Ten years ago, my husband and I faced a question so many parents face: Should we put our son on ADHD drugs? Jake had so many hallmarks of the disorder: He was disorganized, inattentive, perpetually late, and generally moving to a different drummer—one that nobody else in our family could hear. He was driving us crazy—and our chronic nagging was making him crazy. I wrote about our dilemma in my parenting column, Loco Parentis, in a piece called “Whose Attention Deficit Is It, Anyway?”
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I’ve been fascinated by ADHD and the drugs used to treat it ever since. Why do so many American children have the disorder—especially boys? What are the long-term effects of daily doses of methamphetamine on kids as young as four and five? Why are so many college kids—and hardworking young professionals—using Adderall to give them an edge? How do ADHD drugs work, anyway? After years of reading and wondering about these drugs, I decided it was time to try some for myself.
Thus began my very own Electric Kool-Aid Adderall Test, which I wrote about in this month’s Philadelphia magazine. I took Adderall for a week—while I was at work, when I went to the gym, when I was just kicking around my house—to find out what would happen: what it would do to me, and how it would affect my brain. I never expected the drug to be so powerful, or for it to change me as profoundly as it did. That was scary. What was even scarier was my discussion with Penn neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee, who told me drugs like Adderall are the wave of the future—that someday soon, employers may require their workers to take such drugs to improve focus and stamina. After all, it’s just one more way to increase productivity, right?
But there are important questions to be asked about these “cognitive enhancement” drugs, and they’re the same ones my husband and I were asking when we worried about Jake a decade ago. These days, one in five American male high-school students are diagnosed with ADHD. That’s 20 percent. Do 20 percent of teenage boys need drugs just to cope with daily reality, or is there something out of whack about our culture’s relationship with Adderall and Ritalin?
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