Five years off Adderall and Dexedrine and I’m still in withdrawal.
Months of yoga, years of therapy, meditating each morning—everything helps, but nothing helps completely. Every time I sit down to do work I have pain in my chest. I feel like I’ve somehow made a wrong turn in life. I miss the amphetamine salts. Drugs made me less productive and less healthy, but at least I felt better in my decline than I do in my current state.
My new life started in 10th grade at a desk in my science class in my public school on the Upper West Side of New York City. I remember the exact moment the Ritalin kicked in. I became more focused, not on the teacher, but on the wood leg of the granite lab table that I sat at. I noticed the grain, the imperfections, the dark circles where students had left gum that’d then been removed by janitors.
The teacher, a loud woman who barely knew science and preferred gossiping about the pregnant teenagers of my school to teaching biology, droned on in the background. I ignored her, as did everyone else—the usual. But the wood leg—it was so clear, and everything around it faded. It was as if I was looking through the lens of a camera with the aperture set to a pinpoint.
The rowdy kids around me talked under their breath, some passed notes, some furiously doodled, but I just stared at the wood leg. I used to raise my hand at least five times per class whether I knew the answer to questions or not, simply because I was bored. Not today. I heard the teacher calling the class to attention, and I snapped my head up. I’d been staring at the leg for 20 minutes, my attention unabated by anything else.
This was my new life. Ritalin, and later Adderall, and finally Dexedrine, allowed me to focus on anything but what I should’ve focused on. It was perfect.
Once a month I’d see a psychiatrist in the West Village for no more than 10 minutes. She’d ask me how I was, I’d say, “fine” and she’d give me whatever amount of speed I said I needed.
My five years on drugs weren’t my best academically. Amphetamines never really helped me study. I’d sit at my computer in my room and look at MySpace, or clothes, or porn. I could stay still for eight hours at a time, just staring at a computer screen. My grades went down.
But the drugs were great friends.
I never got picked on for being gay, but I was immensely uncomfortable with myself. Were it not for the amphetamines, I’m convinced I would’ve experienced the self-hatred I was bound to feel growing up queer. I didn’t want to go through the normal motions of growing up gay. Instead, I just felt high. And the great thing about being prescribed drugs as opposed to ingesting illegal ones is that you can always say your problems are your chosen disorder’s fault, not the fault of something deeper, masked by the 100 milligrams of amphetamines you take every day.
With Dexedrine, I could ignore my strict parents, ignore the fact that half my friends had decided to stop being friends with me once I came out as gay, ignore the fact that I’d eventually have to tell my parents all of this and get a real life with a boyfriend and a career. Dexedrine allowed me to zone out like no other drug did, not because it was better than cocaine, which I’d been addicted to at the age of 14, before being on prescription drugs, but because unlike cocaine, it was legally sanctioned and morally sanctified—my teachers, many of my peers, and society at large approved of my addiction. I’d gone through the medical establishment to get drugs, so I had a stamp of approval, a legal document that gave me permission to get high, mentally drop out of my life, and get a pat on the back in the process. That’s the perversity of prescription drugs. Dexedrine was a sign of my progress, not a sign of my demise.
Of course, beyond the buzz was something dangerous. Pain lurked right underneath the surface of my supposed OK-ness. As each pill started to wear off, I’d feel an immense, crushing sadness. It was part normal amphetamine withdrawal, and part realization that I hated my life.
When I entered college, things got worse. Without the worrying eyes of parents, my psychologist, or my restrictive high school, I was free to ignore my demons. I partied a lot. I smoked a lot of weed. I took too many pills. I’d pull all-nighters that involved all play, and no work. I failed three classes my first semester. I drank to fall asleep. I popped my pills when I woke up.
There was no dramatic ending to my prescription drug binge. I just had a nagging feeling that my life wasn’t real. I was living a speed-fueled dream. It wasn’t the horrible side effects of not sleeping, shutting off emotionally from my friends and relatives, and developing compulsive tendencies that got me to quit. It was just a feeling that, if I was going to be a real person, I needed to deal with my issues, and not just mediate them through medication. So during the last week of my freshman year, I took my last two Dexedrine out of the bottle on my college-apportioned dresser, swallowed them with yellow Gatorade, and didn’t go back to the school doctor. No one called me to ask why. It just ended.
It’s been five years, and I’m still not sure what happened between my last day of Dexedrine and now. What I’ve pieced together through therapy, and interviewing friends and experts for this piece, is that everything I was supposed to be working through during my years on drugs came rushing in at once. I started hearing voices. I thought I was having a psychotic break. I’d shake from nervousness. I had panic attacks. I had no clue how others perceived me, but I knew people were worried.
Slowly, things got better, and I found ways to manage all the new emotions I was feeling.
They still aren’t perfect, but they are good. Thank god I could afford six months of therapy by selling my car when I moved back to New York City from college. Thank god I can afford a gym membership and yoga classes. Thank god I have a supportive family, including two parents that are psychologists. I’m lucky, and I’m not sure where I’d be if I wasn’t. I’d probably be back on drugs.
I don’t feel resentment over the years I was on speed because I know I’m in good company. I take solace in the fact that I’m not just a lost boy with a crisis in personal responsibility. I’m a statistic in America’s drug problem.
There was a 17 percent increase in ADHD prescriptions between 2010 and 2011. Now, one in five high school boys are diagnosed with ADHD. In 2011, 57 million prescriptions were filled for anti-psychotics, a scary class of psycho-pharmaceuticals that have been called “chemical lobotomies”, but which are increasingly used to treat depression (even though there’s very little evidence they work to treat depression). Over the last two decades, antidepressant use has spiked by 400 percent. One in five American women are currently on an antidepressant.
Of course, we’re not all that sick, and people are starting to sound the alarm that we’re over-diagnosed and over-treated for mental illness. But I’m not sure there’s much to do about it. Yes, prescription drug companies are largely to blame for shoveling drugs in our faces. Yes, psychiatry is an extremely corrupted practice. But the problem is a deeper cultural one: America is the land of the quick fix.
For my years on Dexedrine, I mostly blame me. I was searching for an easy path to an ideal of normalcy and happiness that I could never achieve without deep thought and personal struggle. Drugs gave me the illusion of happiness, and provided everyone else with the illusion everything was okay.
I have this friend Flora who I’ve known since high school, and who lives on the Upper West Side in her parents’ tiny two-bedroom apartment.
She’d moved to Spain, after feeling dissatisfied with her life in New York, and taught English to elementary school students for almost two years. One day, she got a call from her aunt, who told her that her dad had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease slowly degrades a person’s motor neurons, until they can’t walk, can’t speak, and eventually can’t breathe. No one knew how long he would live, so she needed to be home.
She got a job as a hostess at an upscale restaurant. She lived in her parents’ living room while her dad slowly started to lose muscle function, and eventually most of his voice.
A few months into her new living situation, Flora started feeling depressed and anxious and angry with her dad for making her life miserable.
“As he continued to get sicker, I felt like I couldn’t do anything,” she told me. “I felt trapped…I figured if I just get some drugs, I’d focus, apply for jobs, get out of my parents’ house, and be happier.”
Flora knew her move back to New York was the cause of her unhappiness, but she still thought drugs were the answer.
“I kind of wanted to numb myself and not feel anything,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can just get a prescription for Adderall and everything will be ok.’”
Flora went to a psychiatrist and told her about her family’s situation. She said she didn’t want to be where she was. She felt trapped.
The psychiatrist didn’t ask any questions about Flora’s situation. She gave Flora an ADHD questionnaire, and prescribed Flora Vyvanse, a close cousin of Adderall. She also prescribed her Klonopin to help her sleep at night.
Flora told me the three months she took Vyvanse were the strangest of her life. She completely withdrew—she was cold to her friends, and would snap when people talked about things she didn’t want to talk about—but she convinced herself she was getting better, and being more productive.
“But being productive was me refolding my clothes 10 times in one day,” she said. “You don’t think about the larger things at all [when you’re on Vyvanse] because you can’t get past any of the small things.”
Vyvanse helped Flora refocus her life. On Vyvanse, she was content with living in her parents’ apartment, and content to work a dead-end job, and ignore everything else.
But beneath the medication, and the incessant smoking, obsessive behavior, and social withdrawal it caused, was deep dissatisfaction.
Flora’s situation isn’t unique. Psychiatry is increasingly focused on diagnosing real-world problems as brain disorders.
The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes out in a few months. It’s the standard text for psychiatry on which all diagnoses of mental disorders are based. In addition to adding several new “disorders," the authors of the new DSM have removed the bereavement exclusion for a depression diagnosis. If someone is grieving for a loved one, they can be diagnosed with clinical depression, and placed on drugs.
“There’s real distress, but to turn distress into a mental disorder is just misnaming,” Eric Maisel, a psychologist and author of several books on psychiatry told me. “Folks don’t want to say my job sucks, my relationship sucks…It’s a letting go of personal responsibility. [They think] it’s not the hardness of their life making them sad, it’s a disorder.”
In other words, we’re diagnosing life.
I have to come clean: The reason I’m writing this essay is to convince one person I know to get off prescription drugs. I’m too chicken to talk to my best friend, whom I’ve known since birth, about his problem. I’m too chicken to say I’m fucking angry with him. I can’t tell him I need him in my life; that I’m scared to see him; that he reminds me too much of me three years ago. It’s much easier to hide behind this essay and hope he makes it past the first 2,000 words. Hello Jamie! Please read below.
Jamie is currently attempting to taper off the 90 milligrams of Adderall he’s been taking daily since college. Maybe reading back what he told me for this essay will be the final straw that gets him to stay off the pills for good.
I met up with him on a park bench on the east side of Manhattan a couple of weeks ago to interview him for this piece. He’d attempted to go the day without Adderall, and so he fell asleep in the mid-afternoon and showed up two hours late to our interview. Jamie’s lateness is par for the course—if it’s not a sleep issue that’s holding him back one day, it’s the fact that the Adderall has made him compulsive. It takes him hours to get ready.
When Jamie finally showed up he told me he had to take an Adderall after all.
“I have an empty, dead feeling if I don’t take it,” he said. “I just feel like there’s something missing.”
I’m pretty culpable for Jamie’s current state. We took a lot of drugs together. In high school, I’d give him Dexedrine free of charge. One night, right after I’d gotten my first car, I was too drunk to drive home so we just popped Dexedrine, smoked cigarettes, and chatted. Those were some good times, and they’re probably partially to blame for Jamie getting hooked.
College was the first time Jamie and I were away from each other since elementary school. I went to some hippie school in Massachusetts no one has ever heard of, and he went to the University of Colorado Boulder. Jamie was never a good student, and he struggled at Colorado too. He also struggled with leaving a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend behind, and making new friends. So he began buying Adderall from hallmates.
After dropping out once and returning a year later, Jamie went to a school psychologist, who referred him to a psychiatrist, who prescribed Jamie Vyvanse, and later Adderall and Paxil. That was the first time Jamie has unrestricted access to the drugs.
“I could take it whenever I wanted to without feeling embarrassed to ask,” Jamie told me. “It was all downhill from there.”
That was five years ago, and Jamie has taken Adderall almost every day since. He’s lost weight, and gained a nasty habit of chain-smoking and drinking to fall asleep. It’s hard to be around him because I can tell he’s upset. I can tell he knows he shouldn’t be on the drugs.
If Jamie was blowing lines, as I was in high school before switching to legally sanctioned drugs, I’d smack him upside the head and tell his parents to lock him in the house or send him to rehab. If he was carrying around a bottle of whiskey, my friends and I would’ve already sat him down and told him to stop.
But instead, he sees a psychiatrist who, at their last session, “just opened the door to the office a crack, handed me the prescription and I just handed him the check.”
He’s on the drugs because like all drug addicts, he’s afraid of life off of them. But, as is the case with most people taking prescription drugs, he takes them because they’re supposed to be good for him.
He takes them because if he didn’t take them, he’d have to choose a direction in life. Just like my meds allowed me to focus on everything except being gay, and Flora’s allowed her to focus on anything except her father and her job, Jamie’s are allowing him to focus on everything—getting ready, making the perfect sentence, smoking cigarettes—everything, except, well, life
“I do think I have a learning disability. I think there’s something else going on, [but Adderall] makes me focus on small things that I don’t need to be focused on,” he said. “I’m not able to think about any sort of bigger picture things.”
This is the place I was at when I got off the drugs—the negatives are starting to outweigh the positives. His heart is starting to beat irregularly because of the speed and the cigarettes. His girlfriend is pissed at him. I’m concerned enough about him to do this interview and write this essay.
It was the first really nice day of the year when I interviewed Jamie in the park. After we were done, we walked around a little bit and talked about his plan to try and get off Adderall. He’s not sure he’s going to refill his prescription, but said “it’s hell” when he’s off the drugs.
I told him about my experience. The best advice I could give him was that it’s going to suck, but you just have to deal with it. I know that’s shitty advice, but it’s true. I told him yoga, therapy, whatever, all those things help. But life is shit, wall-to-wall. I haven’t taken Adderall in five years. I don’t feel better; I don’t feel worse. I feel more accomplished, and think my life is totally different than it would’ve been if I stayed on drugs, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. That doesn’t mean I don’t crave Adderall every time I think back to my time on it.
I sometimes wonder what life would’ve been like if I just hadn’t started taking drugs. I ask Jamie if he regrets his decisions. He told me he does, for the same reason I do: he doesn’t know what life would be like if he never took the drugs.
“I don’t remember the past five years of my life,” he said. “There’s been no forward movement … This is not where I intended to be when I was 24 years old.”