For the protection of the students interviewed below, their names have been changed to ensure their anonymity.
The Allure of the Orange Bottle
She clutched that translucent orange bottle in the palm of her hand. It rattled with those tiny little pills, jumbling with every shake and jolt. She opened up her medicine cabinet every morning, and that clank, that clatter, that pop of that cap: that jingle was music to her ears. That jingle was so strong that she couldn’t stop listening to it.
“It started out as me actually needing them. A doctor prescribed them to me after an injury, and for a while, I actually needed to take them. But then, I didn’t anymore. I was fine. The only problem was that I didn’t know that I didn’t need them anymore.”
For former user, Lexi, a Metea Valley junior, it wasn’t cocaine. It wasn’t heroin. It wasn’t pain killers. For Lexi, it was Adderall, a prescription typically given for treatment of attention-deficit disorders. In her case, it was for an undisclosed, previously-sustained injury. “I was definitely surprised when my doctor suggested I start taking it. Adderall isn’t a prescription that’s taken lightly. In my mind it was, ‘Okay this is strong stuff. Let’s be smart about it.’ That didn’t go that far, though,” she said.
The Numbers Game
Lexi is far from the only student to abuse Adderall. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, one in five high school students abuse prescription medication like Adderall for nonmedical use.
In 2011, almost 14 million monthly prescriptions were written to treat ADHD, compared to just 5.6 million in 2009. “The purpose of such medication is to help individuals with ADHD focus more clearly on tasks given to them,” Associate North Central College Professor of Psychology Dr. Patricia Schacht said.
For those with ADHD, the medication is a way to stay focused and aware with a condition that can take hyperactivity, restlessness, and inattention to an extreme. “I was prescribed them for ADHD, and when I take them, they help me pay attention and stay focused,” Metea Valley sophomore John, who takes the medication daily, said.
But for those who don’t need them, they can be dangerous, steering into the depths of dark addiction. While there is a preconception that only college students abuse Adderall, a University of Michigan study found that the problem may be closer to high school campuses than previously thought. In a study that surveyed more than 240,000 people aged 12 to 21, they found the peak ages for using ADHD medication without a prescription are between 16 and 19. As abuse often starts in the teenage years, the problem grows as students move from high school to college.
In a study conducted by the Medicine Abuse Project, 6.5 percent of high school seniors use ADHD medication without a prescription. In the same study, that 6.5 percent of abuse as a high school senior darted up to 16.8 percent of abuse as college seniors. Not only did the numbers grow in increasing fashion, but the study also revealed that 94.3 percent of students who take Adderall obtained the medication without a prescription.
It Does the Work for You
It was the high that got Lexi. That high that pulled her in and trapped her there. That high that she turned to for escape and euphoria. But with Adderall, that high doesn’t come in the form of a traditional sense of “getting high.” In fact, while some turn to drugs such as marijuana and LSD to relax and unwind, ADHD medication is often used for the opposite: productivity. “God, did it make me productive. I could knock out a five page essay in two hours like it was nothing. I did all this work and afterward, I felt like I could do it all over again,” Lexi said
Dubbed as the premier study drug on high school and college campuses, it’s known for its properties to stimulate brain activity in order to sharpen concentration and focus. “It’s like it does the work for you,” a student said in New York Times article, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill”, which brought national attention to the issue of Adderall abuse. For students with difficult classes, hectic schedules, and demanding extracurriculars, they view it as a shortcut to getting good grades, getting things done, and getting a feeling of being able to take on anything. It screams of shiny promises and glossy effects that appear to be harmless to the untrained eye, giving A’s and painless study sessions to any and all who take it. But that shiny promise doesn’t come without strings attached.
“The most common side effects associated with taking ADHD medication when a person does not have ADHD are excess energy and hypersomnia,” Schacht said. According to the National Institute on Drugs Abuse, high doses can lead to “increased blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, high body temperatures, decreased sleep, and a lack of interest in eating,”
But this only grazes the surface of Adderall abuse. The drug, an amphetamine, belongs in the stimulant family, bearing more similar effects to cocaine than traditional pain medication.
Stimulants dependence is a slippery slope. With stimulant drugs increasing the production of dopamine in the brain, it releases pleasure, building a psychological dependence. “There were days that I had to take them. Every morning before school. I didn’t even need them at that point, but it was like I couldn’t function without them,” Lexi said.
The dependence is one step down a slippery slope to addiction, but it’s the effects of that addiction that push teens to the edge. The paranoia, the depression, the stress on the body, can leave a teen cold with the bonds of addiction.
“There were definitely days I felt jittery. Odd. Like my heart was about to pound out of my chest. Then there were days when I barely ate.” Lexi said. “It was just weird,” For Lexi, it was sign that it was working: a sign she was high on the wings of Adderall.
“It was that jitter that I lived for. I felt like I could take on the world. Like I was floating in slow motion, but my heart was running in rapid speed. And I loved it.”
The Adderall Cartel
With such a small amount of students who actually use the medication with a prescription, and a larger number of student who abuse it, the situation becomes complex. According to a survey by the National Institute Drug Abuse, “Most teens get these medicines from friends or relatives and to a lesser degree, from their own prescription from a previous medical issue.”
A black market for ADHD drugs is built, seething in the hallways, oozing into the parking lots, and dripping into lockers of high schools nationally.
“If you don’t take them, you can definitely name someone who sells them,” Lexi said. And in recent years, it’s become a hot commodity on high school campuses.
“I usually sell my pills for $2,” John said. With most pharmacies supplying 30-90 pills in a bottle, that little jar can turn into $200 hiding in someone’s medicine cabinet.
Metea Valley School Resource Officer Dustin Coppes believes that it is drug miseducation that leads to student abuse. “When doctors prescribe these medications, it’s adjusted to that specific person’s body type. So what works for me, may not work for you, and it may end up hurting you. I don’t think kids don’t realize that. They look at it as ‘I’ve heard that if I take this, I can stay up longer or it can help me study better,’” Coppes said.
For most that is common knowledge. But the problem with ADHD medication abuse lies in the fact that the conception of prescription drugs differs from traditional drugs.
“I didn’t think it could be bad. At first I thought, ‘It’s medicine, right? It shouldn’t hurt me like crack or something,’” Lexi said.
Crack cocaine doesn’t have the same weight that Adderall does in the minds of many teens. One is associated with grimy alleys, burly drug dealers, and sessions of rehab. The other: clean doctor’s offices, smiling pharmacists, and moments of productivity. “I think many young people believe that prescription drugs aren’t as harmful or addictive as illicit drugs. Because prescription drugs are given to individuals by medical professionals, it is often thought that they can not be harmful,” Schacht said.
That’s far from reality.
The reality is that not only does it behave on your body like an illicit drug when abuse, but it’s punished like an illicit drug under the law. “Under Illinois law, you can be arrested for possession of a non-controlled substance. Adderall is considered a non-controlled substance. But kids don’t know that,” Coppes said. It only takes one time to seal the fate of an ADHD abusing student. Even if it was their first time ever using it.“For first time offenders, it’s a Class IV felony, potentially facing fines up to $25,000 and going to prison for up to three years. Just for one time. Just for having a bottle that you don’t have a prescription for,” Coppes added.
Education is the Key
Just one is all it takes. One translucent orange bottle that can fit in the palm of a hand. One bottle that rattles with those tiny little pills, jumbling with every shake and jolt with that clank, that clatter, that pop of that cap. One bottle doesn’t have to seal the fate of high school students, in the worst case, leaving them imprisoned behind cold metal bars arrested by addiction and the DEA.
“The key is education,” Coppes said. With drug abuse prevention programs such as DARE and Operation Snowball, the information available for students can potentially change their lives.
“If I had known how Adderall could have affected me back then, I could’ve saved myself a ton of trouble in the long run. I could’ve saved myself from the sleepless jittery nights, the days where I didn’t eat at all, the racing heart beats,” Lexi said. She got the help and education she needed. Not by her peers. Not by rumors. Not by misconceptions. But it was by sitting down and talking with her parents.
“They found out I was taking way more than I should’ve been. I was freaked out at first. Thought they would kill me. But we talked about it, the abusing, why it was a problem and how I could get help,” Lexi said.
With swirls of rumors and lies with Adderall abuse, the truth gets hidden in denial, pride, and misconception. Rumors shout that Adderall isn’t harmful. It screams that it doesn’t have any negative effects. It yells to the mountains that Adderall isn’t an actual drug and you can’t be arrested for abusing or selling. It doesn’t have to stay that way. The truth has the power silence these misconceptions, and the truth is cemented in education.
“It’s starts with education,” Coppes said. “Having conversations with parents and adults, because your peers aren’t going to know about it. Education is the number one key to prevention. We need to rev up communication about prescription drugs so that students know the facts.”
Programs such as PEERx from the National Institute of Drug Abuse and Drug provide online resources geared towards teens, parents, and counselors in an interactive format to educate teens about the dangers of abuse and how to get help.
A New Day
Today, Lexi is Adderall free. She’s free from the sleepless nights. Free from jittery tics. Free from addiction. “I’m in a better place today. The way I feel, act, think… it’s miles ahead of what it was when I was abusing,” Lexi said. For those trapped in Adderall abuse, it can feel dark, cold and lonely with nowhere to reach for help. It’s prevailing from the depths of abuse, through knowledge, through education, and through conversation that uplifts teens from the grasp of Adderall addiction.
“Addiction sucks, man. But the other side of the tunnel is so bright. That’s the high I live for now,” Lexi said.
If you or anybody you know is abusing ADHD medication, talk to a guidance counselor or call 1-855-DRUGFREE (1-855-378-4373) for help