My Nicotine-Addicted ADHD Brain: How Cigarettes Affect My Symptoms

Unable to focus, I realize that another factor is making my attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) worse: my nicotine addiction. But can I quit smoking cigarettes?
ADHD College Blog | posted by Henry Greene

The crisp air breezing through my lungs and my accelerating heartbeat surging through my veins make my thoughts clearer. As sweat spills from my body, I can almost feel the built-up sludge of nicotine, caffeine, and stress-related adrenaline spill out.

Henry Greene, ADHD College Blogger

My hand slams the kitchen table, and my mother leaps backward in shock. Part of me is aware that I’ve hit a new low. I’ve been growing steadily more unhinged since my senior year of high school, but now, the summer after my college freshman year, my stress-induced rage has reached a crescendo. For the first time since I was a child, I’m taking my anger out on my mom.

My palm smarts, and as I turn it toward my face, I see a dark purple bruise forming from the impact. But even this violent release is not enough to vent the pressure that has been slowly building up inside me. I explode once more.

“Why can’t the doctors see anything?! I’m f---ing foggy every day! My head is about to explode and they see nothing wrong?”

I’m blind to the fact that I’m startling my own mother. It’s almost impossible to see reality clearly when a jackhammer is pummeling your skull.

“Henry, what’s the matter?” my mother demands.

“Nothing other than what I’ve been telling you every day, nothing other than what the doctors refuse to believe! My skull is cracking open, and I haven’t been able to think for weeks!”

“Why do you feel like this?” she pleads.

“I don’t know! I don’t f---ing know! I’m just always f---ing stressed. I can’t think. It’s been getting worse every day since summer started. Headaches keep me from thinking and make me more stressed.”

I give up on expressing myself and take to pounding my fists on the table once more. All I know is that I suffer. Why these splitting headaches, muddled thoughts, and uncontrollable outbursts have overtaken me, I don’t know.

No amount of screams and no number of beatings issued to the table is enough to escape this throbbing pain and the rage that comes with it. Suddenly, I’m overtaken by an urge I haven’t felt in years -- the urge to run, to sprint until my heart and lungs are on the verge of explosion. At the very least, the feeling of my feet pounding the pavement as I gasp for air would match my mood. At most, running might do for me today what it used to do for me everyday of my pre-smoking years in high school -- cool down an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) mind that’s nearing the breaking point.

“I’m going on a run!” I bark, lunging past my mother and stomping up the steps.

“You’re what?” she asks, taken aback by the sudden change of tune.

“Run! Run now so head doesn’t explode!” I grunt incoherently.

I dart back down the steps in a pair of long-ignored running shoes that had been hibernating in my room. I practically run my mother over a second time as I barrel out the door, already in full sprint before my feet even hit the pavement.

The door swings closed behind me, and before long, my feet are pounding, my lungs are pounding, and this rhythmic, purposeful pounding is slowly calming the pounding in my head. Something about the crisp air breezing through my lungs and my accelerating heartbeat surging through my veins makes my thoughts clearer. As sweat spills from my body, I can almost feel the built-up sludge of nicotine, caffeine, and stress-related adrenaline spill out with it. Most importantly, as each new stressful thought enters my mind, rather than lashing out or buckling over with a stress-induced migraine, all I have to do is run faster and the stress subsides.

My mind, gridlocked by nicotine, begins to experience its first window of clarity in weeks. I’ve outrun my stress, and a sort of Zen-like state has overtaken me. I feel fresh, as though I just woke up from a good nap on a clear day and no stimulants, cigarettes, or stress had ever clogged up my system.

My thoughts begin to flow smoothly, but at first, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. I begin to make connections that I’d never made before. When my mind is clear, the benefits of an ADD/ADHD brain come out of the woodwork. Whereas an ADD/ADHD mind clogged up with nicotine can only respond to its rapid-fire connections with blind, nonverbal panic, a clear mind can isolate variables, articulate thoughts and feelings, and make the sort of creative insights that ADDers are supposed to be good at. Suddenly, one memory gets lodged in the forefront of my consciousness. What once would have been an everyday, mundane memory -- nothing out of the ordinary -- has become a showcase for the methods by which I’ve been ruining my life.

Briefly, my mind exits my sprinting body and travels back several months in time -- spring break, when I was starting to feel sunny again after my first college semester, the worst point in my life.

The memory is simple. I’m sitting outside the college library. It’s spring, and I plant myself on a breezy park bench. I pull Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald out of my backpack. My mind is fresh, and the first few pages ignite enthralling visions of 1920s Paris. I pause for a minute and sigh, satisfied that, for once, my mind is clear enough for me to become immersed in a novel. I imagine how perfect this scene is -- it's springtime, and I’m outside reading a great work of literature. I’m even dressed the part: wearing a dark brown jacket that’s a throwback to bohemian Paris. Only one thing is missing, I think. In the spirit of my romanticized self-image, I begin to light up a cigarette.

Lighting up cigarettes had become second nature to me. My first few months of freshman year, I smoked 40 Pall Mall Menthols each day to control my racing anxiety. After having smoked so profusely, the 10 or 15 per day I smoked that spring seemed like kid’s stuff. Besides feeling vaguely romantic, the fact that I was lighting up a smoke was barely a blip on my radar.

I hear the fizzle of my first drag. For a second, my satisfaction peaks. But in a matter of one or two pages, the visions of 1920s Paris are anything but clear. Fitzgerald’s verbose prose becomes unreadable. His sunny cobblestone streets along the Seine abandon me. I’m left with a throbbing headache.

As I put down the book and rub my forehead, I curse to myself, “What on earth have I done to deserve this? I couldn’t think through a sentence for a whole carton of Marlboros! If the veins in my head blew a gasket right now and spewed blood all over the bench, I wouldn’t be shocked! Of all the things to have taken from me, why’s it have to be my freaking brain?”

I begin to tear up. I’m crying, but I’m also stomping my feet and banging my head against the table as my anger builds and builds. I was going to be an English major, I think. (There was once a time when that was a reasonable ambition.) I was going to write for a living. (There was once a time when even that was a reasonable ambition.) My head throbs. I pick up Fitzgerald’s text once more. I try to muddle through a sentence. But it’s opaque. No images -- let alone ideas -- appear in my mind. I hurl the book into the park. I will never be an English major, I brood. I will never think clearly again. Something has destroyed me, and I don’t know what. I take three swift, sharp puffs from my cigarette. This will calm my nerves and clear my mind, I think as I stare dully into the field.

As I’m running, I leap into the air and scream like a dying animal. When my feet pound against the ground, I turn on a dime and begin sprinting back to my house. I want to be back at my house immediately. I want to pick up a phone immediately. There is someplace that I desperately need to call immediately. I sprint with an all-important mission in mind. Now my veins are really throbbing, my heart is really pounding, but my mind is clearer than ever before. I understand what has been happening to me, to my mind. With monomaniacal intensity, I repeat to myself again and again: I will quit smoking.

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