Medicated Motivation: Downsides of the Cultural Push Towards ADHD Pills

BY SAM COPELAND, NEWS EDITOR | February 3, 2017

When I was a teenager I got tricked into taking an IQ test. I had told my parents that I thought IQ scores were bullshit and that even if they weren’t I just didn’t want to know. Unbeknownst to me, a teacher at back-to-school night had told my parents that she thought I could use some medication and they were hankering for a medical justification. This was because I was getting mediocre grades in biology.

So the next thing I know I’m headed to a test that I think is a Myers–Briggs/do-you-have-autism kind of general personality exam, which I thought was pretty interesting. At no point during the bizarre tasks the doctor had me perform was I alerted to the fact that it was an IQ test. That came at the end, when my parents walked in and we went over the results. The doctor pulled out a one-dimensional graph plotted with my scores for the various kinds of intelligence.

Most of the little Xs were over on the right side, but one of them was way down at the left: processing speed. The doctor told us that because my processing speed was several standard deviations lower than my other kinds of intelligence, I had ADHD. I was confused that it was a relative thing, so I asked what it would mean if all of my scores were down with processing speed. The doctor replied that then I would be mentally retarded, but I wouldn’t have ADHD.

A website called “understood.org” defines processing speed as “the pace at which you take in information.” I tried researching a little more to find out what that really means, but I quickly got bored and gave up. The situation seems to be that I’m pretty good with information once I have it, but I have to wait to get it from a stuttering simpleton inside my skull.

Whatever the case, I had contracted ADHD, and every authority figure in my life was hell-bent on medicating it. My parents, my teachers, my pediatrician and the whole psychiatric community had reached consensus, so I caved and started taking Concerta. When that messed up my heartbeat too much I switched to Adderall, which messed up my heartbeat a bit less.

I was on extended-release adderall, meaning that I was speeding on amphetamines from dawn to dusk every day of the week. My grades improved a little. I also lost over fifty pounds in under a year and could see my heart beating through my shirt. A few times, at the suggestion of my pediatrician, my dosage was increased. This may seem crazy to you, but remember that I was getting mediocre grades in biology.

I took a gap-year after high school, during which I stopped taking Adderall. This ended over two years of being on the stuff almost every moment of every day. I had assumed that the effects were subliminal, but then one day, after a few months, I took Adderall again. I was horrified to discover that it made me high. Not like weed, shrooms, or alcohol, but it had an acute and conscious psychoactive effect on me. My pediatrician had started me on very small doses and then gradually raised them so that, like a frog in a saucepan, I never noticed a sudden change.

This meant that everything I’d done in the second half of high school, from playing in my band, to arguing with my parents, to falling in love for the first time, I’d done high. That more or less marked the end of my relationship with ADHD medication. In the years following I used them maybe three or four times, and I now don’t use them at all.

I am by no means alone in this experience. In 2014, Express Scripts found that between four and five percent of Americans from the ages of 19 to 25 utilized ADHD medication. The study only accounted for privately insured individuals who had prescriptions. This and many other studies have also shown that the numbers are going up – fast. There is a widespread disregard for the health risks associated with prescribed stimulants, which include heart problems, growth suppression and abuse. Nobody thinks it’s a smart idea to use crystal meth every day, but when it comes to its branded analogues–or in the case of Desoxyn, precisely the same chemical–we’re only too enthused. But there’s another problem that is in some ways much deeper: dependency.

A significant swath of American college students are convinced that they need stimulants in order to succeed. This includes people who haven’t sought out a medical justification. The claim of dependency appears pretty unfounded in the face of a brief consideration of history. If we accept the idea that ADHD is a natural phenomenon, then there have been thousands of generations of people with ADHD who somehow made it through life without stimulants.

There are two big arguments against this reasoning: the world is much more distracting today due to technology, and one needs these stimulants in order to compete in an environment where their use is widespread.

The first argument is commonly made: “The world is too distracting now, what with social media, online pornography and video games.” You may have heard the line about how we receive more information in a single day than a person a hundred years ago received in a lifetime. That truism seems to be based on a rather vague and arbitrary notion of what “information” is. The more general claim that life is more distracting than it used to be just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Ask yourself which sounds more distracting: the existence of YouTube or a lack of reliable drinking water, the portability of sound recordings or the absence of antibiotics, the ability to find anything you want online or the need to go into a physical library and dig through shelves of unknown books in order to find that article you need for your research project. Just consider how much more time consuming correcting a typo would be without computers. If that doesn’t qualify as distracting then I don’t know what does. The truth is that it has never been easier to get work done, as evidenced by the obscene productivity of our society. Physical technologies have accounted for that; the utilization of psychoactive technologies strikes me as superfluous.

Then there’s the argument that the proliferation of ADHD medication has made their usage more requisite in order to compete academically. Let’s assume that the presence of ADHD medication stacks the grade game somewhat. In that case using, and thereby tacitly sanctioning the general usage of, ADHD medication clearly exacerbates this problem for everyone in the long term. In other words, it continuously reproduces and intensifies the environment in which the usage of ADHD medication is necessary for success. Furthermore, we all know people who excel academically without using them at all. In my own experience, I am much happier with my academic performance now than when I was taking adderall. Even with my meds, I pretty much coasted through high school without putting in more than the minimal amount of effort. Now, at Bard, I put in the work and I get the results and it has nothing to do with medication. It has everything to do with something much more precious and elusive: passion.

I love my major. I love it to the point that it’s somewhat annoying to those around me, which, by the way, I think is a good indicator for whether you’re passionate about something or not. It’s my passion that allows me to spend Thursday nights in the library, take extra classes, and do extra readings. I’m extremely lucky to have found something like this in my life, but I would never have known that I’d found it if I were still taking Adderall.

ADHD drugs make everything interesting. They level out your interests, making it difficult to tell what you’re actually passionate about. It’s the same with other drugs: if there are certain people that you only hang out with when you’re drunk then you’ll never know if you actually like them. If you can’t excel on your biology exams without resorting to meth analogues it’s probably because you’re not really passionate about biology. This is important because the whole point of a liberal arts education is gaining exposure to every topic so that you can figure out which ones interest you. Relying on study drugs inhibits your ability to undergo this crucial process.

And here’s the other thing, the Scarecrow’s realization turns out to hold true. These drugs take half an hour to an hour and half to kick in, depending on dosage and metabolism, but people get started on their big assignments immediately after swallowing them. I find this is especially the case with those who don’t regularly take ADHD medication. They believe that they need the drugs to do the work but then coast into it on the placebo effect. And we all know that starting is the hardest part. Also, remember when I said, “let’s assume that the presence of ADHD medication stacks the grade game somewhat?” That assumption proves to be false.

Studies published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the National Bureau of Economic Research have found no evidence that the usage of ADHD medication improves academic performance in the long term. So let that sink in. An ever-increasing number of us, especially children, regularly take drugs for no good reason that lead to heart problems, growth suppression and abuse. This is a scandal. It would be better if we treated inattention with leeches.

I realize that I’m opening myself up to criticisms of ableism, but I hope you’ll see that I’m attempting the opposite of ableism. We live in a country where over ten percent of children are told that their personality is a disorder that needs to be treated. I think this is bad.

It’s bad because some of the brightest people I know have been diagnosed with ADHD.  It’s bad because if we believe that a group of people can’t properly function in our society, then our society should change, not the neurochemical makeup of those people. What I want to say is this: even if your parents, your teachers, your doctor and the whole psychiatric community have told you that you need these drugs to succeed, I don’t. I believe in you, not just the medicated you.

Photo by Maeve Lazor/ Bard Watch. 

To respond to this article, or to submit an op-ed, contact bardwatchmanaging@gmail.com

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