The Stigma Around Adderall Is Real…
…and I wish I hadn’t believed the lies for so long.
The first time I heard about stimulant abuse, I was in middle school. According to rumors, our vice principal had been caught stealing a kid’s Ritalin from the nurse’s office and, seemingly overnight, he became a pariah in our small community.
It wasn’t until college that it came up again. This time, it was a classmate bragging about how much money he was making selling Adderall to his fraternity brothers. “It’s a win-win,” he said. “They can pull an all-nighter before midterms or get a decent high, and I get serious cash.”
This, of course, meant that my initial introduction to stimulant medications was less than charming. Stealing pills from middle-schoolers was bad enough; dealing to fraternity brothers was equally criminal. So when my psychiatrist recommended that I consider Adderall to manage my attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), the Adderall stigma left me adamant about looking at other options first.
But despite my best efforts, I continued struggling to keep up with the demands of my job — beyond being unable to concentrate, I had to get up and pace every 10 minutes, and I kept missing important details, no matter how seriously I invested in my work.
Even the most basic things, like remembering where my apartment keys went or answering emails, left me frantic on a daily basis. Hours were wasted as I looked for things I’d misplaced, or wrote apologies to friends or colleagues because I’d somehow forgotten half the commitments I’d made the week before. My life felt like a jigsaw puzzle that I could never quite assemble.
The most frustrating thing by far was knowing that I was smart, capable, and passionate… but that none of those things — nor the apps I downloaded, the planners I purchased, the noise-cancelling headphones I bought, or the 15 timers I set up on my phone — seemed to make any difference in my ability to sit down and get things done.
I could manage my life, at least to a certain extent. But “managing” felt like living in the perpetual dark, with someone rearranging your furniture every morning. You endure lots of bumps and bruises, and feel downright ridiculous for stubbing your toe for the umpteenth time, despite exercising every caution you can summon.
Frankly, I started considering Adderall again because unmedicated ADHD is just exhausting. I was tired of tripping over my own feet, making mistakes at work that I couldn’t properly explain, and missing deadlines because I seemed to have no concept of how much time something would actually take.
If there was a pill that was somehow going to help me get my shit together, I was ready to try it. Even if it put me in the same category as that shady vice principal.
Well-meaning friends didn’t hesitate to issue warnings, though. I’d be “totally wired,” they told me, even uncomfortable with the level of alertness I might feel. Others cautioned against worsening anxiety, asking if I’d considered my “other options.” And many warned me about the possibility of becoming addicted.
“Stimulants are abused all the time,” they’d say. “Are you sure you can handle it?”
To be fair, I wasn’t entirely sure that I could handle it. While stimulants were never a temptation for me in the past — except coffee, that is — I had struggled with substance abuse before, particularly around alcohol. I didn’t know if someone with my history could safely take a medication like Adderall.
But as it turned out, I could. Working with my psychiatrist and my partner, we created a plan for how I would safely try the medication. We opted for a slower-release form of Adderall, which is more difficult to abuse. My partner was the designated “handler” of that medication, filling my weekly pill container and keeping a mindful eye on the quantity that remained each week.
And something amazing happened: I could finally function.
I started to excel at my job in ways I always knew I was capable of, but could never before attain. I became calmer, less reactive, and less impulsive (all of which, by the way, helped to maintain my sobriety). I could make better use of the organizational tools that, before, hardly seemed to make a difference. I could sit at my desk for a few hours without it ever occurring to me to pace around the room.
The tornado of restlessness, distractibility, and misdirected energy that seemed to swirl around me at all times had finally subsided. In its place, I wasn’t “wired,” anxious, or addicted — I was, simply put, a more grounded version of myself.
While I was overjoyed to finally be more effective at what I wanted to be doing in my life, I was admittedly a little bitter, too. Bitter because, for so long, I’d avoided this medication because I mistakenly believed it was dangerous or harmful, even to those who have the exact disorder it’s designed to target.
In reality, I learned, many people with ADHD are more likely to abuse substances and engage in dangerous behaviors when their ADHD isn’t being treated — in fact, half of untreated adults develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. Some of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD (including intense boredom, impulsivity, and reactivity) can make it more difficult to stay sober, so treating ADHD is often a critical part of sobriety.
Of course, no one had explained this to me before, and the image of my classmate selling Adderall to frats didn’t exactly give me the impression that it was a medication that encourages strong decision-making skills.
Despite the scare tactics, clinicians are in agreement here: Adderall is a medication for people who have ADHD. And if it’s taken as prescribed, it can be a safe and effective way to manage those symptoms, and to offer a quality of life that may not have been achieved otherwise.
It certainly did that for me. My only regret is that I didn’t give it a chance sooner.