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The Dream

We agreed for a little girl to live with us while her parents sorted things.

Dad is in jail, mom was on drugs but is trying to get clean.

She is ten, with thick, frizzy brown hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Round, sweet face, eyes made owlish by thick glasses with dark purple frames.

She wears a purple puffy jacket, which should be my first clue it’s a dream.

Those went out of style decades ago. Then again, trends cycle. Maybe she’s ahead of the curve.

We meet at a small, family-owned restaurant with a store attached. Evidently this is where she has spent her after-school hours starting back in pre-school. Her babysitter used to work here but is long out of the picture.

“She was such a good little girl” that everyone else agreed to jointly keep an eye on her until her mother sent a ride home or wandered in to pick her up. Someone noticed she wasn’t growing much in kindergarten and they started providing after-school snacks and a hearty dinner. The undernourished waif grew into a hale and healthy ten year old.

The last few months, they’ve been giving her rides home at closing. A light was always on and she had a key, but finally the cook decided to walk her to the door and found mom sprawled on the floor in a drugged stupor.

She called the police, who called social services. Our small town had no other foster homes available. Since the cook claimed to be a distant cousin and had a clean record, they let the child stay with her for 48 hours while the social worker looked for a foster parent.

These people have been her family for six years. None of them are happy to learn I live clear across town.

“You have to bring her back to see us. Come for dinner at least once a week. On the house,” the owner cajoles.

The cook chimes in, “yes, please do,” in a tone I recognize as, “I’m asking nicely but you can expect a consequence if you don’t comply.”

The child has gone back to her small play area in the rear of the store to tidy up. I follow.

As I pack her things into a plastic green suitcase, the social worker calls my cell. Mom entered the rehab program. This may be a very temporary placement.

For their sake, I hope so, but I won’t mind if this sweet girl stays with us longer.

Suddenly I realize we never finalized sleeping arrangements. I guess we’ll put her in the guest room for now. I wonder if our two will be jealous she gets the big bed.

For that matter, how will they all get along? Will a new addition send them into a tail spin?

Should I put her in class with one of them or in one of the other 5th grade classes?

It’s getting late. I haven’t even thought about dinner. I tug her heavy case toward the door, starting to feel overwhelmed. Will she even like us?

I pause by the door, ready to call her name and realize I’ve forgotten it.

The cook gives me a piercing glare.

“What?” I say.

She replies, “nothing,” but I feel her eyes on my back as I turn.

I shake my head, stress washing over me.

What was I thinking, taking this on? I just started a new job. My kids may not respond well and I forgot to tell them about it. Hubby’s out of town for a week. Wait, who is with MY kids? I suddenly can’t remember.

The girl reappears, hugging the staff as she makes her way to me.

“I’m ready,” she tells me, pushing past through the wooden screen door to the country porch.

I follow, panic rising, and stop, face to face with a huge young buck. I eye his antlers, uneasy with the proximity, and glance around for the girl.

He snorts, demanding my attention, and stomps his hoof on the echoing porch floor boards. He touches his nose to mine, huge brown eyes glaring.

I wake, wild-eyed, stressed and panting, nose-to-wet-black-nose with my German Shepherd.

He needs to potty. He snorts and stomps his paw on the bed once more.

I shake my head and let him pull me out of bed.

Thank God, it was a dream.

Later that day, I pull up photo listings on adoptuskids.org, searching for a round, sweet face with owlish eyes.

To Be or Not to Be…Medicated Part 2

Continued from Part 1

I’m not 100% comfortable with medication as a solution for attention problems.

I can’t deny the efficacy of certain prescriptions—last week, our son had his FIRST PERFECT WEEK at school.

Granted, we only had two days in class due to snow but this is still a first. Two days, back-to-back, with only green marks (given for helping, staying on task, getting behavioral compliments from teachers in supplementary classes, etc.)? Never happened before.

The potential for success is incredible.

Possibility of side effects, now or in the future, concerns me.

I can say, in good conscience, that we tried EVERYthing before turning to medication. Still, nagging guilt plagues me, an oppressive feeling we “gave in” to the road more traveled.

Some of my friends say things like

Drug companies are the devil

and

Pharmaceutical conglomerates care about making money, not about making kids healthy

and although I’m not sure they’re correct on the first count, I acquiesce on the second. Companies are formed and sustained for one purpose: to make money for someone.

Knowing this, why do we—as a nation—fall in line for the daily dose?

The unfortunate truth is this: other alternatives require more time and sometimes bring less direct results. In the world of mental health—mental health of children, in particular—we search for expedient outcomes.  Medication is fast, and in some cases, immediate.

Research for alternatives led me to an option so easy it’s laughable. MOVEMENT. Activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness. In other words, exercise.

One of the article links cracked me up: “exercise-seems-to-be-beneficial-to-children.” No. Really?

According to several studies (see the links throughout this post), exercise can be just as beneficial as medication. Some claim prescriptions may be eliminated by implementing a consistent workout routine.

Why don’t we hear more about exercise as an alternative to drugs? 

This article by Yasmin Tayag is blatant in accusation. There’s no money to be made; physical activity is, well, free.

To be fair, our doctor did recommend exercise—not to replace, but to supplement the medication. After I explained our involvement in Karate twice a week, Scouts, family chores (yes, cleaning up counts as exercise) and treks through the woods, she agreed that no one could call our family sedentary.

CalorieLab even has a cool page for learning how many calories you burned vacuuming or doing other chores, if you’re interested. 

She also recommended limiting screen time. Our kids watch about four hours of TV. Not per day. PER WEEK. Much lower than the national average, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics article. Where these kids find time to spend 7 hours a day (A DAY!?) entertained by screens is beyond me.

I have to agree with Yasmin; money seems the root of the problem; drug companies court pediatricians and other doctors constantly. I saw three reps during our 30-minute stay in the waiting area.

Why exercise?

If you don’t know the answer to this question after years of watching Richard Simmons Sweat to the Oldies, I can’t offer you help. I mean, really.

Stop pretending you’re not overcome by memories. You know you loved it.

Okay, let’s get serious. Shake off your nostalgia.

This article in The Atlantic shows pictures of brain function with and without exercise. Due to the wording, I can’t determine whether the pictures are a representation of the study or genuine, actual slides. Either way, the visual difference is staggering. The article references children sitting in class with “blue heads” for nine months. Lost learning potential could be significant. An excerpt:

John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, suggests that people think of exercise as medication for ADHD. Even very light physical activity improves mood and cognitive performance by triggering the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, similar to the way that stimulant medications like Adderall do.

Nutshell:

Exercise makes you feel good.

No small accomplishment for a child who tends toward a negative self-image. Many kids with ADHD feel “less.” Less able to do the work, less likely to succeed, less likable (due to their sporadic behavior) than their more focused classmates. Exercise can improve self-image in many ways—not just physical.

Exercise reduces “learned helplessness.”

ADHD kids are likely to quit before they start because they feel they won’t succeed regardless of what they do. ADDitude mag editors also quote John Ratey as a resident expert, but are more conservative. This article describes exercise as a supplement rather than replacement for medication.

I see “learned helplessness” in our children, both of whom struggle with attention (although our guy has a much more difficult time). Our daughter, in particular, would rather not try if she sees potential for failure.

Simple math problems take FOR-EVVVV-ERRRR because, instead of relying on her bank of memorized facts, she counts on her fingers before answering. This backfires, as she is often distracted while counting and ends up with an incorrect answer. This reinforces her idea that she won’t get it right. We’ve worked very hard with her, encouraging her to use the first answer that “pops into” her mind.

Exercise jump-starts your brain

Exercise turns on the attention system, the so-called executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention.

-John Ratey, M.D.

Working memory is the key for many ADHD individuals. Our son scored very high on psych evaluations in almost every area except this. Without working memory, we can’t perform two tasks at once—at least, not easily.

How much, how often?

  • WebMD suggests 150 minutes of exercise per week in an article about adult ADHD
  • According to an article in Inverse, some schools have implemented three 20-minute exercise sessions or use “time-in” instead of time-out: if a child acts out, he or she spends the “time-in” on an exercise/ machine

Exercises to try

  • Aerobics/Cardio
  • Running/Jogging/Walking
  • Push-ups, squats
  • Yoga
  • Sports/Martial Arts

Not all exercise must be physical, although aerobic exercise is an excellent strategy to focus that brain. You can also try the following:

  • Try focus exercises geared toward ADHD.
  • Train your Brain. The jury is still out regarding brain-training games, but it seems logical. If your brain is a muscle, and you engage in consistent brain workout, I conclude that it will be stronger and better.  NeuroRacer sounds pretty cool, although they now focus on aging adults. I contacted the company to ask if the game is available to the general public. 
  • Learn something new. Khan Academy offers free classes; the site is amazing. Learning a new skill stretches your brain. Remember when you learned to read? C-A-T. Struggling to decode words. Look at ya now—reading is as easy as breathing. Always wanted to learn Chinese? Greek? Spanish? Learn to play an instrument, to cook authentic Italian food, to swim. Now you have a reason.
  • Do math. I’ve seen exponential (see what I did there?) improvement in the kids’ focus as we’ve dedicated time to learning long division and double-digit multiplication.
  • Write. (YAY!) The creative process, research, putting words to a page whether written or typed, editing—all of these contribute to better focus. I’ve never been diagnosed ADHD (except by all my best friends and Hubby), but I do have my suspicions. When I practice faithful writing, everyone can tell.

Now what?

Our new routine started today. 30 minutes of sustained activity each day—that’s the goal. Hubby and I don’t often sit (we like to DIY, and we’ve been remodeling the kitchen for several weeks). The kids, however, would prefer to meld with the carpet, or couch, or whatever.

As I mentioned above, we all take responsibility for chores at home. Daily chores take a legitimate 15 minutes (for the 9 year old) and 25 minutes (for the 11 year old).

I’ve stopped counting their chores toward daily fitness because she, in particular, moves at a very slow pace. She’s admitted a hope that we will give up if she takes forever. So far, no dice. Sorry, honey.

During research for this post, I realized that our kids don’t participate in sustained physical activity every day.  So, today, I instituted the first daily “30 Get Up and Move Minutes” session. 30GUMM for short, because I’m a nerd. If the weather is nice, out they go. If I look out a window,they should be walking, running, playing with the dogs, swinging, etc.

Our first day of bad weather, I plan to break out the Wii. Yes, it’s screen time, but at least they’ll be moving, so I think it counts. Sort of like tricking them into exercise. Bwah ha ha ha.

Do I have to forgo meds?

This post (including Part 1) is not intended to denounce medication as originating in brimstone.

Although I don’t like the thought of possible side effects, school and self-image are my main concerns for the moment. As long as the side effects remain only on the pharmacy document regarding “all the horrible things that will probably happen because now you are looking for signs of them,” they’ll keep popping pills. Responsibly and at the lowest possible dose. If side effects occur, we’ll re-think the plan.

And for the moment, we’ve had no issues.

On the other hand, I plan be more intentional about integrating physical and brain exercise. Getting them in shape, body and mind, can only benefit. If we’re able to phase out the medication, that will be a lovely added bonus.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

How about you?

Are you a medical teetotaler or pill pusher? Is BigPharm the evil villain, or do you think alternative medicine is for hippies? Have you found ways to focus? What’s your strategy?

Of course, if you think freebasing Vicodin is a panacea, I recommend keeping that to yourself…

We’re all interested in what you have to say. Share below!

 

 

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