The ADHD Battlefield

Why the pro- and anti-drug arguments are so mean and loud

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The Wall Street Journal has a story on research into ADHD that was presented this past weekend at a conference of the Society for Neuroscience—which means the comments section for the piece is filled with the jagged back-and-forth barbs that articles on the topic typically evoke. Half the commenters argue that ADHD is a gift, not a curse, and one that should be cherished and embraced; they bemoan the dulling of that “gift” by prescription meds they say are meant only to keep kids quiet and make life simpler for the adults around them. The other half of the commenters are the parents of ADHD kids, retorting that the “gift-not-a-curse” set should shut the hell up because before those prescription meds, their families inhabited a living hell. That scientists are increasingly pinpointing precise ways in which the brains of those with ADHD differ from those without doesn’t seem to have swayed the debate at all, and I understand why.

As a parent, the decisions you make about how to deal with a condition like ADHD cut to the heart of your fears for your child’s future. What will happen if you decide to medicate? What might happen if you don’t? You can learn all you want about the experiences of other people—which is why there are books like The Gift of ADHD and books like Taking Charge of ADHD—but those experiences aren’t templates; you and your child won’t match up perfectly. So you’re left to wonder and guess, whatever path you choose, what would have happened if you’d gone the other way.

Nine years ago, when my son Jake was 10, I wrote an article about my internal debate over medicating him for ADHD. Afterward, I got e-mails from a number of parents who were struggling with the same question. “I wish,” one father wrote, “I could know what would happen to Jake.”

We chose not to put Jake on Ritalin. Nearly a decade later, would I make the same choice if I could go back in time? Of course I would. Because Jake’s life has been an unqualified success? Not hardly (though don’t get me wrong; I’m proud of the young man he’s becoming). I’d make the same choice because I couldn’t bear to find out what might have been better … different … more of a gift … if we’d chosen to medicate.

That’s why those battles inevitably rage in the comments section of every new report on ADHD. Parents are compelled to defend the choices they’ve made as loudly as they can. Otherwise, you allow the possibility that you did wrong by your child—and who can live with that? As for Jake, he is what he always was—a kid who goes his own way, defiantly, making plenty of mistakes. I did so, too, at his age. Ritalin wouldn’t have saved either of us from that. I don’t like to think so, anyway.