Adderall & ADHD: A 39-Year Journey to Day One

Adderall and feelings pumping through my heart, though my fingers, through my keyboard

I’m writing this on Adderall.

Almost 40 years after I was born. Over 30 years since three well-behaved days in a row would earn me a game of checkers against my elementary-school principal. Almost two decades since having to manage my own time, diet, and budget led quickly to my flunking out of college, gaining 70 pounds, and drowning in debt.

Almost four years after my eldest saw a psychiatrist who not only diagnosed my child with ADHD, but strongly suggested I get screened, too. Three months after my other two kids and I finally got screened, two months after we all got diagnosed, and one day after I walked into a doctor’s office terrified I’d be accused of faking it.

Instead, my new doc — my first personal doctor since aging out of my pediatrician’s office — smiled and said, “I got diagnosed in med school.” A little younger than me, he’d had many of the same experiences growing up. Instead of flunking out of med school, he got help. Now, he was happy to help me.

Just in time for it to be *~TRENDY~*.

I don’t know when I first thought I might have it. As an older teen, I remember seeing all the fretful news stories about Kids On Ritalin and thinking, “If I were a few years younger, that would be me.”

I remember that one 2010 viral whiteboard video from the British professor who described a “fictitious epidemic” of ADHD rolling across America. He suggested all the diagnoses and prescriptions weren’t a real disability, just a byproduct of trying to shoehorn kids living in an always-on digital world into dismal training for 20th-century factory and office work. Even though he used what we now recognize as the Land Can’t Vote visual trick the U.S.’s uneven population density to reveal some purported truth…that video still made me think I might have it.

My kid’s psychiatrist strongly, kindly, but repeatedly saying ADHD was very hereditary and I should get screened made me think I might have it. My SFF writer friend Mur Lafferty’s own journey to diagnosis and treatment made me think I might have it. That time I went to ConFusion 2019 and attended Annalee Flower Horne’s Writing With ADHD panel and joined many of the attendees in moaning “OH GOD, YES, THAT” every time any of the writers involved talked about writing with ADHD, that made me think I probably had it. Another writer friend, Jess Creaden, invited me to an ADHD writer’s group and the collective experiences there made me pretty darn sure I had it.

That one time when, my career in disarray and my life a mess, my wife asked me if I could bring her a pop at work — and I, glad to be of help, agreed, and thought that on the way I’d mail out a check that needed to be postmarked that day but I had to get back quick so I could get edits done that afternoon so the piece I was working on would run that day and therefore count towards that pay cycle and make sure we had money next week and I got to my wife’s office and realized I forgot to bring a pop, I had no pop to give her and I burst into tears, just crying and crying in her work’s parking lot about why couldn’t I function like a normal person? That made me sure that whatever I had, it was A Problem, and maybe I needed to do something about it.

And, yes: The work of Dani Donovan, René Brooks, Pina Varnel, Jessica McCabe, and many other creators who’ve worked to spread awareness on social media, their posts and comics and videos made me realize all the many very common ways the ADHD I definitely had was not just impacting my life, but life of the people around me, the people I was supporting and cared for. Like my two younger kids who were now showing common ADHD traits, who’d seen how transformative help had been for their sibling.

Deciding to get help was hard, but actually getting help was harder. We get our insurance through the ACA exchange — Obamacare — and the Gold-level plan we needed cost as much as our mortgage payment, even after the tax credits. But a month’s supply of Adderall is $212 a month retail, was $160 a month on our old Bronze high-deductible plan, and $60 a month with prescription coupons. The eye-watering Gold premiums would not only cover most of the enormous cost of getting four people screened, but drop Adderall to five bucks a pop. A month’s worth of medicine for less money than the two, three, four or more Rockstar energy drinks I’d been downing every day for a decade trying to keep my brain engaged and working.

Going through COVID-safe online-only screening was weird. They were putting me through a lot of IQ-style tests I knew I was doing well on, with a lot of short-term recall and memory tests I was absolutely convinced I was failing miserably. In the back of my mind, though, I was scared I was doing too well. I frantically tried to assure the assistant administering the tests that I do well on tests. That just because I know the meaning of every vocabulary word you’re showing me doesn’t mean that twice a week I don’t go to the store for One Thing and come back with $128 worth of stuff and NOT that thing.

When I had the follow-up consultation with the psychologist, that’s exactly what he told me: I’d scored literally off the charts, above 99th percentile, on verbal processing, and low-ish but within the average range for memory and recall. THEREFORE, I must not have anything holding me back. No ADHD.

My stomach sank. I flop-sweated. Was I making it all up? Were all those struggles pretend? Were all the #relatable ADHD memes and articles just fooling me into believing my own laziness and scatterbrainedness was some kind of Special Thing I should get Special Treatment for? Was I really one more to-do list system or productivity app away from waking up every morning and just doing everything I was supposed to do?

No. I pushed back: If I didn’t have ADHD, what were all those hours with elementary and middle-school counselors for? If I didn’t have ADHD, how was I placed in the Gifted & Talented program the same year I had 22 after-school detentions? If I didn’t have ADHD, why did I flunk out of college despite loving the material and acing the essays? If I didn’t have ADHD, why had all three of my kids already been clinically diagnosed? Silently, I thought the scary question: If I didn’t have ADHD, what did I have?

“Oh, what? That is a red flag,” he replied, and suggested I take two more tests— the gold standards, he called them, done only in-person. Typically the battery I’d taken would be done in-person too, with the attendant observing my behavior. Taking them online reduced their effectiveness. But these next two in-person tests, he said, were sure to settle the issue.

I scrubbed up, went in, and flunked the hell out of them.

Imagine me locked alone in a teeny-tiny room with an itsy-bitsy desk and a big old computer, repeatedly pressing the space bar when I wasn’t supposed to and yelling and laughing and cussing and tearing my hair out for almost an hour. Afterwards, the attendant scheduled me another consultation a month out (a month out!), but the psych called me on my cell the next day.

“A lot of people think they have focus and attention issues,” he said. “But you? You really, really do.” He went on to validate every fear, repeat every suspicion, echo every well-meaning teacher or mentor I’d ever had: That my inability to consistently apply myself had been holding me back in school, and in life, all along. That my personal and professional potential was sky-high, if I were just able to overcome . That The Thing That Was Wrong With Me had a name, and it was “Combined-type ADHD.”

The whiplash was unbelievable. In less than 24 hours I’d gone from thinking I’d finally have an answer, to the answer being “you are just bad at life,” to the answer being I super-duper definitely have an actual clinical disability.

Just knowing, as G.I. Joe taught me, is half the battle. But it’s only half the battle; actually getting help presented a whole new set of issues. As a white guy, I’m the kind of person for whom ADHD presents most obviously, and is most consistently diagnosed in childhood. I’m also the kind of person most likely to present “pill-seeking behavior.” A 39-year-old white man with an ink-still-wet diagnosis can face a long (and insulting) road uphill procuring an actual prescription.

Which is why, when my brand-new personal doctor told me he had it too, I felt like I’d gotten a Lyft to the finish line.

Today, the first day, since about a half-hour after taking my first Adderall, I’ve felt a continuous, jitter-free flow of the warmth and crackle in my brain and fingers that usually only comes after three hours of chugging Rockstar and scrolling Twitter. I’ve written this post, as freely and easily as I’ve ever written anything. I’ve answered my emails, taken care of the pets and laundry, handled distractions big and small and been able to come back to this post without losing my focus or snapping in anger.

There’s still a long road ahead for dialing in the medication, managing my symptoms and supporting my kids as they go complete high school — and, *gulp*, go out on their own into the world, learning to manage their own time and budget while they pursue their own passions.

But the road behind me is much, much longer, and today I’ve taken another big step. If people feel like #ADHDTwitter has gotten to be a little too much lately, so be it. If just a few more people make the effort to get screened, get help, and change their lives, neurotypical people can pay the small price of scrolling past an adorkable TikTok that doesn’t apply to them.

If lots of people suspect they have it, get screened, and it turns out they don’t? Well, there’s still lots of great productivity tips and memory aids that will help them use time more effectively. Just as able-bodied people have spent the last year realizing disability accommodations help everyone, normalizing accommodations for non-neurotypical people will help everyone, too.

I’m still very new at this. I’m years behind the kind of knowledgeable, vocal creators online who inspired me to seek treatment (including my eldest kid!). While I’m proud to support the #neurodiversesquad, I’m very much aware that I’ve got every other possible privilege on every other axis of marginalization. I neither need nor want to take up space, attention, or resources that should be flowing to people who could better use them, or more urgently need them.

In short, I’m a work in progress. But today, I made progress.

Professional writer & talker (@FiveThirtyEight, etc.). Sports things & nerd stuff. Rather cleverer than most men; mistakes correspondingly huger. He/him.