Growing Up with the “Good Grade Pill”
Will Richardson linked out to a recent NYT article a while back – The Good Grade Pill – about the widespread use of ADD meds by “unauthorized” students. The article is another in what feels like a decades long scare story – good kids take bad drugs!
I generally avoid articles on this theme. They feel like linkbait to me, full cherry picked anecdotes and stern “Drugs are bad, mmmkay” language.
Prejudices up front – I bristle at arguments that hinge around statistical normalcy, and I react poorly to reductive binaries. I’ve also had regular prescriptions for various ADD drugs since I was fifteen. Reading scare-story articles like the NYT piece, I recognize many parts of my own long history with these medicines.
“Are you really going to take a pill everyday for the rest of your life?”
It’s 1994. My parents and I are sitting in pleather armchairs around an oversized desk in a psychiatrists’ office. After a lifetime where doctor’s office meant tables covered in butcher paper, in the last few months we’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations in over-furnished rooms like this.
My mother, ever the first grade teacher, asks how stimulants could help the students she’s always identified as “squirly.” While the doctor lays out a reductive picture of neural transport, my father flips through test results. He’s an economist. He likes the clarity and certianty of good data, and it’s clear from his body language that he’s not finding that clarity in the manilla folder.
“How can you be sure he really has ADD?”
“He’ll just the medications and then he’ll tell us how he feels.“
We leave the psychiatrist’s’ office with a prescription for Dexedrine. The doctor is hopeful that this will help me cope with “non-hyperactivity Attention Deficit Disorder,” and possibly improve my problematic relationship with school, my parents, my peers.
“Hopeful!” My father spits out the word and triple taps his right thumb on the steering wheel. Hopeful is not a word one uses in conjunction with science. Hopeful tells him that we’ve left science behind long ago, left the realm of blood tests and clarity. Now we’re in a world where the closest thing to “proof” is anecdotal reporting from biased subjects to a compromised arbiter, with a sample size of one; a single, sullen teenager.
“Why don’t you just drink an extra cup of coffee in the morning?”
Newspapers and local newscasts are already running stories about students abusing prescription amphetamines, editorials about the over-use of psychiatric meds for children, rants about medicating childhood out of existence.
Those arguments took root at our dinner table, wove themselves into the fabric of our family fights for the next few years. Had the early Nintendo years and BBS culture burned out my ambition and drive? Was I just a lazy kid, looking for a psuedo-science excuse to justify my own poor choices? Was I just a smart-ass kid, pissing off my dutiful parents by telling the assembled doctors what they obviously wanted to hear?
“I lie to my psychiatrist — I expressed feelings I didn’t really have, knowing the consequences of it,” he said, standing in a park a few miles from the high school. “I tell the doctor, ‘I find myself very distracted, and I feel this really deep pain inside, like I’m anxious all the time,’ or something like that.” He coughed out a chuckle and added proudly, “Generally, if you keep playing the angsty-teen role, you’ll get something good.” – NYT
The real wrench in the works was that once I started taking the dexedrine, things really turned around. I did more homework. I joined school groups – newspaper, mock trial – and even started paying attention in math! So the news back from the test group is positive, right?
“Maybe the drugs worked. Maybe you just grew up.”
The Times article perpetuates a number of false debates, false binaries that fit our existing prejudices and narrative expectations. The story exists in the first place because it’s about “good kids” from wealthy and privileged, using drugs to pursue markers of privilege and status.** The story derives narrative tension from highlighting the dangers posed by a “good drug,” and holding it up against the whole roster of “bad drugs” – steroids, heroin, Percoset, sleeping pills. The article temper’s the Reefer Madness tone every few paragraphs by reassuring us that these drugs can be “good” again when the “right reasons.”
There are no categorically “good kids”. There are no uniformly “good” psychoactive drugs. For every substance there is only use and abuse, and the line between the two is different for every person.
The Times article is full of anecdotes designed suggest that for most people, for the “wrong” kids, use and abuse are almost identical. Students using ADD meds to stave off sleep and pull extra hours from the day. Students snorting Adderall for an immediate blow-out effect. They’re all there as contrast to the universal image of responsible use, where “the school nurse hold[s] and dispense[s] the pills.”
“As senior year began, when another round of SATs and one last set of good grades could put him over the top, the boy said he still had trouble concentrating. The doctor prescribed 30 milligrams a day. When college applications hit, he bought extra pills for $5 apiece from a girl in French class who had fooled her psychiatrist, too, and began taking several on some days.” – NYT
This is what an abuse cycle looks like. Everything else is window dressing. Addiction and abuse are a risk for every user. Open, reflective, shame-free conversation is helpful for everyone, but essential for young people.
It was something I distinctly lacked. Every evening I slogged through a bleak hour of emotional fragility for which I had no words to describe or explain. I turned away from my developing interest in cooking and the tactile, sensory bridge it had offered to an emotionally distant father and son. I waded blindly through these drug-induced experiences without even the basic vocabulary to describe what I was feeling. I think I learned the terminology of “coming up/down” from Dazed and Confused, which did more to help me manage the secondary effects of Dexadrine than any doctor’s visit.
Sadly, that added vocab didn’t help much with my parents.
My sense then was that the prescribing doctor had their hand on the dosage, and my feedback would only nudge that level up or down. My parents were looking for signs that the drugs were harmful or snake-oil, and our relationship didn’t have much room for subjective reflection.
I have a file cabinet full of high school poetry fuel by and written in the angsty come-down hours. Most of them are tacking around the only consistent question I heard from parents, doctors, and teachers.
“How do you feel? Do you still feel like you?”
What a worthless question! At 16, it felt like a packet of Pop Rocks or a ride on the People Mover could shift the fundamental core of my identity.
It took well over a decade for me to develop a sense of self solid enough to answer that question with confidence. I still feel like me, when taking Dexadrine, Adderall or other basic amphetamines, but I know that through experiment, experience and contrast. For a few years I experiments with a non-amphetamine med, still stuck experimenting with the sample size of one. It seemed pretty much the same, by whatever strange measures we mark the edges and contours of our internal self. Then my daughter was born and I felt how thick the cotton wall between my soul and the world had become. I dropped the meds the next week.
Drugs are powerful agents of mental change. They work in gigantic ways that can wash out of your system in a weekend. They work in quiet ways that you can lose track of over years. Drugs affect the very scale you’ll use to measure how much drugs affect you.
I don’t have a summative closer for this post, or a final wrap up about the NYT article. Everytime I look for one I find messy branching paths of arguments and anecdotes that overlap and intertwine with every cherished strand of my identity.
I’m ending this with an open door. My fingers hover with nervousness rather than stimulants, but I’m adding all of this to the my holistic public self. I’ve been looking for balance between my subjective symptoms and the often blunt hammer of amphetamines for half my life. This blog is a quiet monument to the difference medication makes in my life, not to mention my marriage and most everything else I treasure. Dealing with ADD and medication is part of my teaching life, and dealing with it openly seems better than the alternative.
**There’s a deeply racist narrative at the core of this binary, and I’m sorry that I don’t really know how to approach it. It’s a big topic, bigger and far more important than this subjective piece. I don’t feel ready to explore it in depth, but I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. The Good Kid/Bad Kid binary and the Good Drug / Bad drug binary are both projections of deep, structural racial and class biases. Those bianries for part of an edefice of privlidge that I have personally benefited from throughout my entire life.