Sunday, September 27, 2015

What I Want Others to Know About My "Medicated" Child

I would love to tell you about my son.  There is so much I want others to know about him.  His kind heart, his wild creativity, his love of science, and his compassion for animals down to the tiniest insect and earthworm. To know him, is to love him. He's an incredible kid.

My son also has autism. And sensory processing disorder.  And obsessive-compulsive disorder.  And a tic disorder.  And anxiety.

Any one of those things would be enough to interfere with his daily life, his functioning ability, his well-being.  All of them combine to make him an anxious, sleepless, aggressive, violent, depressed, anti-social wreck who struggles with self-esteem while grappling with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors while living in a world not made for him. Whose societal rules he struggles to understand and whose sensory input assaults him from the time he wakes up til the time he goes to sleep. 

Part of the reason my son has obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, extreme anxiety, insomnia, depression, agression, and panic attacks is because he has a chemical inbalance of serotonin.
Serotonin is a chemical found in the human body. It is a neurotransmitter, which means it carries signals from and within the brain, as well as other parts of the body. It is believed by researchers to contribute to well-being and happiness.  And my boy's body doesn't produce enough on its own to effectively contribute to either.  So he now takes a medication to help his body produce serotonin in a way it can't on its own.

I've wanted to write about mental health and medication for children for a long time.  After many false starts and posts written in my head, I came up with a list of four things I want you to know about my son, who happens to take medication for his mental health and well-being.

1.  My son is not a "zombie."
I've seen and heard so many people talk recently about today's children being "over-medicated" and that we are the "Prozac nation."  Educated and seemingly rational people calling other parents out on social media for "medicating" children to avoid being a real parent. To them, I say this. My son's medicine does not make him a zombie.  We are not doping him up on something because we can't control his behavior. After exhausting all available options to help him with the struggles his diagnoses present, we (his parents) along with a psychiatrist with many years experience in childhood mental disorders, made the decision to try a medication that treated the symptoms of his diagnoses.  And thus far, it is working beautifully.  No, we are not throwing him a handful of narcotics each morning to keep him "out of it" so as not to deal with him.  He is bright and articulate. Most days, he is a joy to be around. He is helpful, empathetic, and pleasant. Even more so now that his brain isn't constantly on red alert - fighting the compulsion to put things in order and organize his surroundings to get rid of the nagging, anxious thoughts that run like white noise in his head all day.  He is able and willing to engage in the world, rather than hide from it.

2.  Medication is not a silver bullet.
My son feels better when he takes his medicine.  He is more regulated, less anxious.  He can engage and his brain is quiet enough to better focus on things around him, rather than become stuck on what ifs and did you knows.  His emotional outbursts and violent episodes have decreased tenfold after starting medication.  But, there is no silver bullet.  Those episodes have decreased, not disappeared.  He participates in several hours a week of different type of therapies and classes to work on various skills and issues.  I still have to watch him like a hawk in case he becomes overwhelmed and bolts.  I monitor his peer interactions from a distance because he doesn't yet understand the difference in children being playful or bullying him.  He's vulnerable and emotionally immature.  Medication will not fix that.  He will have to slowly learn and grow and one day, maybe, he will understand those social nuances. The pill he takes is not intended to fix him, but to allow him to work on being his best self.  Which leads me to my next point.

3.  Medication is not "fixing" him.
He is a seven year old boy.  A human boy.  Not a piece of furniture.  He is not broken, and therefore, does not need fixing.  Even if he did, his medication is not made to "fix" broken people.  Much like insulin does not "fix" diabetes. A diabetic does not take an insulin shot to cure himself of diabetes, but to control the symptoms the disease causes.  An SSRI (like my son takes) does not "fix" someone with anxiety or depression.  It helps to control the symptoms caused by them by increasing a brain chemical his/her body is not adequately producing alone.  Medication is not a glue holding my son together, nor it is a crutch holding him upright.  It relieves some of the anxiety, the panic, the overwhelming nature of autism and so many other co-morbidities.  Medication provides enough quiet space and calm thinking in his brain to give him a chance to utilize the coping and social skills he learns daily.  It gives his overworked brain some breathing room to remember sensory strategies and calming techniques when he finds himself in sensory overload.  Medication is not fixing his diagnoses, but helping him navigate them successfully.

4. A child on medication does not equal lazy parents.
Knowing our son has a better handle on his anxiety and compulsive behavior does not mean we have been able to get lax in our parenting.  Far, far from it. If anything, we are more vigilant.  More observant of behavior patterns and triggers, of sensory problems and social miscues.  We are better able to determine whether an emotional outburst was due to an anxiety issue or if it was simply a cry for attention.  We still hold him accountable for his behavior and choices.  Just as his diagnoses have never been an excuse, neither is the fact he takes medication for them.  I would love to tell you that medication has made our lives a cake walk.  That I no longer have to intervene when he and his sister argue in concern for her safety.  I'd love to tell you he goes straight to bed without coming down to get us at 11pm to ask one more time if we have to leave the house tomorrow.  It hasn't. We still have to remind him to follow the visual schedule.  We still have to monitor his bowel movements. We keep track of his anxiety and what set it in motion.  We employ sensory and behavioral methods to keep our house running as smoothly as an autism house can. We are still exhausted and ragged at the end of the day because medication does not allow us to ease up and relax. Medication does not provide any of us an escape from autism or SPD or OCD or anxiety or vocal tics or perseverations. In addition to not relaxing, we now also monitor him for side effects, adverse effects, and whether a cold medicine might interact with his current medication and put him in danger.  We are still annoyingly involved in his therapy, his progress.  We are still constantly aware of his state of mind and well-being.  We still keep track of what he eats and watches on TV.  We still do everything we can as his parents to ensure he is happy, content, kind, compassionate, and successful in his daily life. And then some.

Medication for mental illness is not a thing to be demonized or vilified.  Nor should it be worshiped and hailed as a cure-all.  It is a tool.  Just another thing in my boy's arsenal of coping mechanisms and techniques to ensure he reaches his full potential and can not only function successfully, but happily.  Maybe you knew these things about mental health medications.  Maybe you didn't know any of them.  And maybe.. just maybe... this post will make someone stop and think before they pass judgment on a parent who has a "medicated child"- like mine. Before they pass judgment on the child who will eventually become a "medicated adult." It is not a weakness or a crutch and it is high time we end the stigma.