Why I Stopped Taking My ADD Pills
Health

Why I Stopped Taking My ADD Pills

This is what it's like to get to know your brain post-medication.
June 1, 2016, 8:42pm

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Photo by Lauren Gucik

At age 12, I—the perpetual space cadet who constant​​ly ​loses my jacket and backpack—am told I have Attention Deficit Disorder, ADD. I'm ​sitting with my mother and sister, lounging on pillows, and my mother pulls outa book that has an unofficial diagnostic checklist. She's a psychologist, so it's not totally out of the ordinary. Do I go off on tangents easily? Am I more prone than ​the average kid to make careless mistakes? There is something pleasurable in ​the yes​​ses. I'm winning at this game, and the questionnaire seems to know me so ​​well. But then my mother tells me there are enough answers to diagnose me withADD, and my stomach tightens. The stakes, all of a sudden, seem high, although I ​​d​​on't understand them.

I've recently started at a new school, one that doesn't let ​me wander around during class if I need a break, one in which the teachers ​don't always let me doodle because it helps me listen. The classes are bigger. There's ​more homework. Although teachers say I am one of the brightest in my classes, I ​​h​​ave trouble keeping up.

A behavioral pediatrician diagnoses me officially, and ​prescribes me medication. It's 1994, and the prevalence of ADD diagnoses are about to increase in kids my age, reaching 15 percent in boys and 7 percent in girls by 2013. In New Jersey, where I am, about a third of those will be medicated.

Each of my Dexadrine pills is a capsule ​containing tiny peach and orange balls. I take one every morning. I wear a ​locket to school that I got to pick out, with paisley swirls in its metal, that ​holds my afternoon dose. Each day I swallow the second pill at the water ​fountain. My teachers fill out forms that rate my attention and focus. ADD, the ​​a​​dults tell me, is just like an illness; you have to take medicine to make ​yourself better.

The medicine helps me focus in class, on homework, on ​chores. It is easier to get through my homework and pay attention in class. AsI continue taking it, through middle school and then junior high, a question ​bubbles in the back of my mind: Where does the pill end and I begin? If my ​achievements are enabled by medication, are they truly mine?

The author at age 12

I continue taking the pills through high school, though I ​switch to small round white Ritalin, then blue oblong Adderall. I study ​psychology and sociology at a good college. I learn that mental "disorders" are ​socially constructed and historically specific. What is "crazy" in one culture or ​time may be normal or preferred in another. Diagnoses often include nebulous ​criterion like "clinically significant impairment," subject to interpretation.

I have long known that ADD people don't suffer from a lack of ​attention; when they're interested in something, they can hyper ​focus, focusing ​for longer periods and more intensely than other people. Medication for ADD ​begins to seem more like a quick fix that avoids the main problem: School is often ​rote and only works well for linear learners. It's more complicated and ​expensive to create compelling curriculum, or dispense with classroom learning ​completely, than to feed kids pills. The prevalence of diagnosed adults is 4.4 percent, ​which suggests that people age out of the disorder.It could also reflect that many adults learn how to structure their lives ​around their tendencies better and don't seek out treatment. I start to ​understand ADD as a personality type, not a disorder.

I start writing fiction. I take creative writing workshops and become devoted, obsessed. While churning out short stories, I notice that Adderall ​doesn't help me write, but interferes. I start skipping my medication when I'm ​writing.

In the fall of my final year ​of college, I do a research project on medication for ADD/ADHD. There ​are myriad studies about the positive effects of medication—at least partial​​​ly ​​a consequence of the extensive research funded by pharmaceutical companies—butI seek out the negative effects. Some research suggests that better behavior, as ​reported by parents and teachers, is associated with higher anxiety.Other research suggests that for non-creative people, stimulant medication can enhance creative thinking, but for creative people, it can impair it.

A larger understanding begins to click into place: Medication interferes with both my creativity and the identification of my true ​interests. It has allowed me to focus on anything, inherently reducing the pull ​of those topics I find truly compelling—like fiction writing, like art, the ​things on which I hyper ​focus.

During my research project, I stop taking the medication, to ​the chagrin of my parents. The next couple of years are rough. Without using ​medication as a crutch, I must repair broken skills: how to have a conversation ​with someone without interrupting him or her, how to sit still and focus on my work, ​how to remember my appointments and organize my things.

Like many other ADD people, I learn by trying things out. Over ​​the next decade, I try on careers: teacher, organic farmer, sustainability ​consultant, landscape architect, graphic designer, salmon fisher. None stick, ​but at least I am eliminating possibilities.

My story, and my decision to stop medication, is shaped by privilege.If I don't make rent, I can stay with friends and family. I don't have ​dependents. I've graduated from college. I'm smart and have connections. My ​friends are all weirdos and accepting of my quirks. If any of these things ​weren't true, life without medication might feel like too much of a risk.

​​Being ADD and unmedicated carries tangible perils. People ​with ADD are more likely to struggle with addiction, drop out of school, have ​few friends, and become pregnant as teenagers. If I had not been medicated for the first ten years of my life, would I have suffered these fates? What choices ​remain for those stuck in a broken educational system, in a culture that favors ​linear thinking over creative?

I fall into journalism accidentally, starting a project with ​a friend, interviewing female street artists. It grows into a book. Focus on ​the project comes easily, because I'm obsessed with the task. I dedicate my ​life to nonfiction writing, and doors open around me. I wonder ​how many people have been medicated out of this journey, have popped a pill ​that allowed them to clock in at an unsatisfying office job to pay the bills. I ​have never met a dull person with ADD, one without passion. If they cannot ​focus on their work, I believe either they haven't found their calling, or it's ​​d​​ifficult or impossible to center their life around it. I do not believe thatADD is an illness or disorder, but that its "symptoms" are the real drawbacks of having one type of unconventional mind.

I'm a freelance writer and editor now, with odd jobs thrown ​in to pay the bills. I don't have trouble focusing on writing, though I still lose ​track of my notebooks and drift during conversations with others. I lose water ​bottles at a rapid clip and have trouble sitting through an entire movie.Though I try to adapt to the world, these traits and tendencies are a ​fundamental part of me, not something I'd like to erase anymore than I would ​the freckles on my shoulders or my angular nose. None of this adds up to a ​normal job or life, and I'm not sure I'll ever have one. And in a few years, I ​may decide to change my focus. But now the pieces of me that sometimes seem ​like liabilities—hyper ​focusing on what I find interesting, my intense curiosity ​and obsessiveness, my stubbornness—have become assets. I may struggle to ​structure my life, but I have complete clarity about what I want to do with it.

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