The Boy on the Bicycle

In the midst of my family threatening me with incarceration in the state mental hospital if I did not comply with their contrary and contradictory and ever-changing demands, along came a Twitter conversation prompted by recent findings published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature questioning the efficacy of medications all too often prescribed after a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). A psychologist tweeted his support for meds; I suggested maybe try drawing lessons instead?

Where I looked forward to a nature v. nurture discussion from an expert in his field, I quote liberally from his blogpost to better analyze his language and reproduce his drawing here for the purpose of visual analysis, but encourage readers to visit his blog before making their own judgments.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Phamacological Sanity

“When I was originally diagnosed with ADD, it was called Minimal Brain Dysfunction. This diagnosis was designed to address children who seemed to function poorly in school and other social settings, but could not be clinically diagnosed as mentally retarded. For a time, this worked, but then someone noticed a discrepancy between these children’s school performance and their IQ scores. While their IQ’s tested in the normal to high range, their performance was abysmal. Researchers realized children with this diagnosis seemed to struggle in focusing long enough to take in information in a way that allowed them to retain it. This new theory lead to different types of treatment. I underwent testing for food allergies, adhered to a strict diet with mineral and vitamin additives, biofeedback sessions, and was even in a trial study for Prozac. My father claims I would have blackouts while on Prozac and even began having suicidal thoughts at the age of 8. I received therapy from several immanent [sic] psychiatrists and psychologists, one of whom was Dr. Hunt who still runs the Center for Attention & Hyperactivity in Tennessee. My father had his masters [sic] in counseling and when Dr. Hunt suggested that my parents check me into a mental institution, forget they ever had a son, and focus their time and energy into their “healthy” daughter, my Father asked Dr. Hunt, “Why can’t you just admit that you can’t help my son?” Needless to say, this concluded our sessions with Dr. Hunt.

“My entire family worked hard to stay with me throughout my years of rebellion and boundary testing. Through the overdoses. Through the depression. Through the denial and rage. They showed me, through modeling and through actions, what it means to truly love someone. But that’s not what this post is about. This post is about the benefits and risks of medication vs alternative/holistic means of treating ADD/ADHD…

“This post is in being written in reference to a twitter conversation I recently had. My decision to take medication to help with the symptoms of a neurological disorder was fairly quickly disparaged. [?] The reply asked if I had every tried taking an art class rather than simply using medication to treat my symptoms. While my illustrations are evidence I did not pay attention, I have taken art classes. What got to me about the tweet is this: If I were taking medication for depression, would the same person have been as quick to ask if I had tried alternative means of treatment?

“…In the meantime, let me tell you a story about a friend of mine who was in high school with me and had been diagnosed with ADD and refused to take medication. When I asked why he chose not to, he stated that he didn’t want to and it felt weird. I asked my friend why he wore glasses. He said he was near sighted and without his glasses probably wouldn’t have been able to function day-to-day. I reflected back to him the incongruence that he chose to wear glasses to correct his vision but refused to take medication to correct his neurology. He laughed me off and said it was different and complained that I didn’t understand. The truth was, I deeply understood, and wanted him to experience the same form of freedom I had.

“Medication isn’t the answer. No pill will ever make someone perfect; and if it could, it would be at the expense of their own humanity. However, unless it’s doing more damage than good, please be careful not to disparage a persons [sic] means of maintaining sanity.”

Of course Dr. Croy could not know, at the time of our Twitter conversation and his subsequent blogpost writing, I was in the midst of my family threatening to lock me up in the state mental hospital because I expressed concerns about my nephew jeering at his suicidal peers, and my niece sobbing hysterically after my sister described her as a “prostitute” instead of offering encouragement on her way out the door to a job interview. Would he have as furiously typed out his blogpost if he had? Or would he word it differently now? How nice to have family who works to keep you out of the state mental hospital; what is that like? But on the other hand, parents who feed you drugs that leave you feeling suicidal?

And why did Dr. Croy view my tweet as disparaging?

Because I have MFA instead of Ph.D. or M.D. or MSW after my name?

Because drawing is “just” visual communications, not the well-respected Science of pharmacology?

From my perspective, the Nature article provoked his rebuttal; I added my own method, joining the conversation that might be of interest to artists, scientists, clients, and therapists alike. Colleagues sharing what has worked for them. No disparagement intended; I certainly do not feel that he disparaged my opinion just because his opinion disagrees with mine. Sort of. While at the same time providing further evidence supporting my opinion.

His response demonstrates why art education is so important for solving global communications problems. At least in my classrooms, what we teach in the visual fields are the multiple possibilities of “right” answers, a range of “wrong” answers, and because we teach through a process of critique, visual students learn to listen to an array of nuance across various perspectives, or critical thinking, without feeling threatened when other egos disagree with their own previously held opinions, before providing visually literate solutions to communication problems.

Gently, quietly, does Dr. Croy approach the world expecting disparagement? And why?

Because if your ego is easily shattered by hearing opinions that disagree with your own experiences, Twitter is not the place for you. Maybe stay off the Internet generally. Maybe do not open your front door to venture out into the physical world either. Or even get out of bed. Just pull those covers up over your head and stay there beneath the cotton batting awhile longer.

If Dr. Croy was my trauma recovery client, I would ask many more questions:

Were the “children who seemed to function poorly in school and other social settings” actually poorly functioning, or is school too restrictive, demanding that children conform to their neat little desks in tidy little rows, obediently memorizing the “right” answers for those bubble-sheet tests? And encourage him to return to his college readings to reread Foucault.

Maybe young Nathan was not a read/write learner, but learned more kinetically or visually, and his teachers misunderstood or disparaged his learning style? Maybe school was just boring? Of the “children with this diagnosis [who] seemed to struggle in focusing long enough to take in information in a way that allowed them to retain it,” maybe they are spending far too many hours before screen media, eyes twitching from visual information over-stimulation, as the human animal strains to quickly discern friend from foe, is that a deer running through the forest, or a hunter in camouflage, predator or prey, blacking out distraction, and the advertisers, social media engineers, and video game designers seek to ever distract our attentions, receiving inadequate doses of nurturing or attention from parents also distracted by 24/7/365 demands of twenty-first century screen media?

I grew up in a house without television, and unfortunately missed the still relatively new computer programming classes in high school with my parents’ encouragement for girls to take stenography and feminine typing instead of the masculinized term for the same skill, keyboarding, just in case we were unable to attract a man to provide for our survival. This might sound as if I am a generation older than my chronological years, but that is what it was like growing up orthodox Mormon in Las Vegas. I had no role models for women actually doing anything besides waiting for Gentleman Luck to come along. I was just rebellious enough to take art and writing instead of still more math beyond geometry and not more than the bare minimum of science required to graduate.

Still do not regret that.

Barely scraped through biology from a teacher who could not herself remember the difference between the heart or the stomach after those organs were pulled out of a frog and placed to the side with arrows pointing for our fill-in-the-blank multiple choice answers on our final exam, but nevertheless sadistically required us to dissect all those poor little animals. We never did get to the botany section in our textbook that semester.

The only time I’ve needed algebra since high school was to figure out the placement of the three images that compose my RGB triptych:


RGB, 2011, 102.5×248 cm overall, oil on canvas. Triptych exploring cropping, multiplicity, value scale, and color management of screen media.

As far as I could tell, Photoshop was not prepared to supply me with those divisions. I confess, I cheated a little bit. After figuring out the math on paper, I nevertheless had to eyeball it against Photoshop’s greyscale grid.

Yes, this is paint:

rgb detail

RGB (triptych) (right panel), 2011, 59×64 cm, oil on canvas

Or a digital reproduction of a painted image of digital media, at any rate.

Scraped again through college biology without being required to handle a single scalpel, thank god, too embarrassed by my ignorance to ask the globally renowned scientists in the labs whose work I supported between classes for reciprocating help with my homework. Imagine the puzzlement of the graduate teaching assistant assigned to my section of the auditorium-sized lecture course, here was his student miserably failing biology while working in the human genetics building-?!

Until I figured out my undergraduate science professors didn’t expect you to read the entire badly designed and illustrated textbook. Just memorize the answers to the cheat sheet questions to pass the test. Go.


Talk about a dead language.

But maybe it saved me from a childhood traumatized by Prozac, that interactive analogue learning that psychologists and neuroscientists worldwide are only just beginning to recognize as essential?

Dr. Croy writes so worshipfully of his Father, but where was Mother? Did she want to drag her young son to doctor’s office after doctor’s office? Did she question the wisdom of placing her child on Prozac in its early clinical trials? Did his parents fight over the efficacy of a drug that produced suicidal thoughts in an eight-year-old? Or did she not have a say in the matter? And what of his relationship with his sister, the “perfect” docile child compared to his pharmaceutically enhanced and repressed rebellion? Then we would explore more of those primal relationships shaping his identity. This might take at least a whole semester, if not years.

A much belated answer to Dr. Croy’s question to me, thanking him for his patience for the delay in my response: if he were taking medication for depression, I would have been twice as quick to refer him to my thesis research, Wild Child.

Another session, maybe we could discuss why he is self-deprecating and defensive about his drawing, when it so perfectly illustrates a childhood traumatized by pharmacology:

the boy on the bicycle

Nathan D. Croy, Pharmacological Sanity, 2014, dimensions and media unknown, perhaps Sharpie on notepaper?

What I see is a charming, if heartbreaking, illustration that might well encapsulate the childhood of a generation of Americans: a crude drawing of a bicycle with ominous pills looming overhead, one capsule closed, one open, engulfing the metonymic bike. In the sea of pharma, a shape that might be a brain, might be a boxing glove, a kid coming out swinging but restrained by some sort of shepherd’s hook? Maybe his father’s crook? The Law of the Fathers, as Kristeva writes, writing after Freud. A book that might represent knowledge, might present still more questions. Question marks might arise from the book or waft down from the pharmacological cloud.

But where is the boy on the bike?

Robbed of his childhood by drugs and unresolved difficulties in his parents’ marriage, I suspect, as painful as that might be to acknowledge for a man following in the footsteps of his father’s career. His parents dragging him to one ‘scrip-writing bot after another are loving actions to Dr. Croy? Lots of work to explore there. His drawing reminds me of so many of the drawings of my first-year college students, case studies included in my thesis much as psychologists and psychoanalysts write of their work with their patients, who arrived carrying at least as much trauma as young Nathan, internal conflicts resolved as indicated by their increased socialization, contribution to class discussions, active engagement in their learning simultaneous to their mastering of the vocabulary and grammar of visual language, where students learn to stop drawing what they think they know and begin drawing what they see, line and shape and value instead of discrete objects, or the subject/object problems shared between art and psychology.

One classroom interaction I recall a student zooming so furiously around on her paper she could not focus on the life drawing set up on the model stand before her. I encouraged her, as my painting professors had encouraged me before her, to please slow down.

“You are here to draw for three hours,” I explained, “You can’t cheat by producing your work faster.”

“I’m already going so slow I feel like I’m going to puke,” she whispered in an otherwise quiet classroom where the rest of the students were focused on their work.

“Slow down ten times that,” I suggested.

Midway through the session, I noticed her movements were much slower, her drawing more attuned to the details before her, and she seemed much calmer than when she first entered the studio from the hurly burly demands of the outside world.

In future sessions, we would examine further line, shape, value, introduce more materials and techniques for exploring the unlimited options on the market today, question his decision to place discrete objects in the center of the page instead of actively engaging the entire composition? Where is his light source? What happens in the environment beyond the sea of pharmaceuticals?

And when he was ready, with an ego better repaired, more deeply, more questions: Why so swift to disrespect his school chum’s perspective on drugs? Psychotropic meds do not directly correspond to eyeglasses, of course. Psychopharmacology is much more invasive, as Dr. Croy’s own narrative illustrates. Was it because he wanted some one Other to more fully understand his traumatized Self, insisting that his high school friend must experience the world as he experiences it?

What challenge, to get within the skin of another, to thoroughly empathize with the struggle of the other, without losing self entirely, still maintaining enough ego to recognize both the selfhood and the otherness of others.

Nobly, the good doctor grants permission for me to express my opinion if his meds are “doing more damage than good.”

The drugs are doing more damage than good, and it’s not just the peer-reviewed scientists who are beginning to say so.

Your pharmacology is causing immense multigenerational psychological harm. Dr. Croy, how do you feel about being a test subject in the largest multigenerational clinical trial in the history of the world?

As long as I am still able, I speak.

4 thoughts on “The Boy on the Bicycle

  1. Nathan D. Croy

    Great post! Genuinely appreciated reading it and would like to clarify a few things, if I might.
    1: I’m not a doctor. I have my masters in marriage and family therapy. If I misrepresented myself as a doctor in any way, I apologize and assure you that was not my intent.
    2: I do believe art is a valid and/or effective means of treatment.
    3: And just as art can be effective, in some cases medication can also be effective.
    In an attempt to have the process of existentialism reflect the product, my blog tends to focus on my personal experiences and how I’ve interpreted them. I do believe that more accurate diagnosis is critical for effective treatment. In regards to the Prozac, I was only on it briefly and as soon as my parents realized how detrimental it was, they informed my doctors we were stopping the medication. For me, personally, medication has been provided the primary means to address a malfunction in the way my brain processes information. It’s not for everyone and there are children who are over-medicated; just as there are some children who are under-medicated.
    I used/use art as an outlet for expression on a regular basis. It has immense benefits and journaling/acts of creativity is something I regularly encourage my clients to use as coping skills.
    4: lastly, your question about what it must be like to have parents who want to keep me out of the state mental hospital? I don’t think it was ever about keeping me out of the state hospital. It was about getting me the treatment I needed. If my parents had felt that was best for me, I probably would’ve been there. The goal was health and functioning; the means weren’t the primary concern.
    Medication can help or hurt and at times by some physicians it can be used indiscriminately and to great harm. However, it’s only part of the equation (if it enters at all). A holistic understanding of individuals as they exist in their system is necessary before healing, growth, and healthy living can occur. Art, writing, music, drawing, medications, surgeries, family therapy, individual therapy, spiritual considerations, acupuncture, massage therapy, or any other treatment modality I left off this list means nothing if it’s isn’t first informed with a robust treatment goal, a means to measure interpersonal and relational growth, and the humility to admit when it may not be working.
    To exclude art as a means of healing could be detrimental to an individual’s healthy growth and healing (you may want to check out Rollo May’s My Search for Beauty on this subject). However, to exclude medication may be just as detrimental. Part of the reason I love psychotherapy is that it’s a pseudo science: it’s half art and half science. It’s past time the two fields agreed they have much in common, the least of which is the shared goal of healthy living.

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