Adderall & Me: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Ritalin is the Salieri to Adderall's Mozart. - Molly Young

During my sophomore year at Notre Dame I joined the boxing team and began taking upper-level courses in history and political science. I also began taking Adderall.

As a freshman, my academic transition from a standard, public school courseware to the rigors of an elite, private university was extremely difficult. After years of straight A report cards in high school, I was struggling to make Bs in college. My study habits were rubbish. I read too slowly, wrote too slowly, and enjoyed too much of the undergraduate social scene. I felt overwhelmed and wondered if I had arrived out of my league.

That all changed on the night a teammate came to my dorm room for our nightly run around the lakes. Not tonight, I told him, as I was struggling to begin a research essay that was due the next day. He understood and offered me an Adderall.

A what?

More On This...

Adderall is prescription amphetamine salts given to kids and adults who have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drug comes in two pill forms:  immediately release (IR) and extended release (XR). My first Adderall pill was a 30 milligram XR.

The next day my roommates awoke to find me cleaning. My essay was done, fully researched and finely crafted. My laundry was done, too, and neatly folded; my reading assignments for the week, read and carefully annotated. I was proud of my work and thrilled to be studying as hard as my brightest classmates. On Adderall I finally felt competitive, even outstanding. I went to class early, turned in my paper, and filled page after page of lecture notes in my notebook. I had not slept a wink.

I went to my doctor for a prescription. He was skeptical. The problem with taking Adderall, he said, is that there is no turning back. I would have take the drug for the rest of my life. In short, he said, Adderall is forever, which was why he refused to prescribe it to any of his patients. Adderall is unethical, he said, so  I went to another doctor who prescribed me two 10 milligram IR pills per day –one in the morning; one with lunch– to be taken with food and plenty of fluids.

I returned to school fully prescribed. In the ring I was a smarter, lighter fighter; in lectures, a fast and furious stenographer; in seminars, a bold and confident conversationalist; and in the library, a night owl, a heavy duty research machine.

"Destruction is a variant of done." - Bre Pettis

In college, Adderall made me a better student. After graduating into a bleak, declining job market, Adderall helped me find opportunities – first, as Second Mate on a sailboat in the Caribbean; later, as a Latino outreach specialist on Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Indiana. Finally, I landed in Washington, D.C. where I was eventually hired at a powerhouse communications firm. It seemed I was riding high on the Adderall advantage.

But there were side-effects.

For years I had slept very little. Like my father before me, I became accustomed to 20 hour workdays. Where my father worked two low-wage day jobs and went to community college at night, I worked a dream job just as hard. Ours was the American immigrant struggle, I would tell others (and myself) and in a downturned era of shattered American Dreams, we were winning.

In reality, our struggles were as different as our successes. My father and I are both immigrants, sure, but he was in his 20s and I was an infant when we fled from his native Chile. In Missouri, he learned English as his 2nd language while teaching me Spanish as mine. His was an invisible, selfless march to the American middle class. Mine was a restless, self-righteous sprint to white collar American prestige. My father takes milk with his morning coffee while I took Adderall with mine.

And there were side effects.

Where I once felt exceptional on Adderall I began to feel agitated, especially late in the week after Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights working late, then working early, as an ideas man and rockstar photographer in the global communications industry.

Where I once slept very little, I began to sleep even less, if at all. On globetrotting trips across many timezones my nerves became frayed by unblinking exhaustion. The sharp focus and neurological endurance that had attracted me to Adderall in college became a mess of paranoid chaos and unprovoked rudeness. My friends were puzzled. My career coach intervened.

It was time for me to stop taking Adderall.

"My weariness amazes me." - Bob Dylan

I had been cautioned by several doctors who had written my Adderall scripts over the years that "Adderall is forever."  Now I had to prove them wrong. It was time for me to quit the drug and finally get some sleep.

And sleep I did...a lot.

For months last summer my routine became work and sleep, and nothing else. When the workday ended I went home to bed. When the weekend came I stayed in bed. My energy plummeted. My focus was broken. My enthusiasm disappeared. Slowly I plotted a return to normalcy, a life without Adderall.

I needed a plan.

I began with the most-obvious cornerstones:  diet and exercise. I bought Odwalla and Naked superfoods in bulk and eventually bought my own blender to join the superfood and smoothie culture that has blown up on the West Coast in recent years.  I got a gym membership and flirted with yoga. Slowly my energy returned as my sleep schedule normalized. By autumn, I felt healthy for the first time in a decade. The surging exceptionalism of Adderall was replaced by a calmed patience with others and, more-importantly, myself.

Rome wasn't built in a day. Washington is built and destroyed with every 24 hour news cycle. This ceaselessness of the Washington political circus surely contributes to the periodic shortages of Adderall in the district's pharmacies. I know many people who take Adderall. Most have prescriptions to increase their professional capacity. Others seek it out for "non-medical" reasons – like partying harder, later at night; or in the mornings, for making a hangover suddenly disappear.

Mine is a medicated generation for which the long-term side-effects of prescription stimulants have yet to be fully understood. But there are ominous warnings in the national news. Studies have shown a sharp increase in emergency room visits related to ADHD medication. Actress Demi Moore recently took Adderall before being hospitalized for seizures. Aggression, paranoia, and even delusion are among the rare side-effects of Adderall, particularly in high doses. In the weeks before he killed Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman was given a prescription for Adderall.

But Adderall is not forever. At least, not for me. Life after Adderall is calm, healthy, practical, and polite. Adderall makes sense for some people. For years it made sense for me. But if you find yourself unblinking and trying to read to the end of the Internet, or unblinking and agitated with friends and strangers who fail to keep up with your franticly medicated state, it’s probably time to replace your Adderall prescription with a whole lot of very deep sleep.