What are the long-term consequences of taking taking medications that alter our brain chemistry? Taking mind-altering drugs such as Prozac, Xanax, and Ritalin has become almost as accepted as pouring milk on our breakfast cereal. Recently I took the case of a sensitive, intelligent patient, and she spoke to me about taking stimulant medications:
The stimulants...are harsh. It's euphoria, that's the feeling that people lock into. You have to be very careful with people taking stimulants, they are so happy and so bigger than life; but it's all a façade. They stimulate that area of the brain that regulates pleasure. They stimulate it so much it becomes trigger happy. Try to taper it off these medications, and it won't let you. It gets tired and it stops working well.
Stimulants limit the highs and lows of feelings. It's important to be conscious, and to have differentiated levels of feelings, yet stimulant medications cut off those highs and lows, and you become indifferent to lots of things that you shouldn't be indifferent to. Dexedrine and Ritalin are related to metamphetimines. Why are so many people hooked on cocaine? It's along that same thread, except these are probably a little more mild...When I was on them in 1991, I took the Dexedrine, and it took me 2 yrs to get off of them.
In another instance, a woman said this about her stimulant medications:
I really don't know if I can undo what I've done to my brain. So many years of this really messes with your brain's set points for motivation, reward, goal-seeking, pleasure, sense of values, action, intuition... So many things. I miss who I was before. How everything felt. Before everything felt so warped. Before feeling itself became so warped.
These two accounts are not the last word. Nevertheless, reading them is enough to make us wary about psychiatrists or school teachers who tell you stimulants--or any mind-altering drug, for that matter--are "necessary." As soon as stimulant medications are introduced, the child (or adult) has an issue that may grow into a long-term problem. Taking a drug that alters one's experience of pleasure may not come without a corresponding reaction of indifference. Such a choice deserves careful evaluation and a plan for how to get off of them.
There is one other important consideration in taking stimulant medications. I am reminded of a child with extreme hyperactivity that I saw during my residency training. At the residency, we treated him with stimulant medications to bring down his hyperactivity and help him focus. The stimulant medications perhaps helped some. He still remained quite hyperactive. Around the age of 10, this child died, devastating the family. Cause: heart failure brought on by taking high dosages of stimulant medications. Stimulant medications do just that--they stimulate, and the heart is involved as well.
Stimulants complicate the relationship we have with our deeper self. Because they act by numbing or cutting off feelings that are unpleasant, they interfere with how we strive for inner tranquility and spiritual wholeness. This is likely true, to a greater or lesser degree, for all mind-altering drugs. Stimulant medications, though, bring some of the more difficult issues in the treatment arena. This makes their increased use, particularly in children, a matter worthy of our concern.