Pills and Popsicles: Mahalath’s Story

HA notes: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Mahalath” is a pseudonym.

My mother up and decided around the time of puberty that I had ADD. She’d just bring it up randomly, saying that’s why I wasn’t focusing on my work, getting good grades, etc. There were two problems with this. The first was that she demonized ADD. It was a “condition” that made me lesser than my peers.

I was treated like I was broken.

Some days, depending on her mood, I was purposefully causing it; other days it was something I could not help that would plague me for the rest of my life. She spoke to me in a high voice, like you would a baby, and would constantly ask me if I understood the simplest things. It took me some time many years later to get a proper understanding of ADD because of this.

The second problem was that I did not have ADD. Immediately upon her initial announcement, I did some research of my own and discovered that with the exception of some memory issues (hereditary from my dad) I did not display any symptoms.

Many years later, professionals confirmed for me what I had believed as a child: I do not have ADD. I have never had ADD.

I tried and still do try to convince my mother of this every time the subject is brought up. But there was no convincing her. She started checking magazines about special needs children from the library and reading them around me. After homeschool conventions she’d bring back these weird things that were supposed to help me “focus”. There was this weird beanbag thing I was supposed to keep on my lap, a plastic spinning thing for the end of my pencil, an enormous timer for each assignment. None of these did any good, apparently. So she started making me take these caffeine pills. They were stupid and yellow, bought from Walmart in bottles of fifty. They didn’t do anything for me. Really, I felt no effects at all. But I had to take two every day, regardless of where I was. She literally pulled me aside at a youth event because it was “time for my pill”. I kept telling her they didn’t work, and it was ages before she realized I was right.

So around the age of fifteen, I was in the office of my pediatrician (a small private practice), and they made me take this test with colored boxes. I tried to answer as normally as possible. Then they came back with big smiles and said I no longer had to take the caffeine pills. I was thrilled, but then the doctor held up a paper of blue and yellow pills and said that these were my new ones. They proceeded to talk about the price, effects and frequency, completely ignoring my frantic questions. When I left that day, the only thing I knew was that I only had to take one per day at breakfast. This seemed more reasonable, so I was willing to give it a try.

The first day I took this new pill was the day of a friend’s 16th birthday party. It was at the church, so I was allowed to attend unchaperoned as long as I was picked up early. Soon after entering the designated party area I realized something was wrong. It wasn’t that I was quite overdressed and old fashioned (which I was), or that everyone already knew everyone else and I was alone (which I was). There was a movie playing on the TVs at both ends of the room, so I tried to focus on the Phantom of the Opera, which I had never seen before. Yet even this opportunity to learn about popular culture could not hold my attention.

I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. All the noises seemed far away, and my mind seemed foggy and dark. Everything seemed duller, almost as if it was not there at all. And I realized suddenly that this was due to the medication. I was horrified. The rest of the party was spent silently crying the darkness of the “movie house” theme as the beautiful normal people laughed and ate cake.

Perhaps I was still adjusting, I reassured myself. These effects could be temporary. But these side effects continued on, and soon the most terrible truth hit me between the eyes: because of the pills, I could no longer daydream. This was indeed what the pills had been designed for, but I needed to daydream. Escaping to my private world of fantasy was my primary coping mechanism to surviving my homeschool experience. When I couldn’t stand the emotional abuse, the ever increasing rules, the loneliness, I retreated into my head. Suddenly, I became a starship captain, mountain climber, or long lost princess. I’d paint a Hitler mustache or bunny ears on my unsuspecting parents as they screamed at me, and it made things better for a bit. Dreams were my oxygen, and now I couldn’t breathe.

That year became “the year of hell”. My schoolwork suffered. Depression overwhelmed me once again, almost stronger than the initial onset. I read books like they were food, bargained for every extra scrap of TV, played music constantly to keep the pain at bay. Any stimulation for my suddenly still brain was coveted. I begged my parents to let me stop. When they refused, I hid pills in increasingly complicated ways. Upon discovery of my schemes, it became mandatory to watch me take the pills every day, like a prisoner. Choked breakfast table sobs went unrecognized, and discussion was not permitted.

A year later, I went for my yearly doctor’s appointment. I had planned how, in calm tones, I would make my case directly to the pediatrician. As soon as the topic was brought up, my mother started to babble on about how wonderful the medicine was and how much better I was. I began my piece, but immediately I was shouted down by both pediatrician and parent, claiming that I didn’t know what was best for me. I looked a lot better now, insisted the physician, and my mother claimed my behavior had improved. Denying her claims did not help.

Asking about the test I had taken a year ago was fruitless: it “didn’t mean anything”. When I inquired as to the basis for this knowledge, she said, “I see you in Bible study every week. You are a lot more focused now.”

It was then that the true nature of the situation became apparent. The doctor and my mother were friends. Close friends, it seemed, as they chatted about the most recent passage that the group had been studying. Of course this woman believed her. This group that I was marched to every Thursday morning was quite large, but I was still stunned. How had I never noticed before?

All of my carefully constructed calm was gone. In tears and hysteria I pleaded my case yet again. I explained how the medication was hurting me, how I couldn’t focus on anything, why I needed to be able to daydream. With everything in me I tried to make them understand what they were doing to me, but it was all for naught. They simply smiled thinly, reiterated my “disease”, and told me that I would continue to take the medicine. In fact, the pediatrician suggested, a higher dose might be a good idea.

They exited the room, and I broke down. What if it was like this forever? What if I never got away from my parent’s home and I wasted away, lifeless and desperate?

I started sobbing hard and I couldn’t stop, because I’d lost control over my own mind, quite literally, and there was nothing I could do.

A soft knock on the door frame caused me to look up. A student nurse stood in the open doorway, looking concerned. She had sat in the corner during my examination, silent and observing. Now she tiptoed inside again to where I was curled in a ball on the crinkly paper of the counter. In a soft voice, she asked if I wanted a popsicle.

I was touched by this tiny act of sympathy, and said yes. She flitted away, returning in a minute with the orange flavored treat. Remaining in the room a moment longer before rushing out again, she rubbed my back and looked at me with sympathy. She did not say a word, but this little act of kindness helped calm me down and gave me hope that not everyone was out to get me. Student nurse, if you ever read this, thank you for what you did for me.

Some time after this, I was informed that I would no longer have to take the blue and yellow pills and would resume the caffeine pills twice a day. Any annoyance at this earlier means of control was gone, and I reacted joyfully. Of course, I asked why. Why did I no longer have to take the prescription drugs? Could it be that someone had finally heard my cry for help? No. The pills had just gotten too expensive.

I cannot overstate how much of an impact this experience had on my life.

To this day I become agitated in all matters concerning medication, doctors, or really anything to do with the medical practice.

Yes, if something became seriously wrong I would force myself to take medicine. I would get myself to a hospital if the need arose. But these convictions have only been a recent development, and the condition would need to be quite serious (a.k.a. detached limb). This is not a healthy view, I know. I’m working on it.

This doctor was a close friend of my mother. They went to Bible Study together. They were friends. Other than that test that “didn’t matter”, her diagnosis of me was based on my mother’s accounting of my behavior. There was no actual medical analysis involved in the whole affair, nor did anyone bother to explain things to me or ask how I felt, physically or emotionally. And of course, mother knows best.

While on medication, it was as if someone had erected a brick wall in my mind, keeping all the creative, imaginative parts of me blocked off, so I couldn’t access them. I could not think beyond the here and now, and even that seemed all blurry and dark. My head hurt sometimes, a few times I literally felt short of breath. I lost any faint sense of time that I possessed. Everything ran together in my mind and got confused and jumbled up. I had trouble focusing on the words on a page. It was terrifying.

The worst part was when I began to doubt my own sanity.

Perhaps my mother was right? Perhaps I really did have ADD? Perhaps this WAS the way normal people felt? Well, if this was normal I didn’t want it. It hurt. Besides, I didn’t have ADD. I didn’t! Or did I? I spent many nights crying myself to sleep, sure that I was losing my mind. It is only now, after a professional diagnosis (utterly terrifying, by the way) that I can confidently say that I do not have ADD, nor did I have it as a younger child.

Even though I’ve chucked the bottle of caffeine pills my mother sent me for college, even though I’ve had someone properly assess me, even though I am learning about medical care in a whole new light, it is not over for me. I am safe, I tell myself, no one will ever force me to take pills again. But I was still misdiagnosed and improperly medicated.

The scars from this will never go away

12 comments

  • Dear Jesus. This is horrific.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I could not think beyond the here and now, and even that seemed all blurry and dark.

    You ceased to think like a human — with a full memory trace of your past, able to visualize the future — and regressed to an ANIMAL. Your mother’s domestic animal.

    “When you point at something with your finger, the dog sniffs your finger. To a dog, a finger is a finger and that is that.”
    — C.S.Lewis

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    As a complete aside, what is the origin/source of the name “Mahalath”?

  • There must be legal actions that can be taken against that doctor.

  • Literally this exact same thing happened to me, except with Autism instead of ADD. (and a lot of strange unconventional “therapies” instead of unneeded medication)

    I feel you on that crushing fear of doctors and medical professionals of any kind.

  • This is horrifying. I’m fairly certain I *do* have ADD, my father does and what he describes is identical to how I feel, but after seeing how he reacted to the meds and reading this, I will never take pills for it. My imagination is what keeps me sane. I’m a writer and creative type. I can tell that my depression is getting bad again when I can’t create. I hope this post somehow makes it back to the nurse.

    • Annie, taking the pills would work if you did have ADD. I have ADD, and in my case they have had the opposite effect from what Mahalath suffered in cases where they are effective. This is because they are designed to treat underlying neurochemical differences which characterize ADD — differences which non-ADD sufferers do not have. There is a famous story of a mathematician (Paul Erdos) who abused amphetamines — which are essentially Adderall — precisely because he felt vastly, vastly more creative and imaginative on them.

  • As a child, I had an almost incapacitating fear of doctors, dentists, etc. I remember spending weeks–yep, weeks–in terror as a dentist appointment approached. I literally woke up 3-4 times per night thinking about it. I didn’t know the term “panic attack” until last year. Mom thought I was weird.

    As an adult, now I just… don’t see any medical professional ever. But I do take vitamins at least.

  • Eleanor Skelton

    I also remember suffering bad, horrible, numbing side effects from ADD medication. When I was in college, I was retested and told that I had never had ADD to begin with.

  • “as the beautiful normal people laughed and ate cake.”
    Yes. Exactly this. Hugs.

  • Well, I probably did have ADHD but they thought so as kid. I ruffianly found out it was Aspegers with some-non verbal learning disabilities. Parents can make big mistakes but sometimes school district and psychologists can it was the 1960’s which means few of the physiologists were aware of Aspegers.

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