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The Adderall Stigma

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My daughter turned 18 recently and I decided it was time to put the baby album together I’ve been meaning to get to for quite some time now. When I pulled out the boxes and boxes of photos and mementos, I came across some of my old report cards and yearbooks. As I went through them, I noticed a common thread woven through the words of my teachers and friends alike. Elementary school report cards had comments such as, “Jessica is very bright, I wish she would live up to her potential” and “Unfortunately, Jessica had a lot of difficulty following the classroom rules, this quarter. She simply will not stay in her seat!” A yearbook entry from a girl in my trig class read, “Jessica, you are so fun and so funny, it was great having this class with you. Two full semesters of trig, and I don’t think you’ve brought your book to class once!”

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Wow! The writing has always been on the wall. For some girls and women, ADHD may present itself in ways that are not typical of the common public perception. This was not the case for me. Apart from being female, I fit the stereotypical image of what ADHD looks like, to a T. Hyperactive, impulsive, forgetful, scattered, the list goes on. Unfortunately, ADHD was not as widely understood in the 1980’s, and because my grades were always good, I don’t think anyone felt any reason to intervene, other than to tell me I really needed to get my act together.

As I got older, and my behavior shifted from being “hyper” and “antsy,” to risky and at times even reckless. I got into three car accidents within my first year behind the wheel, and was subsequently dropped from my parents insurance plan. I was very well known by the high school deans as well all of the local police officers, several of the county judges and the assistant district attorney. They were all quite fond of me, as I was incredibly charming, but I was pretty much always in some sort of trouble, the reasons varying from traffic violations, to truancy, to underage drinking. It was not that I was some troubled teen with compromised morals, it was that I was simply not able to think through my decisions to do whatever it was I pleased. (You know, that voice that tells you, “Sounds like a great time, but my desire to avoid facing misdemeanor charges far outweighs my desire to  partake in this risky behavior.” Yeah, I didn’t have one of those.)

At that point my mother knew I had ADHD, and attempted to seek treatment. Unfortunately, the doctor we met with was adamant children should not be medicated for behavior problems, and basically insinuated that my mother should do a better job of keeping me in line. And, well, you know… doctors know best.

It was not until I was 25 that I once again sought treatment for myself. I was a nurse, I worked downtown and there was a great neuropsychologist in the area that performed an extensive analysis that confirmed the obvious; I did in fact, have ADHD, and it was pretty significant. He gave me the name of a psychiatrist and I was finally prescribed a medication that would forever change my life.

It is difficult to describe what Adderall does for me. I like to say that it’s like my brain finally got glasses after years of poor vision. Unmedicated, it’s as if my brain is stuck between several radio stations and I’m getting pieces of a couple songs, a talk radio show, the Spanish station and a whole lot of static. Medicated, my brain can fine-tune to a single station, giving me clarity and focus. It has enabled me to follow through with tasks, focus on conversations I’m having, and work more strategically and fluidly. It helps me perform the tasks most people do automatically and with ease. It has made my life more manageable, which in effect benefits my children, my husband, my patients and anyone who may happen to be on the streets while I am driving.

It also happens to be one of the most widely abused prescription drug in America.

There is a stigma attached to Addreall, the medicine that has lifted me from the fog and chaos that was once my life.

Undiagnosed ADHD, is inevitably associated with a risk for decreased self-esteem and feelings of shame . All those years of hearing “why can’t you just…” or “what’s wrong with you?” along with the obvious frustration that we cause our loved ones on a fairly consistent basis; it starts to chip away at our  confidence, and we start to believe what we hear… that clearly there must be something wrong with us.

Fortunately, proper treatment has enabled me to work through all of those feelings, and I have really learned to own my ADHD. I no longer feel the need to apologize for what I can not control, and I realize I will be a life long “work-in-progress,” and I love it! Knowing that I will continue to move forward in terms of my personal development is empowering. It’s like, the best is always yet to come.

Yet… I dread the monthly refill requests. And I rarely discuss with anyone, the fact that I take Adderall.

From the receptionist at my doctors office, to the pharmacist, to the people who may happen to see the prescription bottle in my purse, there is a level of judgement by others attached to taking this medication.

A few months ago, I called my doctor’s office to get my monthly refill. The receptionist looked up my chart and saw that the last refill was less than 30 days ago. She told me I could pick it up, but it would be dated for the following day. However, there were 31 days in that month, so this would cause me to miss a day of my medication. I tried explaining this to her, but she was determined to keep my “drugs” away from me for an extra day; out of spite. When I asked to talk to the doctor, she said she’d have him call me. I am assuming, he either set her straight, or she realized that she was being a jerk, because rather than him calling me, she called me back and said my prescription was signed and dated appropriately.

That same day, I dropped off my prescription at the pharmacy and the technician told me it would probably be a few hours because they were busy. No problem. But when she saw the three wild little kids in the back seat of my car, she looked at me and dryly said, “looks like you probably need it now, don’t you?” As if it were a “fix,” my answer to the demands of suburban mommy-hood.

My own friends will ask me how I was “able to get a prescription” and for the name of my doctor, as if anyone off the street can just walk in and request some “uppers.”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of controlling highly abused medications. I am a nurse, I am quite familiar with the devastating effects of substance abuse and addiction. However, the misunderstanding of the use of this medication for its intended purposes, contributes to the skepticism of ADHD, and mental illness in general.

I am a stereotypical, text-book version of ADHD and a thoroughly informed medical professional. If am still made to feel that I am being judged for taking a medication that has helped me to manage an otherwise often debilitating condition, then imagine the difficulty it must take for an undiagnosed woman with an atypical form of ADHD, and no medical background, to make the decision to seek treatment for herself.

Its heartbreaking to imagine how many people there are, untreated and suffering because of the fear of judgement or discrimination that come along with the diagnosis and treatment of any mental health issue.

I am hoping that in writing this, I am able to contribute in some way to the dismantlement of the barriers to recovery for those suffering with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD, as well as any other structurally stigmatized conditions and  illnesses, that can and should be treated. By hiding my ADHD or being silent about my treatment, including the fact that I am medicated, I am only contributing to the obstacles presented to those in need of help.

The fact is, that millions and millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions. It is estimated that more than half of them are not receiving proper treatment. If you feel that you may be struggling with a mental health condition of any kind, please know that you are not alone. You are far from being alone. There is help, and getting the help you need, is OK. It is more than OK… it is imperative.

Editor’s note: This piece is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please consult your doctor before starting or stopping medication.

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Image via Thinkstock.
Originally published: January 2, 2017
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