Anyone who has paid attention to the news the last few weeks has probably heard the phrase “performance-enhancing drugs” enough times to make a person sick. Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles after a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report found the cyclist had been involved in an “elaborate doping program.” And in a seemingly unrelated story, a New York Times article called attention to the fact that low-income kids are being prescribed Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder medications even when they don’t have these disorders in order to “boost academic performance.” These two news stories call attention to the epidemic of drug use as a means to enhance performance, to be the best, or perhaps even to be “better” than one is meant to be.
While taking drugs like Adderall and Ritalin isn’t necessarily the same as, say, injecting testosterone, the abuse of ADD/ADHD medications is widespread. It’s become so much of a problem that filling a prescription for one of these drugs can mean having to try several different pharmacies in order to find one that hasn’t run out. I know this, because I take Adderall for my diagnosed ADD. More and more, I run into problems when getting my medication. But perhaps the biggest side effect of Adderall abuse has been the stigma that seems to be associated with taking the drug, whether actually prescribed it or not, especially as a college student.
I’m sure I don’t need to point out that people abuse these medications on college campuses, especially at a high-pressure university like Columbia. I have, on more than one occasion, been offered significant amounts of money for my medication by students looking to “cram” or “stay up all night studying.” Sure, Adderall may often be used as a drug for all-nighters, but for those of us who rely on the medication, we know it as the only way we can manage to focus in class or to write a paper without being distracted by ... ooh something shiny! ADD/ADHD medications are given to and taken by people who don’t need them, but does that mean nobody really needs them? Are these medications merely performance-enhancing drugs that give takers an unfair advantage? I had a “frenemy” say to me once that her grades were somehow more deserved than the grades of someone who took Adderall because she had “truly earned them.” (Never mind that she drank enough coffee to kill a horse—she apparently didn’t consider caffeine to be a performance-enhancing drug.) In her mind, Adderall wasn’t treating my learning disorder and bringing me up to the same starting level as everyone else, but it was giving me superhero abilities.
I won’t deny that my academic performance has been enhanced since I started taking Adderall. Before I was diagnosed, I failed three classes at my previous university and eventually dropped out, in part because I couldn’t concentrate enough to complete any of my assignments. After I started taking medication, I matriculated at a community college where I earned As, rediscovered my academic self-confidence, and eventually worked my way to Columbia, where I’m doing just fine grade-wise. Completing assignments is by no means easy now, but with medication, the tasks have become manageable. I don’t think this means I’m cheating, and I can’t believe some people do.
ADD/ADHD will remain controversial diagnoses because there is no simple test that proves a person has them. In many cases, it seems doctors are too quick to jump to the ADD/ADHD conclusion or to prescribe medications either way. Beyond that, people take these medications when they’re not supposed to, further increasing the problems for those of us who actually need the medications. And yes, some of us do need them. We’re not “doping.” We’re just treating. We don’t deserve to be stripped of any titles, awards, or grades. What we deserve is respect—enough to be seen as equals regardless of our diagnosis, and enough for those who don’t need our medications not to take them. After all, you wouldn’t steal a wheelchair and go on a joyride if you could walk, would you?
Jessica Lovelace-Chandler is a School of General Studies junior majoring in creative writing. Owls and Lions and Bears! Oh My! runs alternate Fridays.
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