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Connecting the Dots 

My first week on Ritalin

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Day 1, Dose 1: I told myself the first thing I needed to do today was take the little freckled seafoam pill as soon as I got to work. I set an alarm for myself. When I got to my desk, I set the pills in front of my computer screen, so that I would remember to take them. This was at 9:50 am.

As near as I can reconstruct, though, I got distracted by the computer screen while reaching for my cup. My email was open, so I checked it. Then I checked my news feeds. Then I checked some other things, probably. At some point, I filled my cup.

At around 10:15, I felt a dampness at the back of my mouth. I had drunk from my cup. Had I taken the pill? I dumped the pills onto a piece of steno paper and counted them out. Sixty. I hadn’t.

I am 30 years old and I have just been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It makes a lot of sense, actually. My whole life, I have been distractible, disorganized and impatient. I brainstorm a million projects and follow through on about 1 percent of them. I procrastinate like a bastard. It’s actually 3:41 am right now, the morning this story is due. I haven’t gone to bed yet.

Why did it take 30 years to diagnose? I’m not sure. I did OK in school, considering what a disruptive little shit I was, and how little homework I did, and despite the way my brain would flit between a dozen trains of thought for hours without ever reaching the end of one. I always tested very well. In elementary and middle school, several teachers convinced my parents that I was bored with regular classes. They put me in accelerated ones. I still screwed off.

Day 1, Dose 2: There’s a moment, around 3 pm, when I feel really good — dialed in, burning through a bunch of little tasks. But then I spend a full 15 seconds, biting the meat of my finger, borderline-screaming through grit teeth: “What am I searching for?” It eventually comes to me. I type, “Twilight wedding dress gossip,” and press Enter.

Day 2, Dose 2: The pills have a slight grain like clumped chalk. They don’t dissolve when they hit your tongue, but they give off an alkaline astringency that tastes and feels like lemon zest, with a baking soda finish.

Day 2, Late Night: Had a sudden breakthrough on a project and worked on it from 11:30 to about 1 am. It’s nights like this that I love the way my brain works, just churning through ideas. The problem is that I can’t shut it off. It’s now an hour-and-a-half since I had my last productive idea. I’ve read a New Yorker almost cover-to-cover, and I’m still hyper-alert. My room is cold and I’m in a T-shirt, but my armpits are wet.

The diagnosis came by accident. My family doctor was writing me a prescription for a different drug — a narcotic for a bad back — that I’ve taken on and off for about a year now. “You know this,” she said, as she wrote the scrip, “but Percocet will make you drowsy.”

I told her Percocet doesn’t make me feel drowsy, it makes me feel focused. She looked up from the pad, “Really?”

“Yeah.”

“That happens sometimes,” she says, with an inquisitive smile on her face, “in people with ADD.”

When I heard that, I wasn’t shocked or mad or defensive. I was mostly relieved. Like there was an explanation.

Day 3, Dose 2: I doubled my dose in the morning. My doctor had suggested we might go this route, so I emailed her, but I didn’t hear back immediately, so I just did it. I felt focused and productive all morning and early afternoon but got distracted at 1:30 on my way to my second dose. I didn’t remember until 3 pm.

Day 3, Late Night: Another night of massive brainstorms, but more inchoate — meditating on Steve Jobs and the state of journalism and the state of the business of journalism and fiction and the business of fiction and on writing in general. Then my mind starts riffing about social networking, word-of-mouth marketing, gamification and other stuff I don’t really know much about. I couldn’t sleep if I wanted to.

Day 4, 3 am: Wrung free of ideas again. Still not tired. If it’s the Ritalin, it’s been in my system for 12 hours. Seems like a long time. But then, I can’t remember two back-to-back nights of spontaneous hyper-brain-shit ever happening before.

Day 4, Dose 1: Called my doctor and left a message. I’m a little worried about last night. I’ve gotten seven hours of sleep in two days but I’m not tired. I’m starting to feel like a tweaker. My doctor’s nurse calls back and says to take two pills in the morning and nothing after that.

Day 6, Dose 1: The two Ritalin I took this morning kept me pretty straight all day. I cleaned house, shoveled snow, got groceries, made dinner. By 6 pm, though, I started getting impatient with people, and my mind began to wander. I spent the evening until 1 am playing videogames rather than writing this story.

Day 7: I’m sitting here now, focused because I have to be, feeling a little pissed that this hasn’t worked better. It’s surprising how quickly I went from feeling like I had my own weird brand of normal to feeling like I’m broken and need to be fixed. It’s surprising, too, how I’ve let myself believe that 30 years of behavior would be undone by a little seafoam pill.

I’ve started looking into alternative treatments — behavioral, dietary — but mostly I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that, whatever ends up working, it won’t happen overnight. Or in seven days. I’m typing this at 6:36 am. Week Two is already here. 

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