A Former Overmedicated 90s Kid’s Message for Today’s Parents
By the time I went from elementary to junior high school in 2000, I had been on 8 different psychiatric medications, and as an adult I’m starting to get angry.
I’m writing this anonymously because I don’t want to put my parents on blast. My parents were young when I started showing symptoms of mental illness as a child, and my mother (an early childhood educator) had been observing the uptick in medications being given to children in the 90s. She thought it could potentially help me and brought me to a child psychiatrist, where I began my lifelong servitude to pill bottles at the age of 7.
All we were doing was following Doctor’s suggestions. What we didn’t know is that doctors were following the suggestions of marketing. Marketing that created a midday line at my elementary school nurses’ offices that they didn’t used to be there.
Pop culture had noticed, most notably there was an episode of South Park where all of the children were given Ritalin prescriptions for misbehaving. The kids all suddenly began to hyper focus in class and became obsessed with Phil Collins, some were hallucinating pink Christina Aguilera monsters. Now South Park has been on the air for decades and I am grown up wondering how a lifetime of brain altering medication has effected me.
Ironically, I had a more researched version of this article prepared with accounts of 90s doctors accepting money from Adderall’s manufacturers to listen to them talk about ADHD, ADHD support organizations accepting money from big pharma and other instances of pharma companies looking at kids as market share with no regards to lack of research on how psychiatric medication effects developing brains… but the file with my research was corrupted and I didn’t find out until the last minute under my deadline.
So thanks to ADHD, procrastination, and good old fashioned tech failure – that article is not here. And thanks to longitudinal studies on this having government funding/the government being largely in the pocket of big pharma, there are very few unbiased studies on long term effects of childhood medication on the brain. There are a few studies linking stimulants to increased heart rate, addiction to stimulants later in life, and abnormal development in white brain matter, but the sample sizes are small and the general consensus is that the overall long-term effects on my overmedicated generation are unknown. But I can tell you my personal experience. And my personal experience is that if you grow up on pills, you never stop wondering who you “actually” are without them.
As an adult I have been diagnosed with BiPolar disorder, and I do need medication from day to day to function and sleep normal hours.
It’s likely my childhood medication also helped, but I still find myself wondering if things would have been different if I had ever been allowed to have my own mind free of influence. Sure, they helped me focus and get good grades, but all my memories of my childhood are colored by pills.
I was made fun of for being one of the kids that had to go up to the nurse’s office at lunch every day. I was afraid of needles, but one of the medications I was tested on, Pamelor, required me to get blood tested once a month when I was eight. It would always make me cry.
The days they put me on medication that didn’t work, I was out sick with side effects. I learned early what clinical depression felt like: I showed symptoms of it before I started getting medication when I was six. I used to self harm and not get out of bed.
When they put me on Wellbutrin, I suddenly felt everything get sapped out of me and I became a zombie. I kept telling my parents I wanted to die. The two days they had me on Ritalin, my heart wouldn’t stop racing. I was sweating and I got sent home.
The memories of my internal monologues from this time scare me. As an adult, you have the vocabulary to say I’m depressed, but as a kid you think “Mom says that if I don’t stop being sad I have to go back to the doctor.”
The worst was when they had me on a medication that was effecting me poorly, and I couldn’t just stop taking it. As an adult I know that you have to wean off some medications rather than abruptly stop, otherwise you experience withdrawal symptoms that are worse, but as a kid all I knew is that the pills were making me feel bad and all I wanted was to stop taking them. I’d flush doses down the toilet rather than tell my parents they weren’t working because I didn’t want to go back to the doctor for more pills and I’d get sick from quitting the meds so suddenly.
This is how I began my lifelong pattern of lying about how I actually felt. I started giving the one word answer “fine” well before I was a teenager just because I didn’t want more pills. The counselor at school had a calendar where I was supposed to draw a face every day of how I was feeling so they could track my moods. I remember drawing smiley faces a lot of the days to throw them off the trail, and getting concerned when I drew an angry face even though I knew it was about getting bullied or my grandma dying and not the meds. I was worried they would still use it as a reason to change my meds. The memory I have that makes me the angriest is when a doctor told my parents that there was a new drug, Straterra that could help me. I noticed a Straterra branded tissue box sitting on his desk, which I didn’t process as marketing until I was an adult. After taking the medication 2 days, I was out sick for an entire week vomiting. When I came back to school, I found out that two other kids had also been out sick for a week vomiting from Strattera prescribed by the same doctor. As an adult, I can’t shake the feeling that that week we were not patients, we were Guinea pigs.
I know there are a lot of kids that do need medication, and it’s likely that I was one of them. I wasn’t just not paying attention in school, I was exhibiting a lot of dangerous mental illness symptoms that I outlined in another article I published here. I don’t want to blame my parents, because I know that they didn’t know what else to do, and I can’t imagine being a parent in my 20s now. But all I want to say to parents now is to please, PLEASE give your kids a chance to feel their feelings before taking that step.
To this day, I can’t trust the difference between a normal situational sadness and a chemical balance in my brain, because the lines got blurred the second I started forming memories. I can’t tell the difference between my “real” feelings and the ones produced by drugs. It took years of talk therapy before I realized that I had developed a pavlovian response to expressing emotions as a child because acting unstable meant that I was going to get more pills.
I don’t know what happened to the physical matter in my brain, but I do know that I learned to push people away and get them to ignore me early, and that absolutely still exists as a problem as an adult. I will never get over the humiliation of constantly having to be taken out of school to go to the doctor, being taken to the nurse’s office in a group with all the other “weird” kids that needed pills, or getting bullied for erratic behavior I was exhibiting purely from being strung out on drugs.
And for what? Good grades? I got good grades, but it was at the expense of a lot of childhood trauma that maybe could have been avoided if I wasn’t on so many drugs. I was never abused by my parents, I came from a good family, but big pharma made my childhood a nightmare. Keep your kids safe, but also try to understand the difference between sadness and depression, and the difference between not paying attention due to ADHD and not paying attention because public school is a boring slog poisoned by standardized testing. I wish I had a chance to learn what my feelings are without drugs. Please give your kids that chance if you can.