One of the best parts of being a writer is that the job lets you be nosy professionally. If I’m curious what all those new buildings are going up in West Philly, I can call the president of Penn or Drexel and say: “Hi, this is Sandy Hingston from Philly Mag. Um — what are all those new buildings you’re putting up?” If I’m wondering what Marjorie Margolies, the Penn prof who’s running for the U.S. Senate, is like, I can ring her up and get an interview. If I want to know why so many American kids are taking ADHD drugs, I can call a Penn neuroscientist, like Anjan Chatterjee, and say: “What exactly is the deal with ADHD drugs?”
But sometimes, hearing somebody else explain something isn’t enough.
I’ve been curious about ADHD for a long time. How come I only started to hear about attention deficit disorder in the ’90s? Did nobody have it before that? Or did we just not have a name for it? What did kids with ADHD do before there was a diagnosis—and drugs to treat it? Why don’t kids have ADHD at anywhere near the same rate in, say, France? Is there something about the way we lead our lives now — our frantic, fractured, 10-things-at-once lives — that puts kids more at risk for ADHD? Or is it, conversely, that today’s put-upon American parents are the ones with the attention deficit — that with the demands of our jobs and our families and an ever more hectic world, we no longer have the patience to just let our kids be their moseying-along, stop-and-look-at-that-bug selves anymore? That we’re the ones who need them to focus in?
I was thinking about all these things a couple of months ago when I got curious about something else — what do ADHD drugs feel like? Twenty percent of American male high-school students are now diagnosed with ADHD. Off-prescription use of ADHD drugs is so rampant on college campuses that Duke University wrote a ban against them into its honor code. In February, the New York Times ran a terrifying story on a young medical student who started taking Adderall in college and saw his life spiral downward into psychosis and suicide. Yet parents are giving that same pill to four-year-olds. What, I wondered, does Adderall do? What would it do to me?
Luckily, I have an editor here at Philly Mag, Tom McGrath, who’s curious about the same things. When I told Tom I wanted to take Adderall for a week — use it at home, at work, when I went to the gym — his eyes lit up, and he told me to go for it. So I did. For the first time in 25 years, I took illegal drugs. I got high. Man oh man, did I get high. You can read all about my Electric Kool-Aid Adderall Test here. You’ll also get to read what Anjan Chatterjee said when I asked him: “What exactly is the deal with ADHD drugs?” I don’t know which was more scary — the way Adderall made me feel, or the fact that Chatterjee says it’s only a matter of time before employers start insisting that everybody take it. My Adderall experiment raised as many questions for me as it answered. But as Chatterjee says, for better or for worse, it and other cognitive-enhancement drugs are a part of our culture, and we’d better start talking about exactly what that means.