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What If I’m Nothing Without the Ritalin?

On ADHD medication, I had the ability to function. But I was held hostage by the feeling that my success wasn’t caused by my own hard work; it was caused by the prescription. I hadn’t yet realized that loathing my ADHD was really a way to self-loathe. And I hadn’t yet found a way to let myself feel deserving of my accomplishments. I was over-zealous about Ritalin and under-zealous about myself.

I brought my hands up to my temples.

When the doctor said the Ritalin was going to kick in at around 5 minutes, I didn’t expect it to actually kick. I lowered my head as it re-arranged itself for the first time — the parcels of information flying in the wind suddenly fluttered back down into filing cabinets that I didn’t know I possessed. The wind stopped. I got to see what order looked like; and, thus, fully realized that I lived in a constant state of mental disorder.

It felt like the blinding sensation of roaring afternoon sunlight, slanted directly into my eyes. That was the kick part; it actually hurt. It began the slow realization that, unmedicated, I had been driving in a rainstorm without windshield wipers. I had been sitting behind a window with a translucent curtain covering it. I called that curtain attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), and the stimulant was the curtain-opener. I opened my lab notebook, with attention more like a flashlight than a disco ball, and wrote the whole lab report in one sitting. Transitions and everything.

When I finished, I seamlessly moved my focus to my English reading. I love the pictures and stories that books give us, but I struggle at the place where the end of one line asks you to go to the beginning of the next. I was told my eyes were not strong enough to read fine print in the second grade, but that cut-rope feeling lingered even after my eyes got better. As a sophomore in high school, I couldn’t use my special reading-highlighting-line-finding tool anymore. With the medicine, I felt like I had my reading tool back — and this tool could be used on everything.

My ADHD greeted me after the three hours promptly — which was ironic because my ADHD always makes me late. I closed my eyes and sank into the quiet space of zoning out where nothing is on my mind. Reality entered through my ears after a few minutes, and I realized it had been three hours, the Ritalin was out, and I was exhausted. I tried to sleep but couldn’t. I thought that was just excitement.

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It got upsetting when the good grades started rolling in, loaded with new academic expectations. It got scary when my SAT tutor told me to stop doing practice sections off-meds because that it was a waste of problems.

Researchers reported that significant behavioral improvements from MPH (the chemical term for Ritalin) medication intervention in children with ADHD should not be conflated with the selective and specific academic improvements that have been recorded by scientists and researchers.1 Their article distinguished between MPH’s effect on increased academic productivity versus increased academic accuracy, and concluded that, while the two variables of productivity and accuracy are interrelated, in the long term MPH perhaps does not have as strong of an impact on academic accuracy as it does on alleviating the behavioral symptoms of ADHD in the short term. Kortekaas-Rijlaarsdam et al cautioned from prescribing MPH over-zealously.

The version of me who got diagnosed two months ago would have balked at that report. I would have shouted that MPH deserves to be credited with grade improvements more than Kortekaas-Rijlaarsdam et al reported. In my mind, Ritalin was the sole difference between my old grades and my new grades. My academic accomplishments were technically mine, but to me, those accolades truly belonged to a prescription.

It’s confusing, but when the Ritalin overpowered the ADHD that I had never been able to conquer myself, it both freed me of my symptoms and fully decimated my self-confidence. On medication, I had the ability to function. But I was held hostage by the feeling that my ability to function and, later, succeed wasn’t caused by my own hard work; it was caused by the prescription. I hadn’t yet realized that loathing my ADHD was really a way to self-loathe. And I hadn’t yet found a way to let myself feel deserving of my accomplishments. I was over-zealous about medication and under-zealous about myself.

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After a while, I did realize that I was freed not from some external oppressor but from a part of myself. That my ADHD was made from me rather than a pathogen. I forgot my pre-diagnosis complacency and how to be friends with the part of me who struggled with ADHD, so the moments between medications became sadder. A running list of mess-ups followed me like a piece of toilet paper on my shoe. I was humiliated by my lack of ability, exposed to myself in the light of what “normal functioning” could feel like. But now the only person mocking my mess-ups was me.

In off-medication moments, I would float in daydreamed phone calls from my doctor, telling me that I was part of some experiment about placebo effect. That the whole time, the results in my functioning were from confidence and not medication. That it had been me, and not MPH, all along.

I have struggled with writing this essay for so long because, in the end, I can’t chalk up my mental distress after my initial prescription to the medication itself. It truthfully is a miracle drug for me and many others. Its academic aid was a serious contributor to my dream college acceptance. It remains a serious tool that keeps me functioning in the turbulence of college. I need it. And now, I can accept that I need it because I can accept why needing it is a good thing and a bad thing rolled into one.

I need medication because details stick to me like uncooked pasta noodles stick to the ceiling. I need it because sometimes people talk to me, but I sit suspended in a space in the air where imagination takes hold of my mind and never lets me go. I need it because I bump into people without it, walk into doors without it, have walked into streets without it. Because I have stared down the front of an eighteen-wheeler and froze, thinking maybe this is what a deer feels like when it’s in the headlights, without it. Because my insurance bills are too high from zoning out behind the wheel without it. Because I don’t always recognize when the quiet space of imagination creeps into me without it, and because I need to be able to recognize it when it does.

But the part of me that makes the imagination place engulf me at inappropriate moments makes it emerge in appropriate moments, too. I imagine on paper. Here, I don’t struggle with the gap between one line ending and another beginning: it’s all one big thread. Writing is the closest I can get to connecting my imagination space to reality. My writing is a manifestation of what goes on in this mental space that makes me go quiet with thoughts so loud you wouldn’t believe it. It’s therapeutic, expressive, creative, relaxing, and engaging, but you already knew that. It’s the way I first loved myself for having ADHD. It’s the way I accepted the part of me that is ADHD.

I should never have felt shame for the pill conquering my ADHD when I could not. I was never supposed to conquer ADHD. Instead, I was supposed to conquer my self-abasement. Writing, too, never conquered my ADHD, but it did conquer my shame. And leaning into my ADHD issues to repurpose them as creative gifts is the most freeing thing that has ever happened to me. My deficit became a strength, and my shame became beaming satisfaction.

This essay was originally composed for the “Development of the Exceptional Child” course in the Education Department at Dartmouth College, with guidance from Professor Donna Coch.

Kortekaas-Rijlaarsdam, A.F., Luman, M., Sonuga-Barke, E., Oosterlaan, J. (2018). Does methylphenidate improve academic performance? A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 28(2), 155-164.

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