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Wednesday, March 30, 2005 | This feature story, written by Torrey Pines High School senior Matt Franks, first appeared in the February 2005 issue of The Falconer, the school’s student newspaper. Torrey Pines High School is located in Carmel Valley. Voice of San Diego welcomes other submissions from high school newspapers. Please e-mail to Barbara Bry at Barbara.Bry@voiceofsandiego.org.
A few weeks ago, a statistics project hit the senior class hard – blindingly hard. Late into the night before the project was due, panicked, sleep-deprived seniors sat at home in front of their computers frantically entering data about the colors of a handful of M&M’s chocolate candies.
Red. Green. Brown. Yellow. Orange. Blue. It was one wild color wheel.
That night, Kristin* (12) sat in her room contemplating small colored candies of a different nature. Like many of her classmates, Kristin procrastinated on her statistics project. Now the pressure was on. Kristin resolved to pop a few orange and blue pills of the prescription drug Adderall, and then she set to her homework for that evening.
“It was good,” Kristin said. “I was up all night. I went crazy. I was able to hyper-focus and plow through the project.”
A well-rounded student with a 4.3 grade point average, Kristin is friendly and talkative. She takes mostly honors classes and hopes to go to a top-tier college. In fact, she is not unlike many of the high-achieving students that flood Torrey Pines High School. But she does procrastinate. Occasionally, she uses Adderall to help manage her work when things pile up.
“I’ve probably used it 10 times in my academic career,” Kristin said. “I save it for big projects and tests.”
Adderall is a drug prescribed to treat children and adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, often referred to as ADHD. The drug has been on the market since 1996 and makes use of amphetamine to help counter the inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness experienced by those with ADHD.
Recently, Adderall has generated a following of users who do not have ADHD. These abusers are high school and college students, and, at least according to ABC’s fictional hit-series “Desperate Housewives,” even overworked mothers. They use Adderall as a mental steroid when they have too much work and not enough time.
According to Dr. Martin Stein, co-chairman of the Academy of Pediatrics Practice Guidelines on the Diagnosis and Treatment of ADHD in Children, there is no published information about the pervasiveness of Adderall abuse.
“There’s no way to know exactly how widespread [the abuse is],” he said. “But I’ve certainly heard about it.”
The number of prescriptions given for the drug has boomed in recent years, rising from 200,000 in 2001 to 6.4 million in 2003. It comes as no surprise that all of the students interviewed for this article first received Adderall from a friend or relative with a prescription.
“I had a lot of work to do for finals,” said Alisa* (12), who tried Adderall for the first time a few weeks ago. “My friend has a prescription and was like, ‘Seriously, it makes so much of a difference.’ I just took it to see how it would affect me. It helped a lot.”
Alisa sped through pages of notes for her physics and calculus finals. She became fascinated with Newton’s equations, transfixed with derivatives, enraptured with kinematics. She moved through radial acceleration with velocity. Alisa was so intent on being productive that when she finished studying, she proceeded to clean her room for hours later.
Alisa’s experience is not unique. According to Kristin, “I’ve had a lot of times where literally from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. the next morning, I haven’t even left my chair. I just work straight through.”
Kristin describes her thinking on Adderall as “very lucid.” She uses words like “optimistic,” “clear” and “talkative” to describe her experiences. “I end up getting into huge philosophical discussions if I ever take a break to talk to anyone,” Kristin said. “I’m just very excited about everything.”
But Adderall does have its drawbacks. Gia* (12) has been using Adderall since her sophomore year when her sister, who has a prescription, first gave her some to help study. According to her, several hours afterward, the Adderall-induced high comes with terrible lows.
“Your body gets very tired, but your mind is still alert,” Gia said. “I lay in bed and my body is sore and exhausted, but my mind is still going a mile a minute. It sucks.”
According to Stein, these adverse effects result from high-doses of Adderall. The drug comes in varying doses, most commonly in blue 10-milligram pills and orange 20-milligram pills. According to Stein, taking 30 milligrams or more in a short period of time is considered a “high-dose.” He refers to the exhaustion that Gia describes as the “rebound effect.”
According to Stein, taking high doses of Adderall can result in hypertension (elevated blood pressure) and potentially abnormal heart rhythms. It can also adversely affect a user’s brain systems. The minor side effects of Adderall, which can result from dosages below 30 milligrams, include decreased appetite, prevented sleep, motor twitches and headaches.
For Gia, these negative side effects do not seem to matter when all she can think about is the calculus final she has the next day. She warns that although she initially took 20 milligrams at a time when she began using Adderall her sophomore year, she increased her dosage when she began using the drug more frequently. At times she takes up to 90 milligrams of Adderall over the night to study for an individual assignment.
Although Adderall addiction is something Gia, Kristin and Alisa fear, they say that they are careful to keep their Adderall abuse to a minimum, using it only every few weeks. Still, Stein warns that Adderall should not be used as a mental steroid.
“Adderall is not a designer drug,” he said. “I’d recommend just drinking coffee.”
*Name changed to protect identity
Adderall XR (extended release – long acting form) has been pulled off the market in Canada due to reports of sudden death.