but I had my niche and I was happy there.

I tried a new Sunday school class one week and the discussion turned to divorce. The class moderator closed the hour with a little impromptu speech wherein he said, “Every marriage has hard times! My marriage has had hard times, and I’ve even considered getting out, but that’s like giving up. If my wife and I can stay married after all we’ve been through, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a divorce.”


I have no idea what that man’s issues were; no idea what his marriage was like or why he had considered divorce. What I do know is that he suffered from a very serious disease which I have coined (Now! Here! Today! Aren’t you glad you’re witnessing this momentous event?) Severe Lack of Imagination, or SLI.

Some people cannot imagine that anyone, anywhere, at any time, has experienced something different (or experienced the same thing differently) than they have. If, for our SLI sufferer, he has experienced what seems to him to be the worst possible problem that a marriage could have, and he didn’t get a divorce than why would anyone ever get a divorce? People who get divorces must be lazy people who have no values and don’t care about marriage or family at all. They probably litter and kick puppies, too.

And of course I did make a mistake, but I made it on my wedding day. The day Robert said he was leaving and I didn’t try to stop him? No mistakes anywhere in that day. None.

Back to the people who are trying to raise the alarm about kids on psychotropic medicines and the lazystupidselfish parents who are creating a crisis of apocalyptic proportions, first? Get a fucking grip.

My God, when I was watching and reading some of the coverage about kids and meds, you’d think there were large groups of parents feeding their kids a steady diet of Drano and gravel.

And why am I writing about this now, when I just said the media had backed off on the issue? Because these attitudes are ingrained in our culture and continue to drive stigma. Many (most?) people continue to believe this stuff. I’ve seen a look of shock cross people’s faces when I tell them that my child takes psychotropic medications. People who know me, who know that I am anything but stupid, that my laziness does have its limits, have to adjust their paradigm to account for all of it.

Cognitive dissonance! Oh, shit, I like her, but she’s one of those people. No, wait, she can’t be. She’s an exception. Yes, that’s it! She is one of the very few, the extremely rare, the thoughtful parent who has a child who is actually ill. Phew. Paradigm restored.

You think I’m exaggerating? No. People have actually said some variation of this to me, “Yes, but you’re the exception. Most people give their kids ritalin just to shut them up.”


The arguments, as I understand them, with answers (duh!):

  1. Parents are medicating perfectly normal children for their own convenience! Kids have energy; that’s not ADHD! We’re raising a nation of zombies.
  2. Yes, kids have energy. Some kids have lots of energy. And a few kids are miserable because of their inability to do stuff. You have to slow down to do stuff. Kids with severe ADHD don’t really do anything. The perception seems to be that, if we would just let kids with ADHD be who they are, they would be just fine.

    This is a symptom of SLI. You have seen a very energetic child. That child was very energetic but fine. Therefore, all children who are very energetic are fine.

    No. Just, no. For one thing, hyperactivity is only one of the symptoms of ADHD, and isn’t even present in every case of the disorder. For another thing, kids with ADHD suffer. Carter (who has, among many other things, a whopper of a case of ADHD) has never learned how to properly play. He doesn’t have the focus necessary to do anything, even his favorite things, for longer than a few minutes. Left untreated, he is not a happy kid with an abundance of energy. He is a miserable dervish.

    And for people who think that ADHD is no big deal, sometime I will tell you about how it killed a 13 year old boy who I loved.

  3. Parents want their kids to be perfect. Not every child can be a superstar! Parents are trying to force their kids to be something they’re not with medications.
  4. You just need to come on over to my house because your SLI is tripping you up again. We’re pretty much the opposite of overachievers. We have four children; one of them is mentally ill. I want to keep the one with a mental illness alive. Ivy League superstardom is not a factor anywhere in that equation. If this phenomenon exists, I’ve never seen it. Not in the clinic waiting rooms where worried parents wait with their lists of questions clutched in their hands; not at my support group where we try hard to support each other through life-and-death crises; not online where I receive a heartbreaking stream of messages about unwell children from their broken hearted parents.

  5. The pharmaceutical companies have fooled parents into thinking their children have illnesses that don’t even exist. Show me blood tests, brain scans, anything that proves there’s a real problem. They don’t exist. Know why? It isn’t real. Real diseases have lab tests.
  6. There is an underlying concern here that I agree with: the pharmaceutical companies are more concerned with profits than with anything else. And yes, they are. They are not humanitarian organizations, and the FDA is not doing a good enough job of monitoring their research or their marketing. All true. While I want more and better research, more and better protections, and a great deal more transparency in the whole process, it is also true that big, bad pharma continues to produce drugs that save lives.

    No doctor ever tried to force us to medicate our child. Ever. I have not heard of that happening to any of the hundreds (probably thousands, by now) of people I have spoken to who are raising a child with mental health issues. Does it happen? Perhaps, but I am in no way convinced that this is a widespread problem. People who successfully complete medical school have more lucrative options than psychiatry; the psychiatrists I know didn’t choose their specialty because they want to mess with people’s minds and shove medicines at them for shits and giggles.

    But since I don’t have SLI myself, I can, in fact, imagine that a person might do such a thing and so I use my (not even a little bit fooled) brain to consider the options. I know how to do research on the doctors, the drugs, and the illness. I go to the university library and read the peer-reviewed research. I never drink the Kool-Aid, so easy with that wide brush, Cowboy.

    And finally, the lab test issue. I’m stumped by this one. I guess I should be angry that someone invented microscopes because before we could see cancer cells, there was no cancer. Or something like that.

    There’s no lab test for SIDS, either, but I’m pretty sure that horror exists, and so does mental illness. We are not gods. Our confirmation of a thing’s existence is not necessary for a thing to be.

  7. There are other solutions. Even if a child has a real mental health issue, that child should get therapy, not medicine! Parents think medicine is a magic bullet that’s going to solve everything!
  8. I would like to meet these parents, who believe that medicine is the only thing that’s necessary for the treatment of a serious mental health issue. I am not that parent. I don’t know any parents who believe that medicine is anything other than one piece among many in an effective treatment plan. We have made use of a variety of services – traditional talk therapy, play therapy, a specialized school environment, in-home behavioral management services, occupational therapy, to name just a few.

    Just as medication is not the be-all-and-end-all for treatment, neither is any therapy. Behavioral interventions have limits, and can take a very long time. Time that my child doesn’t have.

    There are some states of mind that are so far removed from reality, so dangerous, or so painful that it is cruel to deny the relief that medications brings. The bottom line for us is this: our child suffers if we do not use medicine to treat his illness.

  9. Psychotropic meds are unproven and dangerous! No child should be on these medicines! (This argument is particularly vehement when the discussion centers on antipsychotic medications.)
  10. This one? I totally agree with this one. Likewise, no child should ever be on chemotherapy. No child should have to be injected with insulin. No child should undergo surgery.

    If you come from an assumption that the illness is not real, then of course the risks of medicine make no sense at all. In fact, taking those risks seems downright criminal.

    If, on the other hand, you understand that a child in the grip of a mental illness may be as likely to die or experience permanently disabling consequences as a child with cancer, diabetes, or any of a thousand other illnesses, than you know that we are not taking risks as much as we are balancing risks.

  11. Parents who medicate their children are robbing them of a normal childhood!
  12. No, the illness did that. The illness is the villain here. All I want for my child is a happy life. I want him to ride his bike and learn to read and annoy me with fart jokes at the dinner table. I want the most serious medical episode of his childhood to be a broken arm or appendicitis.

    Yes, my child has been robbed.

    I don’t doubt that part for one minute.

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A Steady Diet of Drano and Gravel

34 thoughts on “A Steady Diet of Drano and Gravel

  1. I don’t want to belittle the value of your own experience, so I hope this doesn’t come across this way. Still, it strikes me that some your counterarguments (not all, just some) may rely on the same sort of problem that you’re complaining about: extrapolating your experience beyond where it may be applicable. I don’t question that ADHD is real and that people with it suffer, and I know that a lot of people don’t understand the difference between real ADHD and simple energy, nor do they understand what underlies a real diagnosis from a doctor. Still, I also don’t believe that these ideas sprang out of nowhere–I consider it quite likely that there have been children who were inappropriately diagnosed with conditions they didn’t have, and were therefore medicated when it wasn’t necessary. I think it’s highly unlikely that it’s happened often, and I would be willing to bet that the frequency of false positive diagnoses is lower now than when these disorders were first coming to the public’s attention, but I’m not sure that just because it doesn’t happen often means that we should dismiss the possibility or seriousness of it happening.

    I think, too, there’s a just a general distrust of medication in our culture, especially medication that isn’t meant for acute conditions. A lot of people who are fine with the idea of having to take, say, antibiotics for a short time, or even something like chemotherapy for a year, are less comfortable with the idea of regularly taking anything for their entire lives. Personally, I think a lot of this has to do with the changes in how pharmaceuticals have been marketed in the past couple of decades, plus a leftover distrust from the days of snake oil salesmen. In this, there’s probably some portion of that concern that’s legitimate–after all, there is a lot we just don’t know about how the body works. Still, as you say, in the face of something like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or, yes, mental illness, it’s more of a question of balancing risks.

    I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have posted this. After all, your larger point is that people need to be more educated about mental illness and less judgmental, and that’s something I do agree with. And maybe the possibility that some small minority of people are inappropriately diagnosed or over-medicated isn’t significant enough to bring that into the conversation.

    1. No, I’m very glad that you posted and I think on several points you’re correct.

      In one area, I may have tried a little too hard to be brief. You’re right; using anecdotal evidence to complain about people who use anecdotal evidence is…ahem…not good. The about the vast over-medication of children hinges around the increase in pediatric mental health diagnoses in the past 10 years that no one can explain. Their response is that parents are duped by big pharma who created a false epidemic for the sake of profits.

      And my point is that I’m not stupid. None of the parents I know are that stupid, not even the minimally-educated parents I’ve met in the waiting rooms of the public clinics where all the kids in my town with serious mental illness go for treatment. We’re all concerned, asking questions, looking for solutions to our kids’ many issues.

      And yes, that’s still anecdotal, but Judith Warner came to the same conclusions in We’ve Got Issues and she did far more research than I have done.

      In fact, I think that over-diagnosis and over-medication are a very big deal but we’ve swung our pendulum, and hard. In the 1960s, psychiatric abuses were legion. People were locked up in horrifying institutions for years and years with no protections and no real illnesses, or issues too minor to justify such extreme actions. Now, we’ve gone to the other extreme. When our approach is ideological (either way; mental illness does not exist OR we should treat every damn thing no matter how small and to hell with consent) instead of compassionate and based on the best research available, people are going to be hurt. Lives will be ruined.

      Of course, there’s also the problem of the media coverage that indicates the existence of mental illness in children is controversial. It isn’t, not in the medical field. The way those illnesses are diagnosed, treated, medicated, paid for, etc.? Those things are all controversial, but the fact that there are mentally ill children who require treatment is not. But by giving equal coverage to both “sides,” the media give the impression that there is a big controversy when in fact most of that controversy is on the fringes.

  2. OK, you did it again. Another amazing post with attitude about an important subject that affects my life, too (you should see some of my friends eyes bug out when they hear Jake takes 2 pharmaceuticals as well as the 1,000 vitamins & supplements we give him daily.) Well said, my dear. Thank you.

  3. You know, I don’t remember one argument in all of those Bible study days, just good discussions 🙂

    Anyway, I remember when Carter was a baby and you’d talk about some of the things you were going through, and I never questioned it–you were his mom and obviously you knew something was wrong. And even more so now, I know that moms know.

    I was going to write more, but I’ve been interrupted multiple times and I can’t remember what it was 🙁

    1. Hmmm…maybe it was just me. 😉

      Nelson and I could have gone a few rounds. Maybe Kent and I, too.

      Very cool to see you here! And thank you. Hope those babies are being nice to you now!

  4. I responded to Rita Arens’ post over on Blogher on this issue, and if I say much I will pretty much just be repeating everything you just stated so very eloquently 🙂 Before I medicated Aeryn I was pretty much bent on doing everything possible NOT to medicate. Eventually, though, it became really clear that nothing we were doing was working and that her quality of life was being seriously impacted by her disorders. Medication didn’t solve everything, and it took time to light upon the right medications and the right doses. Combined with therapy, psychiatric treatment and ongoing followup and a lot of hard work from Aeryn and from us as well, she improved. She’s so much improved I hardly recognize her. She hasn’t had rage in months, the longest we’ve gone without one since she was 18 months old. Its an amazing time for us right now. I know it can change, especially as she heads into puberty, so I am holding on as tight as I can to all that is good right now. I want to remember it so that if we hit a rough patch before I won’t lose sight of the fact that we CAN do this, that a backward slide isn’t failure.

    1. I have thought many times in the past year that if we could just get some time, the space we need to breathe, we could help Carter learn some new skills. And of course if he’s overwhelmed by his illness and its symptoms, those skills won’t be a whole lot of use to him, but for all the more moderate expressions of the illness? I hope that time to learn, to get in the habit of managing feelings appropriately, he can learn to deal with things. With himself. I hope.

      Yes, a backward slide is not failure! It’s so hard to hang onto that perspective when you’re in the middle of it, isn’t it? But I think of the stable times as something we can bank. If the chaos goes on a long time, we get completely depleted, but when things are good, we can heal enough that we’re more prepared for the next crisis.

      And it will come, but I hope it’s a long way off at your house as well as at mine. And we’ll be wiser next time.

  5. I took Ritalin all growing up. One of the best things my parents ever did for me. Come college I didn’t need them anymore and I graduate with a fairlyt niffty GPA from a fairly niffty college all on my own. 😉

  6. What comes across most in this is that you love your child and you will do whatever it takes to care for him. He is lucky to have you. I’ve never run into so many judgmental people until I became a mom. And now that I have a kid with special needs, it’s only multiplied.

    1. Oh, yes! People have no qualms about bossing moms around, do they? Sheesh. Where did we all get the idea that we’re SO damn smart?

      One gift of having a child with special needs is that we learn how harmful judgment is. Since I’ve learned to be less (much less!) judgmental, I’m a happier person, so that’s good!

  7. Thanks for sharing your side one this– I see a lot of the OMGOVERMEDICATION ZOMBIE CHILDREN….

    But really I do just want to say that I think it’s important for parents to really evaluate and work through medicating or not medicating a child, or an adult…. Finding the best course of treatment is not something that just magically happens, it takes time and effort.

    1. It does. It takes a great deal of time and energy, especially since the system of mental health care in the US is grossly inadequate. My sense of it is that most parents are aware of that and are trying hard to find appropriate treatment.

  8. I love how you’ve addressed this issue and agree with you whole heartedly. The problem is that the majority of highly opinionated people are ignorant as to what reasons back up the opinions that they have. It is angering to the point that I just want to shake the stupid out of them.

    I’m all about having an opinion on a subject and very welcoming to those who wish to voice it. Not everyone in the world has to agree on every matter, that would be insanely boring. But if you’re stupid just shut your mouth. It’s that simple. You need accurate reasons to support your position if you choose to discuss. “That’s what my friend told me” is not an accurate reason.


    Here’s an opinion open for discussion: Stupid people should be sterilized to prevent the further evolution of increasingly stupid people. My supporting evidence, is my stupid neighbor? Has an equally stupid son.

    1. Hah! So true. People heard something on TV and decided OMG THE WORLD IS GOING TO HELL and then they spout that shit like it’s the gospel truth because it SEEMS true, or it FEELS true.

      And no. Just no.

  9. I love coming to your blog, because I don’t ever know if I’m going to learn something, laugh hysterically, or want to cry tears with you.

  10. The very first time I read your blog was when you posted “if the diagnosis was cancer”. I completely understood where you were coming from (to a point, since I do not have a child with a mental illness), however I do have a child with cancer. The diagnosis has been cancer, multiple times, relapses, new cancers, and more. I wish I could tell you how correct you were in your comments but things are way to similar.
    I understand your view here as well. I remember when the media really started focusing on this, when new laws made over the counter meds (like cold medicines) less readily available and all I could think was “the parents who don’t care about their kids and are “overmedicating” them with these pediatric medications will now just switch and will overmedicate their children with adult medications”. It’s not the medication that is the issue, it’s the uninformed, ignorant and frankly stupid parents.
    Whether it’s a diagnosis of mental illness, cancer, diabetes, CF, or any other long-term or serious illness there will be ignorant (most of them are ignorant by choice) who will be nay sayers, judgemental, and self-righteous individuals who “know better” than we the parents.
    I’m sorry that your family has to experience any of this!

    1. You’re so right, and as much as the internet is a huge blessing for those of us who have kids with special needs or medical issues (because really, it’s hard to get out of the house!), it’s also a curse. The naysayers and know-it-alls have an easier time finding us and beating us over the head with their foolishness.

      How is your child now?

      1. he’s pretty good right now but you know how that is. It could change any moment. I’m grateful for all the good times but am always trying to not worry about the next shoe to drop. Why is that a negative saying anyway? Taking my shoes off and hearing them hit the floor is a GOOD thing… kind of strange… Oh, well. You know what I’m saying. You take the bad with the good and when it’s good you try not to anticipate the next wave of bad.

        1. Yes, exactly. It’s so easy to do that, isn’t it? Either things or awful, or I’m just treading water waiting for them to be awful again. No good at all, but SO hard to stop. I’m glad things are quiet for you at the moment.

  11. I do have some anxiety about a decrease in quiet learning before school leading to rambunctious behavior AT school being over diagnosed as ADHD by parents and teachers. And I say this because I have seen it. I’ve seen parents of children who clearly had never learned sustained attention insist that their children had a disorder, and I’ve seen teachers (who, to be fair are pulling their hair out over having a dozen such children in a classroom) tell parents of normally active (if with poor attention skills) children that they go see pediatricians. My son’s third grade teacher did not know how to deal with a child that was both a year younger than the rest of the class and already bored with the material. Her suggestion to deal with my son having no challenging material in the classroom and being socially more immature than his classmates was to “take him to a doctor, you know, just to see what could be done.”

    I only hope that doctors (now) are better at filtering true disorders from kids who often spent most of their lives in child care centers were teaching quiet attention is not on the agenda. (Note: I have no judgement about this, my kid was one of those kids – but it’s hugely naive to think that a child spending 2/3rds of his/her waking hours in a busy group environment learns those skills the same way a child in a home would.)

    There are very very real conditions, and to think that those shouldn’t be treated with medicine is ridiculous. And yes, I totally agree: the SLI condition runs rampant in this country. What *I* think, what *I* feel, what *I* experienced is the sum total of reality and therefore I am qualified to espouse.

    Mile. Moccasins. Walking.

    They should try it sometime.

    1. Yes, there are some huge systemic problems that drive the over medication that does exist. For one thing, we keep pushing academics younger and younger. I didn’t learn to read in kindergarten! I learned to play checkers. Kindergarten was sort of like practice for school, not really school. Now they’re pushing academics into the pre-k programs.

      Trouble is, our educational system pays so little attention to child development research that more than half of the kids are suddenly square pegs. If that many kids are not able to cope, something is very wrong.

      It’s illegal here for teachers or any school personnel to recommend medication. They can suggest a visit to the doctor, but they can’t suggest a diagnosis. I thought that was pretty standard, and I’m amazed to hear that it’s happening all over the place. That’s so frustrating. I understand why the teachers want to do that; they have too many kids and unreasonable curricula, but that doesn’t make it OK.

      Sheesh. Our system is such a mess.

      1. Oh hey! Chiming in as an educator here…I wouldn’t say OVERmedication is a problem as much as WRONG medication/over medication. We have LOTS of parents at my school (I teach in an underfunded, at-risk district) who don’t know how to “control” (their words, not mine) their kids and “make them” do their school work. So they ask ME if they think their kid has ADD or ADHD or something “mentally” wrong. And then when I tell them I can’t make that diagnosis, they decide that yes, their kid needs meds (more so to sedate them into “controlability” than anything else), and suddenly I get a shell in my classroom.

        It’s very sad.

        And worse? Kids think when they don’t understand something immediately that they must have ADD or ADHD. And then they ASK to be put on meds.


        1. Bleh. Our systems of education and healthcare are beyond screwed up. What a mess

          Sigh, indeed. This nation’s priorities are seriously screwed up. I hate that pediatricians are prescribing psychiatric medications, but there are not nearly enough developmental pediatricians and pediatric psychiatrists, so parents are stuck. Because yeah, the brief assessment of a physician who spends most of her day diagnosing ear infections and the flu…that’s not good enough. I think a lot of primary care docs agree with that.

          And smaller classes? Imagine how much more you could do for the kids in your class if there were only 10 or 12 of them!

  12. One thing that really upsets me about psychiatric medications, is that in my experience it is not a constant.

    Something will work for awhile and then, everything falls apart. We have to determine has the med stopped working? Is it due to growth of the child? Do we need a higher dosage or a different medication? Is this new problem enviroment related? Normal hormones? On and on and on…….

    I want to have the medication work and then be done with all the variance.

    The constant work of exploring mediction combinations is HELL.

    I find this to be so discouraging. Have you experienced this?

    1. YES! Oh, yes. It’s awful. Twenty months ago when Carter fell apart, he had been doing extremely well for nearly 2 years on his med cocktail. It has taken us all this time (and I don’t even KNOW how many meds and dosage adjustments) to get him back to some semblance of reasonable stability. In these past 20 months, several times it seemed like we were on the right track; he would improve for a few weeks or even longer, but then he’d slide and crash again.

      Yes, so frustrating. And then, when you start to run out of drugs to try? That’s unbelievably scary because I’ll think, “What if this is it? What if it can’t get any better?” But for now, lithium seems to be our miracle drug. He also takes risperdal, buspirone, and clonidine, but the lithium is really the one that turned things around. But there were so many drugs between February 2009 and now…oye! I dread having to do it again. I hope that time doesn’t come for a long, long time.

      1. Eskalith is what turned the corner for my daughter. The change in her was as if she was a different person or maybe a truer version of her self.

        I think Eskalith is a time release version of Lithium.

        Sorry to tell you but the road gets bumpy during adolescence—ages 12-15 were so hard for her and ME.

        I hope I can be there for you then?

        1. Oh, yeah, that’s the form of lithium Carter takes, too. He has to take the timed-release or it makes him nauseous and pukey for hours after he takes it.

          Yeah, we’re very nervous about adolescence. Thankfully, all our older kids will be through that part before Carter gets there, but yeah, very scary.

          I will be so grateful to have you with me! I have much love and support in my life, but there’s nothing quite the same as people who have walked the same road. There’s so much we don’t have to say because we both know that the real pain is wordless.

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