I wasn't given a prescription for Basic Training by a doctor (Drill Sergeants don't come in pill form), but it cured my so-called ADD. Who knew.

When I was a kid my mom wondered aloud whether or not I had ADD. She mentioned that some of my teachers thought the same thing. Although I was never placed on Ritalin, it was at that time that I was introduced to the word. Years later I was assigned to report to Fort Benning, GA for Basic Training. In a matter of weeks my “ADD” was cured! All it took was a Drill Sergeant and the life of an infantryman to sweat the ADD out of me. No drugs necessary. It turns out I was just a kid with a lot of energy, who also happened to be a bit of a joker. Nothing a few thousand push-ups, mud and cold couldn’t cure. It’s because of my own experience that I can’t help but be skeptical about many of the 3 million American kids who take drugs to “focus” each year. L. Alan Sroufe, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, is on the same wavelength:

Attention-deficit drugs increase concentration in the short term, which is why they work so well for college students cramming for exams. But when given to children over long periods of time, they neither improve school achievement nor reduce behavior problems. The drugs can also have serious side effects…

Sadly, few physicians and parents seem to be aware of what we have been learning about the lack of effectiveness of these drugs.

What gets publicized are short-term results and studies on brain differences among children. Indeed, there are a number of incontrovertible facts that seem at first glance to support medication. It is because of this partial foundation in reality that the problem with the current approach to treating children has been so difficult to see.

While I don’t subscribe to the Tom Cruise wing of the anti-drug alliance, it seems like the knee jerk reaction in the United States is to pump someone up with drugs the moment there is a problem. It’s hard work to get to the root of a problem, but it’s rather easy to find a doctor who will scribble some words on a piece of paper so you can feel better before the week is out. But no one really asks if you actually ARE better.

Over the past few years I had a job that was rather stressful. It was rewarding work, but the pay wasn’t great and the demands for excellence were high. I had trouble paying my bills (DC is an expensive city, and I racked up a lot of debt in the form of student loans). I was in a long distance relationship. I started having weird heart palpitations in the middle of the day. I couldn’t sleep. I thought I was going to have a heart attack, even though I’m a healthy male who doesn’t drink or smoke—and I exercise regularly. I talked with a number of people, all of whom cared deeply for me and wanted me to do what was in my best interest. Almost all of them indicated that I might need to resort to some sort of drugs to handle my anxiety. These trusted friends also indicated that if I saw some of the doctors they recommended (again, out of concern for my health), that I would most likely end up getting a prescription of some kind.

I determined that the financial, professional, and romantic pressures coming at me from all sides should be alleviated first. I quit my job, and found one that set me on a better course for my long term goals. I lowered some of my student loan payments just enough to give me the breathing room I needed to live and work in DC. While it wasn’t initially on the docket, I ended up getting married. In a relatively short span of time my sleep returned, my heart palpitations stopped, and my chest no longer felt as though The Incredible Hulk was standing on it. By making tough choices that were connected to the root problem, I was able to avoid drugs—which in my particular case would have only been masking the core issues at hand.

Professor Sroufe is on the ball when he says:

However brain functioning is measured, [studies geared towards the “inborn defect”] tell us nothing about whether the observed anomalies were present at birth or whether they resulted from trauma, chronic stress or other early-childhood experiences. One of the most profound findings in behavioral neuroscience in recent years has been the clear evidence that the developing brain is shaped by experience.

It is certainly true that large numbers of children have problems with attention, self-regulation and behavior. But are these problems because of some aspect present at birth? Or are they caused by experiences in early childhood? These questions can be answered only by studying children and their surroundings from before birth through childhood and adolescence, as my colleagues at the University of Minnesota and I have been doing for decades (emphasis added).

Again, none of this is meant to suggest that there aren’t biochemical conditions that can (and should) be treated with medications. The question at hand is whether or not we’re doing ourselves a disservice by going to quick-fix prescription drugs whenever it seems like some serious introspection might result in a handful of really tough decisions (e.g., Do I need to quit my job?).

We’ve become a nation that’s inflated with unearned self-esteem. When a problem arises, it’s not us who need to change—it’s our biochemistry! While this may be true in some cases, I’m inclined to think that millions of kids are needlessly taking drugs each year.

And if you’ve made it this far, take a break with some Jimmy Eat World. And remember, “I’m not crazy, because I take the right pills every day.”

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