My Struggle With ADD: Using Cocaine to Fight the Symptoms

Before I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, I struggled in school and had trouble focusing -- until the day I started using drugs


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.

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Molly Oswaks is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Thought Catalog, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and The Believer, among others.

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