It comes on as a heat. A warmth starts in my chest and gradually spreads into my neck and arms. For me, ADHD is not a static condition. It comes in squalls. My life is lived between the poles of who I really am and who the Ritalin turns me into. The presence or absence of the medication affects every single experience I have. A simple trip to Ikea can either be a productive use of a Saturday or an overwhelming gauntlet of tedium and frustration, depending on whether or not I have prescription methylphenidates in my bloodstream.
As I head up the escalator into a sea of blue and yellow with no drugs in my system, the heat has already begun to build. My eyes flash around the room. I chomp on my gum. Check my watch. Look at the price of this comforter. Observe a husband being forced to consider the merits of various cabinet handles. A door out of sight opens, closes. Wonder who it is. The heat is in my head now. I close my eyes to fight for focus. I follow the yellow arrows on the floor. I twirl a little golf pencil in my fingers. Where the hell did my girlfriend disappear to? I swear she’s like Batman sometimes. I should download Dark Knight Rises. My vision starts to strobe lightly. I want to run. Burn this energy off. I fight it. There’s that door again. Out of my pocket comes my phone. Facebook. Twitter. Now I’m sweating. My eyes tear up. Someone drops a pencil.
This is my life. My focus is always split between subjects. I can be in class thinking about sex or having sex thinking about class. There’s always something else flashing to the front of my mind before disappearing just as quickly.
The constant movement of my body mirrors the activity in my mind. There’s just energy that needs to get out. When I was 11, it manifested in a disturbing neck twitch. I still have an unquenchable oral fixation. If I can’t chew on gum or a straw, I gnaw on my tongue until it bleeds. My hands are always flipping keys or a pen around. I was recently given a fidget, a small rubber twisting toy used to soothe special needs children. It has become my security blanket.
I remember sitting in a psychiatrist’s office as a teenager, half listening as she told me what I already knew: I had Attention Deficit Disorder. As of 2007, there have been an estimated 5.4 million children diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Center for Disease Control. Most of them were told the same thing I was: There’s something wrong with your brain, little boy. Don’t worry. We’ve got magic medicine for you.
I have been on some sort of stimulant ever since. I hate my meds. They cost me sleep, give me headaches and stifle my appetite. Ritalin, Adderall, and other ADHD pills are classified alongside opiates, methamphetamines, and cocaine as schedule two drugs. Prescriptions can only be written for a maximum of 30 days with no refills allowed. Every time I move, I’m interrogated by a new shrink. I have to wade through the assumption that I’m just going to sell my pills to some overachieving high schooler who’s scared of the S.A.T.
And I do need the medicine. It’s what I hate most of all. Without my pills I am an amputee without his prosthetic. Tedium becomes torture. Ikea becomes Abu Ghraib.
I take a bathroom break for a respite from all of the stimulation. My jaw is sore from frantic chewing. What was the name of that end table I was supposed to remember? Kerflug? I forget to zip my pants.
Time to end the madness. I swallow the little green pill: 10 mg of methylphenidate, the generic form of Ritalin.
Twenty minutes later, things are calm. The noise is gone. The neurons in my prefrontal cortex are working at an increased level of sensitivity, at least that’s how the scientists best understand it. I’m flipping through the curtains on the wall with genuine interest. The bulk of my mind is consumed in picturing my bedroom with that extra swath of red, or maybe green.
The energy is still there, but it has purpose. My focus, scattered just an hour ago, has become concentrated. I always tell people that it’s like turning a floodlight into a laser. My hands are empty. My gum chewing has slowed to a cow-eating-cud pace.
This is the person those who know me least see. My classmates, teachers, employers know a driven man. I get my work done on time. I answer questions in class. This is me surviving at school. I can play in the majors, but only with the help of performance enhancers.
The conversations around me, once impossible to ignore, are just a low hum in the background. I memorize the call number of the Klippan couch cover so I can find it later in the warehouse.
It took me much of my life, about 24 years in fact, to come to grips with my disability. ADHD sits in an unusual place in the medical spectrum. It is psychosomatic like depression but manifests itself like a physical handicap. Left unmedicated, I can’t keep up in normal life, but I certainly don’t belong with the special kids.
I have found that exercise is an effective holistic treatment. That point of intense exertion, where it takes every ounce of determination to fight through the fatigue, that’s probably the only time I ever think of just one thing.
I have no problem waiting the 15 minutes to check out. I hope I’ll get home before the Ritalin wears off so I can put my new chairs together. There really are two different versions of who I am. My hyper and controlled selves melt in and out of each other as the medication gains or loses effect. I’m certain if the two ever had a chance to meet, one would be annoyed, the other bored to tears.
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Top image: Nathan Baker, "Untitled Chair Forms," 2008-2009. Middle: Flickr / shalawesome. This story reprinted from vice.com.