When I first started taking Adderall, it wasn’t prescribed to me — it was my boyfriend’s. It was 2006, and I had a fun but creatively unfulfilling job at a men’s magazine. On the weekends, I was determined to grow a freelance career that, god willing, would allow me to quit. Freelance writing, especially when you’re starting out, involves a lot of pitching, in particular pitching editors who don’t know you. It’s a lot of coming up with ideas, proposing those ideas, and waiting, hoping and praying, that someone, anyone bites and is willing to pay you a decent sum to write it. To be a successful freelancer writer, you have to be extremely motivated and focused.
I had the motivation. But focus was out of my grasp. I felt stuck literally and mentally. And being stuck make me anxious.
“Try some of my Adderall,” my boyfriend said.
“Are you sure? Is it going to make me crazy?” He had been taking it for awhile and it didn’t make him seem weird, but then again, he needed it. He had ADD. Did I? I had never thought about it before.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, breaking one of his tablets into a 5mg dose. I swallowed it down, then headed into another room to work, fingers crossed my heart wouldn’t explode. I don’t have a clear memory of an immediate change in my ability to concentrate that day, a definable A-HA! moment, but must have noticed something, as I started taking small doses of his Adderall every weekend when I would sit down to churn out freelance pitches. I gradually increased the dosage to a level that seemed comfortable — where I could simply focus, rather than feeling speedy or wound up — and luckily my boyfriend was more than happy to share. His doctor overprescribed to him so he always had tons of extra pills.
“I think Adderall makes me smarter!” I joked. That’s not quite the truth. All the ideas I suddenly had and my ability to articulate them well had always been inside my brain, but Adderall cleared the way so I had access to them, without having to go through an extensive obstacle course first. As a result, I was more productive and creative and that productivity and creativity propelled my already existing motivation to even great heights. When I was laid off from my job, instead of being upset that I wasn’t leaving on my terms, I was psyched to have the time to pursue freelance writing full-time. For 10 months, I did just that, making more money than I had before; then the opportunity to start The Frisky dropped into my lap. I got the job on the strength of my vision, a vision I don’t know that I would have been able to articulate as well without Adderall. I do know that I would not have had the confidence and mental stamina to realize that vision without it. Adderall made it so I could take control of distractions and manage them all at once; my super power became Multi-Tasking.
An additional benefit was that I was less anxious. Anxiety and low levels of depression were things I had been dealing with for awhile, via regular talk therapy and a low dose of Lexapro prescribed by my general practitioner. But my anxiety lessened even more as I started taking Adderall. What I didn’t know at the time — because I wasn’t yet diagnosed with ADD by a psychiatrist — was that anxiety is often linked to ADD or ADHD. Shortly before I began taking Adderall, I had a panic attack inside a Crate & Barrel because I could not focus on making a decision about a lamp to buy. I spent two hours in front of a lamp display, paralyzed by indecision, the pressure to make one burning at my brain, until I eventually collapsed into tears. I went home without a lamp and felt like a failure. I have not had an episode like that since.
While taking Adderall to concentrate was clearly working for me, I felt guilty about taking something that wasn’t prescribed to me. Even though it was helping and I wasn’t dealing with any negative side effects, taking a drug that wasn’t “for” me made me feel ashamed, like I was an addict with a dirty secret. It took me months to tell my therapist — I think I was afraid she would judge me and accuse me of having a problem with drugs, not ADD. With drug addiction and alcoholism running rampant in my family, I felt terrified of becoming one myself. Luckily, my therapist listened to me and suggested I see a psychiatrist who could better assess whether Adderall was the best medication for me or if there was something else that would be a better fit for the symptoms I was describing.
Shortly thereafter, seeing a psychiatrist on my own became a necessity. My boyfriend (who, by then, was my fiance) broke up with me and with him went my Adderall hookup. I was in a tailspin emotionally and I threw myself into work to distract from the heartbreak. The psychiatrist I saw asked me tons of questions about my history in school, my test-taking abilities, my issues with anxiety and depression, my success at work, my experiences with OCD behaviors, etc. I was honest about having taken Adderall for a year without a prescription. He asked about the effects I had experienced as a result. Eventually, he diagnosed me with Adult ADD and I’ve had my own prescription for Adderall IR (Instant Release, as opposed to Extended Release) ever since. During the week, I usually take my exact recommended dose; some days I take less. I generally don’t take it on the weekend if I’m just bumming around or hanging out with friends, though if I’m finding it hard to concentrate on one “leisure” activity — watching a movie or reading a book, for example — I’ll take a small amount, so I’m not distracted by the voices in my head telling me to do the dishes or check my email or fix the crooked frame hanging on the wall.
Adderall, like any drug, is also easily abused. It has side effects that are tempting to people who don’t have ADD. It suppresses your appetite and speeds up your metabolism. I would guess that I weigh 5-7 lbs. less than I would without Adderall because I am not tempted to snack or overeat (occasionally, I even have to remind myself to eat lunch because hunger doesn’t always register); Adderall also makes you crap. I used to be a once a day shitter. Now it’s more like three times a day. Over at xoJane, writer/editor Cat Marnell has been quite open about taking Adderall to lose weight, despite the fact that it actually makes her depressed and unreliable. See, if you don’t need Adderall — or take more than is prescribed — it can actually make you less focused and more anxious. It can make you feel crazy. (Never mind the fact that it’s hardly healthy to take it as a weight loss drug.) It can absolutely be dangerous.
Take it too late in the day and I have a bitch of a time getting to sleep at night. I once gave a friend 5 mg because she needed to paint an entire room in her house and she thought it would help her get it done quicker. She ended up staying awake for a full 24 hours, that was how powerfully the drug affected her non-ADD brain.
I know that should I get pregnant, my days of taking Adderall will be over, at least for a few years. I admit, I am a bit scared of what that will do to my productivity and my ability to think clearly and creatively. Will I become stuck again? And, yeah, it also scares me a little that I am fearful that such a thing is possible — that my strengths are tied to something that comes in a bottle. I wish that wasn’t the case, that I didn’t need the help. But I’m also grateful it’s out there and that by being committed to managing my mental health and general well-being with the aid of professionals, I will be okay.