How I hacked my brain with Adderall: a cautionary tale

add_morph1“I know kung fu.”

There I sat, glued to my chair, watching the instructional videos on my laptop, guzzling Coke Zero, and practicing in the software on my external monitor. I optimized my posture over the course of the first few hours, ironing out repetitive stress pain as it came along, taking smoke breaks between every chapter: “Getting Started With After Effects,” “Learning to Animate,” “Precomposing and Nesting Compositions.” As the sun dipped below the horizon, I found myself at chapter 19: “Rendering and Compression,” and finally, at dusk, Chapter 21: “Conclusion.” My virtual instructor Chad Perkins wished me well in my motion graphics career and I realized that I was falling in love with him: his nimble pick-whipping and soothing color correction subtly opening the door to my racing heart. I became one with him, and, as a result, I internalized After Effects. As the credits rolled, Neo flashed into my head. “I know After Effects,” he said, opening his eyes and staring up at Morpheus through my corneas. Less than a month later, I had landed my first job producing visuals for a national tour for the popular electronic jam band Sound Tribe Sector 9. Although they weren’t scrolling inches below Mike Ditka’s moustache, my motion graphics were now going to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people on a 30-foot LED pyramid, and my ESPN debut felt so close I could smile at it. This was life on speed; this was me jacking into the Matrix; this was a repeatable equation: Lynda + Adderall = Knowledge + Skills. Something powerful came to life here, something new and useful and limitless that had incubated inside me for 29 years, but wouldn’t come out without the help of a shitload of tiny pink pills.
“The Black Shakes. What causes it?”
– Johnny Mnemonic, 1995

“Information overload! Technological fucking civilization… we can’t live without it.”
– Spider

Up until my mid-twenties, I considered myself a learning maximalist: never wanting to specify a direction for myself, preferring always to try to keep up with everything that was going on around me. For the most part, I was able to. Things hadn’t reached critical mass yet, social content was just ramping up with the early days of YouTube, the heyday of MySpace, and the beginnings of Twitter and Flickr. I recall very clearly the moment I realized it was no longer possible. I was working as a producer for a daily public radio show and was responsible for scouring the web for cultural tidbits to pitch each morning for coverage. My content digestion system, a tightly-engineered machine woven from Bloglines, specialized Firefox plugins, and a top-notch gChat list was race-lubricated and flying high, content bubbling and churning below me all around the Internet. The production value of content in general at that time was manageable enough to feel like I could at least be cognisant of the most important LOLcats, Bieber memes, and new music that surfaced each and every day. One day in late 2007 a friend was astonished to learn I hadn’t yet seen footage of the Japanese cat that goes into boxes, 特訓するねこ. I watched the video, and it was right in my wheelhouse, something I normally would have been the firstie of in my peer group. Fear of missing out (or FOMO, a social media-fueled psychosis we don’t yet fully understand) gripped me, a raw panic searing the synapses of my inner learning maximalist. What had kept me from getting to it before she did? Was my machine rusted out from too much linkbait? Over time, it dawned on me that I didn’t really care that I hadn’t seen it. A triumph of virality in its purest form, but still nothing that shocked me. The content flood had finally risen above my nostrils, and the scope of my world began to shrink out of necessity. With maximalism no longer tenable, I had to focus on something, exorcise a massive lump of FOMO from my psyche, pick an area of expertise, and aim squarely for mastery of it.
Fear of missing out (or FOMO, a social media-fueled psychosis we don’t yet fully understand) gripped me

For years and years I struggled with this. As a freelancing work-from-home type it is often difficult to motivate oneself to follow through on project ideas, especially when they come fast and furious at all hours of the day. My fellow Virgo Lil Wayne has often discussed the endless flood of lyrics that scream through his head so violently that when he finally gets to work in the studio, it’s a relief: he can, at last, depressurize. But Wayne is an extreme artist, far more extreme than most, and he treats his extremities heavily with codeine cough syrup and marijuana. If I wanted to pull myself up out of the flood of information and ideas, I needed some sort of therapy: I had to find my dank drank. With a little help from my already-artificially-hyper-productive friends, I think I knew where to find it.
“Floor it.”
– Officer Jack Traven, 1994

Adderall’s active ingredient is amphetamine. Like most useful drugs, amphetamine has been used in one form or another for centuries (popular references include the hospital scene from Downton Abbey Episode One, Dexys Midnight Runners, and, looking ahead, the Neurachem of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon). Just as Merck used to manufacture the best cocaine on the entire planet, Shire now produces the most reliable amphetamine money can buy. And it’s good shit, so good that it sits with opium and cocaine on the USA’s List of Schedule II Controlled substances.
Getting a prescription for Adderall is not hard

Getting a prescription for Adderall is not hard. Nearly every major city has a weekly alternative news and arts magazine that is half-full of ads for escorts and pain management clinics. You’ve probably seen them: “CHRONIC BACK PAIN? GLAUCOMA? ADULT ADHD? WE CAN HELP.” I called one of these clinics, located in a zip code painfully familiar to all fans of early-90s teen sitcoms, and scheduled a consultation about my presumptive case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. After answering a few multiple-choice questions about my attention span (the “right” answers were knee-slappingly clear), the briefest physical I’ve ever encountered, and handing over two hundred dollars in cash, I walked out the door with 900 milligrams of generic adderall.

The super-jolt of energy novice users experience mellows after a few days of use and changes character dramatically. It does become a very sufficient coffee replacement: a little ritual combined with chemical stimulation that motivates you to get out of bed. But coming up daily on Adderall has less to do with a caffeinated sensation than it does with becoming a detail-oriented post-human, a machine following self-imposed routines with little regard for anything outside the routine’s scope. It turns out that my Adderall self has a knack for accounting, spreadsheets, and administrative tasks that my unstimulated self would normally shy away from: an inbox-zeroing robot bent on eking out every last ounce of productivity my heightened senses could spit out. Keeping up with the moving parts of being self-employed, as I am, is easy on Adderall. It feels almost robotic, as if I’m hiring an assistant to take care of the books. But an Adderall prescription is much cheaper than hiring a competent assistant, and I always know I can trust myself (even if it is a different version of myself) to keep it honest when it comes to my bottom line.

There is an issue of time here as well. As someone in the content generation industry, my normal self’s most valuable asset is creativity: producing product that others will pay, in one way or another, to consume. Transforming into an Administrative Jekyll for a certain amount of time every day limits the amount of time my Creative Hyde can come up with content to market and sell. Luckily, amphetamines have that problem tackled as well: when you’re using them, you don’t have to sleep… at all. That frees up quite a few hours of the day. Amphetamine’s extreme appetite suppressant qualities will also save time you used to spend going to the grocery store. As someone with a penchant for eating everything that’s in my field of vision (often to help me avoid doing work), this was all fine with me: I waved goodbye to expensive lunches (well, to lunch in general, actually) and to those peanut butter and Cheetos-induced pounds that normally hang out around my waistline.
“How’s it hangin, Death?”
–Evil Ted, 1991

One of the first things you notice about Adderall is its “hard reset” effect on your metabolism. As you begin to come up, you’d best plan to be near a toilet. Part of the impetus for this whole shitshow was my recently-acquired and very violent intolerance of coffee. While Adderall doesn’t induce the internal bleeding coffee had begun to elicit in my bowels, it’s obviously a very powerful stimulant, without a lot of the rot-gut acidic effects coffee has in its arsenal. Side effect number one, noted, with cautious optimism.

Around came the second, after about two weeks of regular use: rampant eye twitches. Not anything that would interfere with my daily habits, but still an annoyance I knew was coming from the medication. A constant reminder to me and my confidants that something unnatural was acting out in my body. Fluttering eyelids were one thing I was willing to deal with — I was ESPN-bound, after all! But the first time I became truly scared of what was happening to me was when the discharge began.
As you begin to come up, you’d best plan to be near a toilet

After three months on Adderall, in one of the monthly phone check-ins with my clinic, I mentioned that the drug’s effects had diminished significantly, and got my monthly dose doubled (just in case this message was lost on you, I’ll make it clear: amphetamines are extraordinarily addictive). I was sentenced to 60 mg a day, an entire pill in the morning and another later on when my brain started to wander. The first morning I committed to 30 mg went swimmingly until it was time for a bathroom break. After a minute or so in Porcelainville, a small amount of seminal fluid oozed lazily out of my primary private part. I was a little too shocked to be scared, and also flying on my new dose, so I sort of chuckled nervously and told myself a dirty schoolyard joke to take my mind off the situation. But it kept happening, every time I sat down on the toilet for more than a minute, and sometimes when I was just sitting down on a chair. Like any modern male, I took to ADHD forums and found that I wasn’t alone. Amphetamine puts a lot of pressure on the prostate, and if it’s not expressed daily, the buildup from that pressure finds its way out of your body when you don’t want it to. Since we’re on the subject, I’ll go ahead and tell you about Adderall’s “Killer App” — erectile dysfunction!!! Haaaayyyy girl!!! To be honest, seeing that on the forums didn’t shock me: with my focus pinned in on work, I’d had little motivation or time to go out and get drunk enough to seek a mate (read: a lot of nights spent at home with Buffy).

Amphetamine operates primarily by increasing levels of norepinephrine, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn triggers the body’s “fight or flight” mechanisms. Quickened heartbeat, heightened awareness, enhanced muscle control and metabolic rates: processes that require a lot of blood. That excess surge of blood comes from the supply that would normally be diverted to non-essential organs. All of the other issues I could live with. But when I miraculously stumbled upon a great girl I wanted to have sex with a lot, disaster struck: during a romantic getaway intended to bring her closer into my world, I couldn’t get it up! As a former user herself she had encountered similar situations and sympathized. She also made it abundantly clear that I was to cease taking my medications immediately. I didn’t object. If it’s never happened to you before, let me just tell you: not being able to have sex when you’re used to being a Hornball From Another Dimension is terrifying. One of those life-flashing-before-your-eyes moments. Something they don’t tell you about at the clinic, for sure.

A subtler but probably much more profound effect permeates my cycle of Adderall use. I’d stopped eating. I’d stopped sleeping. I’d stopped getting horny. I’d stopped getting distracted by habits that I normally reveled in, which all seemed good. One day, about five months in, I noticed that I had stopped paying attention to music. My pleasure receptors, which in their normal state constantly cry out for sex, french fries, naps, and Katy Perry, had all become blunted. As a DJ that last thirst was something that sustained me not only spiritually but financially, and its void scared me almost as much as my flaccid penis. If I wasn’t the California Gurl-obsessed snack addict I knew, then what the fuck was I?
I had finally met my first addiction, and it lived in a Walmart parking lot, in the disheveled cart collector, without Katy Perry

There is a tinge of substance abuse that runs through my family, so during this whole thing I was always hyper-aware of where I thought I was on the addiction spectrum. At no point did the alarm bells sound quite so clearly as the first time I couldn’t find any Adderall. A few months back, during a well-documented shortage with possibly nefarious roots in Israel and China, there just wasn’t anyone in my neighborhood that stocked the stuff anymore. I hit the gMap hard and called every pharmacy in increasingly wider circles from my home until I eventually found a Walmart 45 minutes away, in Duarte, where it was mercifully in stock. A distant memory of freshman psychology fluttered into my consciousness: for many alcoholics, the mere scent of booze is enough to induce a drunken state. I can’t remember what gave me the bigger amphetamine rush, hearing the pharmacist other end saying “yeah, we’ve got some left,” or the taste of a saccharine pink pill on my tongue as soon as I hit the parking lot. I had finally met my first addiction, and it lived in a Walmart parking lot, in the disheveled cart collector, without Katy Perry.

There is a light at the end of this tunnel, and I actually think it’s a pretty cool one: pretty much anything that’s going wrong with you — physically, mentally, spiritually, interpersonally — can be attributed to the drug. If you don’t wanna deal with the drawbacks, and you’re lucky enough to not be totally dependent on the drug, you just quit! It’s kind of like going to the pharmacist, complaining of having Mystery AIDS, the flu, and erectile dysfunction, and getting one single pill to cure them all, but the pill is actually no pills at all.
“Feels good to be alive, doesn’t it?”
– Johnny Utah, 1991

No pills at all was, for me, fairly easy. I did a classic addiction swap, bringing back old favorites like “stare at the ceiling for another half hour,” “have another snack,” and “watch shitty informercials on YouTube for three hours,” a diet that I knew and felt at home with. The amphetamine-sharpened edges of my mind began to dull. I went to Trader Joe’s and bought a shitload of pita chips. Doing work didn’t come nearly as easily as it did on the drug, but I found I was able to tap into a lot of the same sensibilities I acquired on Adderall to accomplish tasks I wasn’t super-enthusiastic about. Lunch came back into fashion, as did the lengthy noontime naps. My new lover got more than her fair share of makeup sex.

One miraculous day, driving to the beach with the windows down, I heard my favorite “Teenage Dream” remix as I hadn’t heard it in half a year, flooding my smile-induction neurons with naturally-produced and -absorbed dopamine. My sense of lazy but useful peacefulness in the universe sprung anew and manifested itself in a way that I had never — not even before I went to the pain clinic — felt before. Adderall had introduced me to a new version of myself. It wasn’t me, but it was a cool weird nerdy synthetic me that regular me could get along with fantastically. Like all psychoactive drugs, Adderall had opened my mind, even if it was in a very roundabout way.
“The only way is to hack your own brain.”
–J-bone, 1995

I can’t be totally sure about it, but I think the omnipresence of Google really has put me in a “Johnny Mnemonic” situation. Information overload! I feel like I already know far too many Not For Tourists / local LOLcat population facts about other places before I even get there. While William Gibson’s black shakes — Nerve Attenuation Syndrome — haven’t turned up yet (aside from twitchy eyes), the world has become overwhelmingly detailed to the point that I need to whittle away at the amount of information I receive rather than add to it. My pseudo-journalistic / artsy-fartsy idols relied on psychedelics and travel to increase knowledge in an additive clay-like way.

Adderall is the chisel I use on the gigantic marble form of the world, a subtractive process to try to arrive at some larger truth.

Like anything else, Adderall and all of its chemical relatives can be, and are, abused on all levels. I am not a doctor, but in my heart I know this shit should NOT be given to children, even in a world where it’s increasingly harder to focus on something that isn’t your Facebook timeline. The entire neurological and sociological conditioning cycles of childhood are all about constant stimulus overload. Our brains learn to whittle away at life’s rough edges until we become who we are as adults. A baby poops its pants because it doesn’t know how (or why) to NOT poop its pants. At a certain point we learn sphincter control; we learn that pooping one’s pants might not be the best way to make friends on the playground. Throwing powerful psychoactive chemicals into the developmental mix is a dangerous idea. In addition to making children high and focused, it will probably also seriously affect their abilities to to draw together disparate points and problem-solve in a world full of unsolved problems.
Adderall is the chisel I use on the gigantic marble form of the world

By carefully evaluating how we medicate ourselves (which we will anyway, whether it’s legal, illegal, ethical, or unethical), we have the potential to harness this technological fucking civilization in more innovative ways than any other country in the world. Going a little furthur I’d say it’s a duty to think actively about how we can use medicine and technology to expand the limits of our knowledge, to define new paradigms of information that will help everyone deal with an explosion of knowledge that no one in the world knows how to deal with (Except For By Hotboxing The Van And Dissolving Into a Puddle of Lesbian LOLcats That Look Like Bieber Remix).
“I think I’m just going to lie here for a moment and collect my thoughts.”
–Shane Falco, 2000

All of this, of course, is one person’s perspective. Your mileage will certainly vary drastically. Over the past months I’ve been able to develop something of a long-term tidal pattern of usage. If I’ve got a big deadline, a huge project to complete, or a lack of income staring at me on the horizon, I’m able to dip into the orange bottle on a short-term basis. I use Adderall as a tool, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that; it’s more effective (and cheaper) than Starbucks, which seems to be benign enough of a drug. If I’m coming off a fortnight of sleepless, nose-to-the-grindstone nights on speed, I clear my calendar for a few days, snack my brains out, and do the wonderfully passive work of connecting the random dots of the world around me. I gotta keep an eye on me, for sure, but I’m not gonna beat myself up about my drug use. I’m well-attuned to both ends of my usage patterns and see my position in the cycle clearly from day to day. As for super long-term effects, well, I’m not too optimistic about the nervous and reproductive systems I’m developing for my AARP-era self. But that’s not me now. This is me now:

Illustrations by Stephanie Max

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