A few weeks ago, Jessica McCabe wrote a letter to her mom and posted it on Facebook. "What I want to say to my mom, who 'drugged' me:" she began, "Thank you." The post has since been shared almost 3,000 times on Facebook.
McCabe was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, when she was 12 years old. "I was a gifted kid and did well in elementary school, but by middle school, the organizational demands were too much for my brain, and I started to struggle," she told TODAY Parents.
"Socially too, things were rough — I was often left out or bullied by my peers," she said. "Life at home was really challenging. I couldn't manage my emotions. I wasn't hyperactive; more the shy, fidgety, daydreamer type, so I wasn't disruptive in class. But homework was an issue and my grades were suffering."
McCabe's mom, Rebecca Lynn McCabe, took her to a primary care doctor and then to a psychiatrist for evaluations. A special education teacher for 30 years and herself born with a disability, she told TODAY Parents she was "comfortable with doctors and medications herself and familiar and accepting of differences in children."
"At the time period Jessica was diagnosed, the only 'help' was medication, Ritalin at first," said Rebecca, "So it was not a hard decision to medicate her, especially once she started taking it and I saw that her mood was improved, her school performance improved, her concentration improved."
Rebecca took her daughter to a psychiatrist monthly and also sought non-medication help for her at nearby UCLA throughout her teenage years. "I felt relieved when Jessica was medicated and improving. I felt I had done my job as a parent," said Rebecca. "As long as a medication was working, I never doubted it."
For Jessica, the change in her life after she began taking medication for ADHD was profound. "I remember my GPA going up a full point without me even trying. I didn't feel like I was doing anything differently, just that the effort I was putting in suddenly... worked," she said. "I could focus, I remembered things. I was more energetic and outgoing."
After a friend gave Jessica a book that explained the science of ADHD and included pictures of brain scans, Jessica said, "I loved understanding why I was different. It took away the shame. I felt not weird, but special."
Jessica, now 34, tried to go without medication for years in her early adulthood, but she eventually decided her life and her brain work better with it. However, she said, "Around age 30, I realized I wasn't really getting anywhere in life and that my medication, while super effective for things like focus and motivation, might not be the whole solution. Pills don't teach skills."
After receiving therapy and coaching, she decided to start a YouTube channel as a way to create an online toolbox for herself and "other ADHD brains," she said. Jessica now collaborates with a team that includes doctors, students, volunteer researchers, and others to develop and create content for others with ADHD and "the hearts who love them."
Jessica said that throughout her journey, she has seen how others with ADHD have suffered and struggled. "Self medicating is a common theme, as is battling anxiety and/or depression," she said. "Shame is huge. Many have internalized the stories they were told of just being lazy, stupid or not caring. Being misunderstood.
"I feel really lucky that my mom had me diagnosed when she did, that she got me treated right away, that she never made me feel wrong for being who I am," she said.
"All I know is she fought for us, and there was a lot of resistance at times. But I'm so grateful she did. It may have taken me awhile to find my path, but if she hadn't gotten me treatment when I was younger I can't say for sure I ever would have."
Dr. Abigail Schlesinger, Medical Director at Children's Telephonic Psychiatric Services at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and an expert in ADHD, told TODAY Parents that community bias against using medication as a component of ADHD treatment often "makes this decision harder than it has to be" for parents.
"Youth with ADHD are more likely to make impulsive choices. Adolescents and adults with ADHD do have a higher risk of substance use disorders," Dr. Schlesinger said. "Taking medication does not increase that risk. There is evidence that suggests while adolescents are in treatment — including medication — that they are less likely to get into trouble with substance abuse or legal issues."
Dr. Schlesinger said that for parents, information is critical when treating children with ADHD. "Education is powerful," said Dr. Schlesinger. "The data for the effectiveness of stimulant medications for the core features of ADHD is clear and consistent. It can be very helpful to reach out to other parents who have had to make this decision, through parent networks such as parent-to-parent or CHADD [Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder]. Talk to professionals if you hear conflicting advice."
Jessica's mom, Rebecca, had an additional suggestion for parents now who are deciding how to treat their children with ADHD: "Do not listen to the advice of parents who have 'normal' children. Your child is not abnormal — just different."