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On ADHD, Medication and Creativity

On Sunday night, Audra McDonald won her record-breaking sixth Tony award. In her acceptance speech, she thanked her parents for “disobeying the doctor’s orders and not medicating their hyperactive daughter” and directing her energies into theater instead. This has sparked some debate on the Internet (really, is there anything that doesn’t spark some debate on the Internet? Ever?) about the role of medication in treating ADHD. It also prompted a post on Psychology Today that made the following claim:

In America today, we are medicating creative kids who prefer to daydream in class instead of completing  boring worksheets. We are teaching them that focusing on the blackboard is more important than dreaming big dreams that might inspire new inventions. As a society we need to find different ways to help creative though disorganized children besides dampening their creative minds with Aderall, Ritalin, Strattera and worse.

This is a topic that hits very close to home. I have ADD — my official diagnosis is “ADHD without hyperactivity, inattentive type,” which basically means I was one of those kids who preferred to daydream in class instead of “completing boring worksheets.” Today, I’m a grown-up creative professional — and I still prefer to daydream at my desk instead of completing boring freelance writing assignments. But I also gotta eat and pay bills, so I do what I have to do to help make that happen, because daydreaming all day is not a luxury I can afford. My preference for letting my mind wander does not negate the work that has to get done.

Of course, I wasn’t diagnosed as a kid, so I was never medicated in the classroom. It wasn’t until I was well into my twenties — after a pain-filled childhood filled with middling grades and a lot of self-confidence and anxiety issues, legitimately lost or forgotten homework leading to accusations of laziness and stupidity, and an attempt at a journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma that ended with me dropping out before they could flunk me out — that I received my diagnosis, at which point I started taking methylphenidate, the generic form of Ritalin.

Did Ritalin quash my creativity or my ability to daydream? Absolutely not. What it did was help me to think more efficiently and focus my attention on one thing at a time. During my time on Ritalin, I wrote my first novel. Actually, I had begun several attempts at writing novels prior to my diagnosis. Being medicated actually allowed me to finally finish one. During my time on Ritalin, I taught myself web and graphic design and created dozens of web designs just for the fun of it. I upgraded from retail work to office work and held down a great administrative assistant job for several years until they were forced to downsize my department. I sold my first freelance article and started my first blog. After the layoff, I went back to school to finish my degree and held down a 3.75 GPA. While going to school, I also wrote reams of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction. Being able to daydream and imagine things was not my problem. Forcing myself to tear my attention away from the fertile ground of my imagination and get my work done was still my problem. But the medication made it much, MUCH easier to do so.

Medication also helped me be more confident. It made me less accident prone and helped me not stumble over my words from being unable to talk as fast as my brain could think. It helped me get along with people better, for the most part, and it helped me to be less anxious and prone to depression.

Of course, medication wasn’t all a bed of roses. There were side-effects. The worst was a terrible rebound effect that left me feeling extremely irritable and angry as it wore off at the end of the day. Years later, when I got another great administrative job with great insurance, I found that I did much better on extended-release Aderall. Even so, over the years I’ve taken prescription ADD meds, I’ve taken natural supplements to boost focus, and I’ve not been medicated at all, and I tend to prefer the natural supplements, the most effective of which has (for me) been high doses of ultra-purified fish oil.

Unfortunately, the good quality fish oil that won’t give you mercury poisoning is expensive, especially when taken in doses high enough to combat neurological disorders (five to 10 grams per day).  I’ve also had good results with a multi-vitamin by Source Naturals called Mega Mind (they have a version formulated for children called Attentive Child, which I took prior to discovering the adult formula, and had good results), which is a bit more affordable.

Currently, though, the budget doesn’t leave room for any type of supplementation, so I’m managing without meds of any kind. And it’s not easy. Fortunately, I’m blessed to have the type of job that lets me set my own schedule, so I’m able to do my freelance work during the times of day when I’m naturally more able to focus. I find apps like Focus At Will to be a big help at getting me into the zone so I can do my work. But even with these coping aids, it’s hard. It takes a lot of extra effort and mental energy to force myself to focus.

And you know what? That is what is quashing my creativity. My fiction writing is extremely sporadic — so are my graphic design pursuits, my attempts and knitting and crochet and, you might have noticed, my desire to blog — because I just don’t have the mental energy left by the time my necessary work is done. I’ve been having an incredibly difficult time tapping into that part of my brain where the stories hang out. So being unmedicated is certainly doing nothing to help my creativity.

Of course, my purpose in writing this isn’t to advocate medication. I simply don’t want to see anyone avoid it for the wrong reasons if it could be the key to helping them. For me, medication helps me organize my thoughts and get out of my own way. But it does come with side effects and risks, and the decision of whether to medicate yourself or your children is a personal one that should come after a lot of research, and not based on anecdotal evidence, whether from a six-time Tony award winning celebrity or from a little-known fantasy author with an even less-known blog.

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