Nurse Susan Pierzalowski is familiar with the effects of Adderall. In a medical position prior to her role with CUSD, Pierzalowski encountered a female high school student under the influence of the nervous system stimulant. The student was feverish, dizzy, confused and sweating. She had high blood pressure. She had not slept in more than 24 hours.
The student admitted that she had taken several capsules of Adderall, a pill normally prescribed to those suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, though she did not have a prescription.
While this case was at another school and presents an extreme example of Adderall’s harmful effects, it seems a pocket of students in the senior class have begun using the same medication for an academic advantage.
According to the most recently released data from the California Healthy Kids Survey, which took into account prescribed and illicit use of Adderall (and Ritalin, a similar drug), 7% of Carmel High 11th graders in 2010-2011 said they had taken the drugs more than four times, as opposed to 3% of California 11th graders in 2009-2011.
The Adderall users interviewed for this piece, both prescription and illicit users at CHS, estimate about 15 of this year’s seniors have used the drug this year, with what they claim is a notable spike in one-time use during finals and college/scholarship application periods.
One senior boy who says he took the medication in the weeks leading up to finals says, “I used it not only to stay up for finals—it does help you focus, that’s undeniable—but I used it to cope with stress too, because I was pretty stressed out.”
While some illegally use the pill as a study aid, others are prescribed the medication for recognized ailments.
One interviewed senior was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADD and dysgraphia, which has made it difficult for him to handle information at school.
“I have trouble with visual processes,” he says. “Basically, eyes to paper takes a bit longer, and then there’s misspelling things and all the regular dyslexia symptoms. School’s always been really hard for me.”
However, a year and a half into his Adderall prescription, he says these syndromes aren’t having as much of an effect on him.
“As soon as I got prescribed Adderall, I got all A’s,” he adds. “It definitely allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t have been able to do without it.
It is this mental clarity that those who are not prescribed the pill seek.
“Thoughts don’t float into your brain like in normal life,” adds another senior boy who says he has illicitly used Adderall roughly five times. “Thoughts just float in and out when you are sober, but when you are on Adderall, this conversation is the only thing that exists in my mind.”
Nurse Pierszalowski explains Adderall is a stimulant that helps those diagnosed with ADHD by increasing the amount of the chemical neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephine in the brain, aiding in attention and decreasing impulsiveness and hyperactivity.
Despite these benefits, Adderall use also comes with significant risks, Pierszalowski says, especially to those who take the pill without a comprehensive review of their medical history.
“Adderall can cause sudden cardiac death in those with heart problems,” Nurse Pierszalowski says. “Those with a history of psychiatric problems can experience new or worse thought problems, new or worse bi-polar illness or new psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices or believing things that are not true.”
Additionally, coming down from the pill can cause a variety of physical discomforts.
“They were bad crashes,” acknowledges the senior boy who took the pill for finals and goes on to describe that the pill’s after effects included exhaustion, depression and altered jaw alignment from Adderall-induced teeth-grinding.
Perhaps most significantly, due to the pill’s immense strength, those who use can become addicted.
“You can’t kid yourself, it’s really addictive,” the senior adds. “I don’t really think it’s a chemical addiction. For me it was just a lifestyle thing. It’d be like, ‘Crap, I feel terrible right now. I just need it because I want to do well on this test and be on top of my game.’ And I felt like I needed it to be on top of my game.”
With regret, this senior describes how his body got used to Adderall, prompting him to increase the amount he used each day.
“I took one [a day] for two weeks, and you kind of build up a tolerance to it, and then I took two, and then at one point, it was Powder Puff, and I took three.”
Depending on the individual, three pills, or 60mg, is about three times the recommended daily dose of Adderall.
“It kind of scared me. When I took three for Powder Puff, I realized Powder Puff is a pretty easy day at school, and I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ At that point, I realized I was building up a mental addiction because I need it just to get through the day and to deal with stress.”
Not only is Adderall addictive, but it is also expensive.
Across the board, those interviewed say the standard price for a single pill—those being sold illegally, not those prescribed—is $5-6. That could amount to an $18 a day drug habit.
The cost of the pill may be prohibitive, but its availability is not.
One senior girl who illicitly used the drug once for study reasons says, “If you wanted some right now, you probably could get it in a few hours if you really needed it.”
And the Adderall ecosystem is comprised of multiple parts.
At least at CHS, the pills usually come from someone with a legal prescription. The drugs are then either given directly to users or passed through multiple mutual friends until they reach a final destination.
Even though Adderall is not illegal when prescribed, Pierszalowski warns improper use can result in “an infection or fatal overdose.”