Most affairs don’t begin with a person saying “I’m going to have an affair” for the sake of having an affair. That’s just not how it works. Mine began a year and a half ago. The situation practically begged for it – it was that attractive and tempting. And yes it felt wrong. But it also felt good. Really good. Like the kind of heavy release you have after being under water for an extended period of time, coming up for that first gasp of air. It was such a facile conquest.
It feels trite to attribute it to work circumstances – I could timorously say that had I not been in the position I was in, I wouldn’t have started the affair. But I can’t say that. I chose to be in that environment, driven by something shiny, tempting, and new. The affair was a coping mechanism – a blinder – to avoid dealing with what was really going on. But isnt’ that how all our vices take life? As a distraction from reality. Even as I commenced writing this not-so-easy admission, the craving returned.
Adderall is a stimulant drug used to enhance cognitive performance and “treat” Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). If you’ve ever sat next to me in a meeting, you’ve noticed my leg thumping at an accelerated speed, like an industrial-style sewing machine hard at work. Ostensibly I meet all the criteria for ADHD. I say ostensibly because I’m not convinced not liking to sit and participate in an activity that offers little benefit or stimulation (aka boredom) qualifies as a disorder. In the first grade my mom had to demand my new school test my IQ when a teacher wanted to place me in a “problem student” group – she said I wouldn’t be a problem if I wasn’t so bored. She was right.
The catalyst for my affair was a new job role – with new responsibilities – including sitting through three and a half hour long meetings. I felt like a lioness trapped in a six-by-six foot cage. The worst part was it didn’t have to be a long meeting – it was the result of ineffective and inefficient processes, tools and management (which eventually were addressed). I did a little research on ADHD and the drugs to treat it, then made an appointment with my doctor. He asked me some questions and prescribed it. And it worked. I was able to perform tasks with an element of physical detachment that I had never experienced before.
Cognition performance meds like Adderall and Ritalin have become the drug de jour of such illustrious groups such as Hollywood celebutantes and Ivy Leaguers. Lindsay Lohan was recently outed in Us magazine for using it to lose weight and it is widely accepted as the norm at college campuses to give students the boost they desire at finals time. 95% of these drugs are sold in the United States, with the biggest geographic consumer being the Northeast. There was even an episode in Desperate Housewives where one of the moms tapped into her child’s Ritalin stash to become Supermom.
So if everyone is doing it, what’s the big deal? It has become as common as athletes using steroids – who doesn’t do it? Roughly seven percent of all college students, and up to 20 percent of scientists, have already used Ritalin or Adderall to improve their mental performance (Wired). And several prominent ethicists and neuroscientists for Nature recently published a paper entitled, “Towards a responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.” So why would I end my affair with Adderall?
Because as with all “quick fixes” in life, there is always a catch. There’s always a cost. Sometimes it takes longer to discover all the costs. The first and most apparent one I noticed was the impact on my heart. I started experiencing chest pains and irregular heart beats, just every now and then, but enough to impact my ability to workout and be active. As an athlete and someone who has maintained a lifelong commitment to physical well-being, this was disturbing. If I know one thing it’s this: when it comes to matters of the heart, you don’t mess around.
And then there’s the bigger cost, one I didn’t fully realize until after returning from SXSW. It was my first time at the “Springbreak for Geeks” conference. I attended along with two great friends and colleagues (Andrea Baker and Steve Mandzik) and we had a blast (Steve’s write-up best explains why). After returning, Steve and I were standing in the middle of a bar (RFD) and he asked me how I felt now that we had returned from Southby. I paused for a moment and said, “I didn’t take my Adderall. I didn’t need it.” He asked me a few questions – why I started taking it, how it makes me feel – then let out this maniacal laugh – the quintessential Steve laugh, like the jokes on you and he’s thoroughly enjoying it. And finally he said it – You’re trying to fit into a world that doesn’t cater to people like us.
I started to tear up because I knew he was right. The fact is, I wasn’t taking Adderall to lose weight (FYI: I know people who are on Adderall who are not skinny) and I wasn’t on it to give me more energy (for someone like me, it tempered what I consider my natural buoyancy). Maybe it helped me slug through the more menial tasks at work but I don’t think it helped me perform better. (Side comment: if college students need to use it to get through finals, a process that does nothing to promote actual learning, maybe it’s time we actually address education in this country).
I’ve been Adderall-free for 3 weeks now. When I first went off, I felt…like me, which can probably be most easily conveyed by The Tigger Song. I’ve been able to “manage” my Sengrrr-ness by doing “radical” things like moving to a different desk so I can concentrate without constant interruptions and distractions, taking walks throughout the day, working hours that take advantage of my most productive period in the day (which is not the morning), reading work material on the elliptical and treadmill at the gym (which is where I do some of my best thinking), bringing a balance ball chair into work to encourage proper posture at my desk, bringing job-related reading material to meetings so I can utilize the time during the attention-not-critical segments, having clear and defined objectives for any meeting I attend and organize and sticking to them, and working by myself in a conference room when I need space to be creative and think big. Do any of these activities seem radical?
I wrote this post without Adderall. I’m concerned that people are being sold a bill of goods with cognition performance drugs, mainly because I don’t believe I thought any better on Adderall nor performed better. I wasn’t more creative or innovative and quite frankly, I have more energy and passion when I’m off of it. It did keep me up at night and for me, sleep and rest is key to mental and physical performance. Maybe some people like being an automaton. Maybe there are people who want a country of automatons. Maybe being able to do menial tasks for longer periods of time is a competitive advantage and I say if you want this competitive advantage, go for it, by all means, because my advantage will be that I’m not on it. I can’t say I won’t fall off the wagon and take Adderall again. But I can say I refuse to live a life where I need a drug to feel less like me in order to get through the day and I when I do feel the urge to take it, I’ll pay attention to the cause and deal with that instead of addressing the symptoms.