A drug with a barcode

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Photo Credit: Priyanka Kar | Daily Texan Staff

The fluorescent orange pills were making my heart beat irregularly. Nausea hit me in wave after wave. I pressed my left hand against my sweaty chest, and googled “Adderall overdose” with my right.

I was prescribed one pill per day. That morning, sitting in my car parked outside my high school, I had consumed six.

After the Google search results found no definitive overdose limit, I tried to collect my scattered psyche. “Everything will be okay,” I told myself. As I repeated this mantra, the beads of sweat rolling down my face began to dissipate and so did my anxieties of overdosing.

I took a deep breath of relief, wiped my brow with an old gym shirt, and, when my heartbeat finally steadied, I reached for the prescription bottle and  popped my seventh. Risking health hazards was worth squeezing the pills for every last drop of their gilded euphoria. Addiction owned me.

The beginning

I tried Adderall for the first time when my older brother’s friend offered me a short-acting tablet version in the locker room before gym class. Anxiously, I put the tablet in my mouth and ground it between my molars. The sensation was love at first bite. Never in my life had I felt so energetic, confident and ready to take on the world. From that day forward, I began soliciting my ADHD friends for their Adderall as often as I could.

Later that fall, my life took a dramatic turn when I suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing in a junior varsity football game. An ambulance rushed me to a nearby hospital where surgeons removed part of my skull in order to drain the swelling blood clot that was smashing my brain against my cranial wall.

Following the surgery, I spent most days laying on the sofa, watching TV and fighting a sense of doom. When I wasn’t being a couch potato, I was attending appointments with neurological specialists, one of whom offered to prescribe me antidepressants to improve my mood. I declined, but her offer revealed an opportunity. I persuaded her that I desperately needed Adderall to help compensate for my brain injury. She wrote the script, and instantly I had access to 30mg of Adderall — just in time for my return to high school the following semester.

With a refillable stockpile, my bad habit morphed into a crippling addiction. I was in denial at first, but after months of continuously increasing my dose I was no longer taking Adderall for fun — I was taking it to function. It was time to hit the emergency break and I knew it. Five times, I failed quitting cold turkey. If I was ever going to climb out, I needed to be somewhere I wouldn’t have access to the pills. There was only one relative I could think of who lived far enough away where Adderall would be unreachablet: my uncle from Austin, Texas. As soon as my senior year of high school concluded, I called him, confessed my sins, and I asked if I could stay with him over the summer. He agreed, and a few days later I touched down in Austin.

Quitting

The withdrawal symptoms felt like undergoing an exorcism. Many times, I fantasized about finding an excuse to fly home, or tracking down a doctor who would write me a new prescription. I wanted to relapse, but I held. The only way to stick to my new script was to not refill my old one.

My perseverance paid off, and by Autumn the withdrawals had drifted away like the leaves on the oak trees. Finding motivation in my sobriety, I decided to get my life back on track. Dennis suggested that I enroll in Austin Community College, or ACC. That was a very frightening proposition for me. I hadn’t succeeded in school since my brain injury. If I was going to begin a new life in college, not only would I have to learn how to learn again, I had to do it without the pills.

Collegiate courses were fierce, but so was my determination. After one year at ACC, I had achieved twelve straight As in a row. Rolling with the momentum, I decided to apply to the University of Texas. A few months later, on the morning of my 20th birthday, I opened up my email and saw a notification that I had been accepted. Two years had passed since I quit Adderall, and I had never felt higher.

Today, I am a senior with a 3.8 GPA and am expected to graduate with high honors. Thanks to a supportive family, the financial resources to afford that plane ticket, and eligibility for student loans, I was able to get an education at a good university. Addiction no longer owns me. I have finally found fulfillment, but, let’s be frank, I got lucky. I am deeply grateful for my second chance, but recently it’s been making me wonder. What about the millions of addicts without monetary resources, a support system, or the law on their side — do they get a second chance too?

The other side

If Adderall was an illegal drug like its chemical cousins — meth and cocaine — a felony charge could have resulted in me being incarcerated for a minimum of five years, never being allowed to vote, losing eligibility for my student loans, being systematically barred from employment due to a criminal record and, consequently, subjected to a life of poverty. In other words, it wouldn’t have mattered whether I eventually got clean or not – the arrest would have ruined my future either way.

Today’s most alarming drug crisis is the overprescription and abuse of opiate pills. Since 2014, prescription overdoses have surpassed automobile collisions and firearms as the leading cause of accidental deaths. Painkillers account for three-fourths of these casualties, making pharmaceutical opiates as deadly as heroin and cocaine combined. As a former pill addict, I’m thankful society recognizes painkiller addicts as medical patients, but we’re neglecting the other half of the opioid crisis. Heroin abusers, the shameful half, aren’t draped in hospital gowns, only orange jumpsuits.

The Associated Press (AP) recently reported on the heart-wrenching tale of a father living in Buffalo, New York; a city ravaged by the opioid epidemic. Last spring, the man’s daughter was arrested for possession of heroin and scheduled for a court appearance later that month. Tragically, she never made it. “The father arrived instead to tell the judge his daughter and her boyfriend had (overdosed) the night before,” writes AP. Nothing can bring this dad’s daughter back into his arms, but the city of Buffalo is determined to prevent other parents from experiencing his pain. In May of this year, their criminal courts made history by offering a rehabilitation option to arrested heroin offenders. So far, none of the program’s 80 participants have overdosed. If such a policy kept just one family huddled around their dinner table instead of a casket, perhaps it’d be worth starting a compassionate reevaluation of why we continue to treat illegal drugs differently.

I can almost hear my old high school health teachers screaming at me, “No! It’s not the same! Illegal drugs are more dangerous — that’s why we treat them differently!” But were they correct? The molecular structure of Adderall is nearly identical to that of meth and cocaine. Opiate pills prescribed by family doctors are pharmacologically indistinguishable from heroin. Psychedelic drugs, like magic mushrooms and LSD, which are highly illegal, have killed less people in recorded human history than the 16,500 killed by aspirin every year. MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy, has shown success in clinical studies of helping treat war veterans with PTSD. Most astonishingly of all, none of the illegal drugs I just listed are more deadly than perfectly legal tobacco and alcohol, which kill roughly 568,000 Americans annually. By contrast, if all the deaths caused by the aforementioned illegal drugs (i.e. heroin, meth, cocaine, ecstasy, magic mushrooms, and LSD) were added to the body count created by tobacco and alcohol, the illegal drug deaths would make up only 4 percent of that total.

Laws aren’t created in the spirit of prohibiting anything and everything that could be abused or misused, nor should they be. An outdoorsman could misuse a gun by accidentally shooting a buddy during a hunting trip. High school boys are glorified for playing football, but criminalized for smoking marijuana. I can tell you from personal experience that only one of those ever required a scalpel to be plunged into my skull, and it wasn’t the one my state-funded health textbooks warned me about. In a nation birthed out of a rebellion against tyrannical regulations, surely it’s time to repeal this double standard.

I am writing this from my commodious studio apartment, enjoying my final year at UT with the hope of law school on the horizon. If not for a simple twist of fate, all of this could have been taken from me. I was an unhappy kid looking to self-medicate after a traumatic brain injury. There are other kids out there suffering from their own traumas and trying to self-medicate, but we’re not showing them the same empathy that I received. While I dream of the day I’ll be a lawyer with the bar exam behind me, another twenty-two-year old is dreaming of the day he’ll be a citizen no longer behind bars. The difference between his mistake and mine: I abused a drug with a barcode.

Journey Bailey is a government senior.