It was January of my freshman year of college. I was sitting in my psychiatrist’s office, somehow fighting my fascination with the Einstein bobblehead sitting on his desk and focusing on him.
“At least 80 percent of the improvement I see in my patients comes from medication,” he said. “Seeing as you don’t have much trouble sitting through your classes, behavioral therapy wouldn’t be very helpful for you right now. Just take the pills.”
I walked out with three prescriptions for amphetamines, without knowing any of its potential side effects.
Thirty minutes later, I was standing outside CVS, washing down 40 milligrams of Vyvanse — an ADHD treatment — with chocolate milk. I was eager to do something — anything — to get my life together.
I had spent my first semester at Penn feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and unable to concentrate on anything. I would open a book, read a few sentences and fall asleep. Right before winter break, I made an appointment for a comprehensive ADHD screening.
After three hours of paperwork, surveys, IQ tests and shuffling colored blocks around a table, I was informed that I had “definitely” suffered from undiagnosed ADHD throughout my entire life.
But when the Vyvanse kicked in, I didn’t care how long I had been suffering or what I had been suffering from. I was happy, energetic and felt totally in control — at least for a few hours.
Later that day, after downing the pills, I stared in puzzlement at a Chick-fil-A spicy chicken sandwich, completely lacking the desire to eat it. I sat down to watch a movie with my family and felt disturbingly distant, like I was in a room full of strangers. When I went to bed, my pounding heart kept me up until 5:30 in the morning.
I woke up shaking and thirsty. I was three pounds lighter and felt stiff in my shoulders and back. I was hesitant to take more Vyvanse, but I heard the words of my psychiatrist echoing through my sleep-deprived mind: “Just take the pills.” So I took the pills.
I took the pills in some form for two years, switching later to Adderall, which provoked less insomnia. My grades improved, my mood leveled and my room stayed pretty clean. Everything seemed fine, until I became addicted to the drugs that were supposed to solve all my problems.
I knew the Adderall was making me compulsively enthralled in whatever I happened to be doing when it kicked in. Plenty of 12-hour “Bejeweled” marathons made it glaringly obvious that — more often than not — study drugs made me dumber.
Still, I started needing two amphetamine hits to get through the day without lapsing into a horrible mood. My psychiatrist was (oddly) more than willing to prescribe the extra pills.
During sophomore year, I checked myself into the hospital multiple times for dehydration, palpitations, vomiting and hallucinations — all while taking a “therapeutic” dose of medication. Even when I switched doctors to get a second opinion, my dosage never decreased — I was just given another amphetamine variant. My grades slipped back down.
After months of feeling like a dried-up coke head, I finally decided to cut back and manage my own life. I focused on eating healthier food and taking longer walks and better-quality vitamins. I’ve never felt happier or been a better student.
Still, it’s worrisome that the campus dialogue about “study drugs” — and other psychoactive drugs — focuses on academic fairness, the efficacy of these drugs in enhancing performance and the ease of access to these drugs without a prescription.
It’s concerning — but unfortunately not surprising — that Penn students are more concerned about how Adderall will affect the class curves rather than how prescription-grade cocaine is dispensed by health care professionals like candy.
I’m sharing my story this finals season in the hopes that attaching a name and face to these issues makes them real to you. I want to start these missing conversations and add a human side to them.
To those of you who are considering taking Adderall for the first time next week, drink lots of water and delete all the games on your phone.
To those of you who’ve been taking Adderall for years, take care of yourselves.
And to those of you who think all of us pill-poppers have been cheating the system, think again. Sometimes, the system cheats us.
Lauren Agresti is a College senior from Fulton, Md. Her email address is email@example.com. Follow her @lagresti. “Piece of Mind” appears every Thursday.
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