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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Pills And Productivity: A Personal Perspective

Brains scans of a healthy control group (left) and a methamphetamine user (right)
National Institute of Health
Brains scans of a healthy control group (left) and a methamphetamine user (right)

Substance abuse experts say there’s a strong connection between the stress of the pandemic and increased drug and alcohol use nationwide. In this story, we take a closer look at one of the personal stories behind the statistics.

For personal and professional reasons, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about addiction in the last year. I’ve talked to recovered addicts, counselors, people who run treatment centers. I’ve been all over Reddit. And I’m still not totally clear on what the difference is between being an addict and just being someone who uses drugs and alcohol to deal with stress. I wanted to talk to someone who might be grappling with that same question. Someone who had watched their relationship to substances spin out of control during the pandemic.

That’s how I found Kelsey. Kelsey’s not her real name. But that’s what we’re calling her. Kelsey grew up in the Bay Area. Now, she’s a graduate student at an art school in Southern California. In August of 2020 she was finishing up her thesis, and she came up with a plan to make that easier.

“I found a doctor within my insurance plan who described themself as specializing in quote academic and career success. So it was pretty easy,” she says.

She got what she was looking for: an Adderall prescription. It wasn’t her first time using Adderall. That was in high school, when she took the SATs. She wasn’t actually sure it helped. But she took it occasionally in college too, before writing a big paper, or studying for finals. She didn’t think it was the kind of thing she’d get hooked on. One, because it’s so expensive. And two, because it’s a study drug, not a party drug.

“It makes me turn inward in a really intense way, and it’s kind of ironic that, yeah, people take it for fun, cause I don’t find it fun at all,” she says.

But she wasn’t taking it for fun. No, this was for her thesis. For graduate school. The stakes were high. And she said it made her feel like a better writer.

“I feel like I can access some part of my vocabulary which is really strange. I think anybody who writes a lot gets really tired of using the same words over and over. You get to a point where you’re kind of just like, ‘I suck, I know like ten words.’ I feel like this other part of my memory or something is accessed because I'm so concentrated.”

And, for a while, she said it felt like it was helping her get through the monotony of the pandemic.

“It makes time pass really fast. I’ll be reading something or working on writing, working on my thesis, when I look up and it’s night time I’m like okay that’s another day that I don't have to do again.”

At first, she was just taking what she was prescribed. But by November of 2020, she was taking 40-65 milligrams a day. More than triple what her doctor had suggested. She knew this wasn’t great, but she also just didn’t see how she could stop before finishing her thesis.

Iknow exactly what she was going through.

The first time I took Adderall was also in high school. I took it to study for a math test. I used Adderall in college the same way Kelsey had: occasionally, casually. It was like my little treat during finals week. I’d sit in a cafe, and work for 10 hours straight, stopping only for cigarette breaks, and to buy more coffee. Or to sometimes have a really fast, and weirdly intense conversation with whoever had the misfortune of running into me.

I started abusing Adderall after college. I moved into a house with someone who had a prescription. She left it on the spice rack in our kitchen, right next to the paprika. She told us we could have as much as we wanted. And I took that very literally.

At first, it was just one pill a day, 15 milligrams. Usually around noon. It made work go by faster. I wasn’t eating, so I was saving money and losing weight. It made smoking cigarettes feel amazing. But what I really liked about Adderall was that it made me feel more alert, sharper, smarter. It was like I had a cheat code to life.

When 15 milligrams stopped being enough, I upped it to 30. Then 45. I took a break for a few months. Thought ‘Hm, that was weird and kind of intense, but I’m definitely not addicted, or I wouldn’t have been able to stop.’ Then I started the whole cycle over again.

I did this again and again and again for almost three years. At the peak of my Adderall use, I was taking up to 100 milligrams a day. I was completely miserable, but I had lost control. I asked Kelsey if she felt like she had control over her use.

“I don't feel anymore like I can necessarily do things without it,” she responded.

Exactly. I used Adderall for work. I used it to exercise. I took it before going to bars so that I’d be better at pool. I took it before meeting up with friends, before doctors' appointments, before cleaning my room, before getting groceries. I hated myself for being so dependent on something. And as I did more and more, it became less and less helpful, but I just kept doing it.

Kelsey put it this way: “It hasn't revolutionized the work that I produce or the rate at which I produce it. That is the irony. It hasn't really made it that much easier or faster or better, which is so stupid. It makes me feel so stupid.”

After almost three years, I started to obsess about my dependency and to do the kind of maniacal research that you do when you’re on Adderall. I’d stay up till two, three, four, in the morning, deep into Reddit threads about Adderall dependency, or looking up scans of people’s brains before and after heavy meth use. And then I started to get these horrible headaches. I couldn’t get high anymore because they were that bad. And in May of 2020, I took Adderall for the last time.

As crazy as it sounds, until I started interviewing Kelsey, I didn’t think of myself as an addict. I always had an excuse, some project or goal that justified hitting up my dealer. I told myself that this time was not gonna be like the last time. That I would just take X amount for Y days to complete Z.

“I don't doubt that there are people out there who take 10 milligrams three days a week and it really helps them. And they can kind of compartmentalize doing that from not doing that. And I'm just not one of those people and I don't know any of them,” she says.

I finally understand that I’m not one of those people either. It was like I couldn’t see how Adderall actually affected me until I saw how it affected someone else. I spent a few days after our first interview feeling worried about Kelsey and, also, like I owed her something for helping me to come to this realization.

When she texted me a week later and told me that she had stopped taking Adderall, cold turkey. I almost didn’t believe her.

“No, I’ve like stopped altogether,” she said.

“Oh, wow. Really?” I sound surprised.

“Yeah. I kind of knew, if I take any, I'm probably just going to keep taking more.”

She’d had a really rough week. She’d hardly slept, hardly eaten, all she was doing was working on her thesis. One night she was up late writing, and she finally cracked.

“It was like dead quiet. And I was just in there by myself. And the sound of the typing felt as if somebody was hitting me in the head, it was like making the headache worse. And I was so exhausted and I had been looking at the computer for so long. And so little observable progress had been made. Like, throughout that day, which was twelve hours, I only wrote four usable pages. I just felt completely – I don't know how to describe it – it makes you feel like you're out of touch with reality to be putting so much time into doing something and for there to be so...like the yield is so, so little. It just really made me feel like I wasn't living in reality anymore, you know?”

She spent a few days just kind of feeling what it was like to be a human again. She went outside, she ate some food, her head stopped hurting, she went to sleep. Then she threw away what was left of her prescription.

We check in about once a week. She says she still hasn’t taken any, but it hasn’t been easy. The first few weeks she was really sensitive and irritable. She doesn’t like that she’s eating again.

“I wish that I was, um, evolved enough to say that I fully accept and love my body, but that is absolutely not true,” she says.

And she still has a lot to get done for school.

“If I could take it for two weeks or something like, hell yeah, I would. Like now is maybe the first time I really wish I didn't get rid of it,” she says.

I asked her if she identifies as an addict. She says it’s complicated. She doesn’t want people to think that just because she had a problem with Adderall, she can’t have a drink with her friends, or take molly during Mardi Gras.

“You know, I'm drinking wine right now, but, like, I'm not going to drink the whole bottle, nor will I do that tomorrow.”

Even if she doesn’t think of herself as an addict, I like to think that every time we talk, we’re basically having a meeting.

“I think part of the reason why this even became a problem for me in the first place is because my identity for my entire young adult/adult life has been entirely too wrapped up in and dependent on feeling like I am intelligent,” she tells me. “And like this thing that makes you feel, I guess, like you can access different parts of your intelligence, but not really, but it tricks you into thinking that you can, like duh I'm going to get hooked on that. And not really be able to feel joy in any other real way. It's almost like there's a dichotomy between pleasure and joy and simple things like the moon and then being intelligent. And that's like a totally false dichotomy. That's completely in my own head, but it exacerbated that that already exists, you know?” She pauses.

“Oh my God, you just, like, literally, that's exactly, exactly it,” I sound excited and eager. “You just hit the nail right on the head. I've always had this idea that you can either be happy or you can be like ...” I pause.

“Smart,” she says.

“Smart,” I say.

Wren Farrell (he/him) is a writer, producer and journalist living in San Francisco.