We worry. A gallery of contributors count the ways.
The first time I took Adderall I didn't think twice. It was 2007. I was in my last year at UCLA, where I had come down with a bad case of senioritis, and found myself cramming for finals. I bought it from a gangly kid with yellow skin and bags under his eyes who lived in the dorms. His hair was stringy. There were papers on the floor and piles of clothes on all the furniture in the room. Above his desk was a poster of John Belushi from "Animal House," chugging a bottle of Jack Daniels and wearing a sweatshirt that read COLLEGE.
I had gone to his room with a friend. He told us the pills were $5 each. We asked where he'd got it. "I've been taking this stuff since I was five," he said and took out an orange prescription bottle and gave us each two small, round blue pills. He smelled sour. "It makes me feel like a zombie. But that's only because I have ADD," he quickly added. He didn't want to scare away his customers.
I started taking Adderall and things changed fast. I focused in the library for hours without distraction. I cranked out a 15-page research paper in one night, without wanting to take a break. I could shut out the world. Any immediate distractions were rendered powerless. It was just me and the paper in front of me. No broken heart, best friend drama or money woes were big enough to penetrate the tunnel vision Adderall provided. Sure, the desire to smoke cigarettes was uncontrollable. It also suppressed my appetite, so I was forgetting to eat as well, but when I lost a few pounds in that first week, I felt it was a net gain. Plus everyone was trying it, like Pinkberry and Sufjan Stevens.
A week after I graduated with my fellow English majors, I packed up my life and headed to New York, where I thought I'd find mature, motivated, sophisticated peers and a pace and degree of structure absent in my artistic, hippie upbringing. I couldn't get there fast enough to start adulthood as the new me. With my sleepy beach town a speck in the rearview, I found a position at a law firm as a paralegal, which suited my talents for writing, editing, and researching, without having to follow in the footsteps of the rest of my artistic family. I fancied myself a serious person, someone on the verge of making a real difference. I was 23.
A few months into my new job, it was clear I was expected to work a minimum of 60 hours a week, with an immaculate eye for detail. After plowing through a three-month project sorting through thousands of documents in a windowless storage closet I began to realize the job wasn't on the noble path to social change I'd hoped to make. Nor was it the outlet for writing I thought it might be. It did, though, yield a large and consistent paycheck.
Soon billing extra hours became my primary focus, and I decided it was time to get my own prescription. Instead of realizing that the job was not for me, I was blinded by the professionalism I felt working in a Manhattan law firm. And I wasn't about to fail at what I considered to be the cornerstone of the New Me, a successful, independent woman.
My new Upper East Side doctor didn't seem to care that I'd self-diagnosed. I was given a prescription for 60 20 milligram pills at my behest for $250. After our first meeting, as I did with every meeting thereafter, I beelined to the closest pharmacy, avoiding eye contact with the pharmacist who saw me for what I was.
It did not take long for my daily late nights at the office to segue into a voracious need for letting loose off the clock. I quickly became unable to socialize without popping the medication that now provided just enough extra energy required to maintain my outgoing side. Even on nights when I planned to take it easy, the meds had no off switch, so I'd find myself leaving the office full of energy that I didn't know how to quell. The mix of whiskey rocks and a pocket of pills was a potent one. I was now getting high seven nights a week, every night a delicate balancing act.
I could have easily hidden my fiendish behavior, but it wasn't necessary - it was a kind gesture to give someone a pill when they were tired. In a city that actually never stops, what is better than being immune to falling behind? The only faux pas would be to lose control and capsize the boat.
I came close. When I finally admitted I was not cut out for law, I left the firm and the health insurance they provided. I landed a gig as an assistant editor at a high profile women's magazine, a job I rationalized was a neat segue into the arts without the financial pressure that would come from pursing writing outright. Uninsured, I chose to pay hundreds for a refill instead of buying groceries. I'd consume far more than my allocated dose, then spend sleepless nights tossing and turning, my mind racing and heart pounding, only to wake up and take another pill with a coffee to compensate. In my professional life, I met deadlines. In my personal life I was whimsical and up for anything, the person to call for a last minute show or night of debauchery. I never had to choose, I had energy for everything that was offered to me. I had fooled myself into thinking it was a sustainable balance, that the perks outweighed the pitfalls.
Romantically I became schizophrenic, smashing hearts on purpose or falling head over heels with a one-night stand, exhibiting neediness that disgusted me - yet I rationalized that becoming a self-loathing depressive could be filed neatly into my persona as a tortured New York artist, material for stories I would surely write someday. The problem was, it stopped being a persona, and became who I was as a person: uninspired, unproductive and miserable.
As my tolerance increased, I began to escalate my use. I would take pills if I yawned after I turned off my alarm. I brought the bottle with me everywhere I brought my Metrocard. The take-as-needed-to-manage-boat-loads-of-work basis soon morphed into need-to-get-through-the-day mood stabilizer. I smothered uncertainty with more whiskey and different friends and a new pair of jeans one size smaller. I was an emotional wreck, angry, disconnected and unglued. I could focus at work, but in my own life I was blocking out the fear of facing my unfulfilled aspirations head on. I ignored red flags that in college I had kept a stern eye on, having had a history of alcoholism in my family. But because my drugs came from a doctor's notepad in an office two blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt safe.
Eventually, I cared less about balancing alcohol and medication, and more about escaping my dim routine of dependency. My quest for a more polished self became so superficial that I lost track of my goals. It took an old friend to notice the changes. After a night out together where I far outpaced her, she turned to me and asked sincerely, "What's going on?"
I finally saw outside myself for the first time. I broke down in tears, and confessed I had been misusing my prescription. She looked at me with no sympathy: "Well, now you know that doesn't work for you." It was oddly empowering to look at it so simply. Unprovoked by anything other than my urge to irreversibly end this chapter of my life, I flushed the remaining medicine down the toilet.
I wish it had ended that easily. In the months that followed, I was exhausted all the time. I slept through appointments and was unable to stay up to meet deadlines. The drug had curbed my appetite, and helped me to drop from a size 8 to a 4. Without it now I was ravenous and neurotic about what I was eating and how I looked. I was sensitive and emotional from the new chemical imbalance, which gaining weight and falling behind at work exacerbated. It was hard to understand that I was experiencing withdrawal, because I was never warned of possible side effects.
Without the drug I felt stupid, unable to focus or follow a thought through to completion. I was shy, and unwilling to initiate conversation. The witty, articulate woman I once was seemed to no longer exist. I felt dumb, out of it. I spoke slowly because it took immense effort to gather and express coherent thoughts.
I didn't understand what I was going through, and that made it more difficult to stay healthy. It felt like another phase of the depression I had become so used to. But once I made it through the hardest part, weeks where my body was literally recalibrating itself to function without the stimulant, I felt like my old self again - relaxed, yet motivated to take care of my mind and body; interested in engaging with the world around me. The person I was so eager to shed in lieu of a new, accomplished, adult me, actually ended up being the one most capable of handling the tumult of living in the hectic life of a 20-something starting out in New York.
On my quest to become a mature, independent woman, I made a child's miscalculation - that there is a shortcut to maturity and success, and that the rate which we achieve these things is completely within our control. It felt good to finally understand that the very self I was trying to shed had became my salvation.