Coping With ADHD, Anxiety, and a Cigarette Addiction

As an ADHD teenager, I turned to smoking to calm my nerves. Now I'm out of high school, addicted to nicotine, and feeling very alone -- with no company but my cigarette-dulled brain.
ADHD College Blog | posted by Henry Greene

The alarm clashes like cymbals in my ears. My raw, bloodshot eyes burst open with a start and I slam the alarm clock with my open palm until it shuts up. I curl into the fetal position on my sweat-stained sheets. The thought of heaving my body out of bed and dragging myself to work might as well be a death sentence. I hide my head beneath those sweaty blankets, blocking out the glaring sunbeams that make my forehead throb. This is the feeling I wake up to every morning. And just like every other morning since senior year of high school, when the smoking habit I began during freshman year became an addiction, the only thing that will pull my dead weight out of these sheets is the promise of a menthol cigarette.

Before I can speak, walk, or see clearly, and long before I can form an intelligent thought (a rarity these days), I need to have a cigarette. Then another. Then another.

Every day before work -- I have a summer job as a cashier at a local fast-food restaurant -- I suck down three cigarettes while downing mug after jumbo-sized mug of lukewarm black coffee. By the time I leave for work, my stimulant-surging veins become a pressure cooker. I run my fingertips down my forehead and feel a throbbing network of veiny ridges bursting forth. The pressure behind my bloodshot eyes feels like a vise-grip being screwed tighter. Of course, all this might be bearable for an unambitious, die-hard smoker, save for one subtle detail.

This detail is too sick, too tragic to bear -- I constantly fight it back from the forefront of my migraine-stabbed mind: In high school, I was an aspiring writer and a coffee-shop intellectual for whom ideas, and the ability to articulate them, took precedence over air and water. Until well past midnight, my closest friends and I would go into impassioned existential tirades so earnest that we’d grab one another by the shirt collar and demand more thoughts, more answers, more articulation. An endless torrent of ideas and intellectual urgency was the foundation upon which all my closest friendships were built.

But my first year of college didn't live up to any of this promise. I tanked academically, being so frazzled with anxiety that I’d forget about projects worth most of my year-end grade until they were months overdue. Socially, I was a lost cause, hiding for days on end in my dorm room, suppressing the urge to use the bathroom so that I could avoid running into dorm-mates in the halls -- because if I did run into them, I'd have to attempt to have good social skills. The only excursions into the outer world worth my while were smoke breaks, which, for a brief moment, would tell all that anxiety to let me be.

On a summer day after work, I sit in a window-side Starbucks barstool, desperately trying to massage the throbbing pain out of my temples as I wait to reunite with an old high school friend who I haven’t seen since last summer, after we graduated from high school. I spot him through the window. He walks briskly toward the Starbucks and cuts across the street, gazing with a satisfied expression at the storefronts around him. He doesn’t bother -- like he would have last year, when he struggled with social skills as much as I have in the past -- to glance nervously right and left as he crosses. His even eyes meet mine and he smiles broadly and gives me a nod.

After he sits down and heartily shakes my hand, I lean on the little round table and listen to tales of his college escapades. His face has filled out since I last saw him, fleshing out once-sunken cheekbones and compensating for an over-large nose. He’s tanner, too. Youthfully handsome, without a doubt.

Over the past year he’s become verbose, even eloquent, about ideas that were once beyond him. This past year seems to have done the same thing for his mind as it has for his persona. My mind, on the other hand, is blank, save for a dull buzzing and the predicable throbbing. I cast my eyes downward and nod vaguely, trying to massage away the pulsating in my forehead. My friend keeps talking, filling the increasing void. Sometimes he drops a word or a phrase that reminds me of an idea that had once kept us talking all night. I look up at his enthusiastic grin, wanting so badly to relive that moment. I strain to reach for that nebulous idea that had once launched our conversation toward the stratosphere, but it slips out of my grasp, lost in the fog of my throbbing head. I remain silent, cast my eyes away from his now-confused gaze, and nod like a scolded 5-year-old. His eyes darken as he realizes he is looking at the shell of an old friend. As I knead my forehead with my forefingers, I wonder if, perhaps, another cigarette would clear my mind.

The reunion wraps up quickly. He forces a polite smile, offers an, “It was great seeing you!” with a jarring desperation, pats me on the back like a politician, and shuffles out as quickly as he can.

I watch him walk away with his head down. I don’t feel melancholy. In fact -- emotionally, at least -- I feel very little. My lungs, on the other hand, yearn for the feeling of thick, menthol smoke ballooning my diaphragm. I tuck the little tip of my cigarette’s filter between my pursed lips and feel a tender affection for this one reliable friend. I’ll feel better in a moment, I think, as I thrust the end of my cigarette into the burning tip of a newly lit match.

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