A sour odor—part anxious sweat, part sleep-deprived BO—invades my nostrils. It’s Saturday morning and I have just Dutch-ovened myself. I rip down the covers and gasp for breath before I pull my cruddy eyelids open and check my phone.
What I’m on, I guess, is a “bender.” But not the kind of bender where a guy gets fired from his job and then crawls into a bottle of whiskey. No, what I’m talking about is a work-bender.
Work-benders involve the following:
1. One or more dead-end projects
2. Several manic, late-night phone calls
3. Copious amounts of stimulants (namely, Adderall and sweet, sweet Vyvanse)
I didn’t always think of Adderall as, like, a “drug.” To me, it was a tool—as in, something I used to improve my productivity. It would take me a long time to realize that actually, it was a crutch.
Breaking The Seal
I remember I was nervous the day I got my first prescription. It was through my pediatrician right before I went off to college. I sat in the waiting room and played with that ubiquitous wooden-toy thing where you push little wooden shapes up and down and around those looping, metal coils. Thankfully, it wasn’t a long wait. I got called into the office and was asked to sit down. My only option was a car bed—a red toy car bed. What else can I say? It was weird.
Anyway, my doctor, the pediatrician, came in and asked me what was wrong. I lied and told him I had all these symptoms, like that I couldn’t pay attention and was having trouble focusing and all that, and then (real casual) asked him, “What do you think of Adderall?”
Doc didn’t miss a beat. “It’s for people with ADD,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s what I think I have.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t.”
I put a surprised look on, “Really?” I said, “I mean, I did some research and I’ve been thinking about this and—” and then I explained to him how ambitious I was, and how study drugs were giving some kids a competitive advantage while leaving others (like me) behind, and how everyone was doing it, and Doc listened patiently all throughout. By the end of my speech, he gave in and wrote me the prescription. I was ecstatic. Like Charlie from the chocolate factory, I ran straight from the doctor’s office all the way to the pharmacy counter and I didn’t stop once. An hour later and KAPOW! I was holding a bottle of pure, orange gold.
The problem with drugs (particularly study drugs) is that, for a time, they work. For me, for instance, they worked for three years—three years over which I was only taking half a tablet of Adderall two to three times per week, and only on my busiest school days.
The End Of The Beginning
Why did I start taking Adderall in the first place? Well, that part is simple: Optimization. Put another way, all I cared about was how long and how hard I could make myself work. It will all pay off in the end, I told myself. Just wait.
(For reference, porn during those days came in the form of YouTube videos of entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg talking about how they did all these crazy things for the benefit of their now successful companies. I am like them, I thought. The NEXT BIG THING. )
By my second semester of junior year, I was up to taking Adderall (which I now called “Addy”) at least five days a week. Amazingly, though, things were still going pretty well — I was doing great in school, had a part-time restaurant job, and I was even in the early stages of launching my own software company. But things were changing. I was beginning to feel thin—spread thin like I was butter over too much bread. Study drugs are subtle. They work little by little and then snap, all at once and you’re addicted.
The Beginning Of The End
Fast forward 18 months. Without Adderall, I had devolved into a man capable of nothing, not even of sending a single email. I needed it for everything, and not just a little. And by “not just a little,” I mean that, by then, I was I taking up to 150 mgs or more of Adderall and Vyvanse per day. Enough to make me, like, the Keith Richards of study drugs.
And then the sharp, downward turn. Surprise! My company failed. Given the situation I was in, I should have looked around and realized I no longer needed study drugs and I should have stopped taking them.
Really, what happened is the opposite: I KEPT taking study drugs and I KEPT sleeping in and I KEPT working until 3 a.m. and I KEPT getting thinner and weaker and more agitated with everybody around me.
Sometimes, in moments of pause, I would comfort myself with cold, hard logic:
P: Smart people cannot get addicted to drugs.
P: Adderall is a drug.
P: I am a smart person.
C: I cannot, therefore, be addicted to Adderall.
Oh, as The Faces would say, I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. For if I did, I would know that, when it comes to addiction, intelligence can’t help you. Only self-awareness and honest, painful introspection can.
The Long Way Out
Fast forward past a haphazard (yet earnest) family intervention and some philosophical insights and I was ready to get California sober.
The stopping part wasn’t hard for me. When I finally decided to stop taking study drugs, that’s exactly what I did. But it’s not liking doing so magically made me start to wake up feeling great and ready to seize the day. On the contrary, I was exhausted. ALL THE TIME. I’m not sure if what I went through qualifies as “withdrawals,” but I woke up tired and went to bed tired and I overate and had massive feelings of guilt and depression. Thankfully, my ambitions were still there—they had changed, but they had not left. I say “thankfully,” but really, dreams without energy is a prison of its own. After years spent building my life into a series of bad habits, I was terrified that there was no coming back. I figured that, at the very least, I would realize that I was actually just a lazy schlub and that my so-called “work ethic” was inexorably linked to my drug use.
I decided to get help. I did some research, honed in a popular anti-depressant called Bupropion, went to a local therapist, and I got myself a prescription.
The medication helped a lot. A few weeks later, I was working again—not super productively, but it was getting better every day.
I made a lot of mistakes, but perhaps the main one was thinking I was better than those on crack or heroin or booze or meth. I was better, I thought, because those people were cowards—they were taking drugs to DULL their consciousness, they were taking drugs to NOT face themselves in the mirror. I, on the other hand, was taking them to enable myself to work more and better and harder and longer.
In the end, though, we both ended up at the same place: rock bottom.