Seven years ago, Shannon McKinney was withdrawing from a powerful stimulant.
She couldn’t sleep. Her hands shook. Her skin turned gray. She couldn’t keep food down because of waves of nausea.
Shannon, now 19, lost her childhood to Ritalin and getting off the drug was traumatic.
Military doctors in West Germany started her on the drug when she was 3 after diagnosing her with minimal brain dysfunction, a previous term for Attention Deficit Disorder.
Over the next nine years, her doctors increased the dose at the suggestion of teachers until Shannon was taking 150 milligrams a day, more than twice the maximum usually prescribed.
“She was very quiet, very bright, until about an hour before the drug was wearing off,” remembered her mother, Anne McKinney. “Then she would be spinning on the floor and talking a thousand miles a minute.”
Shannon’s case is an extreme example of what can go wrong when doctors fail to monitor a child on Ritalin.
McKinney learned her child was addicted in 1987 when she tried to have the prescription refilled at Fairchild Air Force Base hospital.
The doctor’s jaw dropped when he saw how much Ritalin Shannon was taking, McKinney said. He consulted with Spokane psychiatrist Michael Manz and decided to gradually wean the teenager from her dependency.
Manz, head of child psychiatry at Sacred Heart Medical Center, had never seen anyone taking a higher dose.
Intense behavior problems followed her withdrawal symptoms. Shannon eventually was hospitalized for three months.
“She was a little hellcat,” her mother said. The girl had to learn self-control as if she were a toddler.
Anne McKinney and her husband, David, took a tough approach when Shannon came home. They grounded her repeatedly for talking back, hanging around with the wrong friends and sneaking out of the house.
Once they asked the Medical Lake Police to pick her up when she ran away from home.
Side effects of Ritalin include loss of appetite and slow growth. In the years after she stopped taking the drug, Shannon’s legs hurt constantly as she shot up in height. Doctors once predicted she would grow to only 5-foot-1.
She is now 5-feet, 11-inches tall.
The McKinneys, who live west of Spokane at Silver Lake, never sued Shannon’s doctors for malpractice, although an attorney thought they had a case. They still wonder what long-term effects the nine years of Ritalin had on their daughter.
By anyone’s standards, she is doing well today. Shannon shrugs off her strange childhood and doesn’t blame her parents for any of it.
She will be a sophomore at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., where she is a chemistry major with a 3.8 grade point average. She is considering becoming a doctor and she’d like to serve in the Peace Corps.
“Tough, tough love. It works,” said Anne McKinney. “They may hate you for a while. But now she’s a lovely young lady.”
McKinney remains bitter. She advises friends with children on Ritalin to get second and third opinions.
“I’ve gone head to head with some parents,” McKinney said. “Some of them do not want to hear it. I do know what I’m talking about. Eventually that child has to come off the Ritalin.”
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