Adderall, Prozac, and a Global Pandemic
I was diagnosed with ADHD a month ago. I am 29. For most of my adult life, I’ve struggled with aspects of everyday life in ways that made me feel ashamed, withdrawn, and guilty. Even with all of the warning signs, which I admittedly didn’t know were warning signs, it took a pandemic and financial security for me to get diagnosed.
Back in April, when the lockdown began, I couldn’t get our dishwasher to close. It had always been tricky — lift up on the door just right to click it into place. But that day, I couldn’t get it to close no matter what I tried, no matter how much I pleaded and begged it to close under my breath, and so, after weeks of barely coping with my anxiety and depression, I sank to my knees and sobbed. I sat like that for a while, my forehead pressed into the plastic, while all of the feelings of grief, anger, and sadness flooded out of me.
You see, I have always struggled with my mental health. In undergrad, I went weekly to the counseling center to talk to someone for the first time about the nights I spent crying myself to sleep filled with worry and doubt and everything. In graduate school, my family doctor prescribed me my first SSRI for what she suspected was OCD when my intrusive thoughts caused me to stop no less than five times on my way back to Mississippi from Kentucky to make sure my laptop was actually in the trunk. Later, after the end of a complicated relationship and a move back to Kentucky for my Ph.D. program, I would see various counselors on and off, but mostly, I just tried to muscle through the waves of feelings that dictated my productivity.
I spent the first several years of my grad program engaging in pretty destructive behavior and sabotaging my relationships and career. I drank too much, stayed out too late, and procrastinated as much as possible. I still managed to go to class, turn in my papers, and answer just enough emails to keep me from getting kicked out of grad school. I brushed my behavior off as a personality “quirk” (from what I assumed was social anxiety), and I got used to the fact that I started the majority of emails with “thank you for your patience” and “ I’m sorry for my late reply.” I chalked the late nights and hungover mornings up to finally letting loose and enjoying my youth.
I openly talked about my issues with depression and anxiety but did nothing proactive to fix it or understand how it had gotten out of control. I was on SSRIs for the first year, but when I needed to either drive almost three hours back to my family physician or find someone new in Lexington, I just stopped altogether. I told myself that my mental health issues were because of graduate school’s financial precarity, the lack of summer funding, the seemingly impossible timeline to graduation for someone working multiple jobs and trying to survive, and my lack of stable, romantic relationships. I told myself that when I could get a better job, or a fellowship, or a different apartment, or a partner, or just finish my degree, then I would feel better. I would be normal. It was all the external stress, my brain said.
Then, I met my current partner.
Our story began the way a lot of couples do these days — we swiped right on Tinder. After a few weeks of messaging, we went on one date, and then another, and then another, until we started the process of entangling our lives. We introduced each other to our coworkers, families, and friends. Eventually, we decided to move in together. I moved into his house during the peak of fellowship application season. My third cycle and I was hopeful after two years of no success. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted, but I kept waiting for the feelings of happiness and normalcy to come.
We fell into a new routine together with weekend brunches, walks around the block with our dogs, all-you-can-eat sushi nights with friends, and most of the time, I felt happy. I had never felt so safe, so loved, and so supported in all of my adult life. Yet, I could feel those shadows growing at the edges of my life, lingering in the corners of our home.
I watched nervously when the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Washington state. I ordered hundreds of dollars of shelf-stable groceries for delivery hunched over my laptop in the office I was sharing at the small liberal arts school where I was adjuncting for the semester. I talked to my parents on the phone about getting prepared. I kept tabs open in my phone’s browser with a map of cases and local and national news about coronavirus that I refreshed multiple times an hour. We were on our way to a friend’s birthday party when the first case was reported in Kentucky.
Both of our schools moved to online instruction a week and a half later. We went to my hometown to bury my great-grandfather, and a week after that, I came out of the bathroom to see my partner clutching a tube of Clorox wipes and furiously wiping down the surfaces in our home. He had a fever. We had both dismissed his tiredness as a product of working eight hours a day on campus in his lab to prepare recorded materials for his students.
That night he slept in our guest room, and for three weeks, we led almost entirely separate lives. I took care of the pets, the cooking, the cleaning, and I tried to keep up with my teaching responsibilities. He spent his days cycling through fevers, chills, headaches and finding moments where he felt decent enough to record lectures and communicate with his students.
I had my first panic attack three days into our household quarantine. I felt utterly overwhelmed at the prospect of living for an unforeseen amount of time with what felt like too much responsibility. I was worried about my partner, worried about my parents and friends, and worried about myself. Trying to figure out what to cook for both of us, trying to keep up with the dishes and the laundry, and my grading and lectures felt impossible.
Then the rejections started to roll in. Anyone who has been in graduate school (especially those in the humanities and social sciences) knows that much of your time is spent worrying about funding. Currently, in my fifth year and thus at the end of my funding line, I put countless hours into fellowship applications, hoping that one of them would stick. Without one, I would have no job, no funding, and no way to finish my dissertation within the next year.
As I waited for the last notification, the world seemed to collapse. People lost their jobs, universities announced furloughs and hiring freezes, and some of the people who were supposed to protect us continued to dismiss the severity of the situation. My anxiety was in full swing, and my emotions were dictating most of my days. I cried every day, sometimes multiple times. I oscillated between anger, hopelessness, fear, and grief. And then, I couldn’t close the dishwasher. I couldn’t ask my partner to help, I couldn’t get it too close, I couldn’t change the world around me, I couldn’t know if I would be able to continue with graduate school, I couldn’t make sure my family was safe, and I couldn’t control the feelings that rolled out of me.
I made an appointment to meet with a psychiatrist the next day. I started on Prozac and cried through our first two 60 minute appointments. My partner started to feel better, and the fist-clenching my stomach seemed to loosen. I made it through the summer, landed a teaching assistantship in a different department on campus, and tried to slide into a comfortable and normal life.
I kept taking the Prozac. I cried less, but there were still bad days. Days where I sat in the corner of the couch switching from one social media platform to the next unable to get off the couch to even get a glass of water. Days where an email was enough to make me feel so overwhelmed that I wouldn’t respond for a few days. It became more and more difficult to do laundry, to do dishes, to tidy up around the house, to shower. I wasn’t making as much progress on my writing as I needed to, and even though I tried multiple times to create some sort of routine, it didn’t take much to send me into a spiral and those shadows dancing at the edges of our lives would swallow me up. I just felt sad. And out of control. And full of pain, I couldn’t place or name.
And then, scrolling through TikTok, locked into the corner of the couch, watching someone talk about a life that felt like my own, I learned about Jessica McCabe. I immediately looked up her TED Talk and watched her articulate so many of the things that I had wrestled with and tried to hide.
I started finding articles to read, Youtube videos to watch and bought a couple of books on ADHD. I took every self-diagnostic test and quiz I could find. They talked about situations that I thought were just part of who I was — having a messy home and/or car (I had both to an almost hoarding-level extreme), chronic procrastination, issues with impulsivity such as alcohol, over-eating, or wreckless spending, trouble maintaining friendships or relationships, issues with lateness, problems at work or school, the ability to hyperfocus on a task or activity, problems regulating emotion, intense fear of real or perceived rejection. Almost every symptom I read about fit me, and not just adult me, but little me.
My entire life, teachers chuckled at my desk, lockers, and cubbies full of papers, books, and old snacks. I often spent classes daydreaming or going to the bathroom to sit quietly in the stall while I rolled and unrolled the toilet paper. But, I was a straight-A student, outgoing, always did my homework, and so there weren’t any red flags as far as the standard diagnostic criteria at the time.
I was always the kid with emotions that were too big. I cried too often and too much over things that didn’t seem to be a big deal. I felt everything big, and when I was young, that made it easy to make friends. I appeared happy, effervescent even. Being happy and outgoing all day, however, caused conflict at home. By the time I finished school and all of my extracurriculars, I wouldn’t have anything left for my family. I was exhausted, irritable, and quick to get in fights with my family or spend the night crying in my room.
As an adult, I haven’t gotten much better at controlling my emotions. I have cried in every interview I have ever had — from scholarships to job interviews to my graduate schools’ visit-days. I interviewed three times for my dream teaching job with a summer program, and each time I cried in front of the interviewers. After the third interview, I finally got the job, fell in love with it, and was able to joke about the fact that I was the grown woman who cried in her interviews. Thankfully, it has been something most people understand as passion or sensitivity and instead of a weakness. And don’t get me wrong. There are times that I think this emotional vulnerability is a strength. But I also inevitably heard through the grapevine that some of the other students in my program thought I was being manipulative in my interview to get funding. And I spent weeks beating myself up after crying in those job interviews because I couldn’t help but think that was why I hadn’t gotten the job.
There are so many other big and little ways that my feelings have changed my life, career, and relationships. Friendships I lost because I inevitability forgot to text or call back and felt so ashamed and guilty that I just never did. Potential friendships that never came to be because I already felt overwhelmed by the time commitments I had with one or two friends. Friendships, that while foundational and steady, have not been able to grow as deeply as I would like because of the walls my feelings had built up.
In January of this year, I decided to reach out to a new therapist through my school to discuss the possibility that I might have ADHD. We talked through what made me think that and as I listed out the symptoms and history through heaving and sometimes incoherent sobs, he nodded his head and took notes. When I finished and apologized for being so emotional, he paused and took a deep breath.
“Based on what you’ve said, I think it’s highly possible you have ADHD and that many of the things you’ve described as anxiety and depression could be a product of living with it untreated for so long.”
We scheduled a diagnostic test and discussed medication. Two weeks later, I went to the behavioral health clinic on campus and sat in front of a computer with seemed to be a ping-pong ball strapped to a headband around my forehead. I held a tiny clicker in my hand and did my best to focus on the instructions and get a good score. (Even in a test meant for medical diagnosis, I was still focused on doing it right and being the best.) A week later we met on Zoom, and he told me my results confirmed that I had ADHD and that he would like to start me on Adderall. I signed some papers, took a drug test, and went to pick up a bottle of little blue pills from Walgreens.
The first few days were tough. I was nauseated, had frequent headaches, and was lucky to get to sleep before 4 AM. I had assumed that these would be miracle pills and that I would feel energized and ready to conquer my to-do list and be the best version of me possible! Shawna 2.0! I felt some grief when that didn’t happen but tried to power through.
I’ve been taking Adderall for a month now, and while not a miracle, I can say I feel remarkably different. There are little moments where I notice it the most. An interaction passed, or task completed where I notice stillness where anxiety used to be. I usually announce the differences when I take note, so my partner has gotten used to me celebrating small thing — cleaning out the lint trap, remembering where I put my phone, texting people back, listening to an entire album instead of one song on repeat, following through on a task from start to finish, finally submitting a coherent chapter of my dissertation.
It’s not perfect, and I’m still doing therapy, reading books on ADHD, trying methods to help the areas in which I struggle. But, I started writing this essay six months ago, and today I took my Adderall, sat down with my computer, and finished it.
Shawna Felkins is a graduate student, teacher, and researcher writing about academia, mental health, and feminism.
Originally published at https://www.shawnafelkins.com on March 2, 2021.