As I transition toward getting my masters in Social Work, I decided it was important to share my experience with using psychiatric drugs to deal with my diagnosis. My journey wasn’t long from the time I was diagnosed to the time I ended up in a 12-step program, but an immense amount happened in that time. Hindsight is 20/20, so I wanted to look back closely on what happened to me a few years ago to offer some insight to others in the field or with similar diagnoses.
I was falsely diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 19, and I want to examine what happened to cause this. There were a number of causes, and after being diagnosed and prescribed Adderall, there were a number of detrimental effects. This story is about the causes that led to the most adverse diagnosis of my life.
ADHD, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, is a common term these days. It is used in commercials, casual jokes, schools and in mental health settings on a daily basis. Hearing this term in popular culture has almost normalized it. Frequently being around those diagnosed with ADHD, hearing about celebrities that were diagnosed, and participating in jokes using the acronym all served to desensitize me to the diagnosis. This socially acceptable view of ADHD led me to eventually decide that it would be okay to be diagnosed.
Every year in elementary school, I had to participate in the concentration tests and questions, and I always hoped that I would qualify to be diagnosed. At home, I suggested to my parents that I might have ADHD. I would then hear, “Everyone has ADHD to some degree, you are not being put on medication!” From this reaction of my parents, I rebelled from the idea that I didn’t need medication. I felt that the students who were prescribed this “concentration medicine” had an advantage, a certain solution that wasn’t available to me.
My best friend in middle school and high school was diagnosed with ADHD. Her mother happened to be a psychiatrist, so she had the “hook up,” I thought. She was also diagnosed with a few other labels, and given the appropriate prescriptions. It became a normal conversation at lunch that she couldn’t eat because of her medicine. This news excited me at the time because she would give me her food. I had conversations about Adderall with my friend a few times, and one time in particular stood out to me. She said, “I can’t do anything without these pills! They help me get out of bed.” At the time, I didn’t quite understand why she needed these “concentration pills” to get out of bed. I was puzzled because I thought she needed them for school, not to gain the energy to get out of bed.
It also became desirable, at some point, that those given stimulant prescriptions would lose a substantial amount of weight. I knew a few friends who bought these stimulants specifically in order to lose weight. They quickly became the popular new lazy-girl miracle weight loss drug! In my naive mind, I thought this drug could solve all my problems.
I tried Adderall for the first time while taking my SAT. I had seen a few popular films and shows that included these pills working miracles for unprepared students. A friend that was prescribed heard me talking about how I had not been studying, so she offered a few of her Adderall pills to solve my problem. I was appreciative and accepted them without any thought of the consequences. During the SAT, I was ultra-excited to take the test. I remember that on breaks I would tell my peers about how enthused I was to go back in there and continue taking the test. They all looked at me like I was on drugs (which I was).
In high school, I didn’t excel in my classes because my priorities were out of whack. In college, my priorities shifted completely and I finally understood the value of school. My freshman year in college consisted of classes, studying and partying. I made Dean’s list, but still felt I didn’t quite have enough time for my extracurricular activities. I had taken Adderall one or two times my freshman year.
While I excelled in college without any prescription to Adderall, I convinced myself that I needed it. I talked my mom into letting me see a Presbyterian counselor, so that I could determine if I really had ADHD. Researching exactly what I needed to say in order to be diagnosed, I came in prepared. There was no talk therapy involved, just a quick list of questions, and then the result: “You have ADD, not the hyperactive type. It is still listed under the ADHD umbrella. Let’s get you started on a non-stimulant prescription.”
This simple, one-time visit to an unfamiliar counselor resulted in my diagnosis of ADHD. That same visit started my avalanche of drug abuse. I was 19 years old when I was falsely diagnosed with ADHD, and it forever changed my life.
After being diagnosed, I was immediately prescribed the non-stimulant Strattera. Knowing the feeling Adderall gave me earlier in my life, I was determined to be prescribed that drug. Roughly in about the second week of taking Strattera, on the day that the dose went from around 15mg to 40mg, I totaled my car. Stopped at a red light, I felt that my mind was in a daze but also ultra-focused at the same time. All I remember is looking down but seeing the light change out of my peripherals and pressing the gas. The person in front of me had a delay in going and I totaled my car smashing into the back of them. After realizing what I had just done, I about had a panic attack I was crying so hard – and I am not the type to cry.
This horrendous and almost instantaneous ‘car crash’ would be a precursor of times to come due to the psychiatric drugs I was prescribed. Resentful at what Strattera had caused in my life and now more driven than ever, I used what happened to guilt the psychiatrist into letting me try the stimulant drug Adderall. It took almost no effort at all, and I think at this point with my official diagnosis of ADHD, I really felt that I needed the drug to succeed in life. I was able to talk with my peers about which symptoms to tell the psychiatrist in order for her to up my doses. In my opinion it was far too easy to walk in at 19 and not only be diagnosed with ADHD for the first time but also to, within weeks, land a month’s supply of Adderall 25mg XR.
Someone at my age and weight should have never been given that many, or that high of a dosage. My body didn’t know how to handle it. I lost 20-30 pounds, and trust me I was small enough already. With the huge supply that I now possessed, and the demands of the college students around me, I started to sell them. Taking one 25mg XR a day was more than enough to make me feel wired. I felt so hyped up that I would open them up and only take half if I didn’t feel like shaking that day.
My psychiatrist only wanted to meet every month for the first few months to make sure they were “working” properly. She decided to drug test me once to make sure I was taking them as prescribed. Since I was taking the extreme amount she had given me, along with other drugs, the test came back acceptable and nothing was said.
As the days went on, I realized I couldn’t get out of bed without popping this pill. It became my best friend, a source of income and my new energy source. About six to eight months went by and I started getting a heaping amount of anxiety and depression. I also could barely sleep. To combat the side effects that my “miracle drug” was causing, I started smoking a lot of marijuana. I would also take the occasional prescription Xanax or painkiller from a friend. These would help ease the increasing side effects that Adderall had on my body and mind.
Slowly, I started to notice changes in my personality. I started to use people for the drugs they could provide to combat the side effects of the drug that I thought I needed; after all, a doctor had diagnosed me! Adderall made me irritable and snappy. In social situations that I used to be relaxed in, I started analyzing every move I made and every word I said.
It got so bad that I would have to set my alarm 30 minutes earlier to pop the Adderall then lay in bed until it kicked in. If I ran out of it, and god forbid I had to wait through the weekend, I barely lifted a finger. I had moments of clarity where I thought maybe if I took away my upper (Adderall), I wouldn’t need all these downers (alcohol, drugs). This was quickly swept under the rug by my mindset that I needed it to do well in school, forgetting I had done well my freshman year without it. I was prescribed in the summer of my freshman year in college – the situation slowly got worse until I hit a bottom so low that it forced me to get sober at the end of my junior year in college.
Getting sober involved me completely ripping the band-aid off. I didn’t speak to my psychiatrist about it because I didn’t speak with her about anything. I had headaches on and off afterward. It was difficult transitioning back to relying on myself for everyday activities.
My experience with Adderall starts and ends in a matter of just a few years, but it took such grasp of my life. The psychiatrist didn’t warn me of dangers and didn’t really check up on how it was affecting me. I was essentially diagnosed, prescribed a drug, and then left alone with it until it nearly destroyed me. I would urge others to exercise caution and circumspection in trusting mental health diagnosis and taking psychiatric drugs as a way to truly improve or heal yourself.
Since getting off the drugs I have gotten my emotions back. I don’t always feel good, but at least I have feelings now. I don’t have to worry about setting two alarms to take a pill to get me up in the morning. Not having to rely on a pill for daily functioning is impeccable. I can actually eat food now and enjoy it – what a revelation! I have gained 10 healthy pounds and am now at 125 and happier than ever about my body image. When I was on Adderall and everything else I used to balance myself out, my spirituality was nonexistent – or, towards the end, completely convoluted. I can now feel good about my decisions and lean on my higher power/higher self rather than make psychiatric drugs my higher power.
I wasn’t living life while covering all my problems with prescription and nonprescription drugs, and now I have a chance to make real choices that I can feel in my gut are right for me. I can listen to my body’s needs rather than forcing my body to listen to my ego desires. I have become a stronger person, learning how to deal with my emotions again rather than forcing them to not exist. Meditation has been of extreme help with my “concentration problems” – I don’t see them affecting my life in the least now. I can do anything I want to do now that I don’t have what I thought was my crutch holding me back.
[Editor’s note: the author has chosen to publish under an abbreviated version of her name while in the process of applying to grad school.]
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.