OFF THE ADDERRAILS
One night, in December 2014, I found myself fairly inebriated outside a tourist bar in Arusha, Tanzania. I attempted to feign lucidity by keeping my eyes slightly ajar, but my view was still vertical as I slouched across the legs of the girl sitting next to me. I’m not quite sure who she was.
At the time I was in the company of some generous Americans and luckily one of my perkier comrades offered up a solution. It was a tiny, pink pill. I’d seen ecstasy before but this was different. It was much smaller and smoother.
“This’ll get ya going!”
Forty minutes later, I was back at my accommodation, drenched in sweat, teaching myself ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ on the ukulele and simultaneously cooking banana pancakes. I wasn’t hungry but I figured my housemates might be when they awoke in the next hour and I needed multiple activities to keep myself occupied. My eyes were so wide I thought they might detonate in their sockets but I felt sharp. I was definitely ‘going’.
What I had ingested and chased with cheap African beer that night was a central nervous system and cognitive stimulant called Adderall. Adderall is a pharmaceutical widely prescribed in the United States to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The next time I would cross paths with Adderall would be many years later, in Indonesia. When the time came however, my experience would be vastly different and perhaps even more ‘eye opening’ than the first.
Claire sprang into my orbit with her loud drawl, quick wit and no-sunscreen-ever aesthetic during a temporary sabbatical I took to Bali. I had relocated from Sydney with the hope of focusing on creative writing before moving back to regional South Australia to work as a news journalist. I figured a month off in paradise would make for an intrinsically balanced productive and social retreat. But just to be sure the equilibrium could be maintained, I moved into a colossal homestay with 16 other creative travellers. Claire was one of those travellers and I quickly caught wind that she erred more on the side of socialising.
Over rice and tofu one night, Claire told me she had been diagnosed with ADHD when she was just six years old and her doctor had been given an open-ended prescription to Adderall. I asked, with genuine bewilderment, what symptoms she had presented at six years old to be considered clinically and permanently disordered.
“A teacher told mum that I couldn’t sit still in class.”
I waited for the next installment, but that was it.
It struck me as bizarre that Claire had been labeled with a neurodevelopmental condition by displaying what sounded to me like fairly commonplace six-year-old behaviour. My thoughts wandered to my youngest cousin, Tayla, who was at primary school in Australia. Tayla had never displayed any serious issues with focus – she would read books in their entirety and loved a lengthy conversation – but she definitely couldn’t always sit still. She is, after all, only a kid.
Fascinated, I did some more research into ADHD and the minds of little people. Several cognitive theories suggested that the developmental milestones of a six-year-old were predominantly in the area of attention span and its natural improvement. By seven, a child begins to enjoy the autonomy of making their own decisions. Before Claire was even old enough to make her own decisions, she was dished out a medical-grade amphetamine to keep her still.
Getting to know Claire in Bali, I quickly realised she hadn’t really been sober since the first grade. Yet unlike an addiction to alcohol, cocaine or sugar, Claire had no trouble feeding her dependancy because she had a doctor’s signature.
As our conversations deepened Claire sent me the auto-ethnology she had produced for her university finals the year prior.
“My body and brain have become wired to perform and release a certain amount of dopamine each day and when they don’t I withdraw and reject any form of willpower to function without the Adderall,” she had penned in her prologue.
Reading her ethnology I was reminded of my favourite autobiography, The Heroin Diaries, by Nikki Sixx. Both texts seemed to delve philosophically into feelings of enslavement and obsession.
I landed on a quote from his book as I was flipping through on my iPad.
“Children are born innocent. At birth we are very much like a new hard drive - no viruses, no bad information, no crap that's been downloaded onto it yet. It's what we feed into that hard drive, or in my case ‘head drive’, that starts the corruption of the files.”
One afternoon, as we were lounging around in the sun at our villa, I asked Claire what she does when she runs out of Adderall.
“I haven’t yet. My health insurance covers it until I finish college,” she replied. “But I’ve been banned from three chemists for trying to get refills too early.”
There was a pause. Her face dropped.
“Sometimes I take my Adderall when I’m bored.”
Claire’s chocolate eyes didn’t meet mine for a while after this. I got the feeling she wasn’t saying it to me anyway. Her admission was somehow in solidarity with her fellow addicted counterparts around the world. She had described them in her auto-ethnology as “yellow skinned and baggy eyed.”
Claire had a sense of humour as dry as her sunburnt exterior. I’d often feel anxious that I had pissed her off with my incessant interrogation but there was an honesty between us, one that transcended my own self-doubt and assured me that if I did pry too deep, she would be the first to let me know.
Something else I observed about Claire were her physiological quirks. Her hands always trembled, her jaw shifted horizontally during conversation and she never seemed truly at ease, even as she reared her head back in laughter and joked about growing up on an Alpaca farm. I noticed she would occasionally release this discomfort by pulling the strands of her thick brown hair one, one at a time.
But I didn’t need to ask about these mannerisms; I had read of them in her auto-ethnology. They were the typical side effects of an eighteen-year long relationship with a chemical only one compound away from crystal meth.
Our conversations took a darker turn when Claire admitted to me she couldn’t really tell me who she was without her prescription. She told me she didn’t know if certain moments in her life had shaped her, or if the drug had shaped those moments and then those moments had shaped her. She had no stable framework from which she could discern her own character.
As she divulged the chaos of her inner monologue, written and directed by the Adderall, I wanted so badly to pull her in for a hug but I knew she wouldn’t relax into my embrace. She couldn’t; her body was on constant red alert.
Claire unpacked with me the acquaintances who’d mooch pills off her at work; the misleading rapports she’d built around her cascading supply of stimulants, and her so called ‘friends’ who were nowhere to be seen when the stocks ran low and so too did the quality of her company.
These were the shards of Claire’s addiction that were the most destructive and the most unforgiving. Of the articles I’d sifted through attributing Adderall to stomach ulcers and hypertension, and long-term usage to permanent cognitive impairment and psychosis, none seemed to report on the existential loss, the loss of oneself, which Claire described to me as her deepest pain.
When Claire was in school, comments from friends and family like, “she’s moody ‘cos she hasn’t taken her Adderall today” had forced her to first start questioning if she existed separately from the drug. It had always been her and the Adderall. They occupied the same space.
Then, one day in college, along came Rose.
I met Rose through Claire’s auto-ethnology; she was, in fact, the supporting protagonist. She was a provocative character, and almost depicted romantically, as if she were a time traveler sent from the future to fulfil some kind of grand purpose. And Rose also had a prescription for Adderall.
Until Rose entered, the ethnology was, albeit deeply introspective and insightful, quiet chaotic and disjointed. Much like Claire’s personality. But when she wrote about Rose, the words would trickle like syrup, disarmingly sweet and sticking right to me.
The two became inseparable. They shared a bond as bottomless as their bottles of pills. If Adderall was the bad boyfriend Claire could never shake, Rose was the seductive third wheel; a wild red head with a body like a coke bottle and a mind as mysterious as its liquid contents. She slid right in and ignited the fire.
Rose taught Claire that Adderall consumption via the nasal cavity was the best way to reach higher peaks and snorting lines on an empty stomach was the quickest. Both Claire and Rose had been diagnosed when they were children but by the time Rose was eighteen her dosage was double Claire’s.
Claire and Rose would use their prescriptions recreationally and when the supply began to fall short of their monthly refill date they would go in search of new ways to balance out the comedown; alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.
As Rose’s tolerance began to climb so too did her penchant for lawlessness. Eighty milligrams of Adderall became 160, and 160 became 300. Claire could no longer keep up. Soon enough Rose began requesting that Claire drive her to the outskirts of town to collect her next fix, which at that point was no longer dispensed from a pharmacy. If Claire wouldn’t drive her, Rose would walk, sometimes on journeys of up to 4 hours.
The drugs had begun to want more of Rose than they did of Claire. Through the gateway of Adderall was sinister path leading only one way.
In October 2016, Rose entered detox with open charges for Benzo ID, Oxycodone, Cocaine, Ethanol, THC, Opiates, Barbiturates, Benzodiazepines and Adderall.
Claire’s addiction perplexed me. I had watched friends and friends of friends succumb to ice, cocaine and alcoholism before. They were usually skeletal and disheveled by the time they admitted their powerlessness, if ever at all. But Claire was different because outwardly, and not under the journalistic microscope, she appeared so normal. She had completed a college degree, moved out of home, held down several good jobs and had saved enough money for a month long stay in Bali. She had a boyfriend back in the US, whom she talked fondly of, and I frequently saw her lending money to friends or offering lost travellers a place to stay. She was honest, reliable and diplomatic. Claire was an addict but she wasn’t selfish or dysfunctional.
We attempted to conduct an experiment in the safety of our shared residence in Bali. Claire was to temporarily kick the Adderall and I would track her experience with notes so she too could understand her own addiction. She lasted 48 hours and even during that time reported considerable anhedonia, couldn’t-be-bothered syndrome and feelings of “personality-less”.
Back on her medication after the experiment nosedived, she quipped and laughed and flicked her optimism around the room one again. But past the gloss of her manuka skin, I saw a girl petrified of the day she would truly have to reckon with reality. Whenever, and wherever, that may be.
At the beginning of 2018 Rose was put into an induced coma following several relapses with heroin and stint using Fentanyl. After she was discharged, she relapsed almost immediately only to end up back in hospital where her arm amputated due to an infected vein. Until recently, the two girls kept in contact.
Written by Paige Leacey