[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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