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Looking Through a Microscope to Gain the Big Picture

By Matt Thompson, D.C.


            My eyes were instantly wide open, and my stomach bottomed out.  I could no longer hear the chatter in the lab. “What were all these crystals floating around my samples?”  It had been a long time coming, but was this the moment?  I was 29 years old.
            But first, I have to go back to when I was 5 years old, when I was diagnosed with attention and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  After struggling with focus at home and in school, dealing with the inability to stay still longer than 10 seconds, and succumbing to motor tics and twitches, my parents approached our family doctor who labeled me with ADHD.  Just two years earlier, in 1980, ADHD had officially become a diagnostic criteria in the DSM-III.  Our family doctor offered Ritalin as the treatment.
Ritalin was first licensed by the FDA in 1955. It had been used medically for hyperactive kids since 1960. In the 1980’s the medical community increased its usage, and by the 1990’s the use of Ritalin for hyperactive kids soared.  Ritalin, like most of the medications used to treat ADHD, are central nervous system stimulants that unnaturally speed up brain activity.
After much thoughtful prayer and consideration, my parents inquired about alternative methods for treatment, ultimately deciding that structure, discipline, and avoiding certain food dyes was a better approach than medication.  Like most kids, I did better with increased guidance and structure and individual attention. I began to get back on track and act like a “normal” kid in school and at home.  However, as school progressed, my learning style became less congruent with what the school offered.  Being forced to sit still for 6 or 7 hours per day proved to be a disastrous formula for my curious nature and boundless energy.
After several detentions, out-of-school suspensions, and failing a class that I was completely bored with, my parents had enough. I was taken to see Dr. John March at Duke University, considered to be one of the world’s leading experts in the area of adolescent ADHD, anxiety and behavior disorders.
I remember going through two full days of rigorous and comprehensive testing.  From IQ testing to brain scans, and everything in between.  I remember having to scrub my hair in the bathtub because of the sticky goo they used to stick electrodes to my head.  When the results came back, they were not what Dr. March was expecting… I had an IQ of 136, and extensive testing could not find anything out of the ordinary to explain the up and down grades and hyperactive behavior.  I was a smart kid with lots of potential.
To go along with the diagnosis of ADHD, I was given the label of “learning disability,” even though there were no imbalances. Dr. March recommended pharmacological intervention without any mention of diet, exercise or alternative options. My parents spent some more time in prayerful consideration on how to proceed and decided to go ahead with Dr. March’s recommendations.  It was a decision that altered the course of my life forever.
            Over the next three weeks, I took two pills twice a day.  One week a placebo was given, and the other two weeks I took different doses of Ritalin.  It was obvious which week consisted of a placebo. About 45 minutes after the first two pills of the higher strength Ritalin entered my body, I felt an unmistakable burst of energy and focus.  I distinctly remember ironing clothes for school while watching tennis.  Two things I would never do separately before, I suddenly did together as if they were my sole passion in life.  Every inch of fabric pressed without a wrinkle and every point of the tennis match documented as I kept score.  It was remarkable!  After a couple of hours, the affects began to wear off, and shortly afterward I would take the second dose. It was an easy decision for Dr. March and my parents to continue drug-based treatment.
            Over the next several years the dosage of Ritalin was slowly increased as I became less responsive.  At this point, I was well aware of how the drugs were affecting my body, both in a positive way and in a negative way.  When Ritalin was peaking in my system I was focused and full of energy like a quarterback mounting a fourth quarter comeback.  As the drug wore off I was in a sort of trance, not all-together present.  Still functional, but not quite myself; sort of like a beautiful raw piece of wood that had been sanded down in a way that had taken away some of its natural beauty. I also noticed the appetite suppressing affects of Ritalin, the jittery feeling at times, and the way it made it hard to go to sleep at night if I took the meds too late in the day.
It was time for a change. We cycled through different medications over the next 6 months until we settled upon Dexedrine.  After a year on that, we switched to sustained release Dexedrine, so I would only have to take it once per day.  At this point, I was in college, and used (read: misused) it as a study aid, often pulling long hours of study, as I balanced my school life, my work life, and my social life.  I was no longer checking in at Duke University. I just had to let my family doctor know I was out of pills and the prescription would be waiting for me.
It was very clear to me at this point the drugs were doing much more harm to my body than good.  All the negative affects I felt while on Ritalin in High School were magnified.  I tried to ween myself off but was very tired and depressed after a day or two.  It wasn’t long before I was right back on the meds. I felt trapped, and didn’t know where or whom to turn to.
As I finished up my undergrad studies, it was time for the next step—chiropractic school.  Since at least 7th grade, I’ve wanted to be a chiropractor.  There are a lot of chiropractors in my extended family, and I was exposed early to this wonderful profession.  Helping others and working with my hands have always been a passion of mine, and I’ve always been fascinated with how the body works.  It was a natural fit.
As I began chiropractic school at Life University in Marietta, GA, little did I know I was beginning a long journey of self-awareness, discovery, and self-healing.  It was an intense and demanding curriculum, but I knew I was there for a reason much bigger than myself.  At the time I was still taking medication which helped me get through the long days of classes and studies. But I knew now more than ever that the medication was doing way more damage than any perceived good.  At the time, I was dating a beautiful and encouraging young lady who would eventually become my lovely bride, the mother of my three sons.  She came from a chiropractic family like me, and was rooted in the self-healing, innate abilities of the body.  We had many discussions about my use of drugs, and she was very patient and supportive.
Then it happened…The day that would forever change my life. During lab day in urinalysis class, we were looking at our own urine samples. I remember looking through the microscope to identify certain cells and compounds, only there was an enormous amount of crystals floating around.  More crystals than anything else present.  I was baffled.  These weren’t represented in our lab manuals, so I brought over my professor to take a look.
I will never forget this moment for the rest of my life.  When he arose from the microscope, he had a perplexed look on his face. “They’re medicine crystals, and I’ve never seen that many before.”  He said this, and then walked away.  Shell shocked, and with a deep pit in my stomach, I proceeded to leave the classroom.  I skipped the rest of my classes that day, and spent time in my bedroom trying to process everything.  I could not continue taking medications, and that afternoon, I made the decision to quit cold turkey.  It took looking through a microscope to get the big picture.
That was 12 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.  It wasn’t easy at first.  My body was stressed.  I was receiving regular chiropractic care, and I doubled up on my adjustments to put my body and my central nervous system in a better position to handle the stress.  Along with cleaning up my diet and an exercise routine, I was eventually able to thrive.
            As someone who impacts my community at a very high level, I truly believe we have to go through seasons in our lives to learn what we need to in order to lead better.  For a long time I believed my parent’s decision for medication was the worst decision they had ever made for me. Looking at it today, it might just be the best decision they ever made for me.  Had I not gone through that journey, I would not be here today, knowing what I know now, and inspired to help tens of thousands of people in my community.