Culturally, we subscribe to some pretty specific ideas about “hard work” and what it’s supposed to look like. We accept it should be long and grueling. You’ll need plenty of grit. Forging greatness should feel a little masochistic, look a little strung-out, a touch anemic. We seed these values early so they blossom in college, where the all-nighter is a rite of passage — an American ritual no less hallowed than turning 18 or getting a driver’s license. So culturally, it’s not hard to see why professionals and students alike increasingly turn to prescription stimulants for an edge, or how I found myself locked into a rather heavy Adderall regimen throughout a large chunk of 2014.
To ADHD, or not to ADHD
For most of my life, I’ve had what I’d call a healthy obsession with performance and productivity. My first word was “metrics.” I would work hard, and analyze the results, learning to avoid the same mistakes twice. But toward my late 20s, it started to feel like nothing was enough, that no matter how much time and energy I invested in work, I was falling behind.
I started to wonder if there was an underlying issue. I’ve always been creative and a little fidgety and sometimes wondered if I had ADHD. Several friends who’d been diagnosed all swore by their Adderall, saying it gave them superhuman energy and focus.
I wanted to feel superhuman too, so I asked them for one.
Feeling really epic
A 20-milligram instant-release dose of Adderall comes in a pink, chalky pill. It’s double scored in case you only feel like having a quarter, but unless you have nimble fingers, it’ll disintegrate if you try to split it more than twice. The first time was like a revelation. I could work for hours on end and never lose concentration. Best of all, the work itself felt like it was the most fascinating thing in the universe. An email to Rackspace tech support was utterly enthralling.
Before long, I had my own prescription and everything seemed to be going great. The Adderall turned my love for metrics into an obsession, and since I was working more than 12 hours a day, there was no shortage of metrics to track. The prescription said to “take as needed,” so when I thought I needed to get more work done, I’d just take another pill.
More than anything, I wanted desperately to move forward and to grow as an entrepreneur and a person. I’d always worked hard, but on Adderall, it felt like I could do no wrong, that I was working with vision and focus. And it felt really epic.
I spent several weeks that year backpacking through Europe, so some of the drug’s side effects weren’t obvious at first. I wasn’t as self-conscious on Adderall and generally worried less about other people. But I could also be curt. I was becoming an asshole.
Worse, I was having trouble collecting my thoughts and getting a clear point across. I was hard to follow in conversations. People said I sounded scattered. But by now I was addicted — less to the feeling of boundless energy than the reassuring sense of certainty. Adderall got rid of my fear of failure, so I was afraid to get rid of Adderall.
Needless to say when my prescription ran out during the trip, it sucked for a while. There’s definitely a sort of withdrawal when you stop taking Adderall — its generic name, after all, is “Amphetamine Salts.” For the first few days, you feel like a zombie.
I started looking through some of the work I’d been doing and realized that very few things were epic. I’d mostly written a lot of emails and looked at lots of metrics. My passion for systems and measurement was one of my biggest strengths, but I became so obsessed with analysis that I couldn’t act.
I switched to Vyvanse after getting back from Europe in March, which is like Adderall with an extended release. But the results were more or less the same: I would bulldoze through work and information, only to arrive nowhere. By August, it had become clear that my newfound superpowers were less a hero’s cape and more like the blinders on a racehorse. After nine months, it was time to call it quits.
I’m not medicated these days, opting instead for a regimen of exercise and meditation, which works better overall. Some of my friends still swear by Adderall and I’ll admit I’m tempted sometimes, but then I just think about those nine months and all the goals I failed to accomplish, and it’s easy to go for a run instead.