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“How the Thrilling Rush of Endorphins Triggered Magic in My ADHD Brain”

I took medication for my ADHD, anxiety, and Tourette’s as a child, and it changed how I saw myself. The only time I felt totally, completely like “me” was on the basketball court. As I grew older, I developed an exercise regime that helped me do something medication never could: boost my self-esteem high enough to see how I could conquer my obstacles on my own.

When faced with life’s most unfair, out-sized, relentless obstacles, we have two choices: fear everything and run, or face everything and rise. From a very young age, I learned to go with the second option.

My obstacles appeared early. When I was 7, I started disturbing the other children in my class. I clearly couldn’t concentrate and for the life of me, I couldn’t sit still. Not long after that, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s Syndrome, and dyslexia. Medication was prescribed to help me perform better in school; another pill stopped the twitching.

Taking the medication always made me feel anxious. It made my heart beat faster and pump louder. It brought my eyes into a strange tunnel vision but also helped me concentrate enough to get through the school day.

It’s true I performed better at school with the help of the medication, but the quality of my life decreased significantly in other areas. When I was medicated, I never felt like my normal self. I felt more like a zombie, going through the motions but never really experiencing them.

Getting pulled out of class to join a small group of other kids with learning disabilities destroyed what little confidence I had. I felt like an outcast and I painfully remember my friends snickering and laughing every time I left. I hated being the dumb kid in the class — the one who needed extra help, extra attention. I bottled up my emotions and never shared my feelings with my parents or anyone else.

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This soul-sucking pattern — medication, feeling like a zombie, special education humiliation, followed by the post-medicine crash at the end of the day — continued for years. I worked hard to stay under the radar. I prayed no one would talk to me or notice me, which is not a healthy way to live and grow.

Looking back, I can see that’s when the seeds of self-hatred started taking root. Late in the day, when the meds were out of my system, I remember feeling really angry. Thankfully this was followed each day by one hour of sheer bliss — from 5 to 6 p.m. I was happy.

On the squeaky floor of the indoor basketball court, I got relief. Basketball was my saving grace. I loved the fast movements, the sweaty camaraderie, and the thrilling rush of endorphins. At basketball practice, I was calm and content. It was the only place I felt like me and it was where my love of exercise, fitness, and nutrition was born.

The End of ADHD Medication

By the time I got to high school, I was still taking prescription medication and hating it. One day, during geometry class, everything changed…

Math never came easily for me, so my anxiety was always through the roof during that class. But this day was different. I started sweating profusely and noticed that my heart was pounding, racing faster and louder in my ears. Then my vision got blurry and I felt dizzy. When I got up out of my seat, I fell to my knees. Another student helped me to the nurse. From there I was sent to the hospital where — after multiple tests and symptom checks — I was told I had suffered a panic attack.

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I was a 14-year-old freshman and already feeling pressure to excel. I knew good grades and participating in extra-curricular activities were important for college admissions, but I didn’t think my current path would lead me there. I wanted to make a change and started to wonder if there was another way to deal with my symptoms of ADHD and anxiety.

The day after my hospital trip, I stayed home from school and told my mom I was done with meds. She was understandably concerned. What parent wouldn’t be? Stopping ADHD medication might have negative consequences, but I was determined to find a different way.

From my earliest days, I never wanted extra time for tests, smaller classrooms, or additional help. I just wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to work hard and rise to the occasion because I knew I could. I was raised to believe that you shouldn’t shy away from your battles. You should embrace them, feel the pain, and work harder because you can.

Learning to Conquer and Cope with ADHD

I idolized elite athletes and was inspired by bodybuilders. I wanted to learn how they transformed their bodies and disciplined their minds, so I started researching fitness and nutrition. I adopted a basic nutrition plan and created workout routines from free programs I found online.

Going to the gym for the first time was an unforgettable experience. I was nervous and intimidated and didn’t have a clue about how to use any of the equipment. I hopped on a stationary bike because it didn’t require any special knowledge and from there I keenly observed seasoned gym-goers move through their exercises. Eager to learn, I absorbed all of this new information like a sponge.

Workout after workout, I learned. The familiar rush of endorphins I recognized from basketball practice came back every time I lifted heavy loads. My mindset began to change. I dug deeper and deeper into my memories and allowed the pain to surface. I knew that if I could stop my medication cold turkey, I could accomplish anything.

I drove myself to work harder and harder. I focused on the task at hand and my persistence eventually paid off. From 8 reps to 10, to 12 and eventually to 15. To this day, that awesome post-workout feeling keeps me motivated and committed.

I hope my story inspires anyone who is having a tough time and doesn’t know where to turn or how to start. Adopt a workout routine or other daily exercise habits. Give yourself the self-care and self-love you need. It will give you confidence and change your life.

Whatever you face, face it head-on. Nothing is impossible as long as you remember, “What’s possible for one is possible for me!

[Want to learn more about how exercise impacts the ADHD brain? Read this next: The Neuroscience of Movement]