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The Self-Medicated Woman

I’ve learned to love my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). I’ve also learned to accept and even love the legal drugs I use to manage it: caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.

As many of you reading these words today amid your 500 other to-dos know, ADHD is blessing and a curse. My morning preamble to sitting down to this article was marked by a frenzied dance through a series of tasks I felt compelled to undertake no matter how inane, including chopping beeswax to make “cutting board butter” (thanks a lot, internet), muscling the sludge off of the side of a bottle of liquid soap (it builds up!), a step in the long process of making homemade apple jack (America’s first legal drug), repairing a broken window (it’s cold out there) and, oh yeah, getting my son out the door and to the bus on time. All before the sun had barely crested the treetops.

At times, I feel ridiculous, but after a half-century of flitting from task to task, I’ve come to trust the process and understand that it will all come together eventually. People with ADHD get shit done.

Of course, some of us need a little help. That’s where the drugs come in.

One of my favorite lines from the library of insights that embellished the bathroom stalls of my high school was this old standby: “Reality is for people who can’t handle drugs.” It was funny. Because it was true. Why would any thinking person endure, unfiltered, the day-to-day indignities of adolescence? How could anyone tolerate the constant barrage of adrenaline, anxiety and shame cycling with prolonged bouts of cheerless ennui alone?

The teen years. Good times.

And so, I experimented and dabbled. I was fortunate in that I somehow avoided the substance abuse problems that felled better men and women than I, even with all of the addiction to be found on my father’s side of the family. They were a strange bunch, those South Jersey Earlings. Mariners and Pine Barren hillbillies — they struggled with alcohol, cigarettes and eating disorders, as well as the unusual tendency to sit down in their reclining chairs at about age 65 and never rise again, spending their final twenty years (they had amazing longevity despite their frailties) watching “The Price is Right” and asking when lunch would be ready.

Although I inherited their fattish fingers, pale complexion and fond regard for a good easy chair, I somehow escaped the worst of their addictions. I didn’t escape unscathed, however — my dependence on cigarettes has been one of the most frustrating struggles of my life.

Fortunately, for the sake of future background checks, cigarettes are legal. They represent one branch of the troika of substances responsible for the world’s greatest drug expenditures: nicotine, caffeine and alcohol.

While we often shine a spotlight on the ill effects of these drugs, I’d like to take a moment to ponder their efficacy and aid to those of us who use them to help us wade through the impulses that govern our days.

The Office of the President’s 2014 publication, “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs: 2000-2010,” asserts that drug users in the U.S. spend around $100 billion per year on cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. Yet in 2011, Americans kicked illegal drugs’ ass by spending about $162 billion alone on alcoholic beverages. We spend another $20 billion per year on coffee (cheap!) and, as for cigarettes, the financials are hard to come by but suffice it to say that according to the WHO, about 10 million cigarettes are sold globally every minute. Tobacco companies spend more each year on lobbying and advertising than our nation’s entire coffee bill, so who KNOWS how much money they’re raking in.

My point is that we spend a lot more on our legal drugs than we do our illegal ones. And while we often shine a spotlight on the ill effects of these drugs, I’d like to take a moment to ponder their efficacy and aid to those of us who use them, consciously or not, to help us wade through the impulses that govern our days.

Caffeine is a stimulant and a vasoconstrictor. It’s a bitter white powder usually extracted from plants (sound familiar?) and is a potentially deadly drug that manufacturers now include in products ranging from chewing gum to bottled water. About 10 grams of the stuff will kill you, and, as anyone who has over-indulged on Midol or Red Bull can tell you, it would be a miserable death indeed. All those triple-foam lattes and diet cokes are not much more than tasty catalysts for the white stuff that kick-starts our day and wakes up our synapses.

For many folks with ADHD, caffeine mimics prescription medications such as Adderall and Concerta. This is not to suggest that anyone trash their medications in favor of a cup of joe, but it does explain why some of us are physically unable to sit down at our computers without our morning jolt. Or in some cases, Jolt.

My 12-year-old son has a mild form of ADHD, better described in his case as plain old “Attention Deficit Disorder” or ADD. Like me, his thoughts are disordered and he often lapses into daydreaming in the middle of everyday tasks. Getting him out the door each morning is an exercise in marshal order as he’s liable to drift off into la-la land at any moment. And it’s no small feat when I myself am always on the cusp of a journey to inner space. While I support many parents’ decision to try medication for their kids with ADHD, my space cadet’s symptoms aren’t alarming enough to merit a prescription. But now that he’s getting older and the scholastic stakes are getting higher, I’m seriously considering giving him an occasional cup of coffee in the morning. Would that be so wrong?

I know that I won’t be allowing him my favorite form of ADD self-medication, nicotine. Fortunately, he’s coming of age in a time when cigarettes are not only considered uncool, they’re downright socially unacceptable.

Such was not the case when I was in school, when administrators built a special garden for student smokers that was, without exaggeration, the most pleasant space on the premises. Protected from the elements and filled with wooden benches and leafy plants, it was (as I recall) the only place where students could sit outside. Even the non-smokers had our parents sign the permission slip so we could sit in the open air with our friends during lunch. And if you happened to bum a Newport from a classmate because you were tired or feeling out of sorts, you were so much the cooler.

That was how I started smoking, and it was a revelation.

Cigarettes made me feel soooo good, and it’s no wonder: Nicotine is a mood-altering drug that is both stimulant and relaxant. It brought my meandering mind back to the fold, allowing me to be social and focused for the first time in my life.

Of course, I don’t need to tell anyone here about the deadliness of the tradeoffs. Along with my newfound attention, I was introduced to addiction, asthma and a lifetime of worry about the long-term health consequences of my many-pack years of Marlboro Lights.

Nicotine is — as smarter folks than I have noted — a great drug with a terrible delivery system. Studies are finding that, much like caffeine, the drug itself is probably not dangerous in small doses and may in fact have tremendous implications for treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and even Tourettes.

As you might expect, nicotine can be particularly attractive to those with ADHD. The incidence of smoking is twice as high for people with ADHD, and it can be many times harder for those people to quit. This helps explain why so many of my classmates from the smokers’ corral went on to quit smoking soon after high school, while I continued to struggle with my addiction for years to come.

My 12-year-old son has a mild form of ADHD, better described in his case as plain old “Attention Deficit Disorder” or ADD.

So while I share the current mores against smoking and teenagers and would never sign the smokers’ corral permission slip for my son (even if such a thing existed in this age), I have more complicated feelings about vaping. Most people are aghast at the rise of electronic cigarettes among the young. I’m relieved, however, that this alternative is available so long as cigarettes remain legal. A Lucky Strike delivers hundreds of toxins along with its nicotine load, while a vape cartridge delivers just one — whose toxicity is, thus far, unproven.

Keeping a vape pen is a solid technique to keep me from relapsing back to analogs. When I’m feeling stressed and the old addiction alarms start pinging, a couple of drags of vapor (my signature formula is a mix of hibiscus, lemon and nicotine) can send them packing. Moreover, I realize that I’m very susceptible to what scientists call “unit bias.” Much like some people with a bag of Doritos or a pint of Chunky Monkey, if I have a cigarette, I’ll smoke it to the filter. If I have a pack, I’ll smoke it down to the last one. With a vape pen, I can take a hit or two and then leave it alone until the next craving hits, which may be days or weeks away.

This brings us to alcohol, the mama bear of all legal drugs. All of the living adults in my family are moderate drinkers who seem to have blessedly sidestepped the gene for alcoholism, so little of what I have to say here is relevant for those who struggle with that particular encumbrance.

When we were children, our maternal grandparents allowed us to have a little wine — watered down to the point of near tastelessness — along with our Sunday dinner. Afterwards, we were allowed to have coffee well-diluted with milk as well. What can I say? We’re Italian.

When our extended family gets together now, we nearly always start with a cocktail and often split a bottle of wine (or two) over the course of the meal. But we tend to forget that alcohol is a powerful drug. It’s an easily absorbed depressant that alters mood, distorts the mind and is responsible for approximately 88,000 deaths in the U.S. per year, from causes as disparate as cirrhosis and choking.

The worried Nonna who lurks at the back of my mind during these family dinners sees my son, nieces and nephews — all adolescents now — watching and waiting. Will they be able to repeat their parents’ moderation? Or will a recessive gene or traumatic experience unleash an addiction that will spin them out of our reach? Like Bill Maher has said, marijuana isn’t the gateway drug. Beer is.

Alcohol is the legal drug that worries me the most, yet the one that I just can’t quit.

Now what was it that I was talking about? Sorry…I got distracted. I’m going to make a cup of coffee.

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One Response

  1. Lisa

    Seems we have eerily similar family histories and even physical characteristics. But from one coffee-addict and alcohol-loving ADD adult (note: not ADHD): Cheers! Here’s to self-acceptance of how we work best in this crazy world. Thank you for this post.


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