When popping a sleeping pill makes you break out in a cold sweat and keeps you awake for hours grinding your teeth and trying to “crack Twitter,” you can bet it’s not actually a tranquilizer. That’s what I figured out one night after mistaking a prescription stimulant for a knock-out pill. This is a story that should be stamped with a big, red “Caution: Don’t try this at home,” given the chain of careless (and potentially harmful) events that led to my surprise all-nighter. Yet the experience helped me learn more about my stepson (I’ll call him “M” for privacy reasons), who has been on a number of different medications since he was in first grade, more than any other event in our nearly 20-year relationship.
My husband and and are lax when it comes to discarding old prescription pills. We also stow a mish-mash of meds in a single bottle for traveling. At about 11pm one night, I was stressing about work the next morning and dug into the bottle. I grabbed a white pill without examining it carefully. 15 minutes later, instead of being conked over the head with a velvet hammer, my jaw was tightening and I felt clammy and chilled even under heavy blankets, as well as mentally agitated. I found an identical pill, noted the numbers imprinted on the back, powered up my tablet, and discovered that it was a Ritalin, left over from when M was younger and spending weekends at the house.
What really shocked me was how strong the medication was and how uncomfortable it made me feel. It was disturbing to think about M taking it when he was only six-years-old. When he was little, he often jiggled his body with nervous energy and bit his nails down until they were raw and bloody. I recalled how he had stomach cramps after taking a pill and also seemed emotionally dependent on having his meds—like he had been convinced that something was “wrong” with him if he didn’t take them.
After my experience, I asked M if he would be willing to share his thoughts about being on Ritalin as a kid. He confirmed that it gave him an upset stomach—what I didn’t know was that, as he put it, “I messed my pants as a child more than I should have.” And other memories were similarly tinged with shame. In his mind, the reason he started taking the drug was because he was “acting out terribly in school” and that the administration insisted he be medicated to avoid expulsion.
Contrary to the notion that kids on Ritalin are able to make friends more easily, he says he felt hazy and anti-social until the effects began to wear off in the late afternoon. Then he would hang around outside and become super boisterous and sometimes disruptive. M’s daily trips to the nurse went under the radar until he was in fifth grade and his teacher regularly mocked him in class saying things like, “Maybe he needs to up his dosage.” He never shared any of this at the time, because, like most children, he was self-conscious and scared of challenging an authority figure, especially at a school were his spot was already tenuous. Nowadays, there is less stigma surrounding ADD and ADHD, but at that time, being outed by his teacher led to persistent teasing by other kids.
There were also some positives. He believes the drug allowed him to “excel [at school] and learn a tremendous amount.” When I told him I went into a stimulant-induced Internet wormhole trying to figure out the key to Twitter, he laughed knowingly and said, “Yeah, I would try to crack Arabic.” In fact, he was fascinated by languages and codes.
Ultimately, M’s take on medicating kids is nuanced and complicated. Like many of us who have been successfully treated for depression, anxiety, or other psychiatric conditions with medication, he feels that some of his prescription drugs have allowed him to function in society far more effectively than he might have otherwise. At the same time, he’s concerned about the effects of synthetic chemicals on a developing brain. He also wonders if other issues that arose in his late teens might have been related to long-term Ritalin use. “I do believe I was a victim of the pharmaceutical and insurance cartel in this country,” he tells me bluntly, “which indulges a system where drugs are administered before every other possible option is explored.”
It’s impossible to know now whether it was a mistake to start M on Ritalin all those years ago. He was a sweet little kid caught in the vortex of a nasty and disruptive divorce. As a stepparent, my relationship with him was somewhat curtailed and overshadowed, and I had little involvement with his treatment plan. What I can say is that I’m grateful he’s exploring the issues for himself and sharing his insights with me now—all because of a single mistaken pill.