Phelps: A hero in need of treatment

February 17, 2009|By M. DOUGLAS BECKER

So? What did you think about Michael Phelps smoking weed? Is he a druggie or a heroic fighter for decriminalization of marijuana? A great athlete in a celebratory mood or just another pothead? A vile lawbreaker or just a wild kid? Is he the main character in a tragedy or a farce?

Phelps will truly remain one of the finest Olympic swimmers of all time. His aquatic accomplishments are the stuff of legend and that can never be taken from him. He should forever remain in the Maryland Pantheon of sports figures despite this incriminating photo and a previous DWI.

Our prodigal Marylander has explained that he suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and had great difficulty with concentration and impulsive behaviors. Michael Phelps tamed his demons with hours of exhausting swim practice. These facts were thoroughly explored by the media following his initial Olympic stardom.

Knowing that, I am not surprised to hear of issues such as the underage use of alcohol and more recent documentation of other illegal substances. I don't for one minute absolve him for youthful indiscretions. Nor do I blame alcohol and marijuana on the pressures imposed by celebrity. This guy still has ADHD. He is 23 years old and has not "outgrown" his attention deficit.


Adults with attention deficit commonly describe themselves as "restless, impulsive as ever, and prone to 'self-medication'."

There are many myths about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the most enduring is that it is only present in a few children who outgrow their problem in high school.

If only that were so! Ask a teacher and you'll learn that at least one inhabits each classroom, K through 12. Ask the dean of any college and you will be shown a mighty large stack of requests for special accommodations. Talk to the warden of any prison and you might get a lecture on the universality of the condition. No dear, they do not always outgrow their problem. Most remain symptomatically affected. And, substance use is a regular manifestation.

As an advocate and treating physician, I know many attention deficit children and their families in this community. They deserve to use the Michael Phelps example to help others understand that this condition is real, it is common - one in every 7.5 individuals - and though not every sufferer requires medication, most children become normal, productive students with care.

ADHD has a genetic basis. The chemical "dopamine" is deficient in the frontal brain. The assorted medications correct this shortage and make the brain function normal or nearly so. Without care, they would daydream, forget things, underachieve and respond impulsively throughout their lives. Well - you know people like that, don't you? Difficult to tolerate, huh? The treatment should be continued until the brain matures at age 21. This idea cannot be made easy for teens and their families, but after observing the hard lessons that many require, you will know as I do, that medication is a must.

So remember our hero, Phelps. He's a major sport celebrity caught in an unlawful act. More Plexico Burris than O. J., Attention Deficit, even now, shades his existence and influences his actions. He still needs treatment.

M. Douglas Becker is a Hagerstown physician.

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