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Life before and after Ritalin

Throughout her life, Shannon Heffernan had trouble focusing because of ADHD. When she was 23, she realized she couldn’t live that way any more. So, for the first time, she decided to take Ritalin – a well-known pharmaceutical used to manage ADHD. And she decided to record her experience of how the drug might change her. This is her story.

SHANNON HEFFERNAN: Okay it’s 8:15, I’m running late again, I need to be out the door in ten minutes. Shoot, where’s my toothbrush.

That’s the sound of me getting ready in the morning

HEFFERNAN: I’m heading out the door. Oh shoot, I gotta go back, I gotta get my bus pass.

I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, ADHD. It makes my life interesting.

KYLE SCHMIDT: I’m Kyle Schmidt, and I went to college with Shannon. And one time I was in class with Shannon and she started flipping out because she couldn’t find her book. So she starts going through her bag and she finds this little can of condensed orange concentrate. And so she comes to class the next day and she’s found her book and we’re like “hey Shannon, where’d you find your book?” And she’s like “it was in my freezer, where my orange juice is supposed to go.”

I was diagnosed with ADHD in the third grade. My parents said they were always frustrated with how I would drift off into my own world, but they never put me on Ritalin. I asked my dad why.

HEFFERNAN’S FATHER: We were concerned about the negative side effects of medicating and the fact that you were so highly intelligent. So we didn’t give you … sometimes we would think, “WellM she’s just being lazy,” when you were younger. We hadn’t learned who you were yet – your full personality hadn’t come through.

My dad said he knew his decision to keep me off Ritalin was right when adults kept telling him that talking to his 10-year-old daughter was like talking to a grownup.

But now that I’m 23, I don’t feel so grownup. When I graduated college, I started doing research for a Chicago theater. My first week at work I was supposed to drop off some notes, but I took a bus going the wrong direction and was 30 minutes late. When I finally arrived, I couldn’t find the notes. I went home to print them out again, but I realized I had somehow deleted the file. I felt so embarrassed.

I realized that if I went on like this, I would never become the adult I wanted to be, so I’ve deciding to try something new.

HEFFERNAN: I’m sitting here with my first dose of Ritalin and I’m feeling a mix of things. I’m felling excited that this might alleviate some of the chaos that I have dealt with my whole life. I’m feeling a little sad, like maybe if this works I’ll be saying goodbye to something that’s been a part of me my whole life and I’m not sure if I might lose something in addition to what I gain. Okay, here it goes. (swallows pills)

My first few days on Ritalin, I couldn’t tell if it was making a difference. I wanted it to work so much that every time something went right I thought, “There, that, maybe that’s the Ritalin.” I wondered, “What is Ritalin doing in my brain right now?” So I looked it up.

Ritalin stimulates a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Scientists guess that dopamine somehow stimulates the attention centers of the brain, but they’re not really sure. They don’t know what causes ADHD and they can’t tell why certain things fix it. It makes it difficult to know: what’s me and what’s ADHD? What’s the pills and what’s just me hoping something’s different?

It’s my third day on Ritalin and I just finished a project for work in half the time it used to take me. It may sound strange but I’ve been feeling like I’m working faster because my brain’s slowed down. Usually I haven’t finished one idea before the next idea is already in my head. It’s like an ocean trying to get through a garden hose – it just doesn’t work. I had never realized ‘til just now that I was operating in an abnormal way. It’s like when you’re in a room and the sun is setting and you don’t realize that the room has gotten dark and someone comes in and turns on the light, and you think, “Oh wow, how was I reading in the dark?” This is so much better.

But there was a problem: I couldn’t remember to take the Ritalin. It was frustrating that I had to remember and keep track of pills in order to remember and keep track of things. It’s like telling somebody with no arms that they can have arms, but they have to pick them up off the ground first.

My frustration reached a peak one morning when I forgot to take my pill.

LAURA GORDON [voicemail message]: Hello, you’ve reached Laura Gordon, please leave me a message and I will call you back.

HEFFERNAN: Hi Laura, this is Shannon. You’re not gonna believe this, but I’m calling you from jail. I was in the grocery store and I dazed out or something and I left the store with my groceries without paying and they arrested me.

After I made my phone call, I was strip searched and put in a cell. The policeman stood outside and answered my cell phone. When Laura tried to call me back, she got him.

LAURA GORDON: And I tried to ask him, “What did she shoplift?” Cause I’m still like completely confused about this whole idea. And he won’t tell me anything, he is basically just saying, you know, “She’s gonna have to pay the price.”

HEFFERNAN: I was so mad because I was sitting there inside the cell and he hadn’t into my bad and gotten onto my cell phone, it rang, and was just telling everybody who answered, “She’s in jail for shoplifting, she’s in jail for shoplifting.” And I’m thinking, all my friends are gonna think, “What’s happening?”

GORDON: I remember when you came back afterwards, you had like two days where you were like really worried that you actually were a shoplifter. I’m thinking that everyone was gonna think that you were just this terrible person now.

HEFFERNAN: I kinda recall that when I called you, you laughed. (laughter)

I went to court for the shoplifting case. The security guard didn’t show up and so the charges were dropped. Walking out of the courtroom, I wanted it to be a symbolic new beginning. Now I could start. Now I could become that person I wanted to be. But I’ve learned that it doesn’t quite work that way.

We all have things that we want to change about ourselves. And sometimes we do change. But sometimes we find ourselves in the same patterns no matter how hard we try or what pills we take. Ritalin wasn’t a success or a failure, a beginning or an end. Because like so many things we think will change our lives, from moving to a new city to ending a relationship, I was still there in the end. I don’t think this means we shouldn’t try and get to better places in our lives, I just think it means we can’t forge our passports to get there.

Click the audio player above to listen to the story. 

This story previously aired on "Crosscurrents" on November 3, 2010.

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