I woke up in a plastic bed to a nurse with a thick Russian accent asking me to sit upright so that she could draw my blood. It was a peculiar way to start my first full day in the Fairfax Behavioral Health facility. The night before, I had been admitted to the youth wing of the psychiatric unit. Prior to my admittance, I had suffered a massive panic attack that refused to subside. It isn’t easy being seventeen, and my teenage stress certainly wasn’t eased by the recent death of my older sister and realization of my homosexual identity. It was a sequence of events that I imagine would upend even the most mentally stable mind. While at Fairfax, I sat down with a doctor who interviewed me to get a sense of what may have caused me to be admitted to the facility. He asked me several questions about my self-esteem and ability to function in school and at home. I expressed difficulty focusing on my studies, my excess supply of nervous energy, and detailed my generally disorganized method of operations. Following our consultation, my doctor showered me a flurry of diagnoses, but the label that would have the biggest impact on my life was Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.
Upon receiving my diagnosis of ADHD, my immediate reaction was relief. To be told by a doctor that my difficulty functioning was a diagnosable problem with a name was comforting because I assumed it could be fixed with a medical solution. Anthropologist Emily Martin describes a similar reaction to being diagnosed as manic depressive in her book Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture (2007) when she says, “I often heard from my psychiatrist that my problems were related to my neurotransmitters, and I always found this comforting. I took this to mean that my problems were not entirely within my control.” After a week recuperating at Fairfax and receiving my new label, I returned to daily routine with a new set of expectations. My teachers and parents treated my distractibility with more patience and leniency now that an authority figure had given me the official stamp of ADHD. Their response to my diagnosis seemed to excuse the behavior that was once a source of conflict between myself and those who had to deal with my inattention in the time leading up to my stay at Fairfax. As a result, I found myself falling into the self-fulfilling prophecy. As explained by the sociologist Robert K. Merton in Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, published in The Antioch Review (1948), “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true.” As the people around me, myself included, began to treat me as an ADHD person, I began to behave in a way that mirrored the expectations set for hyperactive personalities.
To be clear, my difficulty staying focused at this time was real. However, I believe it was merely a reaction to the death of my sibling and the stress of realizing I am a young gay person heading toward adulthood in a heterosexual world — not a medically certifiable condition. While I may have displayed a few traditionally ADHD symptoms in response to the stressors in my life, I do not think these symptoms would have persisted if I had been given time to work through these temporary challenges. Thus, being categorized ADHD was a false definition of my situation that then led me to embody the characteristics of an ADHD person, making the initially false understanding true.
My shift toward embracing the ADHD personality type was exaggerated when my psychiatrist began prescribing me medication to remedy my perceived condition. I was given Adderall, which is a mixture of amphetamines and dextroamphetamines that makes the user feel more alert, focused, and driven to do tasks that would otherwise seem tedious and unengaging. For some people, this is useful in the treatment of ADHD. Chemically similar to the street drug methamphetamine, Adderall also produces a highly addictive sense of euphoria and grandeur. The first time I took my prescription I instantly felt better. Not only better — I felt unstoppable. I finished my homework at an incredible speed and, to my surprise, interest. I then stayed up all night making friendship bracelets and doing research on serial killers from the Pacific Northwest with unending fascination. I was more stereotypically ADHD than ever before. I was manic. My heart was racing. I possessed the energy of an entire power plant. My feet turned purple and my clenched jaw began to ache as I sweated through my T-shirt while pacing my bedroom, but in my elevated state I didn’t think much of it. It was this night I became a drug addict, although it would be years before I realized it.
Martin underscores America’s obsession with mania in the opening of her book when she says, “American culture has a strong affinity with manic behavior. Advertisements use the quality of mania to sell products from Macintosh computers to luxury linens, from perfumes by Armani to shoes by Adidas… People in the United States are fascinated by manic behavior and see it as a valuable resource in the ever-accelerating spiral of ‘productivity.’” The prevalence of manic behavior in our media sends the message that mania is the new normal. It tells us that healthy, successful people are always one step ahead in terms of energy, happiness, and creativity. That is not always the case. Manic personalities are also prone to depression, dangerous impulsivity, and irrationality. Having spent all my life in America, the messages sent to me through the media instilled the idea that manic behavior is something to value and strive toward. With the help of Adderall, I thought I was achieving normalcy according to American standards. Initially, I thought everyone else experienced this incredible high on a daily basis and I had just missed out on it until I was medicated. Because of this, I did not see my drug use as a problem, but rather an aid. Additionally, American culture frequently portrays drug addicts as morally bankrupt criminals whose use of street drugs pose a threat to the safety of our communities, even though the logic of contemporary public health and addiction medicine, as anthropologist Angela Garcia points out in The Elegiac Addict: History, Chronicity, and the Melancholic Subject (2008), understands and treats drug addiction primarily as a ‘chronic health problem, not a moral failing or a social problem.'” Having received a diagnosis and prescription from medical authorities, I assumed it was impossible for me to be classified as drug addict.
Despite not believing in my own addiction, it began to take over my life. After nearly three years of taking Adderall, my experience with the drug became less about managing the symptoms of ADHD, and more about reaching the highest level of mania I could. I stopped eating in hopes that the effect of the pills would be stronger, which was easy because Adderall, like other stimulant drugs, restricts the user’s appetite. With every visit to my psychiatrist I managed to raise the dosage of Adderall until I was taking in 80 to 100 milligrams daily. I was later informed by another psychiatrist that this is a dosage suitable for a 250-pound adult male. To this day, I do not understand how I, a 100-pound teenage girl at the time, was able to convince a professional that I needed so much medication. Despite already being on a massive Adderall dosage, I would seek out anything that would magnify the drug’s intensity, including the rapid consumption of caffeinated beverages, cigarettes, stimulated laxatives, and, most regrettably, methamphetamine.
Since I started taking Adderall, I had known that the drug was molecularly similar to meth. Throughout the years on Adderall, I lived with a constant fear that the drugs would wear off and I would be forced to retreat into the darkness of withdrawal and sobriety. So, when a friend with a similar affection for amphetamines offered me a hit of meth, I took it. To be honest, other than the method of administration (that is, smoking meth as opposed to swallowing Adderall pills), both drugs feel remarkably similar. If put to a blind test, I’m not sure I would be able to tell the difference. After smoking meth for the first time, just like my first time on Adderall, I skipped out on sleep to make crafts in my bedroom and conduct feverish research on whatever random topic struck my interest as if it were imperative that I become an expert in the field. Struck with paranoia and the inability to stop moving, I would speed walk for miles just to appease my impulses.
After several weeks of nonstop use of meth and Adderall, I could no longer hide or deny my fall into addiction. My mother found my pipe and torch, which confirmed her suspicions about my erratic behavior and increasingly gaunt appearance. She immediately called my psychiatrist who informed her that she would no longer be able to prescribe to me. In that moment, my whole world came down around me. In true drug addict form, I screamed, cried, and blacked my own eye in the kitchen of my parent’s house. The thought of having to live without my beloved drugs made me want to die. Yet, in retrospect, this was the single most important phone call of my life. In fact, I believe it is the reason I am still alive today.
I have struggled with the ADHD label because the series of events that came in response to being given this label presented far more challenges than what I had to deal with prior to receiving the diagnosis. Now, nearly two years free of meth and Adderall, my ability to focus and make sound decisions has never been better. Substance free, I no longer exhibit the symptoms of ADHD, which has led me to believe that my diagnosis was a false understanding of the temporary stress I experienced as a teenager. Now sober, I am not scatter-brained and manic. I am calm and level-headed. I do not identify as a person with ADHD. I do, however, as a result of my time living under the category of ADHD, identify as a drug addict. I hold my sobriety dearly, yet I will always remember the euphoria meth and Adderall made me feel and know the dark depth of its effects. It is through this experience that I have come to fully understand the monumental, life-altering power that stands behind simply giving something a name.
Maggie Mosbarger is a West Coast transplant studying Sociology at The New School and an aspiring social worker, who is still waiting to see competitive juggling in the Olympics.