“Sorry for the interruption, but I was wondering if you would be willing to sell me some of your Adderall. I have a hard time focusing sometimes and think that it would help me greatly.”
This was an email sent to me by a classmate. We had met in class just the day before, when I flipped through a notebook to show some friends sitting at my table the differences in my handwriting when I was on my prescribed Adderall and off of it. One of the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is poor fine-motor functioning that can lead to messy handwriting and problems with hand-eye coordination. Adderall acts on the cerebellum, a center of motor functioning, to alleviate this symptom, making for neat, organized notes on days when I do take my medicine, and considerably messier scrawls on the days when I do not.
I told my classmate that his question made me feel uncomfortable, and that I’d rather not sell him my prescribed medication. (He was certainly not the first person that has asked me to sell them my medicine.) What I wanted to tell him was that if it were up to me, I would never take Adderall at all. But for me and many others diagnosed with ADHD, taking the medication never felt like much of a choice.
Frequently, ADHD is referred to as the byproduct of a society that would rather medicate than solve its innate inability to focus. A recent editorial in Psychology Today controversially claimed that “French Kids Don’t Have ADHD” because they are better disciplined by their parents. In higher education, Adderall has been framed as some kind of wonder-drug, a finals-season antidote to all the procrastinating students’ problems. What gets left out is the personality-numbing, the weight loss, the enhanced anxiety and self-consciousness that people who take the medicine experience. The trade-off is a better sense of balance, a little more clarity and a sudden acquisition of control. Still, a decision to take the medicine every day is a decision to always feel less vivid, less social and a little bit more robotic than your authentic self. Some children become extremely underweight because of the medication’s appetite-suppressing effects. Disparaging comments from friends and family about “being different on your medicine” along the way certainly don’t make it any easier.
Another common misconception about ADHD is that everyone has a degree of it, and that those who have been prescribed the medication are no different from those who have not. Yes, all children are prone to distraction and restlessness. The rapidly increasing rate of children diagnosed with ADHD in the United States is cause for concern – and it makes sense to feel wary about the legitimacy of a disease that can be difficult to diagnose correctly.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon has the net effect of decreasing our culture’s sensitivity to those suffering from inattention and distraction. This is a real shame, but it’s not surprising – it’s a symptom of our culture’s deep discomfort with mental health issues. It’s easier to dismiss nuanced differences in people than consider them compassionately.
The truth is that ADHD is a physiological brain difference with a solid neurobiological basis. Research conducted by the National Institutes of Mental Health found that many children with ADHD have thinner brain tissue in areas of the brain associated with attention. Concerns about over-diagnosis are legitimate, however, and they represent a disconcerting reality. A recent feature in The New York Times Magazine reported that a large percentage of the 6.4 million children diagnosed with ADHD today are unlikely to have physiological differences that would make them more distractible than the average non-ADHD kid. This is only exacerbated by the fact that no definitive behavioral or neurological test exists for ADHD today. Doctors should be more wary of patients’ attempt to access the medication unfairly, and deep-rooted reform around the entire pharmaceutical industry of these drugs needs to be pursued.
Still, it is time to reconsider the way we talk about ADHD and the medicines used to treat it. I have heard some of the smartest people I know tell me they feel that ADHD is not a “real” disorder, and that even if it was, there’s no way I could have it – after all, I am at Emory and seem to be doing fine. Medication is used to heal the disabled – when my classmate emailed me, he implied that I should sell him my medication because my need for it wasn’t all that legitimate in the first place. There’s so much he couldn’t have known about my experiences with the disorder, and the daily struggle that was getting through school for me as a child – but I did feel insulted, and I do wish he had thought twice before asking me.
As finals approach, there’s no question that Adderall will be trading hands across campus. I hope those with the power to sell and buy the medicine will think harder about how their actions undermine and delegitimize the experiences of people who suffer from and struggle with ADHD.
Managing Editor Lane Billings is a College senior from Memphis, Tenn.
Illustration by Alexa Cucopulos