Breaking Free from My Life as an Adderall Addict
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Breaking Free from My Life as an Adderall Addict

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This post was originally published on March 11, 2015.

At 27 I was perpetually distracted—at work, while writing, while taking a shower, while blowing my hair dry, and yes while driving. Sure I was drinking loads at the time, but the truth is I’d been like that since I was four and I am still like this today, despite my five-and-a-half years of sobriety.

The final catastrophe that prompted me to cajole my shrink into forking over an Adderall prescription was an impounded car, along with a pileup of $1,500 worth of parking tickets.

I still haven’t decided what’s worse—an impounded car or the boot. True, the impounded car costs more, you have to pay out $100 for each day that the car sits in the lot, on top of the towing fee, and all these costs typically add up to another grand. But the boot is so embarrassing. First of all, it’s fluorescent yellow, so everyone in the neighborhood can spot you creeping up to your car as you realize that yes, you are a jackass who is either too stupid or too poor or too absentminded to pay your parking tickets on time.

While I had plenty of car registrations that cost between $700 and $1,000, this was the first time my car ended up in an LAPD impound lot, so it was sort of a wake-up call. It’s not that I didn’t want to pay the tickets—I was just terrible with dates, deadlines and I wasn’t sure where any of them were. They were crinkled or torn, probably between my car seats or beneath my bed. I also suffered from the delusion that if I pretended they didn’t exist, then they really didn’t exist. Magical thinking, I know.

My high-strung redheaded Romanian shrink threw an ADD questionnaire at me so we could figure out my attention patterns, or lack thereof.

Yes, I misplaced things. Yes, I had a hard time focusing on mundane and boring tasks at work, like filing and organizing. Yes, I had impulse control problems. Yes, I could be looking straight into your eyes, my ears technically processing whatever sounds were coming out of your mouth, but I wasn’t listening to anything you were saying.

I guess I passed or failed the test, depending on your perspective, and Dr. Vasile gave me a dose of extended release Adderall to take in the morning, but only on workdays, along with some instant release to take around 4 pm if I needed it. She added that I was not to drink any alcohol at all on it, and I wholeheartedly acquiesced, convinced that I’d be able to knock of the stuff easily.

After taking that first dose of Adderall I had an experience very similar to the first time I took an antidepressant—the heavy weight that slowed my consciousness and rendered my vision fuzzy lifted, and I could think and see clearly for the first time in years.

All the bills, papers and Post-its scattered in disarray on my desk started bugging me—why were they thrown together like that haphazardly? I had to put them in their proper place. It dawned on me that I could buy a tiered wire file holder and place all my mail, my tax forms and my parking tickets (and past-due notices) in folders for future reference.

And then a strange thing happened with my energy. On one hand, I felt more calm, less agitated and far more patient. At the same time, my heart palpitated so rapidly that, coupled with my pack-a-day cigarette habit and a pot of coffee per day habit, I genuinely feared cardiac arrest. I remember sitting at my computer at work, having popped the last instant release pill, feeling my heart go berserk, and I could not get any air to fill my lungs. I tried to inhale, and they just couldn’t suck in enough oxygen. Finally, after 10 minutes, my lungs and heart would relax and I’d would be able to take a normal breath.

But the best and worst part about Adderall was the monomania. If you aren’t familiar with that word, it means hyperfocused on one task, which is, curiously, another symptom of ADD. True ADD folks can’t focus on many things, but if it’s a task or subject that they find endlessly exciting they can zero in on it and tune everything else out, including a potential bombing (even gunshots down by USC failed to snap me out of my productive trance).

I’m a wonderful dilettante, interested in everything, dabbling in anything, and getting proficient at very little, although I have stuck with writing and belly dancing for many years now. But I’ve taken classes and spent time obsessing on everything from oil paint to photography to embroidery to drawing to ballet to tap dancing to drama to cooking to screenwriting to a handful of sports to piano lessons.

But I digress.

With an innate ability/disability to hyper focus without being drugged up on Adderall, the amphetamine only exacerbated the problem. I’d sit on the wraparound porch of the Victorian house downtown where I lived with a bunch of other grad students, and draw for hours on Saturdays and Sundays after popping my prized little XR pill. I’m not talking one or two hours, I’m talking all day long—six to eight hours at a time. At at that point, I was actually taking the pills as prescribed, except that she told me to only take them Mondays through Fridays and here I had to take them on the weekends.

I fixated on those drawings like they were half-dead bodies needing immediate mouth-to-mouth to stay alive. I could not look up from my work and I physically could not move, to the point where it became psychologically painful. I would think “Okay, Tracy. You’ve now sat on this porch rendering this still life of your ashtray and that potted plant for four hours; maybe you can call it a day.” But no. I’d light up another cigarette, pour enough cup of coffee and draw for another three hours.

I would not pick up my phoneI couldn’t talk to anyone. By the time dusk rolled around, I’d start to crash, entering a very real depression. Once I saw that coming I started taking the instant release to kick that depression to the curb, but when I did that I couldn’t sleep for even an hour during the night.

I also couldn’t eat. Within just a few weeks I lost at least 15 pounds, and gradually even more. Of course I thought I looked like hot shit at the time, but now, looking back, I’m actually quite embarrassed. Not having an ass or thighs isn’t exactly flattering.

So I was unhealthily skinny, hyperfocused, and able to finish a multitude of projects, including a 370-page novel. I also led the student reading series in my graduate program in creative writing and planned a bunch of fancy events for the museum at USC where I worked full-time. Plus, I completed a series of bizarre oil paintings with embroidery for this gallery show, obsessing over those until 3 am before I had to go to work.

This, this was my life on Adderall.

My bills were paid, my room was clean and everything had its place, something that had always eluded me. But I grew more agitated, my insomnia worsened and resulted in paranoia and I grew thinner and thinner and increasingly detached from reality. My tolerance got higher and higher for the drug, so I had to take more and more. By the time I started trying to cut back, or knock it out entirely on the weekends, I found I couldn’t. I couldn’t function, my brain would float aimlessly in a perpetual fog, and I’d sink into depression. I had to keep taking it.

Until I got sober. Finally, after a new shrink told me I should never have taken the stuff, I swore it off, along with alcohol and other drugs, and have since gained back at least 20 pounds and with it a measure of my inattention. But it’s better than the constant insomnia and hyperfocusing that enslaved me to a patio all day on the weekends.

I’ll take a bigger ass, some meatier thighs and a nice chunky of sanity over the ability to perseverate on a potted plant for five hours.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.