"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
I dig my fingers around the bottom of my purse, feeling for one last small, round, chalky orange pill that might have fallen into my bag and been forgotten. My hands know exactly what to look for — I don’t even need to see to know if I’ve found my treasure. After some digging, I feel my fingers touching what I’ve been praying for. I wrap my hand around the forgotten fix and without looking, I pull my hand out, keeping my fingers closed gently around my palm as if I have caught a small frog and don’t want it to be hurt trying to jump away. Without a glass of water, I slip the pill into my mouth, creating enough saliva that I can turn my chin up and swallow — hard.
My eyes open and I lay in my bed still groggy from the tumultuous dreams from the night before. It’s been 365 days since I had Adderall in my system but every week or so, I still have dreams about finding a stray pill laying at the bottom of my purse. For the last five years of my addiction, this dream was very real to me since I would have blown through my four-week script in about two weeks and in that chaos, I often lost a few pills along the way.
Like many others my age, I first used Adderall to cram for a test… the ACT to be exact. I took the ACT once with Adderall and once without — getting the exact same score each time. With more maturity and wisdom I might have been able to spot the illusion that the stimulant had me under just by analyzing my test results. Obviously, Adderall didn’t actually make me any smarter since I got the same score with or without it. But it already had me under its spell and once I knew it was available to me, I had a hard time forgetting.
I didn’t think about getting a script of my own until I transferred into a competitive graphic design program my junior year of college. I had an obvious learning curve compared to the other students and I thought “I might not be half as good as them but I will work twice as hard.” This overachieving perfectionism haunted me and kept me heavily reliant on stimulants up until I reached my rock bottom in February 2021 — three years into my professional career. Getting a script was easy… too easy. I kept waiting for someone to pull back the curtain. I found a psychiatrist in KC and he asked me a series of questions before officially prescribing me Adderall and diagnosing me with ADD. The questions sounded like something that a pharmaceutical rep had written... “Do you struggle to focus for extended periods of time?” “Do you often jump from one thing to the next without finishing?” The reality is that anyone who lacks drive and direction would answer ‘yes’ to these questions. But I wasn’t mature enough to recognize the answers within me so I said what I needed to say and dove head-first into what would be a lonely five-year battle with Adderall addiction.
It became harder and harder to break the cycle of Adderall when the lines were blurred between work and play. I would use Adderall to work but I loved using it to party as well. It reminded me of the movie Limitless. I felt like I had tapped into this perfect aid that kept me smart, successful and skinny. But as the cycle of abuse went on, I began to see its limits — my limits. I would pop Adderall until my script ran out — usually at least two weeks before it should have. And then I would crash. I would sleep for a couple of days to catch up on the rest that my body so desperately needed and I would eat as if I had never eaten before. My weight would constantly fluctuate. I began to lose my hair, my skin was breaking out and towards the end of my use, I would notice decreased circulation in my limbs. Bruises would show up mysteriously and I would not be able to heal for many days.
Aside from the physical effects, addiction took a toll on my mental health as well. I was struggling, I was hardly sleeping or eating and I felt like I had never been so alone. My partner and I fought over petty things and the selfish nature of addiction kept me from being able to really show up for the people I loved. I saw everything through the narrow sense of my secret substance. I had a small, temporary, fleeting hope that came and went with each high. My identity became fragile — the opposite of limitless.
During my first full-time job as a designer, I picked up a bartending gig to make some extra money on the weekends. With rose-colored glasses, I thought this was the perfect way to party while making some cash. Instead of seeking balance in my role as a full-time designer — I began to burn the candle at both ends. I would take my 40mg dose over the course of my Friday at the office and then I would pop another 20 mg to get ready to head into the bar. By the time I got set up at the bar, I was starting to feel like a zombie — having just worked a 40+ hour week and now facing two nights of too little sleep and too much tequila. Before the doors would open at 9 p.m., I had at least 80mg of amphetamines coursing through my system. Looking back, I never once worked a bartending shift without Adderall. Adderall was the shaky crutch helping me fumble through each precious moment — hardly awake and hardly able to sleep.
By the time I had quit bartending, the cycle of abuse had sunk its teeth in. I was still taking too much Adderall to be able to sleep but now I wasn’t making money in a crowded club. Now I was alone. I could start to hear the whispers of what I now believe was intuition and I tried to tune out the quiet questions I was asking myself… “When is the last time you took your Adderall at its prescribed dose?” “When is the last time you reached the end of a month and had not run out early? Weeks early?” I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember who I was without Adderall. My addiction was becoming my identity.
It is hard to be open, generous and loving when you are constantly feeding an internal addiction. The shame I felt pushed me further away from those who loved and cared for me. I was totally wrapped up in my cycle of abuse so to me, the red flags seemed obvious. I was sure that someone would catch onto the unhealthy habit I had developed but aside from my best friend voicing her concern a couple of times — no one seemed to connect the dots of my mood swings, sleepless nights, lack of appetite or unwavering productivity.
The only times where I felt like someone was about to pull back the curtain was when I went to the pharmacy. Since Adderall is a controlled substance, I could only fill one month at a time. Although the script was supposed to last me 30 days, they would let me fill my next script up to three days early and lord knows I was at the pharmacy as soon as I could be. My creativity got the best of me and I started to figure out the work-arounds to get an early re-fill. With my doctor’s permission, I could fill a script early if I was planning on traveling out of state. Although the workarounds existed, I always heard a tinge of concern — or maybe annoyance — on the phone calls to the pharmacy when I would explain the situation and ask when would be the earliest possible date that I could pick up my pills. The other way that I manipulated the system was by switching each month between CVS and Walgreens. For whatever reason, their systems didn’t talk to each other so if I had a printed prescription order, I could take it to the opposite pharmacy of which I had last filled my script, and to them, they would think it had been almost two months since I’d last been in to re-fill.
When I had exhausted my options at the pharmacy I would buy from whoever was willing to sell some of their scripts. Oftentimes these were friends or friends-of-friends. Aside from the concerned pharmacists, these might have been the only other people who could see that I was struggling. I was using them and they could see that our exchange was purely transactional. I felt shame for treating myself so poorly throughout my addiction but I feel shame to this day for the way I treated others along the way.
Everyone’s rock bottom looks different but mine looked like a lonely Friday night after I had just blown through another 30-day script in 10 days. I was sleep-deprived but still had the lasting effects of the Adderall I had taken that day so I drew a bath and waited to get sleepy. As the bath was filling up, I caught a glimpse of myself walking past a full-length mirror in our hallway. The reflection stopped me in my tracks. I looked like a frame of the woman I used to be. I could see my hip bones, my arms looked fragile, there was almost no muscle on my body. I was the shape of my bones. After standing in front of the mirror for a while, trying to adjust my posture in ways that reminded me of my old figure, I remember feeling scared. I sunk into the hot bath and found a podcast featuring an addiction specialist. I listened to the interview as I tried to relax and then I heard something that made me sit up out of the warm water. The specialist said that the root of all addiction is the belief that you are not enough. If you can address this belief, you can face your addiction.
I paused the interview and sat in silence for a few minutes. “I AM ENOUGH,” I yelled. “I AM ENOUGH.” I wept for a while before I got out and dried off. I sat on my bed and called my sister. I knew that I needed to talk to someone so that I wouldn’t repeat the cycle of abuse any longer. We cried as I told her about what I’d been hiding for the last few years. I got off the phone with her and called my best friend. More crying. More confessions. I waited on the couch for my boyfriend to get home from his Friday night shift at a bar. He was surprised to see me up as he walked through the front door but as soon as he saw my face, he knew something was wrong. He held me as I let him in on my secret struggle. Finally, the Adderall wore off enough for me to lay down and get some sleep. I slept most of that weekend away, barely even able to keep my eyes open as my hometown team, the Chiefs, played the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs lost but I slept peacefully, knowing that life would only get better from here.
During the first few months of my recovery, I would call a family member every day. We didn’t talk about anything in particular but just hearing how their day was going helped me reconnect to the world and those whom I loved. The nightmares started almost immediately after I began to withdraw and I still have very vivid dreams up until this day. Initially, I considered therapy but ended up focusing on my physical recovery for that first year. Writing this story is actually the first time I am processing much of what I went through and I can see now why consulting a therapist would be hugely healing. At the end of the day, I have deep faith that I am exactly where I need to be on this journey.
I don’t write this to vilify Adderall. I don’t believe that drugs, or people, are either good or bad. Instead, I write this to share a story of self-love and hope. Because it's time I share my light with the world and shame can only live in the shadows.