[Paleopsych] Slate: The Adderall Me: My romance with ADHD meds.

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Thu May 12 19:13:55 UTC 2005

The Adderall Me: My romance with ADHD meds.

By Joshua Foer
Updated Tuesday, May 10, 2005, at 4:26 AM PT

Depressives have Prozac, worrywarts have Valium, gym rats have steroids, and 
overachievers have Adderall. Usually prescribed to treat Attention Deficit 
Hyperactivity Disorder (read Sydney Spiesel in Slate on the risks and 
benefits), the drug is a cocktail of amphetamines that increases alertness, 
concentration, and mental-processing speed and decreases fatigue. It's often 
called a cognitive steroid because it can make people better at whatever it is 
they're doing. When scientists administered amphetamines to Stanford's varsity 
swim team, lap times improved by 4 percent. According to one recent study, as 
many as one in five college students have taken Adderall or its chemical cousin 
Ritalin as study buddies.

The drug also has a distinguished literary pedigree. During his most productive 
two decades, W.H. Auden began every morning with a fix of Benzedrine, an 
over-the-counter amphetamine similar to Adderall that was used to treat nasal 
congestion. James Agee, Graham Greene, and Philip K. Dick all took the drug to 
increase their output. Before the FDA made Benzedrine prescription-only in 
1959, Jack Kerouac got hopped up on it and wrote On the Road in a three-week 
"kick-writing" session. "Amphetamines gave me a quickness of thought and 
writing that was at least three times my normal rhythm," another devotee, John 
Paul Sartre, once remarked.

If stimulants worked for those writers, why not for me? Who wouldn't want to 
think faster, be less distracted, write more pages? I asked half a dozen 
psychiatrists about the safety of using nonprescribed Adderall for 
performance-enhanced journalism. Most of them told me the same thing: 
Theoretically, if used responsibly at a low dosage by someone who isn't 
schizophrenic, doesn't have high blood pressure, isn't on other medications, 
and doesn't have some other medical condition, the occasional use of Adderall 
is probably harmless. Doctors have been prescribing the drug for long enough to 
know that, unlike steroids, it has no long-term health consequences. Provided 
Adderall isn't snorted, injected, or taken in excessive amounts, it's not 
highly addictive-though without doctor oversight, it's hard to know whether 
you're in the minority of people for whom the drug may be dangerous.

As an experiment, I decided to take Adderall for a week. The results were 
miraculous. On a recent Tuesday, after whipping my brother in two out of three 
games of pingpong-a triumph that has occurred exactly once before in the 
history of our rivalry-I proceeded to best my previous high score by almost 10 
percent in the online anagrams game that has been my recent procrastination 
tool of choice. Then I sat down and read 175 pages of Stephen Jay Gould's 
impenetrably dense book The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. It was like I'd 
been bitten by a radioactive spider.

The first hour or so of being on Adderall is mildly euphoric. The feeling wears 
off quickly, giving way to a calming sensation, like a nicotine buzz, that 
lasts for several hours. When I tried writing on the drug, it was like I had a 
choir of angels sitting on my shoulders. I became almost mechanical in my 
ability to pump out sentences. The part of my brain that makes me curious about 
whether I have new e-mails in my inbox apparently shut down. Normally, I can 
only stare at my computer screen for about 20 minutes at a time. On Adderall, I 
was able to work in hourlong chunks. I didn't feel like I was becoming smarter 
or even like I was thinking more clearly. I just felt more directed, less 
distracted by rogue thoughts, less day-dreamy. I felt like I was clearing away 
underbrush that had been obscuring my true capabilities.

At the same time, I felt less like myself. Though I could put more words to the 
page per hour on Adderall, I had a nagging suspicion that I was thinking with 
blinders on. This is a concern I've heard from other users of the drug. One 
writer friend who takes Adderall to read for long uninterrupted stretches told 
me that he uses it only rarely because he thinks it stifles his creativity. A 
musician told me he finds it harder to make mental leaps on the drug. "It's 
something I've heard consistently," says Eric Heiligenstein, clinical director 
of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin. "These medications allow you to 
be more structured and more rigid. That's the opposite of the impulsivity of 
creativity." On the other hand, lots of talented people like Auden and Kerouac 
have taken amphetamines precisely because they find them inspiring. Kerouac and 
the Beats ingested the drug in such heroic quantities that it didn't just make 
them more focused, it completely transformed their writing. According to 
legend, On the Road was drafted in a 120-foot-long single-spaced paragraph that 
burbled down a single continuous scroll of paper.

Adderall is supposed to be effective for four to six hours. (An 
extended-release version of the drug, which as Spiesel explains was recently 
banned in Canada, lasts 12 hours.) But I found the effects gradually wore off 
after about three. About six hours after taking the drug, I would feel slightly 
groggy, the way I sometimes get in the early afternoon when my morning coffee 
wears off. But when I'd lie down for an afternoon nap, I couldn't go to sleep. 
My mind was still buzzing. This withdrawal effect is common. Adderall users 
often complain that they feel tired, "stupid," or depressed the day after. 
After running on overdrive, your body has to crash.

For me, the comedown was mild, a small price to pay for an immensely productive 
day. But there are larger costs, and risks, to Adderall. Though the Air Force 
furnishes amphetamine "go pills" to its combat pilots in Iraq and Afghanistan, 
possessing Adderall (or a fighter jet) without a prescription is a felony in 
many states. And the drug has been known, in rare cases, to make people 
obsessive compulsive, and even occasionally to cause psychosis. Several years 
ago, a North Dakota man blamed Adderall for making him murder his infant 
daughter and won an acquittal.

There's also the risk that Adderall can work too well. The mathematician Paul 
Erdös, who famously opined that "a mathematician is a device for turning coffee 
into theorems," began taking Benzedrine in his late 50s and credited the drug 
with extending his productivity long past the expiration date of his 
colleagues. But he eventually became psychologically dependent. In 1979, a 
friend offered Erdös $500 if he could kick his Benzedrine habit for just a 
month. Erdös met the challenge, but his productivity plummeted so drastically 
that he decided to go back on the drug. After a 1987 Atlantic Monthly profile 
discussed his love affair with psychostimulants, the mathematician wrote the 
author a rueful note. "You shouldn't have mentioned the stuff about 
Benzedrine," he said. "It's not that you got it wrong. It's just that I don't 
want kids who are thinking about going into mathematics to think that they have 
to take drugs to succeed."

Erdös had good reason to worry. Kerouac's excessive use of Benzedrine 
eventually landed him in a hospital with thrombophlebitis. Auden went through a 
withdrawal in the late 1950s that tragically curtailed his output. That's some 
trouble I don't need. Perhaps I could get a regular supply of Adderall by 
persuading a psychiatrist that I have ADHD-it's supposed to be one of the 
easiest disorders to fake. But I don't think I will. Although I did save one 
pill to write this article.

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