When an aid becomes addiction

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March 30, 2010

3:18 AM

A freshman club athlete, George sighs when he thinks about his three-year experience with prescription stimulants. While many healthy students actively seek prescription stimulants to get an edge or experience a high, George, who has ADD, sees Adderall as a necessary evil and a means to a successful academic career.

“Generally, people I know with a prescription don’t like it,” he said.

And yet, Adderall and other related stimulants are shared illegally on campus, providing students with medications an opportunity to make profit. George recalls during his senior year in high school, when the market for focus aids was particularly active. Although he never sold a pill, George admits to sharing with a friend who sold to a group of students taking the exam.

Perhaps the attractiveness of prescription stimulants is rooted in actual success stories like George’s, who began taking Adderall right around the SATs and claims that his scores improved in comparison to his practice results.

Standardized testing provides academic pressure that pushes some of the most motivated students to prescription drug abuse. Another student, Vinny, admits to becoming illegally involved with prescription stimulants, specifically Ritalin, Adderall and Vivance, during AP testing in his junior year.

“Any standardized test I took to get into this school,” Vinny says, brows furrowed for a moment as he appreciates the implications of his drug abuse. “I was fucked up,” he said.

George admits to abusing Adderall on occasion, in order to stay up all night for papers or late-night games, although he expresses frustration with students like Vinny, who abuse in order to get “fucked up.” He believes it has the opposite effect, and accuses students who claim otherwise to be trying to look cool.

“I’ve never been high from it. I hate it. I enjoy not taking it. I take it only when I have to. I don’t like the way it makes me feel, like a zombie,” George said.

After five years at the College of William and Mary, Dr. Virginia D. Wells, director of the Student Health Center, refrains from commenting on the severity of a stimulant abuse problem on campus, which she reserves as a matter of opinion. However, she acknowledges that the policy in place at the College of referring ADD and ADHD patients elsewhere is due to a commonly perceived potential for abuse of stimulant drugs at universities.

“At many colleges, there are policies in place that students come armed with their information and be prescribed medication by either their psychiatrist or practicing physician, and that that relationship continues, so that we don’t get into the position of being drug dealers,” Wells said.

Wells acknowledged a particular risk associated with the unregulated use of Adderall. The drug will work to treat other underlying disorders such as depression, and without a complete evaluation, a student may be inappropriately treating more serious problems while masking their symptoms.

Unfortunately for Vinny, his abuse of prescription drugs led to a far more serious problem with stimulants that drastically affected his life. He succumbed to a classic behavior pattern associated with addiction: seeking a more extreme high.

“I trace the huge drug problems I had later in life — my coke addiction — back to those days,” Vinny said.

Cocaine, like Adderall, causes increased energy, decreased appetite and an increased heart rate. The difference is that cocaine is highly illegal, and Adderall is becoming increasingly available.

“It was really cheap. I’d get five pills for five dollars,” Vinny said.

George, who has some experience sniffing lines, describes fellow students who snort Adderall in order to create an experience similar to the cocaine rush.

“It kicks in right away,” he said. “It doesn’t curb your appetite, although you don’t get the same concentration, and it doesn’t last as long.”

For George, dependency has never been a personal concern, but his outright distaste for the medication led him to question the necessity of the drug. He said he didn’t understand why students with ADD and ADHD get not only medical help, but also extra time on tests, teacher’s notes and other accommodations. The answer lies in the chemistry of his brain.

“Picture my sensory input as a hose with a kink in it,” George said. “I process things slower, and in that lapse it becomes easier for my mind to become focused on something else.”

Vinny came away from his experience with stimulants claiming to be a different, less positive person, while George, who has been exposed to a spectrum of stimulants such as Ritalin, Concerta, Welbutrin, Provigil and Dexedrine, insists that the drugs make him less goofy and more argumentative and uptight. Despite the negative side effects, George said he does not plan on getting off drugs any time soon.

“I’ll have a prescription as long as I need it to work,” he said.

While misuse of the prescriptions can lead to dependency, Wells said that the medication has benefits.

“When used appropriately, these drugs can be life saving, and they should be available to young people; but they need to be prescribed judiciously. I have had maybe one student come in and seek help for drug dependency and have referred that student to the appropriate place,” Wells said.

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