Prescription for Education

For a year we medicating our son with the stimulant Adderall, after an ADD diagnosis, to try and make him better able to successfully navigate and perform in the conventional academic environments of his middle school, but eventually realizing that we were instead dishonoring and disrespecting who he was.

Our son Eric had always had a crisp and incisive mind, but like me he seemed to be “right brained”, that is he was highly creative and his thinking process were very non-linear, his mind taking off in several directions at once based on any stimulus. That mind served him well in all his venues – including home, travel, preschool and early elementary school – for the first seven years of his young life. He actively pursued areas of interest, enjoyed the wisdom of others, absorbed and synthesized huge amounts of information and experience, and was a joy to the adults – parents (most of the time), relatives and teachers – that he interacted with.

From my own experience, blessed with this sort of non-linear mind, I approached life generally as one wonderful new experience after another and quickly developed that much prized ability to “think outside the box”. The downside was that my ability to “think in a straight line” was limited and tenuous, and easily disrupted by any form of anxiety, including boredom. To this day I have never been able to keep my personal calendar in my head, and easily forget critical appointments if I don’t write them down and frequently consult that written record.

I was able to navigate and survive my own school experience, given my non-linear mind, because I had grown up in the 60’s and early 70’s, before parents and our public education system had become obsessed with competitive academic performance (measured by narrow, quantified assessment) and the homework-focus and state mandated curriculum and teaching methods that went with it. My elementary school was often interesting, and when it was not, my shyness and basic fear of confronting adults kept me with the program. In junior high and high school, though I had my fair share of classes that were mind-numbingly boring, I always was lucky to have at least one teacher that was interesting and provocative, and kept my school day from seeming completely worthless.

Our son Eric was not so successful in navigating and surviving his school experience after his early elementary years. Beginning in third grade in his little independent (private) school, and transitioning to a big public school in fourth, our son Eric hit a wall and exhibited increasing discomfort with his school experience. Unlike me, he was not shy, not afraid to speak his mind, and comfortable sharing his thoughts, positive or negative, with adults. Like his mom in her youth, he had a highly developed sensitivity to what was going on around him, including what seemed fair, humane and otherwise ethical.

Starting in third grade and culminating in fifth Eric struggled with the very linear approach to teaching basic mathematics. He confronted anxiety and boredom in third grade wrestling with trying to learn the multiplication tables, since it was presented to him as a rote memorization exercise without any compelling reason to undergo that excruciating exercise with his non-linear mind. He was able to do so, but it planted a seed of fear and hatred of math, which sprouted as a full-blown phobia in fifth grade when he encountered a very rigid math teacher, who focused her instruction on “drill and kill”, including lots of worksheets and homework. The situation was not improved when Eric shared with his teacher that he felt this work was “boring and pointless”, which did not inspire the teacher to try and address that concern, but rather label Eric as a troublemaker.

Trying to address Eric’s increasing dis-ease with school, him mom and I moved him to a theater magnet middle school for sixth grade, but his inability to go with the program, particularly the increasing high-stakes homework (which was a significant part of your class grade) put him on what appeared to us to be an increasingly negative trajectory. After a number of sessions with an educational specialist and then a family therapist, attempting to help Eric develop “study skills”, both concluded that Eric could overcome any educational obstacle if only he was motivated to do so.

Looking for some ammunition to bargain with the school district to give him a more individualized curriculum, which we hoped would be more motivating, we had Eric evaluated by medical staff at our Kaiser hospital, and he was diagnosed with mild attention deficit disorder (ADD) and it was suggested that he try taking a low dosage of the stimulant Adderall, to help him better focus his attention to his school work.

Desperate for a solution to our son’s increasing incompatibility with school, we agreed to try the drug regimen, and continued it as I recall through most of his seventh grade year. Years later Eric shared with us that it did help him take tests and focus on one thing at a time, but it could not resolve his fundamental problems with conventional instructional school. Eric actually enjoyed most of his school day, would work on most anything (except math drill sheets) during school hours, but more and more refused to do any home work after school, feeling that once that final school bell rang, the rest of the day was his time to pursue his own interests (which were numerous).

Eric’s drug regimen involved taking one Adderall in the morning before school and then a half when we picked him up in the early afternoon to hopefully ease his “crash” as the drug left his system. After several months on this regimen, it was hard to tell whether it was school and/or drug side-effects that were contributing to his increasing prickliness, loss of his usual good temper, and increasing inability to sleep, but I recall that we hung in their for several more months of his seventh grade year. But despite the medication, as he increasingly refused to do homework, resisted falling asleep (thus bringing on a new day of school), and started to act out at school, his mom and I slowly came to grips with the fact that something was profoundly wrong.

We were trying to jam a beautifully round peg into a rigidly square hole. With each year of his unfolding, particularly during summertime and other periods outside school, Eric demonstrated his keenly inquiring mind and ability to voraciously learn things of great interest to him, particularly anything having to do with the computer. What business did we, as his parents, have in trying to violate the sanctity of that beautiful mind by trying to change how it worked with drugs? He accepted his medication, but had never asked for it, and was perfectly happy being who he was, as long as adults did not pester him to do things he felt were “boring and pointless”.

So his mom and I finally stopped giving Eric the Adderall, though there was no improvement in his mood or his ability to get to sleep at night. We learned later there were actually a few times after that where he proactively and covertly found the bottle in the back of the bathroom medicine drawer and took a pill to help him take a test that he was scheduled to take at school that day.

Then there was the Sunday night when he was reminded by a friend on the phone that he had a big project on Ann Frank due the next morning in English class. Eric had of course completely blocked and forgotten this project, but was somehow so unwilling to face his teacher the next morning without it done, that he got out the Adderall again and popped pills all night while he managed, with his friend on the phone with him for hours to help him stay on a fairly even keel, to complete the project and stay enough together to go to school Monday morning and turn in his work. I suspect that he had been lying to his teacher (who he liked actually) for weeks that the project was coming along, and was not willing to be caught in that lie.

In the end, his project garnered him an A+ and the gushing kudos of his teacher, and saved him apparently from what he saw as a fate worse than death, invalidating his relationship of trust with this adult that he cared about at some level. It was soon after that, I recall, that we pulled Eric out of school in the middle of eighth grade. Having tried an array of things to try and keep him in school, we were now finally willing to try keeping him out.

I myself have become more aware of the impacts of stimulants like Adderall, or in my case caffeine, on a non-linear mind. I have for years struggled to write my stories and thoughts, always having trouble keeping my focus on this very linear task of constructing a singular sequence of words to convey the complex holism of my thoughts. I had stayed away from caffeine for years, but started experimenting with drinking regular coffee in the mornings at work several years ago, when my job involved large amounts of technical writing.

I found that a good stiff dose of caffeine in the morning helped “linearize” my mind enough to hyper-focus on my writing and crank out proposals, requirements, specifications, manuals, policies & procedures, design and other such documents. I actually found I was enjoying the writing process if the topic wasn’t too mind-numbingly boring. I eventually leveraged my caffeine buzz to help me start and continue this “Lefty Parent” blog, and am buzzing on the drug as I write these words.

2 replies on “Prescription for Education”

  1. I thought this was a great article, and i must say you eloquently laid out the “adderal” experience ; specifically the early journey of it. I’m glad to know your son will not be traveling farther down that rabbit hole. I myself have gone further and further ( and while I appreciate the drugs benefit ) and am still today down the upside of that rabbit hole it has become something ingrained into who and what I am , for me this is alright , for most i can see where some horrible pitfalls could come along. Peeling back reality is not something for kids to mess around with.

  2. Matthew… thanks for your comment and sharing your experience. I think the key to your situation is that you are proactively choosing to continue the Adderall, after clearly understanding the effects. Hopefully you are not a round peg trying to squeeze yourself in a square hole, but if so, you have a very good developmental reason to do so.

    Our son Eric took Adderall when he was 12. He’s now 23. He left school at age 13, never went back, and has unschooled since then, and now as a young adult is a wonderful intelligent, caring and well-spoken person. He has built himself a life where he apparently has no need for the medication which he admitted did help him take tests (like caffeine helps me write). But his life doesn’t involve taking tests any more, just making real things happen.

    BTW… I would be interested if you would say more about what you mean when you say, “Peeling back reality is not something for kids to mess around with”.

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