My Struggle With ADD: Using Cocaine To Fight The Symptoms

It has become such a workable way of life, for me, the most natural rhythm; I barely give it much thought. I know at which hours I will be most productive, and where; the best music to write to — Bruce Springsteen, or Hole; and what to listen to while I read — nothing. I’ve learned that to be somewhere by noon, I must tell myself 11:30, and I’ll set my watch ahead to ensure this works out.

Even the medicinal maintenance of my Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the stimulant cocktail of four kinds of amphetamine salt — manufactured by Shire Pharmaceuticals under the brand name Adderall — is an automatic affair: My typing will become slower or sloppier, I’ll forget my wording or leave something out, the same line will have to be reread several times over before it’s finally processed. I’ll become suddenly quite ravenous and restless. Typically loathsome tasks — like unloading the dishwasher or fleecing my furniture of cat hair or replacing the too-high lightbulbs — will seem urgent or enjoyable or both. Then I’ll know it’s time to take another pill.

It happens like this every day, always at the same times of day, and I am never wrong. But none of this much matters, unless I make one point: For the longest time, everything felt off. Or rather, everything in me felt off. Like a film playing in slow-motion, with its subtitles sped up. My mind would stall and surge, slippery with short-circuits, prone to laser-beam intensity one day and languishing the next.

I often struggled in school, was told I could and should do better, yet unable, believed myself intellectually inferior (peculiar only because of the precocious reading habit that was my sole sustained engagement). Jobs, internships, myriad extracurricular pursuits — each of them thrilling upon first prospect — fizzled-out early and often. No one saw anything too out of the ordinary. I was just “lazy,” “irresponsible,” “a careless student,” “disorganized,” and always in the throes of some procrastinated chaos. And because I’d never known any different — it’s not like I made things difficult for fun — I believed that it was ultimately nothing, that this was just who I was and would be forever on. Passionless, aimless. Unmoored.

The classic conception of ADD, the acute characterization, is that of a child on turbocharge: prolix and chatty, a blur of fingers and kneecaps; she will be running a marathon even when she is seated and still.

But I have never been an earthquake of activity. I don’t hop fences or collect speeding tickets. I’ve never broken a bone or run through pane-glass. My frenetic energy, my fragmented focus, is manifest inward. It’s marking 26-Across in 30-Down, in the Sunday puzzle, unnoticed and in pen. It’s MetroCards misplaced, essays turned in late, library books long overdue. It’s hundreds of dollars paid to collections agencies for forgotten overdrafts that started as single digits, and credit cards lost so often that the banks believe it is fraud. It’s multiple concurrently-kept day-planners, and not one of them ever current. It’s running out to the store for batteries and coming back with blank notebooks and tea.

As errors go, mine were far from exceptional. We are all overwhelmed. We all get distracted. None of us is privileged with an excess of time. There is nothing especially sympathetic about a girl who cannot keep a deadline. The problem is hers alone.

When I am 19, I have my first taste of cocaine, and soon things look not so bad. Because cocaine is so self-gratifying — it’s all you want and need and feel is important in the world — and gratification is just about all I’d been looking for, I believe I have discovered my antidote. Daily, hourly, for many months, I carefully maintain this not high but level-feeling state of being. Each line sharpening my sight, I am made more consciously and comfortably present. And I have no intention of stopping this new, novel form of self-treatment. It seems almost too easy. And too easy not to let go.

All my apathy and line-towing really ought to have been enough, but of course it takes this most clearly identifiable state of crisis, a behavior so glaring, so explicitly ill-boding — only with this does anyone pause to consider that there may be something actually wrong.

In the fall of 2008, I sit out what ought to be the first semester of my sophomore year of college, as much for the cocaine as for everything else. I go to therapy sessions and meet with doctors and specialists in all fields, desperate for something — anything — to jumpstart me out of this murky in-between of not caring and not caring to. I try Celexa, then Lexapro, then Wellbutrin, then others — the idea being that the right antidepressant will lift me out from under this torpor. They do not help. Drugs are exactly what I need, but these are not right, they are treating the wrong thing; their logic is bad.

Months pass in this way, and I begin to wonder whether there might not be a better explanation, a surer solution for all my blue moods and lazy disinterest. Maybe we’ve ignored some effective, alternative treatment for depression. Or maybe it’s not depression at all. Alone in this suspicion, and unable to bear the thought of another false fix, I resolve to find the answer for myself.

ADD had at no point been a planned area of inquiry, but somewhere along my circuitous path of research, co-morbid diagnoses become increasingly relevant; In my case, depression and anxiety seem the manifest symptoms of a larger unknown. I rule nothing out, yet the variables — depression, anxiety, female, young adult — point unfailingly to the same probable cause. I learn that girls, for whatever biological reason, tend to have ADD without the more obvious hyperactivity component; their primary symptom is distractibility. It would make sense, then, for unchecked ADD to be perceived as depression and anxiety: In school, one’s performance is graded from any early age, and with the certain impediment of such chronic distraction, feelings of low self-worth are stoked with every admonishment and failing mark; the adult world is no more forgiving.

Sensing I’m on to something, I read Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder From Childhood to Adulthood, by Dr. Edward Hallowell, and in it find my diagnosis.

As it happens, The Hallowell Center — which offers diagnostic and treatment services for adults and children with ADD and its off-shoots — opened an outpost on Manhattan’s Upper West Side the year prior. So I call the office and ask for his next available appointment, feeling it kismet that I should be treated by the same doctor whose book brought me to this latest turn.

During the hour-long consult with Hallowell, I answer a battery of diagnostic questions, which we then discuss at relative length:

  • Were you considered an underachiever in school? (Yes.)
  • Given an unexpected chunk of free time, do you often find that you don’t use it well or get depressed during it? (Yes.)
  • Do you often find that you have an itch you cannot scratch, an appetite for something “more” and you’re not sure what it is? (Yes.)
  • If you have ever tried cocaine, do you find that it helped you focus and calmed you down, rather than making you high? (Yes.)

And so on.

I tell Hallowell about the cocaine, about how I’d never before had any interest in drugs, but that coke made me feel better, brighter; about how I feel lethargic and loopy from the passel of psychotropics cycling through my nervous system, and from the snuffed-out half-lives of the ones I’ve already quit. Like an old doorframe that has become over-tight from all its layers and layers of fresh paint, I am just not working right. Hallowell confirms the diagnosis and is the only practicing professional right-minded enough to defy the illogic of giving prescription speed to a past-tense coke user. “You should be on Adderall,” he tells me. “And probably quite a lot.”

The pharmacodynamics of the drug are imprecise and largely speculative; the common thought is that the amphetamine stimulant works in the central nervous system to spark and speed up the release of neurotransmitters — like dopamine and norepinephrine — which, on its own, the ADD brain misdirects and manages inefficiently. With the neurotransmitters’ circulation mediated in this way, such “executive” abilities as decision making, impulse control, and work/reward motivation — all of which are typically ill-functioning in a brain with ADD — will operate at optimal levels.

With my first dose comes the most trenchantly transformative feeling. Unlike cocaine, whose nasal dosing delivers a full-body chemical climax, Adderall’s neural efficacy is localized, and its oral administration prevents the sudden surge of a cocaine “high.”

Adderall comes in two distinct forms. The extended-release formula, Adderall XR, comes in a glossy cellulose capsule with a Tang-colored lip and a clear, colorless cup; within its plasticy shell are hundreds of amphetamine beads the color of Circus Peanuts candy. The beads comprise four types of amphetamine — two sulfate salts and two dextro isomers — which together and in this form allow the drug to be meted out through the bloodstream over a period of six to 10 hours. I swallow one 30 milligram extended-release pill each morning. Its effect is not particularly sensate, but it sustains me through the hours and days.

The second type of Adderall is an immediate-release amphetamine tablet. It is small and round like an eraser-head but flat as a nickel, with a bilateral score-line clear down its middle, and a taste sweet like Aspartame on my tongue. At 10 milligrams’ strength, it is the color of melty blue cotton-candy. Three times daily, I swallow two of these pills, and within 15 minutes affect an almost-four-hour agency and efficiency to my workaday doings.

The medication grants me access to a chasm in my flip thinking, a narrow channel through which I may engage an idea or activity or project, see it through to completion, work without surcease. I make neat piles of all the books and magazines and loose paper clippings that have forever carpeted my life — and I remember to read them. I scribble tiny notes on those sticky plastic tabs from the stationery store — which I now buy in bulk — and flock the pages with all my thoughts and ideas. I discover that writing — which had only ever been a project of putting down enough words to fulfill the quota, something to do and be done with — is something I can delight in and excel at, and I want to do it all the time.

Of course, no medication will rid a person of their ADD; as treatment, the chemical effects are corrective, not curative. And on the days I go without taking any, days when I’m sick or overtired or perhaps away on vacation to some slow-moving place, the soda goes flat. I may forget to remember things, leave my wet laundry in the washing machine overnight, lose scarves, trains of thought. But this happens less often. And everyone loses things, now and then.

What lasts, though, irrespective of the time elapsed since my last dose, is my revised self-perception. So much of my life was spent adrift, my every interest a fading thought, it’s almost as if I’d been too distracted to recognize who I was or what I enjoyed. Since discovering that it wasn’t just me — or rather, that it is — I’ve found the confidence and ambition I’d never before felt, the once missing parts of a person I’d not known myself capable of being. And because confidence tends to breed more confidence, I feel for the first time a sense of boundless potential.

Hallowell writes, “The syndrome is not one of attention deficit, but of attention inconsistency,” and goes on to say that those with ADD are in fact able to hyperfocus at times. For me, figuring out what to hyperfocus on was the crucial part, and regulating my wandering mind was necessary for that to happen. Adderall, with all its illuminative abilities, didn’t save me but provided the clarity I needed to find so much of myself. The pill collects my mind, makes it quiet and calm, a snowy radio retuned after losing its station. TC mark


More From Thought Catalog

  • Leigh

    strongly feel i might have ADD 

    • Maja

      same here…

  • Amy Vickers

    I was diagnosed with ADD in the 5th grade, and am now 27. This is one of the best things I’ve ever read about what it’s like to be in my mind both medicated and off medication. Fantastic article.

  • Guest

    I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2010 and it’s like you’re talking from my brain here. I’m not currently on medication though. I tried Concerta back in June 2010 and it made me so anxious so I haven’t medicated since then. Perhaps I should consider Adderall.

    Thank you for writing this. I relate to so many of these feelings. We should start a little support group, haha.

    • Guest

      To add, I also self-diagnosed like you did, after about a year of research and hearing from friends and family, “you don’t fit the ADD type”… Once I actually got a professional diagnosis, it was such a relief to know there was an explanation.

    • breanna

      concerta did the same thing to me, but it’s not an issue at all with adderall xr

  • Nnnn

    You’re a great writer and I don’t necessarily doubt you need a prescription drug a doctor gave you, but I’m finding it difficult to swallow, literally, the “Adderral  solution” these days.

    So many fabulous young women writers I know are on it, abusing it, being told they need it.

    And this is always after a history of drug abuse–whether the doctor knows about it or not. Surely, the solution to apathy and drug use is not just more drug use?

  • FrostBiteMe

    Thanks for this! 

  • Anonymous

    I am crying like a little baby. You just illustrated my life to a T. I’ve always been regarded as intelligent by my teachers/professors, but I always fail due to my inability to complete work by the deadlines. I’m constantly being asked by my professors why I can’t just turn in all my work, as I get As on everything that I scramble enough focus to finish. I convince myself that I am a failure and fall into week long depressions. My anxiety is through the roof, so much that I’ve had panic attacks on my way to class… The crazy thing about ADD is that you begin to evaluate yourself based on your failures so much they become you. I’ve recently started taking Adderall as well, and it’s worked wonders. I’m better at work, school, and my personal relationships. If anyone else has ever felt like myself or the author of this article, seek help, it really will change your life. 

    • Samantha Cooper

      this was my life in school too! i felt like such a stupid idiot whenever my teachers would be like, “YOU’RE SO SMART, WHY DONT YOU JUST DO YOUR WORK/COME TO SCHOOL. COME ON”, so then i’d get too anxious and depressed about school. i dropped out a billion times because of it.

    • steph

      That sounds like me, but I have never seen a doctor about mood/mind disorders, and had never before even entertained the idea that I could have ADD.  I have now entertained it; I always thought I was too depressed over myself being a failure, and subsequently anxious, that all I had to do was get my shit together, but my energy is always varying in force and I can’t get myself to do work for school.  Eek.

  • Hannah Moire

    This explains everything!

  • nicsalz

    Thank you for giving me this perspective – I live with two people that have ADHD (my husband and my 8 year old son) and are both on Adderall.  I often wonder how their minds work – especially with my son – and what is going on in their brains.  I am happy that you have found something that helps you, it certainly has changed my son’s life/world as well.

  • Guest

    Thank you for this! While I am also happily on Adderall,  it’s been difficult to get my parents to understand why their 26 year-old daughter “needs” to be on it. They treat it and discuss it as if I were a puppy-killer. 

    Thanks for articulating the situation in a way that I’ve never been able to. Forwarding on the parents now. 

    • Samantha Cooper

      tell them that if you were diabetic, you’d be on insulin. they would never be like, “FOR SHAME” if it was like that, right?

  • Samantha Cooper

    my family doctor told me that i can’t have ADD because i knit, and no one with ADD could sit still long enough to knit a row. i told him that was ridiculous and two weeks later i went to my first psychiatrist appointment and was diagnosed with ADD and depression (which i’m 100% is a side effect of the lack of concentration/followthrough with anything at all i try). he put me on an antidepressant, a sedative to make me sleep, and ritalin to help with the ADD (it did, so much!) and also to wake me up in the morning. but then i was sleeping too much, so he took me off the sedative and the ritalin. two years later, i’m only on a different antidepressant and i’m still as distracted and lost and uncaring as i’ve felt my whole life prior to treatment. maybe i should remind my doctor about his initial diagnosis. thanks for this article.

  • Guest

    What an article! I clicked on it out of morbid cocaine-related curiosity, thinking, “Wow, ThoughtCatalog’s really become the place for purging your drug guilt / this is getting old.” A delightful surprise to find such a well-written piece. Please keep submitting here!

    • molly oswaks

      Thank you!

  • Xobubba03

    This is actually really sad. If you know you are supposed to be focused on something and you also know that you get easily distracted..then should it not be relatively easy to catch your self and stay on focus again? I guess just popping a pill is the easy way out. Also, adderall has its array of side effects which does not seem to be mentioned here. Having ADD shouldn’t be looked upon as something to be treated but rather a different type of person. Just as society (and schools) recognize people who have autism and mental retardation or are in a wheel chair, and provide special accommodations for them. Schools and society should NOT make people with ADD take a very addictive pill just to function like a “normal” person. This is breeding a generation of pill addicts and its VERY WRONG. Classes, tutors, and therapy should be available to teach kids how to control their ADD or manage life living with it soberly. This could also open up some jobs instead of pouring more money into the big scary pharmaceutical companies.. 

    • Brandon h

      Obviously you’ve never had to deal with ADHD symptoms. You may be comfortable being Judgy McJudgerson and say it’s “VERY WRONG”, but try being a person dealing with the consequence of  ADHD. Pills don’t seem so bad after you have been dealing unsuccessfully for your entire school career. 

      And no where does she mention childhood diagnosis. She is specifically talking about adult diagnosis and treatment. 

      • JM

        Apart from the first sentence, I don’t think the comment was very judgy. I think he/she was saying it’s a shame that doctors (who are often paid/sponsored by pharmaceutical companies) are so quick to prescribe certain types of medication, when there are other less invasive and controlling options available.

      • Joe Ott

      • JM

        Is there more than ‘…’? Are you looking for your thesaurus?

      • Shosh

        They’re really not very quick about it… believe me…

    • GIRL

      ADD is a disorder… meaning, no, you cannot just “catch” yourself and make yourself refocus. THAT’S ABSURD. 

      • Xobubba03

        I know someone with ADD who practices meditation/yoga with me and the reason why she goes is to practice focusing, breathing, circulation, and energy exercises.. Shes really into taoism and yin yang stuff, so it may just be her faith is stemmed from somewhere else..? I don’t know. I acknowledge what i said to be harsh and I apologize, I did not mean for it to come off that way. I ultimately just wanted to offer up other possible solutions..

    • Gregory Costa

       I work for one of those big scary pharmaceutical companies?  Do I look big and scary to you.  Shut your whore mouth!  Big pharma is made of good people!  Now give me your money. 

    • Joe Ott

      Your hypothesis is endearing, if naive. I thank you for considering the issue in earnest, but ask that you have the wherewithal to detach your personal bias against medicated psychiatry, with all of it’s evils and triumphs, from the empirical fact that these drugs probably make me do things that I would not be able to do otherwise–and I liiiiike it.

    • mez

      If I didn’t have ADD I’d have the patience to respond more in depth to all of this ignorant hooey…but I do, so I’ll just say: this is ignorant hooey.

      Congrats to Molly for finding ways to deal with her ADD in a way that works for her and for improving her life!

      Also, I second her recommendation for books by Dr. Hallowell. I have his follow up, Delivered to Distraction, and it’s my bible. Read his stuff if you have ADD or think you might, or want to better understand someone who does!

    • saul

      This guy obviously doesn’t have ADD -____- he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.

  • Davey Kuraner

    This article brought me a surprising amount of insight. Thank you.

    • molly oswaks

      Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Reading this reminded me that my laundry has been in the tumble dryer since I don’t even know when.

  • Mike

    Lol…and LCD is good for PTSD…next time use a real condition for your drug use excuse…hahaha

    • steph


    • Shosh

      I’d really love to know what you think Adderall was actually made for and why it’s actually a legal drug that psychiatrists can prescribe.

  • Joseph Brillantes

    written like wurtzel. 

    • molly oswaks

      I’ll take that as a compliment. 

  • Afsdf2

    I found this very rambling and nonsensical. The title is misleading and irrational. After reading an article about okcupid on here and enjoying, this one makes me not want to come back to this site ever again. sorry…

    • GUEST

      don’t be a dick

      • Saul

        Says the guy being a dick. He makes a good pint, while you have nothing to add and discount his valid statements because you probably don’t understand them. 

    • Joe Ott

      The title is certainly misleading, but seems to have been highly effective. Perhaps such efficacy can be seen as something of a metaphor for this entire dreadful endeavor–no, the pills are not magic panacea, but they do work, and quite well. You were convinced enough to read it, and that is good enough for me. Also, criticism from the anonymous coward. 

    • Nosilla Remarc

      We’ll certainly miss you.  Wait.

  • Darcy

    this article made me realize i probably have add


    Can everybody PLEASE stop judging?

    All behavior-altering drugs have these issues of broad diagnoses and overprescription that you guys are talking about but… (1) that doesn’t seem to be the case here (2) Adderall has obviously been a helpful and constructive treatment (3) you would NEVER, ever say this shit about somebody who was taking antidepressants.

    • GUEST

      constructive treatment for the author*

  • pri

    Everything I just read has made me feel like I’ve been forced to rip the duct tape off glowing, throbbing wounds. In *this* I find my diagnosis. I’ve never been able to collect my symptoms into one coherent, connected list. I stop myself from thinking about it, because I don’t want to be more disconnected from the world than I already am. And feeling like you have no direction in life is just the most hopeless I’ve ever felt.

    Not including the fact that I was able to identify with this staggeringly and perfectly, I think you write beautifully. Swirly and nostalgic. Thank you for this.

    • molly oswaks

      Thank YOU!

  • Joe Ott

    It is difficult to convey the thanks and empathy I have towards anyone who can understand the incredible dilution of consciousness that happens to the sufferer of this incredible affliction. Mine manifests in magnificently mendacious turns of phrase (when writing) which, absent the drugs, leave any disinterested reader lost. Professors think you are pretentious, other students think you are stupid, and you just can’t give a fuck, because no fuck is in your mind long enough for it to be given. Drugs be damned, I need them to focus, or everything sounds like this…

    • Dana21982

      Love this.

  • HHR

    Were you considered an underachiever in school? (Yes.)Given an unexpected chunk of free time, do you often find that you don’t use it well or get depressed during it? (Yes.)Do you often find that you have an itch you cannot scratch, an appetite for something “more” and you’re not sure what it is? (Yes.)If you have ever tried cocaine, do you find that it helped you focus and calmed you down, rather than making you high? (Yes.)
    This is life.  Everyone has a choice to be mindful or not be mindful.  Saturate a mind with drugs or confront it, deal with it, move on.  

    • Bobby

      You will find that for some people it is extremely difficult to deal with this problem on their own. I have ADHD  and I tried dealing with it without drugs. Now, I am a High School drop out I survived two years of it and attended three schools. I also gave everything I had at community college and achieved a C average… That was the best GPA I ever had with out a tutor (who practically did my work for me and got me through middle school). For some people the choice to just “deal with it” is not an attractive choice.

      • HHR

        I’ve never had someone tell me I have ADD/ADHD so yes I am ignorant of ever experiencing someone telling me I have a diseased mind.  But yes, I,  like most of the other population have had ‘symptoms,’ Ms. Oswaks described.  I did however have someone tell my angsty 14 year old self after speaking with me for less than ten minutes that I am depressed and should take Wellbutrin to which my mother flew into a rage and noted how lazy I’d gotten having a broken leg and would not be taking any antidepressants.  

        Obviously School’s not everyone’s strong point, it isn’t/wasn’t mine.  But that doesn’t mean you can never reach your true potential with or without people telling you what’s wrong with your mind.   And lastly: “I take Aspirin for the headache caused by the Zyrtec I take for the hayfever I got from Relenza for the uneasy stomach from the Ritalin I take for the short attention span caused by the Scopederm Ts I take for the motion sickness I got from the Lomotil I take for the diarrhea caused by the Zenikal for the uncontrolled weight gain from the Paxil I take for the anxiety from Zocor I take for my high cholesterol because exercise, and a good diet are just too much trouble.” 

      • samantha

        But the problem isn’t you, it’s your environment. Not everyone can handle sitting in front of a desk all day, and that’s okay.

    • mez

      you are ignorant.

  • swoop

    Brave New World by: Aldous Huxley 

  • Dan Mckean

    Oh the joys of a diagnosis… I’m happy for you.

  • Guest

    I think it needs to be appreciated that nearly every other comment on this article is along the lines of “I think I have ADD too!”.
    Unless thought catalog just happens to attract a disproportionately large number of ADD affected readers, I think people need to give a little more thought to what are “side-effects” of having a human being.
    Also, adderall is a terrible drug. It’s just super cheap , which is part of why it gets perscribed so much. Stratera and provigil have all been show to be equally effective without the same incredible dangers of adderall. And as an added benefit, doctors even know how they work!!

    • Nosilla Remarc

      Can you explain some of those ‘dangers’?

      • Kate

        Hmmmm, seeing as it is a serious stimulant that has a nearly identical affect on the brain as crystal meth… This post is seriously a joke. Look it up.

    • molly oswaks

      Actually, while they are all effective, not every ADD med will work for every ADD patient. I’ve tried Concerta, and it did nothing for my symptoms, but made me very tense and on edge. 

    • Abigailvongoat

      I myself had a very dangerous experience with Adderall. It becomes less and less effective over time and so becomes quite addictive. There are also lots of highs and lows. For me it caused insomnia and anxiety and I started having heart palpitations. Even off the medication, my heart has never gone back to normal.

    • Shosh

      “Super cheap”? LOL my parents will have a laugh over that one…

      • Guest

        Compare to vyvanse at $150+ for 30 pills, or provigil for up to $700

    • Nicole

       Or maybe people who suspect they have ADD are more likely to read this article. :|

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