This Is Your Brain On Drugs . . .

There are two coffee mugs on my desk right now.  Both are full of warm coffee.  I never seem to get to drink it when it’s hot, but even so, I don’t usually have two warm cups on the desk at the same time.  Except when my brain hiccups and I do something twice.

Or not at all.  I glance at the envelope propped in front of my monitor that has giant print on it and says “LICENSE TABS EXPIRING!  RUN VAN THROUGH EMISSIONS TEST!” Neglecting to do somehing is more often a problem than doing things twice.

People of a certain age will recognize the quote in the title.  There was an anti-drug ad that ran years ago.  It showed an egg:  “This is your brain.” Then it showed the same egg sizzling in a pan.  “This is your brain on drugs.”

“Any questions?”

It was quite  an effective ad in its way.

This post will become coherent now.  The fact is, my brain is almost always on drugs.  Caffeine.  And sugar.  And when I am stressed, as I am now over several domestic situations (nothing tragic, I assure you! That blue paint is a perfectly delightful shade of blue . . . the whole room is a perfectly delightful shade of blue now . . . ) then whatever part of my brain that determines how much self medication I need goes into over drive. And I find cups of cold tea all over the house.  Or, as right now, discover that two cups of warm coffee are perched on my desk.  I have no recollection of  fetching either one.

I don’t do illegal drugs.  With one exception, I’ve never done illegal drugs. And that one time I was so disappointed by the total lack of effect that I was never tempted to try it again.  Sugar is a lot cheaper, legal, and seems to give me the same end result that everyone is breaking the law and paying big money to achieve.

This topic came to mind today because one of my offspring is a senior in high school and suffering terribly from ‘senior brain.’  Just as it is most critical that she not screw up, her organizational skills seem to be falling apart.  Lost her car keys with a major term paper locked in the trunk (and it was one of those smart keys that mean the car has to be towed to the dealership and chatted with before the dealer can make a new key.  $250, please.)

Luckily, we dodged that bullet.  Where did I find her keys?  In the bottom of the back pack that she had searched three times.

Twice now I have watched her complete the same set of missing assignments for an important class.  Twice now those completed assignments have completely vanished.  It is making both of us crazy, and unfortunately making her look not just lazy but deceptive to her teacher.  I think she would almost rather take the F’s than ask her teacher, yet again, for the pages she is supposed to translate.

Anyway, in the course of discussing that situation, she brought up that perhaps the real error was mine. Her friends don’t forget things or lose assignments. Her friends don’t forget important after-school meetings. Her friends are focused and level and successful where she is scattered and only becomes more so under pressure.

And maybe the difference is that I’ve never let her use the brain drugs that so many of her fellow students use.  From second or third grade on, many of her friends have been on drugs for ADD, ADHD, and whatever other initials apply.  The most common one seems to be Ritalin.

What intrigues me about this is how her fellow students are using it now.  Some take it only on weekdays, to help them focus.  Weekends are Ritalin free days.   One no longer bothers with it except during finals week.  Then he drugs up and pores over the books endlessly.  Over the years, I’ve heard several funny stories about Ritalin and its effects.  One young friend told about being in charge of a younger sibling’s bath.  He got the tub running and kid undressed and went for a towel.  But as he passed through the living room, a Discovery channel program caught his eye.  It was compelling stuff. And there he stood, captured by it, even though he knew that the water was now overflowing and the younger sib was yelling for him to come fix it.  He literally could not tear himself away.  Pure focus.

Another sadder tale was the young friend who applied for the military academy and was told that until he could go a year without the drug, he could not be admitted, as it was classified as amphetamine use.  And having used the drug for years for his school work, how well can he do Academy work without it?  A very good question.

The students I’ve talked to who have used the various brain drugs all agree that it makes a tremendous difference to focus and ultimately to their grades. They can make themselves sit down and complete the long boring assignment without wandering off to the frig or the internet or the Gameboy.  Assignments are completed on time and handed in.  Grades rise. Parents and teachers are happy.  What’s not to like?

And still I’ve said no for my kids. 

Here is my reasoning.  You have to be who you genetically are.  Part of my scattered focus is related to my artistic temperment.  (Artistic temperment is sometimes spelled ‘t e n d e n c y  t o  m a n i c  d e p r e s s i o n.’)  It means that I can end up with two cups of warm coffee on my desk (and who drank one of them already?) or with twenty pages of good text after a wild and exuberant evening of just talking to myself and playing the stereo too loud.   I think it is just how I am wired and a part of who I am.  I gave up fighting it years ago, and instead I’ve enjoyed it.  There are devastating lows and breath-taking highs to my moods and through it all, I keep writing.  Life’s a roller coaster for me.  I’ve come to accept that.  In retrospect, I’m glad it was never medicated away, even though my recollections of my twenties are tinged with a lot of darkness.

For the kids who are medicated for ADD, etc (and please be sure, I’m not equating ADD with manic depressive) I always wonder what comes after school.  Do you take Ritalin all through college?  Do you take it during your career years, when you are training on that new software, or reading up on a new client?  Where does it stop? Do you ever get to be your distractable self again?  Or must you forever be slightly modified to suceed?  Drugged for success?

As with all my wool gathering, I have more questions than anwers.  Should I have medicated my kids?  The only person in my extended family who ever took drugs for his condition long term did not achieve any success until he weaned himself off them.  Is that unique?  If your brain is wired a certain way, is it truly an illness?  Or is it ‘artistic temperment’?   What about all those melancholy Irish poets?  Did they just need to take a pill and get on with their lives?  How about saints?

Some of us are just not standard issue people.  I rather suspect that all of us are not standard issue people but some are better at pretending. In my family, both nuclear and extended, I can trace a genetic heritage that means that every one of us could probably be diagnosed with one mental disorder or another.  Yet, for the most part, we are successful people with lives we enjoy (even if others think our lives are a bit strange.)

More questions than answers.  But that is always where my best stories start.  With a question that demands pondering.

If you are interested in the genetics of artistic temperment and how it can be expressed, here is a book I often recommend.  I took great comfort from it when I first read it:  Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.  It’s by Kay Redfield Jamison.

And I will leave you with two quotes.  This first quote is actually the opening sentences from Touched With Fire:

“We of the craft are all crazy,” remarked Lord Byron about himself and his fellow poets. “Some are affected by gaiety, some by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.”


“Art in the blood is likely to take the strangest forms.”   Sherlock Holmes.

And if I recall correctly, he was talking about his brother Mycroft.  Mycroft and Sherlock would probably both be placed on the autism spectrum, toward the Asperger’s end of things.  And Sherlock’s  little drug habit could be seen as self medication . . . .


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  • Mel W says:

    A little self-test that may help more than any of the ADD drugs is to see how much actual sleep one is getting. When I was diagnosed as an adult with ADD I thought I finally had an answer. NOT. One of the things that will give many of the same symptoms is lack of sleep. Chronic insomnia in my case. Busy lives in the case of students (especially Seniors who have so much extra happening). For me, it was a little note on the ADD prescription, “Not to be used to offset insomnia.” Duh. Addressing my sleep issues helped a whole lot more.

    Just a thought.

  • Sharon Nicley says:

    I do the same thing and now it is called “old Timers”, which I would be grateful for. Except that would mean my husband might take away my drivers license and put me diapers. My nephew is 10 and has Asbergers. But now he is hearing voices and seemingly getting worse. Of course it could be thata since his bio father refuses to give him his meds. he is terrilby out of balance. As for H.S. seniors, I think being an adult gives them ALL some kinda terror we can’t remember now. I know that I thought I was very confident and cool. I had it all taken care of, until a monkey wrwench was thrown in the works. So be calm, all is well. Recovery will be possible. After they been out for 20 years.

  • Theresa says:

    I too have said no to Ritalin for my very non-‘standard issue’ children. I still question myself constantly about it, and I am not out of the woods yet: my daughter is nearly 11 and my son 16.

    We came under intense pressure to put my son on Ritalin when he entered a remedial school at the age of 9, but I held fast. Now he uses other methods of ‘self-medication’ and is always on the verge of dropping out.

    Should I/shouldn’t I – the internal debate continues. His sister is completely distractable, and finds it very hard to focus on anything that doesn’t really interest her. Like schoolwork.

    Would his self-esteem have been higher now if he had been able to concentrate in those lower grades, leading to better self-discipline now? He has none – again – where it doesn’t interest him. Would he have other interests in life than smoking, germinating, growing, researching weed? Would he be less aggressive, rude, deceitful? Or is that just standard teenage issue?

    Do I panic and put my daughter on Ritalin to avoid a similar path?

    I am not going to do that.

    I am going to take heart again now that I have read your post and be happy that my son does something other than play computer games – if he was growing vegetables I would be bursting with pride! If my very artistic temperamented daughter practices piano for a total of 5 accumulated minutes a week, she herself requested piano lessons. I would like them to flower the way that they are intended to, not to force grow them with artificial aids.

    Who knows, they may have something to offer the world that is as good as your stupendous books. Probably not. But I would like them to be themselves – their own unique shape. However hard that is when it comes to mothering them against the standards that are set by our society – with the emphasis on the ‘standard’.

    Thank you Megan.