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Hot on Campus | August 27, 2012

Addicted to success

Adderall

Former addicts say the drug improved their performance but stole their ability to enjoy life

©iStockPhoto/Matthew Spindler

No one would have described Mike Wyland as an exceptional student in high school. Although clearly intelligent, he had a hard time focusing on his homework assignments and studies. He did the bare minimum to maintain a B average. When a friend offered him a little pill that would help him concentrate, Wyland thought it couldn't hurt. He didn't want to get high. He just wanted to get better grades.

After taking the "study drug" for the first time as a 17-year-old junior, Wyland's grades quickly improved. He found he could focus on even the most tedious tasks. He liked the results. He took it a few more times, getting the pills from friends, before he went to a doctor and got a prescription of his own.

But Wyland's study helper soon became an addiction that estranged him from the things he loved and from the person he wanted to be.

"If there weren't so many good things about the drug you couldn't rationalize taking it," said Wyland. "Adderall has the strongest honeymoon period of any drug in the world."

Like Wyland, high school and college students are increasingly turning to Adderall to help them get better grades. The prescription medication is designed to help patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) focus on one thing at a time. But it also works for people without ADHD, enhancing mental function and enabling users to stay awake for long periods of time. Researchers estimate 30 percent of college students have tried the drug at least once to help them prepare for a test or write a paper.

Unlike other prescription drugs popular among teens and young adults, Adderall doesn't produce a euphoric high and doesn't hold as much appeal for the party crowd. Known as the "study drug" or the "smart pill," Adderall might seem harmless, or even beneficial. But as Wyland discovered, the drug fosters an insatiable drive for success and can obliterate a user's ability to enjoy anything not associated with achievement.

After he started taking Adderall regularly, Wyland's grades improved and he excelled in his work. Adderall put him on top of the world but destroyed the balance in his life--physically, socially, and emotionally. His focus became school work, and money. His need for success prompted him to spend more time in front of the computer, or stuck in the office than hanging out with friends and family.

In college, Wyland continued to excel, with help from the drug. But he soon dropped out to take a full-time job as a programmer for a startup software company. Although he once thought he would be a writer, Wyland set that dream aside in favor of a career that could earn him more money. Once Adderall became his support, he lost his enjoyment for writing, but he still hoped to take it up again after he retired, early and rich.

Wyland relished the praise that came with his work. He had a hard time seeing Adderall as a negative influence when everyone praised his performance and applauded his success. He didn't like his job, but steeped in approval, Wyland brushed aside concerns over his happiness.

"But I didn't have a passion for what I was doing," Wyland said "It's like I wasn't living a genuine life, and it started weighing on me."

Like Wyland, Thomas Sherk also watched Adderall take over his life and obscure his personality.

Sherk started taking Adderall as an upperclassman in high school to help him with his honors and advanced placement course load. He excelled in everything he did, but he felt like he was losing the things that made him exceptional. He felt he could no longer take pride in his hard work because he depended on Adderall to stay focused. The drug took away his ability to connect emotionally with those around him. Sherk buried himself in his schoolwork instead. His friends moved on with life without him, and his social relationships started to wane.

After reading the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey's novel about life inside a mental hospital, Sherk realized the drug was turning him into someone he didn't want to be.

"I saw Adderall as a way for society to 'normalize' me, which made me feel bad about myself internally," Sherk said. "Adderall inhibited my emotional self. I felt like a robot a lot of the time, which also validated my thoughts formed from Ken Kesey's novel. As time passed, I felt like I was slipping away from my social relationships and that my friends were moving on without me."

Sherk also started losing weight, a common side effect for Adderall addicts. The drug suppresses appetite, and users often are so focused on other tasks that they forget to eat. Sherk eventually started to miss feeling hungry.

During his senior year of high school, Sherk stopped taking Adderall. It didn't take long for him to reconnect with friends and family and rebuild his self confidence. He worked hard and managed to keep his grades up on his own. But during his sophomore year in college, Sherk started taking Adderall again.

Using Adderall as an adult has been far less damaging to him socially, Sherk said. He now only uses the drug occasionally, relying instead on his natural ability and turning to Adderall as a last resort. He claims he has better control of balancing his need for it at work and in his personal life.

Like Sherk, Wyland quit the drug cold turkey but has not returned to using it.

Although he still works at the software company, Wyland is back in school, working toward his degree in psychology. And he's returned to writing, the passion he now says Adderall stole from him. In hopes that his experience will help others who want to quit, Wyland blogs about his life and his addiction at Quittingadderall.com. He's been clean for four years. He hopes to encourage others who want to quit, but he also isn't adamant that everyone make the same choice.

"Quitting was a horrible, horrible process," he said, "I sold my life to buy back my soul. I lost everything, my ego died, and I had to rebuild the ability to do work. The first year was difficult. But I'm doing better now, my priorities are reversed."

Laura Murphy was a WORLD on Campus summer intern. This story is part of a series on Adderall abuse. Read the other stories: Anything to get ahead, Playing with fire and Slow to respond.