I was in the fourth grade, the grade when everyone slowly switched from writing in pencil to pen. On the very last day of classes, I realized I still had not been given the “okay” to write in pen. My little heart fluttered nervously; I could feel my face grow hot as I imagined entering the fifth grade without the official permission to write in pen. Thus, I quietly approached my teacher in the midst of summertime chaos and asked, “Mrs. G, can I be allowed to write with pen now?” “Yes,” she answered with a serious nod. I was embarrassed that I had to ask her for permission instead of being given it like the others had, but I was finally able to use my blue erasable ink. (Interestingly, my handwriting today is just fine, but for my competitive Catholic school, my cursive “l”s and capital “G”s were not pretty enough.)
Drawing doodles of Hello Kitty was much more important than listening to Mrs. Rowe, and math quizzes were a nuisance to my imagination. Homework took a long time to finish, and I avoided writing my really long hyphenated name for as long as I could. I recall my first grade teacher being pretty concerned about this, pulling my mother aside to let her know I was still struggling with my own name. In my defense, my name is pretty long and complicated, but still, I had missed the mark.
I got my first detention in second grade not because I was naughty, but because I had forgotten to turn in a field trip form. My teacher had threatened that she would give us detentions if we forgot to turn in this form. And well, I did forget. The bigger kids in detention were shocked by my presence, but for me it was nothing new. I would forget things all the time to the point of getting detentions. My poor mom used to say to me out of frustration, “No! You don’t forget! You just don’t care!” That was wrong of course, I did care. I did want to go on the field trip. I didn’t want to get detentions. I didn’t want my teacher to call me a liar as I tried to explain that I had done the homework, but I had left it on my desk (which was the truth!).
I did earn awards in creative writing though, and I outperformed my peers in English and Art. I was capable of doing well, but symptoms of something were keeping me from reaching my full potential. Luckily, I could rely on my creative talent, perseverance and personality to get me through these obstacles. Somehow I was a B+/A- student, but it was never easy fighting off the expectations of others and fulfilling an arbitrary status quo.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I got an official diagnosis of ADHD. This more professional and prestigious environment drove me to see a psychiatrist. Again, I felt I was missing marks, but this time the marks were much bigger and more important. More was at stake, and I noticed that distractions got the better of me while my peers seemed to easily make deadlines and follow directions. In grad school, I had to partake in professional meetings where I struggled to sit still. The challenges I could once skirt or overcome before were now tougher and unavoidable in this rigorous academic environment. Lisa Brandes of Yale University explains that for people with mental illnesses or disabilities, “the stress and structure of a graduate program can exacerbate their issues or [overwhelm] their coping skills” (American Psychological Association).
This is what must have happened to me; my usual coping skills and avoidance strategies could no longer cut it. So, I went to seek help. I wasn’t surprised when the doctor put me on Vyvanse to help me cope. In fact, I felt blessed and eager. It helped so much. Instead of roaming around in my head or looking for more interesting, exciting things to do, I could focus on my work, make deadlines and more eloquently speak to my colleagues. There was less fidgeting, less confusion, less chaos in general. Slowly, other medications were introduced to my system that helped me with depression and mood swings, but it was Vyvanse that gave me the attention span to pay attention to my own health and my long term priorities. It gave me a competitive chance.
I suddenly felt like I could play with the “big boys.” I felt less emotionally scruffy (if that makes any sense), and found myself standing on the same platform as my peers. The relief was immediate and undeniable. There were small victories I noticed like my backpacks and purses were suddenly clean. Old granola bars and balled up papers disappeared. They were replaced with binders and a new wallet. The dog hair and dirt which I never noticed or never seemed to mind when I was off the meds glared at me. Family and friends were more likely to visit. It was very rewarding to note that instead of letting the mail pile up for days, I would sort through it immediately. This is no big deal for most people, but it was to me. I finally felt “normal.”
It was the big victories that stood out the most to others. For example, I traded waiting tables for substitute teaching and managed to succeed in graduate school, being one of the first to publish. Finally, I was happy being single, and I was able to make therapy appointments regularly. People seemed to like me more as I became more dependable and successful.
One of the most important side effects of Vyvanse for me was a boost in social confidence. Before the medication I would tune people out all the time, get distracted by a window or be bombarded by my own thoughts. People would go on and on, while I would be somewhere else mentally. This caused me a lot of problems. It was more than just not getting jokes (which was a running joke in itself). I would miss important information, and even worse, I would offend people or come off as immature. This lowered my esteem and enabled self deprecating coping strategies like playing the role of the dumb blonde or the self-absorbed disconnected artist. My identity development slowed down, complicating my own understanding of myself. I internalized how others perceived me instead of letting myself develop naturally. Vyvanse put a halt to this, allowing me to self-analyze and embrace introspection.
I remember revealing to my therapist, “It’s so weird. I can actually sit and do things without music blasting.” I guess one of the ways I used to silence my incessant thinking was by listening to loud music or playing the television at a deafening volume. I allowed my childhood passions to resurface, and suddenly I found myself content to paint silently in the morning. Small things like fluffing the cushions on the sofa or brushing my dog became larger and more rewarding because I had the ability to complete the tasks without having to push myself to do them.
For about seven years the benefits of Vyvanse outweighed its nuisances. I might have been able to finish graduate school without it, but it would have been an even more traumatizing experience. I once told my dad that my Vyvanse was like armor I could put on to face the day. My chances of survival were suddenly much much higher. As my therapist says, “you really are a survivor.”
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