My family is big on medication. Ever since I was little, if I had the slightest headache, my mom shoved two capsules of Advil into my hands and told me to go and lie down. In Ms. Sweigart’s fifth grade class, after I’d gotten a C+ on a science test I hadn’t studied for, I sat down with both Ms. Sweigart and my mom in the science classroom, posters of the periodic table and Einstein cloaking the walls, and spoke about the ways in which I could improve my study habits. With tears streaming down my face, because, after all, getting a C+ in fifth grade meant a lifetime of failure, we spoke about the possibility of introducing Adderall into my daily diet.
This aim for my academic success didn’t take shape until ninth grade, when homework required more than the filling out of worksheets. I went to a psychiatrist, a kind woman who prescribed me a low dosage of Adderall — “boosters” — she called them, for those times in the middle of the day when I just couldn’t seem to focus. For those instances requiring long-term concentration, she prescribed me a bottle of high dosage Adderall. “Only to be taken on rare occasions,” she had said, smiling. Well, upon reflection, throwing bottles of stimulants at a lazy 14-year-old doesn’t seem to yield what my parents had hoped would be outstanding results. And contrary to our belief systems at the time, medication cannot be substituted for motivation.
I began to take the pills, but not during the day, when class material became so daunting that I’d instead revert to teenage fantasies in my head rather than attempt engagement. Instead it was during the nighttime, when the only living things awake were me and the birds cooing outside of my window. This practice was maintained throughout my four years of high school. I left all of my work until the last minute, and many times, until after the deadline, because my enabler — Adderall — ensured that I’d produce something eventually. On Adderall, I didn’t just feel efficient, I felt like a motherfucking genius. My eyes scurried over pages upon pages of texts in a matter of hours — texts assigned for weeks’ worth of consumption. I wrote what I believed to be papers with highly sophisticated argumentation clouded by hundreds of typos and heaps of incoherency. But my brain became a flawless generator of insight, and its consistent ability to counteract my academic apathy in the presence of stimulants became a means for an addiction.
What accompanied my brain during those quiet nights and early mornings, though, were heart palpitations, headaches and aggressive pangs of agitation. When I’d arrive at school the following day, with the medication still pulsing through my veins, someone’s foot tapping on my chair could have caused me to chew my own hand off — or theirs. An addiction brought on by the need for academic success became socially, emotionally and physically debilitating. And frighteningly, I’d never really considered it an addiction, until now, when I recall my legitimate inability to produce work without my elixir. Furthermore, I preferred to look into my teachers’ eyes, aware they’d read through my landscape of lies, rather than to simply trust my own intelligence. But what if this said more about unfair academic expectations than it did about me?
During my senior year of high school, a mixed forum was held for students, teachers and parents alike to discuss what we’d gained from watching the 2010 documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” The film provides a commentary on the American public school system’s failures, and the ways in which kids have adopted ridiculously high expectations for themselves, causing them to be overworked. I myself was lucky enough to attend a well-resourced private school in Washington D.C., and the forum consisted of myself and other privileged students and parents discussing a school system which we knew virtually nothing about. Still, I sheepishly walked up to the podium and proposed this: what if some people just aren’t motivated by school? The responses varied. A couple of teachers afterwards commended my honesty, a parent took me aside to say, “I don’t think that’s true,” and surprisingly, many of my peers nodded in agreement. So maybe I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t get pumped up about school, just the only one secretly killing myself with stimulants.
I came to college with the hope that university courses would finally ensure my genuine interest in school, but alas, introductory level social sciences didn’t seem to change a now fiercely maintained commitment against formal education. Within the first two months of my freshman year, I registered with Counseling and Psychological Services in the attempt to hash out my real problem: a lack of work ethic only aided by the few remaining capsules of Adderall buried in my drawers. During my second appointment with my bald-headed therapist with a flashy smile, he told me to pick up the plant in his office, hold it in between my arms and walk around for three minutes. I did so, skeptically, and once I put the plant down he asked, “Do you know what that was for? That was to show you the weight of your parents’ expectations.” Are you fucking serious? I was, for once, looking for constructive advice on how to utilize an education I had so miserably taken for granted, and in turn, I’d had to carry around a pot of lavender.
I guess what has helped me get over the habit of self-medicating is finding classes that have actually mattered to me. Perspective is the only remedy for apathy, and my appreciation for my education has been founded upon a perspective I’ve gained from classes and extracurriculars alike. But the inability to make deadlines still haunts me, and procrastination is the bane of any college kid’s existence. Recently, a friend’s mom spoke to me about how the creator of “The West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin, would snort multiple lines of coke and splay hundreds of pieces of paper at his feet in order conjure up his critically acclaimed dialogue. “Hey!” I said, “That sounds like how I write papers!” No laughs were exchanged because dependency isn’t funny, it’s scary.
I was medicated early on with the assumption that my unidentified aversion to putting forth effort would be cured. But what professionals should have encouraged was the pursuit to identify my aversion. If it became apparent that a rigid academic environment wasn’t right for me, then that should have been OK, because our modern definition of education is so boxed in that it doesn’t allow for us to exhibit our intelligence accordingly. I still sometimes use stimulants in a pinch, as do many of my friends, as do so many college students, sometimes for recreational use. But we, as students, as people, should learn to trust our intelligence and trust that our motivation will follow passion. And passion, I believe, will very rarely be found within the confines of a classroom. Also, I wrote this in two hours, just on coffee.
Abby Taskier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org