“Meds Make Me Feel Weird!?”

It’s decision time for one young adult with ADHD: take ADHD meds and go to college, or don’t take meds and join the Marines.
The Experts | posted by Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D. , Heather Brandenberg

Figure out who you really are. Are you that “off-meds person” who can’t focus? Or is that just who you grew up to be, minus the correct brain chemistry?

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I’m a senior in high school with ADHD. I know lots of people who take ADHD medication. I know some kids who take medication who don’t have ADHD. When I take it the way my doctor prescribes, it makes me feel weird. I don’t feel like myself. That’s a high price to pay. On the other hand, I can’t handle the college prep curriculum—much less college—without it. I’m considering joining the Marines instead. Any advice?

Heather: Feeling weird on ADHD medication so you can succeed in class is a high price to pay. However, that price doesn’t have to affect your whole life.

The smartest thing I did after being diagnosed with ADHD was to continue to see a therapist, so I could understand the nuts and bolts of how my ADHD brain works. That decision allowed me to function better when I wasn’t on medication. When I knew how my brain is wired, it made it easier for me to keep my symptoms from getting in the way of success. For example, if you know you’re forgetful, make a plan for keeping track of things, such as writing everything down and keeping it in sight, or keep a list on your phone where you’ll see and remember it. Doing simple things like this to manage your ADHD makes it easier to function when you’re off meds.

Therapy also helped me cope with med management. A therapist who is trained in managing ADHD knows how stimulants affect your day-to-day life. She can help you learn to be a good consumer of them. If meds make you feel weird, you may need a change in your dose or in the type of ADHD stimulant you take. Not all ADHD medications affect everyone in the same way. It took me a lot of trial and error to get my med dosage right. I couldn’t have done it without my therapist.

Don’t give up on college if it’s something you want. ADHD medication makes you feel different. Work on understanding yourself and your ADHD more. You’ll see a world of difference.

Wes: I gave Heather the writing assignment above during her college winter break, which doubles as a medication break for her and many students with ADHD. A week later, I checked in with Heather. She’d forgotten all about the assignment. She’s a sharp young woman and conscientious, so she apologized. The next day she went to work on it. At 10:30 a.m., she messaged me to say she couldn’t think of anything to say. I noted that she should have a lot to say about this topic, particularly now that she missed the deadline. At noon, she said she was considering joining the Marines. I said that while I had great respect for The Corps, this seemed a drastic step to take to avoid a writing assignment.

At 3:30 p.m., Heather sent what she’d written so far. It said, “The smartest thing I did after being diagnosed with ADHD was...” I suggested that the smartest thing she could do right now was go back on meds for a few days, so we could meet our deadline. The next day, she not so magically wrote a fine article.

Heather’s story illustrates the predicament you’re in right now. Meds might make the difference between handling college some day and doing something else with your life. While there are exceptions, many ADHDers who take stimulants feel like they’re different people, and that’s not always a positive thing. So, my first suggestion is to figure out who you really are. Are you that “off-meds person” who can’t focus or get anything done? Or is that just who you grew up to be, minus the correct brain chemistry?

As you think this through, consider how perspective and attitude affect everything you do, including medication outcomes. Some people take stimulants and exclaim, “OMG. Is this how other people think?” Others complain, “I don’t like how it makes me feel. I feel like a zombie. I just sit there and read a book.” One person’s liberation from the fog of ADHD is another person’s inhibition from unbridled creativity.

For example, most of us do not call sitting there reading a book “zombified.” We call it studying. If you prefer being “up,” fun, or hyper over being studious, then you’ll associate focus with having your brain eaten away. If you value learning and education over being carefree, you’ll take the hit of feeling subdued along with the benefit of concentration.

You’re not alone in this struggle. I find that most people who need to be on stimulants have a love-hate relationship with them. That’s why it boggles my mind (and many of my ADHD clients’ minds) as to why anyone would use stimulants recreationally or as study drugs. The benefits don’t outweigh the consequences. If you’re correctly diagnosed, however, the cost-benefit analysis probably runs the other way. While I’m all for serving our country, and the Marines have worked out well for many young people, you shouldn’t join just to avoid the discomforts of managing your ADHD.

Wes Crenshaw Ph.D. ABPP is a Kansas City Metro psychologist, author of I Always Want to Be Where I'm Not: Successful Living with ADD and ADHD and the forthcoming Consent-Based Sex Education: Parenting Teens in an Internet Age. He is a frequent guest on public radio and commercial TV. Learn more about his work and listen to his broadcasts at dr-wes.com. Heather Brandenberg is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in pre-physical therapy. She was diagnosed with ADD and has had a solid treatment plan in places since her freshman year.

 
 
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