This post was originally published on December 11, 2015.
I recently read a piece in Vice that discussed the connection between ADHD and addiction. Although this isn’t a new concept, the idea that an eight-year-old struggling to pay attention in class could be the sign of potential alcoholism and drug addiction is a sobering thought. The question is this: does having ADHD lead kids down the path of addiction or is it the medication used to treat ADHD—stimulants—what sets them up for substance abuse?
Chicken or Egg?
As a former second grader who battled Attention Deficit Disorder (now known exclusively as ADHD), this question piqued my interest (and for someone with attention problems, this isn’t easy to do). In my case, medication didn’t lead to addiction because, no matter how many bad report cards or diagnostic tests came back begging for a solution, my parents refused to treat me with drugs. As far as my hippie mother was concerned, there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be solved with the right regime of vitamins and a macrobiotic diet. And while that gave me a great foundation for healthful eating, it didn’t help with my struggles academically. And guess what? I still ended up becoming an alcoholic.
Adults with ADHD
The article also addresses a more recent discovery, which is the concept of adult ADHD. Apparently, until somewhat recently, ADHD was seen exclusively as a childhood issue—something that dissipated after puberty. However, a Massachusetts General Hospital study suggests that 15 to 25 percent of adult addicts and alcoholics still struggle with ADHD.
But then are these adults using alcohol and drugs to manage their ADHD or is their inability to pay attention related to their substance abuse? I suppose this could easily be answered by looking at how many had a childhood diagnosis—prior to the introduction of drugs and alcohol—that showed ADHD preceded the addiction and then how many took stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. But either way, the news piece says, people dealing with adult ADHD are looking at a risk “two to three times higher” for substance abuse than those who don’t have it.
Talk to Your Doctor
As an adult who still struggles with attention problems and is also a recovering alcoholic, I think it’s important for people to understand that the treatment for ADHD is generally a stimulant (although there are some non-stimulant alternatives). In other words, adults who have ADHD are often prescribed a controlled substance, which might be a conflict for some in recovery (say, someone who is trying to get off meth). Of course, with any medical issue, the way a person treats an illness or disorder is between that person and his or her doctor (and possibly sponsor).
The Take Away
While understanding that my struggles in school and lack of interest in my future as a kid might have been part of the reason I drank so much, it doesn’t really help me now. But perhaps this can help parents understand what is going on with their kids and the potential issues that could arise from it down the road if not addressed.
While life certainly hasn’t been awful for me, between struggling with addiction and still being in school well into my 30s, I think it’s fair to say it hasn’t been easy. Not that it is easy for anyone (I am only saying that because I feel like I am supposed to; I actually don’t agree) but I have to wonder if it could have been smoother had I been properly medicated earlier. Still, who really knows? The truth is, even with medication, life can still be a struggle. And if I ever question that, I can just look back and remember how long it took me to write this article.
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