ADDitude Adjustment: The war on drugs

Sarah Rose // Features Editor 

The unopened prescription bottle sat on my desk for weeks before I finally peered inside to the ocean of blue pills. Sometimes I’d swirl them around, like looking down the barrel of a gun. Sometimes I’d pry them apart and watch the tiny balls rain down onto my palm. I felt a bit like Jonah; lost at sea, staring into the giant, abyssal maw of a strange beast. 

I’ve mentioned how I grew up finding comfort in swimming, but the first time my head flipped underwater in a kiddy pool at the impressionable age of four, I thrashed and screamed against it. The water hardly grazed past my hips, let alone the inflatable wings attached to my arms. Still, the muted alien sensation, the weight of it all pressing down against my body and hindering my vision challenged the only previous modus of control I knew. That one small moment of silence defined chaos through contrast, introducing the concept of fear simply by offering an alternative.  

There’s comfort in the islands of control we build for ourselves. But spend enough time marooned there and it becomes impossible to go back exactly the way you came. Time and tide eventually erase every trace of you on its sands. But a longing fluidity exists at the root of our nature that rebels against these illusory, self-constructed iron shores. Bringing with it waves of anxiety where we find ourselves submerged like toddlers in a kiddy pool for the first time. It’s strange how something so small can occupy such vast, ominous space. Like a bottle of prescription amphetamines sitting unopened on a desk. 

The topic of medication when it comes to ADHD is so fraught with stigma beyond that of other psychotropic medications that I can only skim the proverbial surface. It starts with this: Until the early 90’s, the medical community mistakenly believed children “outgrew” ADHD. The numbers reveal the truth: ADHD is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disorder. Of the 6.4 million children aged 4 to17 diagnosed with ADHD as per the CDC, two-thirds experienced disabling symptoms into adulthood. This doesn’t mean the one-third that didn’t no longer have ADHD, it means they developed sufficient coping mechanisms. Like many other psychiatric disorders, ADHD exists on a continuum (as well as having three sub-groupings of primary symptoms: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive and combined). No two brains are identical, and medications don’t work for everyone for various reasons. 

When I finally accepted my diagnosis, it took me months to get special clearance for my medication that would then sit unused for weeks. The first hurdle is due to BC’s provincial insurance plan still relying on three-decades worth of outdated research. The latter delay and arguably more damaging, is due to a series of beliefs I’d internalized throughout my life. 

I first learned about stimulant abuse in middle school by watching a VHS tape of someone frothing from the mouth at a rave, ten years before I learned about ADHD. The fear mongering of today’s anti-vaxxers take a chapter from their proteges of the late 80s and their anti-psychiatry “Ritalin Generation” movement. Pushed by the likes of the church of Scientology were numerous lawsuits alleging everything from addiction to “child zombies.” Despite robust research showing stimulant medication reduces the rate of substance abuse in ADHD patients by 60 per cent. This hysteria became so widespread that almost forty years later there are still books, documentaries, and endless streams of op-eds penning the horror stories of amphetamines—a witch hunt picking up right where the anti-psychiatrics left off after the last lawsuit was thrown out of court twenty years ago. 

At the frantically beating heart of it all is an idea I introduced at the start: in some way, ADHD isn’t real. If ADHD isn’t real, then it’s easy to justify the dangers of using amphetamines at a controlled dose to treat a disorder that doesn’t exist. That way, we still feel in control. Normal. 

The first time I took one of those blue pills, I was afraid. Maybe it had the power to confirm the internal belief that I was damaged, or worse, couldn’t be fixed. Instead, I found control. I found a break in the storm of anxiety, self-hatred and exhaustion. And within that, for the first time, was a sense of control over my impulses, emotions and my own self-reflection. I hadn’t realized I was so out of sync until I finally tuned in. 

There’s a moment when gazing into an unbroken mirror or the ocean after a storm where we see our true reflection staring back for the first time. Encountering that vast unknown stirs up a primal fear. It’s a practical question that quietly lends itself to an existential one: who am I? 

Amphetamines didn’t “cure” me, as there is nothing to cure. I work hard to use all the strategies I’ve gathered over the years to manage my ADHD. What amphetamines showed me is that there’s a whole way of being, and new things to achieve that I never considered possible. No matter what some tired, half-baked garbage on Netflix says, I’m going to continue taking my pills because I want to find out what else lies beneath the surface. 

Sarah Rose

Features, Humour, Literature Editor

As a chronic over-sharer, this feels unfair.

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