Trying to Survive ADD Without Adderall

Trying to Survive ADD Without Adderall

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This post was originally published on January 19, 2015.

With nearly every kid diagnosed with ADD, many people think the disorder is bullshit. It doesn’t exist, they say. It’s an excuse to make millions off meds. Kids are just kids—inherently hyperactive, restless, distractible, and bored in fourth grade math because studying common denominators and long division is, quite frankly, the most boring thing in the world.

But in the fourth grade I had serious problems.

My teacher would tell me that my desk was a disaster and I had no idea what she was talking about. Wasn’t the purpose of those big spaces beneath our desks to shove papers, pens and pencils inside haphazardly? Who wants to organize that? What’s the point of organizing anyhow? While I felt slightly ashamed, I was more confused than anything. My desk seemed just fine.

Messes have never registered. I do not see them—they are invisible.

At 36, I’ve got the same problem only it’s gotten worse. Important dates and deadlines float around on pieces of paper that get buried beneath the clothes thrown on the floor. Mailings from the IRS and Covered California are crinkled up behind my bed, probably covered in dust mites, and when I search desperately to find them, they are nowhere to be found. So I miss the deadline to enroll in Covered California, I miss my installment due to the IRS. I don’t have medical insurance for a year and the IRS wipes out my bank account.

It gets worse.

Just this past year, I missed a fix-it ticket deadline by one day. I’d written it down in my calendar, but somehow the deadline skipped my mind. This had serious consequences. Guilty of a “failure to appear,” my fine shot up from $10 to $400, so I went online to schedule an arraignment. Unfortunately, I forgot to write that date down—another failure to appear—and the fine shot up to $800. All because I spaced out. Someone, please, just give me some Adderall to snort.

I’d been on Adderall (em, speed) before I got sober. It revolutionized my life. At the time, I was an administrative and executive assistant for a brilliant art history professor at USC who couldn’t keep her head together, and it was my job to remember things, to write down dates and deadlines, to schedule important lunches with bigwigs from the Getty, LACMA and the Ahmanson Foundation.

“Your desk is a mess,” she would say to me. “Organize it.”

The truth is I didn’t even know how to organize. The idea of organizing threw me into a panic attack—it was too overwhelming. Where do you start? How do you file things? Why do you file things? Should I color code things? Where do I get the colors? How long is this going to take? I don’t want to miss my cigarette break!

But organizing my desk was the least of my problems, because I screwed up appointments in Dr. Salo’s calendar. She arrived 30 minutes early, or late, to an important lunch meeting. The digits of the phone number for the director of the Latin American Museum of Art got transposed. (562) 445-7685 turned into (562) 454-7658. Oops. If I ordered lunch for the whole department, the associate director got a beef burger instead of a turkey burger, and the assistant professor got curly fries instead of shoestrings.

I’m not sure why I ended up in these administrative positions with this inability to organize myself, but it just happened. After graduating college, I couldn’t make a living as a writer. I had to find something to pay the bills.

I guess they assumed that if I could organize myself to get through undergrad I’d be smart enough to order lunch for the office. Deconstructing Heidegger was no problem, analyzing Dostoyevsky was no problem, but ordering a beef burger instead of a turkey burger? Now that went over my head.

Despite already popping meds for bipolar disorder (they may not have been of much use, since I chased them with booze), my psychiatrist said I should take Adderall to help with my inability to manage the details in my life. After taking the first pill, I immediately got relief.

Suddenly, I could pay attention in the boring staff meetings. I was alert, I wrote things down, I gutted my desk and spent hours reorganizing it. I checked and rechecked appointments and triple checked addresses for letters. I checked and rechecked the lunch orders and triple checked phone numbers in case I transposed them. My boss was floored.

“I don’t know what’s happened to you, but I like it,” she said. And, just three months after my shrink signed that prescription, I got a raise—the first raise I’d ever gotten in my entire life.

To the doubters who think ADD is a phony diagnosis, that meds dope you up and don’t work, I can say from experience that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Adderall, when taken as prescribed, worked. Unfortunately, like any good addict, I built up a tolerance and started taking more than prescribed. No, I never snorted it, but I would double-up on doses and take an extra pill at 4 pm, even though I was instructed to cut myself off by noon lest it effect my sleep. As I continued to take more and more, I skyrocketed into mania. Drinking on the stuff made things even worse.

By the time I ended up in the ICU at Cedars Sinai Hospital after overdosing on a cocktail of 500 pills and booze, the psychiatrist said I never ever should have been on Adderall with a bipolar diagnosis in the first place. She yanked me off the stuff, and, seven years later, I haven’t popped one single pill.

So, the ADD is back, and it’s a constant painful struggle. I go into literal blackouts, often trying to pay for things twice because I can’t remember that I already swiped my card. I’ve locked myself out of the house and car more times than I can count, left the burner firing on the range for six hours or more, and it takes me an hour to empty the dishwasher because my mind gets pulled this way and that in the process.

I have to write that email. I have to brush my teeth. I have to finish that article. I have to check the mail.

It’s unfortunate that, given my history as an alcoholic and addict and my bipolar diagnosis, I can’t get back on the Adderall. Honestly, I wish I could. At this point, the best I can do is force myself to write a list each day of all the stuff I have to do, and my roommate holds me accountable for the often catastrophic state of my room.

Thankfully, I no longer organize offices and other people’s lives for a living. Now I write, and writing comes so easy—it’s a snap for me to meet deadlines. Thankfully, I can earn a living without trying to shove my square self into a round hole.

But the pile of disheveled papers, pens and pencils is still shoved inside my desk.

Photo courtesy of Ryanaxp at en.Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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2 Comments

  1. ADHD is a real condition, but it has been over diagnosed, and that is where one of the problems lie. Allen Frances, the psychiatrist who was the chair for the 4th edition of the DSM, has been openly critical of diagnostic inflation with ADHD, bipolar disorder and autism. He’s said they (psychiatry) “missed the boat.”

    In his book, “Saving Normal,” he said that when they loosened the diagnostic criteria for ADHD in the early 1990s with the DSM-IV, they projected a 15% increase in diagnosis. “We couldn’t foresee the abrupt switch in this reality that occurred in 1997, when drug companies brought new and expensive medicine for ADD to market and were simultaneously set free to advertise them directly to the parents and teachers.” As a result the rate of ADHD tripled.

    At another point he said that “DSM-5 has set the stage for creating a new epidemic of ADHD in adults.” He said it will misdiagnose individuals whose problem in concentrating is really caused by something else. He then listed a series of MH issues including substance abuse, bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. “No one should ever get diagnosed or treated for ADHD until all of these are first ruled out as the primary cause—lest inappropriate stimulant treatment may worsen their already existing psychiatric disorders.”

    Another issue is that studies of individuals using ADHD medication have shown that the positive effects from their use fade over time. James Swanson, who is supportive of the use of ADHD medications, led the study and said: “There are no long-term, lasting benefits to taking A.D.H.D. medications.” See the article by Daniel Goleman: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/exercising-the-mind-to-treat-attention-deficits/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=2

    I’ve also reviewed the literature on ADHD and written a paper on these concerns, available for free on my website. The paper’s title is: “ADHD: an Imbalance of Fire over Water or a Case of the Fidgets?”

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Tracy Chabala

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 Masters in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.