What if we could look inside the brain of a person with ADHD and see what it looks like? Then, once medicated, look again to see how the medication helps? Would that help people understand better the effects of medication for ADHD?
The sample writing assignment below was written by a first grade child, diagnosed with ADHD, whose parents were resistant to using ADHD medication (at the time, Ritalin). Instead, she was being given Lifeguard, a homeopathic “medication” to treat ADHD.1
There are of course, valid reasons to choose not to medicate, which vary from person to person. ADHD medications are serious drugs and the side effects can be serious as well. You should always make these decisions after counseling with your medical provider, which, as a reminder, I am not.
But there are still some very real negative reactions to people with ADHD who do decide to medicate. These reactions come from others with ADHD, medical professionals as well as family and friends.
Some common questions include:
“Should I take medication for ADHD?”
“What about natural options for managing your ADHD?”
“Isn’t Ritalin/Adderall just legalized speed?”
“What about just teaching your kid/yourself to control your impulses?”
“Won’t ADHD medication kill your creativity?”
“ADHD can be better managed with better discipline/self-control/stricter parenting”
“You know, if you were just more organized you wouldn’t need medications.”
Have you tried this really awesome planner/app/calendaring system/essential oil?”
None of these comments are new. The ADHD medication controversy has been around for decades. Parents are made to feel like bad parents for medicating their children. Common themes include just needing to discipline them better or feed them less sugar.
Adults who take ADHD meds are shamed for not just being more organized or just you know, “trying harder.”
I like to use the analogy of choosing not to medicate for mental health (not just ADHD, but also depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder etc) as similar to choosing not to medicate for type 1 diabetes. Despite all the other choices a person with diabetes needs to make for a long happy and healthy life, insulin will be needed to keep that person healthy.
Can you imagine how these “helpful” recommendations would sound to someone who was diagnosed with type one diabetes? “Have you considered just working harder to produce insulin?” Or to a parent, “Maybe if you were a better parent than your kid would be better at producing insulin naturally.”
It sounds ludicrous.
But then why is there such a controversy about medications that help people with ADHD function? As with most things in life, it’s more complicated than just one reason, but there are some common themes.
There is a culture of shame as it pertains to most mental health conditions, and ADHD has not escaped this stigma of, “if you just tried harder” or “if you just weren’t so lazy” then you would magically be cured. While these sorts of comments are still pervasive towards people with depression and anxiety, ADHD still seems to fall into the category of “made up excuses for bad behavior” conditions in the minds of a lot of people, including some physicians. This is an example of ableism as it pertains to those with ADHD.
This shame is carried internally for a lot of people with ADHD and is reinforced by those who we share our diagnosis with. I know I grew up hearing how Americans were over-medicated. As a parent I continued to hear how kids with ADHD were just not disciplined well enough and their parents and teachers just wanted the easy out of medicating them rather than enforcing boundaries and rules.
Even as someone who believes in the reality of mental health conditions and importance of removing the stigma of treating them, overcoming the shame took me a few years. It certainly didn’t help to have a doctor who drug tested me monthly when I needed to get my medication refilled. A drug test that my insurance company also required, but didn’t cover the costs of the analysis. Yet another ADHD tax.
The “Legal Meth/Speed” Argument
I heard this argument as recently as last night. We are the generation that has been taught to “say no to drugs” as a course of our education. So when prescription medications are presented in similar ways to illegal drugs, people are resistant. However, ADHD medications, prescribed by a doctor and used to treat ADHD are not the same chemical compounds as street drugs. They are medications used to treat a very real diagnosis and very real issues in our brains.
When someone with ADHD uses a stimulant it has the opposite effect of a stimulant on a neurotypical brain. Instead of speeding our brains up (which we definitely don’t need) it slows us down so we can actually stay on one task, complete an idea or focus.
But more than that, it gives us the ability to harness our executive function and prioritize our tasks into some semblance of order. By using ADHD medications many people with ADHD find their levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are also reduced.
Of course people will misuse and abuse ADHD medications, the same way people misuse pain pills and other prescription medications. But the reaction of these drugs in an ADHD brain is different than the reaction in a neurotypical brain. Just like taking SSRIs would have a different outcome for me than it would someone dealing with depression.
ADHD is a “Made Up” or “Trendy” Diagnosis
“You scored Adderall?!? You must get so much done!” Is something I have heard more than once. Or, “ugh, everyone suddenly has ADHD!”
First of all, Adderall helps me have a prayer of functioning in a somewhat regulated fashion. Without it I can occasionally get into a hyper-focus mode and get *all the things* in one part of my life done, but then won’t come back around to that specific project or chore for another six months. That’s not sustainable.
It may *seem* like *everyone* has ADHD now, but it’s more likely you’re either:
- Hearing about it more often since, as it turns out, a bunch of us weren’t diagnosed as children because we didn’t meet the diagnostics of the “typical” hyperactive little boy who couldn’t sit still.
- More people with ADHD are embracing their neurodiversity and aren’t afraid to talk about their life with ADHD and provide support to others who also have ADHD and need support.
Responses like this are steeped in ableism and contribute to the reasons why people are afraid to talk about their diagnosis and treatment plans.
Good old-fashioned American rugged individualism has made it a sign of weakness to acknowledge or accept help for “moral failings” and ADHD (and many other mental illnesses) have been classified as such.
Americans are famously resistant to recognizing the importance of mental health and caring for it. It’s hard to tease apart which resistance is a cultural and what is generational, but resistance to mental health diagnosis and mental health care is prevalent in American society.
While there has been some positive movement, mental health still isn’t routinely included as part of healthcare plans. There is a lot of lip service about mental health crises in our country, mostly when there is yet another mass shooting and pundits are looking to change the conversation from being about guns and looking for another place to put the blame.2
We need to change the overall conversation when it comes to mental health in the US. Especially as we are dealing with the emotional fallout from the last 18 months, we national mental healthcare resources (and healthcare in general) available to all Americans.
Medication will cause me to lose my ADHD “superpowers” or creativity
There is some magic in the way ADHD brains work. We tend to be able to make connections between different ideas, think more creatively, and are genuinely funnier and better looking than most people.3
I hesitate to refer to my ADHD as a superpower4 because it is a legitimate disability and using language that diminishes that is harmful to the overall conversation (in my opinion). ADHD brains are *different* from neurotypical brains and the while it may enhance some of your thinking or creativity, it can be really hard to follow through on those ideas to completion without the help of medication.
People who’ve not taken medication may fear losing the “magic” of their brain if they were to start taking medication. Personally, I’ve not experienced this. For me, my brain, all the connections and creativity, look much like the writing sample of our first grader from the beginning of this article. Medication allows me to harness my creativity, the connections to other ideas and thoughts and organize them in an organized fashion. Medication also helps me complete projects, push publish, continue an idea or thought through to the end.
Without medication I wander from project to project (or room to room) and only half finish anything. The amount of anxiety, stress, and the mental weight of incomplete projects and ideas is heavy. Medication lifts that weight.
I have had more than one person in my life with bipolar disorder. It’s a rough condition for the person obviously, but it also wreaks havoc in the lives of those who love them. From the outside it’s clear to see the damage being done to the person and their life when they aren’t medicated. But the person themselves will often refuse medication or go on and off medication for their condition. The reason given is often similar to the “I’ll not be as creative” response that ADHD people use. But if you’ve ever seen someone you love in a manic phase, they are moving so fast, think they’re making connections they aren’t making and while they may hone in on one project or idea… it’s abandoned when they cycle back into depression or move from mania and into psychosis.
When I’m honest with myself I can see the similarities in my life without medication. The immediate effects may not be obvious, but the long-term effects can be devastating for my career, relationships and friendships.
A case for ADHD medication
Treating our mental health with as much respect and urgency as we treat our physical health is a key component for caring for our physical selves. Our mental health needs are no less “real” than our physical health. Just because they happen inside our brain (which, by the way is a physical part of our bodies) doesn’t make it less important or less real!
I can think of no better visual example of the changes medication makes in the ADHD brain than the “after” from the story about our first grader from the beginning of this article. Her pediatrician convinced her parents to do a trial of Ritalin over the Christmas break, just to see how she did.
This is a sample of work from this child once she was medicated.
As a person with ADHD who takes a stimulant medication to manage my ADHD, I can *feel* this in my brain from looking at the two samples of work. Without medication I may be visibly functioning to outsiders. If I have enough stress, anxiety and external pressure then I can get things together and get some things done… while the rest of my life falls apart. The first writing sample the student started of several different thoughts and didn’t complete them. She is writing on top of her other writing and her spelling and handwriting make it near impossible to figure out what she’s saying, where she’s headed with her ideas and what exactly she’s trying to say.
The second sample is neat, legible and has a clear beginning, middle and end. The spelling is grade level accurate and the writing is contained to the lines and neat and tidy. When I’m medicated I can slow my brain down enough to think about just one topic at a time. I can communicate clearly and decide what the most important things are to tackle in my life.
But what about natural options to ADHD medication?
I’m not going to discount natural alternatives to medication. I do think the effectiveness of natural options, just like medication, varies by person, severity of ADHD and the lifestyle of the person.
You may be able to manage your ADHD with just the above-mentioned tools (all of which are “natural”). Maybe you’ve found some vitamins or other resources that have helped you tremendously. Great! I’m thrilled those are working for you. Just know that they don’t work for everyone. If you find they aren’t working for you don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about other medication options to see if you can enhance your other tools. For me, medication is the key that unlocks the toolbox to all my other tools. Want to know more about those tools? I discuss a few in this post.
For many of us, medication is the difference between surviving ADHD and living our best ADHD Life. I don’t think it can be summed up better than by the comment Krystal shared in The ADHD Life Facebook Group:
“I take Adderall and it has changed my life. And that’s not an exaggeration.
I’ve had to stop taking it for the last few months because my allergies have been so insanely bad I can’t live without Claritin D, which contains Sudafed, and I can’t take both or I will have a heart attack.
The differences in me are astounding and I don’t know how I got through life before I found medication (well, yes, I do… I had intense anxiety, depression, panic attacks, crippling mind blocks, all kinds of fun things; I wasn’t getting through life very well at all).
I have an appointment for later this month to figure something else out for my allergies so that I can get back on Adderall. Because even with all the coping mechanisms I’ve learned, and all the logical thinking in the world, unmedicated me is NOT a joy to be (and probably not to be around either).”
-Krystal, The ADHD Life Facebook Group
Want to connect with other adults figuring out how to live their best ADHD Life? Join us in The ADHD Life Facebook community and share your ADHD Life hacks and learn from our community. We’ll see you there!
- As an aside, homeopathy is based on treating people using highly diluted substances to trigger healing, and was developed by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century. Homeopaths say that water retains a memory of the substance, which has a therapeutic effect, although most scientists claim that such treatments are no better than placebos or sugar pills.
- Sidenote: people with mental health issues are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than they are to hurt someone else. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537064/
- These are all scientifically proven in my dreams.
- aside from the really good-looking thing