What it’s actually like to need ‘study drugs’

Because it’s not just for an easy first


There’s a harmful stigma surrounding the usage of some so called “study drugs”. And that stigma is actually quite concerning, because for some people – myself included – these drugs are literally the difference between coping at university and flunking out, often through no fault of our own.

In the words of the lovely Doctor who diagnosed me, I suffer from “textbook ADHD”.  And that’s not just a case of laziness, or a lack of motivation. It’s a genuine disorder, common in children but also adults that can cause inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity or a combination of them all. I’ve always watched my peers in lectures and lessons sit down and absorb every word uttered in there with a guttural envy.

I’d love to do that. I’d love to have that magical ability, but it never quite works out.

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ADHD is like having an excitable baboon at the controls for your brain. This baboon desperately seeks stimulation, it always wants to be moving, prodding everything. Woe betide any foregone dreams of holding a train of thought, because there’s always a tangential stream of ideas that must be explored. It’s like going on Jeremy Corbyn’s Wikipedia, and finding yourself several hours later engrossed in the same site’s summary of L. Ron Hubbard’s complete works. The most irksome part is that, internally, this seems like the most important task. It’s got a perpetual override on self-preservation and prioritisation, however adamant you are at the time that it’s not going to happen. More precisely, ADHD is the result of areas of your brain functioning at a disproportionate speed to the rest of the old grey matter. If that doesn’t make sense, here’s a cheerful comic that better explains it.

And sure, there are ways around this that aren’t reliant on medication. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can help, as can enforcing an absolute routine. But it doesn’t work for everyone. For me personally, the most effective solution is a dosage of dexamfetamine sulfate, a powerful stimulant that brings the rest of my brain up to speed. It is fucking glorious. I can sit down in a lecture and take notes without being at the beck and call of the baboon, despite his desperation to know what Rotten Tomatoes rated The Bourne Ultimatum. I can stay still without craving movement. It’s hard to explain how groundbreaking this is and how liberating it feels to someone who’s never been in that situation on a daily basis. It’s like I’m no longer a captive to my own whims.

Which is why the stigma around study drugs is so dangerous. The notion that people who use these drugs are attempting to gain undue advantage over their peers is true for some, but to tar everyone with the same brush is unfair. I don’t take dexamfetamine because I enjoy it, far from it. It’s a cocktail of potent amphetamines – it makes cigarettes taste delicious, it destroys my appetite and it makes my moods wildly unpredictable. I end up chewing my cheeks into oblivion (and that combined with the tasty cigarettes means I’m pretty certain it’s hello, mouth cancer). In addition, it focuses my thought processes to such an extent that once I start talking, it’s nigh on impossible to stop.  Being a Class B I’ve got to be inordinately careful with storing it, because I sure as hell don’t want anyone to steal it and to then face accusations of dealing. If I didn’t need it, I wouldn’t take it. That’s not to say that without it I become incapable of producing any form of work. It’s merely that I’ve found the dexamfetamine to be the most efficient solution to any issues.

Fun for days

Fun for days

The ability to focus normally is worth the side effects. But for me, the biggest downfall is that this focus isn’t automatically targeted. For someone without ADHD, taking drugs that ameliorate the symptoms just allows them to properly knuckle down on their work for colossal stints. It’s why the stigma exists. But for someone with ADHD, it just brings your brain up to a “normal” level. It allows you to focus, but I’ve lost entire days of dexamfetamine to the stupidest distractions before. Often I’ll take it, then read while I wait for it to kick in. Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly noticeable when it does – I inadvertently devoured the fourth Game of Thrones book in a morning before realising that I’d probably have been better served doing my coursework. It’s not a precise solution, just a leg-up in certain areas. And the increase in anxiety is certainly not ideal. I’ve been hugely fortunate that my lecturers and department have been understanding – the best change to Universities on the whole in the past decades has been the support offered to those with learning “difficulties”.

From the perspective of someone without ADHD, dexamfetamine seems like a road to an easy first class honours. But from my perspective, and that of my peers with similar issues, it is a life changer. That is not to say that I would be interested in a “cure” for ADHD. It’s a key part of my personality, and the unpredictability probably makes me somewhat exciting. It’s just nice to be able to deal with it.

So do us all a favour, and stop giving my methods a bad name.