Tales from a world of performance and risk: Adderall at Loomis Chaffee
|Graphic by Jaehwan Kim '13|
Editors’ note: This piece, the first in a series on the usage of Adderall and similar stimulants, is not based on a scientific sample of students. No evidence is presented to suggest the extent of usage at Loomis Chaffee or elsewhere. All names in this article have been changed to protect the identities of individual students.
PERFORMANCE HIGH | A LOG SERIES
First of three parts
John Brady didn’t feel any different from his usual self when he took his first Adderall pill. He had a weighty English essay — worth more than 20 percent of his fall term grade — due in two days, and, at one o’clock in the morning, something had to give.
Then his right leg began to shake. But he didn’t realize it. The writing began to flow, and everything else faded away.
Brady’s interpretive sentences no longer required thought; writing felt like putting together a simple jigsaw puzzle. There was no more confusion. “Everything you’ve practiced becomes instinct,” he said.
When the pill began to wear off, around four in the morning, he felt himself slowing down in every sense of the word. As if someone were turning off a spigot, the flow of ideas began to slow. He felt hungry, dehydrated, tired and aware of everything around him. Four hours later, he found himself back in class, unable to concentrate.
Brady’s paper received one of the highest scores of any in the class. He believes it’s the best paper he’s written this year.
* * *
Adderall, one of the most used and abused prescription drugs in America, is prescribed to people with ADHD (hyperactivity) to help them concentrate (it is also prescribed for narcolepsy). Adderall is, like Ritalin, Vyvanse, Focalin and Concerta, a stimulant that causes the body to metabolize food quickly and increase the efficiency of the brain’s processes.
Legal in only the United States and Canada, Adderall relies on amphetamine, the same active chemical found in the street drug ‘meth.’ Adderall is perhaps best known in the academic world as a ‘brain steroid’ — a drug that increases academic performance by augmenting concentration.
Less well known are its significant negative side effects. Excessive Adderall usage can lead to weight loss, insomnia, changes in vision and even, in a few cases, neurological and behavioral shifts.
Prescription usage, however, is not seen as unsafe. “Psychostimulants — when taken at appropriate doses under a doctor’s supervision — do not seem to cause permanent damage to, or changes in, the brain. Nor do they seem to increase one’s susceptibility to depression. In fact, they are probably the best studied and in some ways safest of all psychiatric drugs,” wrote Charles Raison, a psychiatrist at Emory University’s medical school, in a 2009 column for CNN Health.
* * *
John Brady doesn’t have an Adderall prescription, but that doesn’t mean that it’s hard for him to obtain Adderall. His first pill came from a close friend, who said that he purchased it from another friend — a friend with an Adderall prescription.
No illegal student user interviewed by the Log had ever heard of illegal Adderall not coming from prescribed users on campus.
Jasper Smith and Kyle Johnson, both of whom have taken Adderall and stimulants both academically and recreationally, said that Adderall is easy to find. “Some will just give it, or you can buy some,” said Smith.
“People will say, ‘I’ll give you one; just give me a dollar,’ or, ‘Give me a slice of pizza,’” said Johnson.
Adderall usage is particularly popular during exam periods, both for studying and for testing, as well as before and during SAT administrations. Johnson said that he’s seen individual pills go for as much as $15 in the days prior to final exams.
Loomis Chaffee’s Health Center has a strict prescription drug policy for boarders. Boarders can receive only a 24-hour supply of their medication at a time, and if they’re found with more than that, they can be placed on Level II status. Any prescribed student on Level II status for drugs or alcohol must take their dosage in the health center.
Because boarders, unlike day students, don’t manage their own prescriptions, for them distributing Adderall to friends means not taking it themselves.
* * *
Many see Adderall as a way to get ahead in a pressurized academic climate. Students know that their grades and SAT scores will radically affect their futures, so they turn to a drug they think will help.
Brady says that he wouldn’t have used Adderall if he had had more time on his essay. He thinks that reducing students’ illegal Adderall usage is as simple as reducing the workload. “If I had 20 percent less work, then I’d be 20 percent less likely to use it,” he said.
He says he faces pressure from his parents to get into a top college and that he doesn’t feel as if he has other options. He wishes the school would spend less energy trying to punish students and more empathizing with them, he said.
* * *
Although the school considers Adderall usage, in terms of disciplinary action, to be as serious as recreational drug use, some student users say that because Adderall induces faster and more efficient thinking, it’s not as serious. “I don’t use drugs recreationally here,” said Sarah Anderson, who used Adderall illegally for years before testing positively for ADD and getting a prescription. “But I would take Adderall for academic stuff because that’s not the same thing. I’m not taking it to get high; I’m taking it to do my homework.”
“Maybe it’s unfair because not everyone has that advantage, but it’s a stressful place and if I can get some kind of advantage without many side effects, then why not?” said Melvin Puckett, an illegal Adderall user.
Even though most illegal student users interviewed said that they only used Adderall for academic purposes, they did notice a correlation between students who use Adderall and those who use other recreational drugs. “I mean, if you’re willing to break the rule against illegal Adderall usage, then I guess that you’d be more likely to break rules against other types of drugs,” said Puckett.
Brady said that most of his friends who use Adderall, even just for academic purposes, also use or have used other drugs recreationally.
* * *
Recreational Adderall usage is another story altogether.
Smith and Johnson use Adderall recreationally — more often, in fact, than they do academically. Compared to the effects of other recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, the effects of Adderall are tough to detect. There’s no smell, and users still have full control of their behavior.
There are two different forms of Adderall: XR, or extended release, which acts for about 12 hours, and IR, or instant release, which acts for just a few hours. Smith and Johnson said that IR is used at LC primarily recreationally and that it’s more expensive to purchase: while illegal XR pills generally cost no more than $6, IR pills can cost as much as $10. They said that IR pills are frequently crushed and snorted.
“The effects of snorting Adderall are instantaneous. It just hits you all of a sudden. If you take a dosage that’s two or three times larger than what you might normally take for studying, then you feel very hyper and energetic and happy,” said Eden Lancaster, a friend of Brady’s who has used Adderall illegally but no longer does so.
Anderson said that recreational Adderall usage is certainly correlated with the use of other illegal drugs. “I mean, taking Adderall through the means of snorting is definitely going to be paired with some other type of recreational drug,” she said.
* * *
Mike Grover is embarrassed by his Adderall prescription — so much so that he was reluctant to be interviewed anonymously for this article.
“The amount I take is probably not as much as it should be. I don’t want to push it,” he said. “It’s just enough to give me a bit of a boost.”
He was prescribed Adderall last year. When he was first tested, he was given increasing test dosages to the point where he didn’t sleep for three days and his leg muscles began to uncontrollably loosen. “I ended up beating the crap out of my legs,” he said. “I thought I wasn’t going to walk for the rest of my life.”
“I don’t want that to happen again,” he said.
Grover uses Adderall only when he’s in school and has never used it recreationally. He does, however, provide it to friends who wish to use it academically — like Puckett. He says that he wouldn’t do so if he felt that they were addicted or that they were using it for anything other than studying.
Because he’s a day student, he doesn’t need to get his daily dosage from the Health Center and therefore can continue to take it even while he provides it to others.
* * *
Brady didn’t use Adderall for another paper, but with final exams looming ahead, he purchased some more. He even decided to try using Adderall to enhance his sports performance.
‘When you take it, you have this feeling of superiority,” he said. At his game, he had tremendous success. He couldn’t believe his playing skill.
Then came the time for studying. With the help of Adderall, it was a breeze: he memorized compulsively, but without really understanding the material. When finals week finally came, Brady began taking one extended release pill a day. For days on end, he barely slept and food was optional.
The Adderall worked again: Brady’s exam grades were excellent. But even so, he doesn’t plan to use it again. “It’s not worth it. It’s just work. It’s homework. And at the time, it might seem worth it — when you need to get that one letter grade up — but it’s not,” he said.
Brady wants to do well in school, but to him, there are other, more important factors to consider. “After that week, I don’t want to take it again,” he said. “I don’t want to end up in a hospital.”