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Ritalin and Relying On Others for Approval

Today I’m featuring the first of two guest posts from a reader, M., about her experience taking Ritalin for ADHD as a teenager and later taking Zoloft during her 20s and early 30s for anxiety.

In this post, M., now 34 and living near Dallas, discusses how her views about Ritalin shifted as she got older. Ultimately, she came to suspect that relying on the medication actually exacerbated her anxiety – and may even have led, in a roundabout way, to her going on antidepressants later on.

And now, in her own words:

I was put on Ritalin when I was 12 years old.

At the time, it felt like a relief, as I stopped struggling with the people around me as much. My grades were up, I was no longer grounded all of the time, and I didn’t have to stop and see a special counselor every day at school to get my homework checked anymore. School became extremely easy…the Ritalin helped me to figure out and do what was expected of me.

At the time, I felt that the medication made me who I was supposed to be all along, which was not who I naturally was. I did feel like I had an unfair advantage in school, as my experience went from a severe struggle to an effortless ride, but I felt I deserved it because there was something wrong with the way I was designed. I felt the advantages experienced in school with the medication might balance out the disadvantages of my condition.

I did also start having insomnia problems as soon as I went on the medication. While it continued to help me function through the end of high school, the sleeping problems were the driving force for choosing to stop the medication as soon as I went off to college.

My initial college experience was a rough ride. I moved eight hours away from my parents and quit the medication. I had never tasted such freedom and I had no idea how to handle it.

I never seemed to be able to attend class, as it interfered with my true pleasures of drinking beer and socializing. Even though I quit the medication in order to sleep better, I didn’t really sleep any better, as I was often overwhelmed with all I was failing to do whenever I was alone with my own thoughts.

After six months, I dropped out of college and moved back home, which was a difficult choice and even further confirmation that I was deficient in some way. A few months later, I moved out of my parents’ house into an apartment with a roommate and enrolled in community college.

I eventually transferred to a local university in order to earn a bachelor’s degree, in what, I didn’t know. I had taken many introductory courses in business, humanities, psychology, sociology, and other subjects on my quest to discover what was the best fit for me.

Luckily for me, the local university had a generalized degree plan to which I could apply most of my credits already earned. By that time, I was more interested in completing college than I was in using college to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I viewed a degree simply as a ticket to a stable career.

I did earn my degree after the regular four years, but it was certainly difficult for me to do so. Paying attention in lecture settings was never my thing and neither was long-term memorization. At the time, I knew going back on ADD medication could have helped me with that, but I was really determined to function without it and to accept that I just had to work harder than everyone else.

In hindsight, when I was diagnosed an ADD and put on the Ritalin, it became clear to me that I shouldn’t accept myself for who I am, as it is not acceptable to anyone else. I understood that there was something about me not to be trusted.

So I didn’t [trust myself]. I relied on the other people in my life to give me the guidance and feedback I needed to get me through the day. As you can imagine, this left me overwhelmed by anxiety much of the time. Compiling everyone’s opinions and gauging their reactions was the way I made choices, but I constantly second-guessed myself as well.

To be continued…

I was struck by a number of things M. wrote and want to highlight a few of them.

She says Ritalin helped her “figure out…what was expected of me,” implying she had difficulty judging how she was supposed to behave before beginning treatment. I can’t say for sure why the drug had this effect, but my guess would be that it helped her be – or feel – more organized, focused and alert, which in turn allowed her to direct her attention to what others expected of her and to behave accordingly.

Other people I’ve interviewed about taking medication for ADHD have told me that before taking meds, they were painfully aware of what they were supposed to be doing – in school, at home, on the playground, etc. – but that without the drugs, they couldn’t make themselves behave in a way that conformed.

One young woman I write about in Dosed, my book about growing up on meds, poignantly described her desire, at age 8 or 9, to take ADHD medication specifically so that she could do better in school and fight less with her parents. She knew exactly how she was coming up short, and wished that a drug would magically close that gap. Medications helped, but they never proved transformative in the way she hoped.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who, like M., had the even more basic problem of figuring out what was expected of them in the first place before beginning medication – and I’d be curious to know if drug treatment helped resolve it. Or if you’re a mental health professional, have patients of your experienced anything similar?

I was also struck by M.’s assessment that taking Ritalin as a teen sent her the message that she needed a drug to function and that she was incapable of monitoring and regulating her own emotions and behavior. Constantly looking to others for feedback left her unsure of her own capabilities, which in turn made her feel anxious and unmoored, Perhaps, she suggests, this apparent legacy of Ritalin even contributed to her going on an antidepressant for anxiety in her mid-20s.

Do you think medications – especially those linked to achievement in the way that ADHD drugs are – increase the chance that young people will end up relying excessively on others for feedback and approval? Is this likely to leave them feeling insecure about their ability to monitor their own emotions and behavior?

If so, are there ways to intervene, perhaps by teaching certain coping skills or a different way of looking at one’s medication treatment? Or is the solution simply to do what M. did: quit the medication and try to make up for lost time and lost self-awareness?

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Ritalin and Relying On Others for Approval

Kaitlin Bell Barnett

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APA Reference
Bell Barnett, K. (2012). Ritalin and Relying On Others for Approval. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 3 Jul 2012
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