Among children born in America in the late 1980s, my classmates at the San Francisco Day School must have been the happiest, healthiest, most unthinkingest cluster of them all. Our parents raised us to give thoughtful Bar Mitzvah gifts, walk or jog daily, recognize Kwanzaa. If the community was not quite anti-intellectual, it was certainly not a culture of quiet indoor pursuits. The weather was too nice, for one thing. And our parents, who hadn’t attended Ivy League schools and didn’t read literature, had yet done well enough to afford beach houses up the coast and a rainbow flock of Polar Fleeces. Among us, their offspring, there was no such thing as academic rivalry. We worked together if we worked at all.
This changed when I began my first year at the Ivy League university where I am now a senior. Here I met freshmen who had taken the SATs more than twice, who spoke three Asian languages, who began drinking coffee in middle school. “Things are different on the East Coast,” I told my mother on a cellphone from the campus Starbucks, where I was conspicuously reading the New Yorker and hoping to make friends. The kids of the East Coast intellectual guard had a whole culture of rituals and objectives by which to define themselves: anticipation of the LSATs, the New Criterion, cocaine.
It was this New York and Boston-bred clique that taught me what I know about Adderall—or showed me, rather, since the drug is less talked about than exhibited. It is not hard to tell if someone has taken a lot of Adderall. His mouth will be tensed, his shoulders stiff, his gaze unwavering. Everyone looks the same after ten or so hours of untrammeled focus. During freshman year I got mine from Bronson, a sloth of a boy from Brooklyn whom I hooked up with at a party. Bronson was prescribed the drug for his ADD but it had a somewhat deadening effect on him, and he made extra cash by selling what he didn’t use or want. Once a month I would visit him to sit on his dorm bed while he counted out pills from an organizer. There was a Scarface poster on the wall and a jar of weed on the mini-fridge, which Bronson would uncap and wave under my nose, as though it were single-malt scotch or chloroform. He refused to sell me his 20-milligram pills because he thought I might have a heart attack, so I took 10s.
Adderall comes in two forms: fast-acting and extended release. Fast-acting looks like aspirin and has a sweetish taste. In theory it can be be crushed and snorted, though I’ve never seen anyone cut a line of Adderall purely for recreation. Bronson sold me the extended release version, marketed as Adderall XR, which resembles something that Neely would have chased with vodka in Valley of the Dolls. It is the Las Vegas of pills, an object that conforms so gleefully to every pill cliché that taking it feels cinematic. The drug comes in a gleaming capsule, blue or tangerine colored, and it can be swallowed or sprinkled over cafeteria applesauce. It is made of equal portions of four amphetamines, all of which the body metabolizes at different rates, and which are packaged in tiny rotund beads that dissolve at varied speeds, so the effect is consistent. A 10-milligram capsule lasts about six hours and a 20-milligram capsule doubles the duration.
It is difficult to know whether it is a drug itself or a drug culture that attracts certain people to certain substances. In the case of Adderall, I came for the culture and stayed for the drug. Nothing had ever tempted me before. As an adolescent girl, alcohol was closely allied with promiscuity, and I was a prude. Weed suggested foolishness and snacking, and I was foolish and hungry enough as it was. But then came college, and with it, Adderall—a drug associated with writing, thinking, and joyful, hermetic reading. Adderall Me and Ideal Me were nearly the same person, and I saw no reason not to dabble in my best self.
Adderall has been on the market since 1996. It is produced by the British drug maker Shire Pharmaceuticals, and is currently the 125th most popular clinical drug in America. The Shire website offers some vague information about ADHD, the disorder for which Adderall is prescribed, and warns that the consequences of untreated ADHD can include relationship problems, drug abuse, and frequent job changes. There is a link for people who are already taking Adderall. “Congratulations!” it reads. “By taking ADDERALL XR, you’re showing your commitment to reaching your potential in all aspects of your life—and to being the person you were meant to be.”
Once or twice a week during my first three years of college I’d dip into my supply of pills (I kept them in a turquoise Tiffany’s case, to avoid crushing), gather a bundle of work, and incubate myself in the common room of the French House, where I lived. I had to be careful not to take the drug in my dorm room, because if I did, I might spend hours plucking my eyebrows or digitally altering photographs. The common room was a ballroom-sized space with a fireplace, wood paneling, velvet chairs, and a desk. It was a popular place to work among my housemates, but I liked to work alone in my Adderall outfit (a t-shirt with the armpits stained corncob-yellow from amphetamine sweat), so I would push all the furniture except one chair into an adjacent room and shut the doors. There were water fountains nearby and nobody bothered me.
The feeling begins about twenty minutes after you take the pill: a mental tightening, as though someone had refined your scope of vision into a narrow and penetrating line. All peripheral distractions disappear (you would make a very poor hunter or soccer player). There is a slight fluttering of the heart, and gentle, persistent waves of warmth that are not distracting unless it is hot outside. This is how I experienced Adderall; some people have panic attacks and others feel nothing at all.
Any actual amount of time spent under the influence is hard to describe, because time passes very quickly. It’s a euphoric drug, but also an alienating one. If I took a pill with my morning coffee, it would wear off by early evening. All of my work for the coming week would be finished, and I could take an aspirin, shower, and go to bed. Having missed the transition from day to night as well as all three meals, my dreams would be hysterical, but I always woke the next day feeling chipper and accomplished.
Faking ADHD is a cakewalk, but the testing process is expensive. It is easier to buy the drug from those who already have it, for $2 a pill, or $3, or $5 if you are dim enough to make your purchase during finals period. The summer after sophomore year, stranded without Bronson and determined to write a novel, I found an online foreign pharmacy that sent encrypted catalogs of drugs to my Gmail account. Rohypnol, Valium, Oxycodone, Prozac, and Ritalin were all in stock—no Adderall, but Ritalin would do in a pinch. (Ritalin is the Salieri to Adderall’s Mozart.) I bought thirty tabs of generic Ritalin with a moneygram. It cost fifty dollars, but I was living at home that summer, and also, I reasoned, I’d save money on all the food I wouldn’t eat.
“Who do you know in Panama City?” my mom asked when the package arrived. Inside was a folder wrapped in black sandpaper and a ‘Smints container full of pills. The Ritalin lasted all summer, and in September I traded the leftovers for Adderall. When I ran out and couldn’t locate any more at school (Bronson was abroad), I called a friend at Sarah Lawrence, who sent me envelopes of pills wrapped in tissue paper.
Like so many things at my school, Adderall consumption has a lot to do with money. One senses that the students who blow $100 a month on extended release capsules are the same ones buying prosciutto sandwiches for lunch instead of eating in the cafeteria. But unlike other drugs, Adderall doesn’t lend itself to group consumption, so it is hard to tell who does it and how often. Adderall has no Kurt Cobain, no Snoop Dogg or Bret Easton Ellis. It not as glamorous as heroin nor as benign as weed, and it is not a status symbol like cocaine. Adderall, after all, is a drug prescribed to kids who drop their pants in the schoolyard instead of playing hopscotch.
It is probably surprising that the drug backfired only once, when I stayed up on Adderall for 72 hours before a philosophy final. My appearance in the testing hall the next day was so tangled and shaky that the professor removed me from the room. I was sent away with permission to return later and finish the exam in his office. Instead, I slept. In the end it didn’t matter that I failed the exam, because a semester of A+ Adderall papers had left me with a decent grade in the class. If the proof is in the transcript, then Adderall is hardly a self-punishing habit. Sometimes I think about how Marion Jones has to return all the prize money she earned while taking steroids, and I wonder whether I should be stripped of all the A’s I received for papers written on Adderall. This is a haunting or a comical thought, depending on my mood.
Of course, I could have studied in college without Adderall, just like I did in high school—I just couldn’t have studied with such ecstasy. Theoretical texts, in particular, were transformed into exercises as conquerable as a Tuesday crossword. I could work out in the gym with a Xeroxed packet of Gayatri Spivak perched on the elliptical machine in front of me, reading and burning calories at the same time. The efficacy of the multitasking was exhilarating. On Adderall, the densest writing became penetrable. I had an illusion of mastery, at least, that lasted long enough to write the necessary papers and presentations. I could never remember what I had written the next day, but I justified this forgetfulness as an accelerated version of what would happen anyway after I graduated.
More than anything, Adderall simulated the enthusiasm that a good teacher naturally stokes. For three years my brain, normally so recalcitrant, became my will’s devoted vehicle. But there’s a downside to a drug that makes everything interesting. By the end of junior year, I still had no idea what I liked or was good at. This past fall, when my senior year started, I took a break from the drug—at first because I couldn’t find any, and then because I refused it. It took these four abstinent months to realize that I was not supposed to be electrified by everything I learned in school; that some of it had a vaccinating purpose, so that by trying a little now and reacting badly, I could fend it off later.
Finals period without Adderall passed slowly and pleasantly. It turns out that the feverish moral imperative to work was an effect of the drug, not a cause. I lingered over my reading and drank coffee to stay awake. There were no more ecstatic Joan-of-Arc-in-the-library experiences, no more imagined channeling of dead literary critics—but this, I suppose, is appropriate when what’s at stake is only a 15-page essay on Jane Austen, double spaced. I turned in my last exam on a snowy Saturday morning and flew home the same day. It was 27 degrees in Boston when I left and 60 in San Francisco when I landed, warm enough to jog without a Polar Fleece.