Adderall almost made Emma Sturgeon a cautionary tale, the kind where the main character ends up in the grave. Sturgeon was prescribed Adderall as a sophomore in high school and became addicted to the stimulant medication during her junior year.
Some years later, Sturgeon had taken half of a 30-day prescription of Adderall on the night she nearly died, along with large amounts of alcohol. She drove the streets of Nashville drinking Old Crow bourbon whiskey from a paper bag, she recalled for an account that appeared in Women’s Health. Then, she woke up in a hospital bed three weeks later. In that one night, she overdosed on Adderall and alcohol. A photo of her laying in a hospital bed went viral on Reddit.
Sturgeon’s story proves that the recreational use of Adderall could lead to utter calamity, where death becomes a likely possibility.
What is Adderall?
Adderall is a stimulant medication that is comprised of four different amphetamine salts (dextroamphetamine saccharate, amphetamine aspartate, dextroamphetamine sulfate, and amphetamine sulfate). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it in 1996 to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy in children and adults.
Specifically, Adderall treats the inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, fidgeting, lack of focus, disorganization, and forgetfulness that comes with ADHD. It is available in pill form and comes in immediate and extended-release formulations. Adults taking Adderall to treat ADHD should not exceed 40 milligrams (mg) daily, whether it is of the immediate or extended-release variety. For narcolepsy, dose amounts should range between 5 to 60 mg daily.
Because Adderall is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, it boosts the availability of norepinephrine and dopamine. With stimulant medications like Adderall, users feel a euphoric “rush.”
This action ramps up brain activity, causing users to feel alert, powerful, and even invincible.
When Sturgeon took Adderall, she said it made her “feel like the most confident, smartest person in every room. I was more energetic, more social.”
How Adderall Addiction Takes Hold
There is a reason Adderall and other ADHD medicines like it are designated as Schedule II controlled substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), on par with powerfully addictive opioids like fentanyl, oxycodone, morphine, and opium.
Like those other drugs, the DEA states that Adderall has a high potential for abuse, which could lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Adderall can be habit-forming, causing users to quickly develop tolerance and eventually dependence. When someone intentionally exceeds their recommended dosage and begins taking Adderall in unintended ways, like crushing and snorting it, that dependence explodes into addiction.
That’s what happened to Emma Sturgeon.
“I started taking twice as much as I was supposed to, then three times as much, then a month’s worth in a couple of days. Eventually, I was snorting it in the bathroom of my high school…And I knew it wasn’t good, but I couldn’t stop—a classic addict’s line right there,” she recalled.
When someone develops an addiction, they will compulsively engage in substance abuse despite harmful circumstances. Why? Because addiction is a disease of the brain where the areas governing reward, motivation, and memory are profoundly impacted.
“My problem got even worse because I was pairing all the Adderall with alcohol,” Sturgeon said.
“I would crush up three or four days’ worth and put it into my drink, and turn into the most social person in the room…It was dangerous, but I was too high to care.”
People have abused Adderall for a variety of effects. Students and young professionals take Adderall to study and work longer hours.
For example, Adderall and other ADHD meds like Ritalin and Vyvanse are being abused increasingly by college-age users, particularly those between the ages of 18 to 25. Of all the people, ages 12 and up, using Adderall nonmedically, about 60 percent of that activity was among people in the 18-to-25 age group, according to research by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Athletes also abuse Adderall it to gain an athletic edge, and others abuse it for the euphoria it produces or as an aphrodisiac to experience enhanced sexual pleasure.
The Effects of Adderall
MedlinePlus outlines the common and serious side effects associated with Adderall medications, which are numerous. The likelihood that someone experiences these effects increases when they engage in recreational use.
The common side effects of Adderall include:
- Dry mouth
- Changes in sex drive or ability
- Painful menstrual cramps
- Weight loss
The serious side effects of Adderall are as follows:
- Hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist)
- Agitation, hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist), fever, sweating, confusion, fast heartbeat, shivering, severe muscle stiffness or twitching, loss of coordination, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Believing things that are not true
- Feeling unusually suspicious of others
- Mania (a frenzied or abnormally excited mood)
- Slow or difficult speech
- Motor or verbal tics
- Teeth grinding
- Blistering or peeling skin
- Weakness or numbness of an arm or leg
- Changes in vision or blurred vision
- Paleness or blue color of fingers or toes
- Pain, numbness, burning or tingling in the hands or feet
- Unexplained wounds appearing on fingers or toes
- Swelling of the eyes, face, tongue, or throat
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
Adderall and Overdose Death
A user can suffer a heart attack or seizure from a prescription stimulant like Adderall, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Like other powerfully addictive drugs, Adderall can also produce life-threatening symptoms such as loss of consciousness and even death.
The risk of death is exacerbated when Adderall is abused with other substances like alcohol or other drugs. This is known as polysubstance abuse, a practice that almost took Emma Sturgeon’s life.
“When I overdosed on Adderall and booze and lost consciousness at the house party, the guys I was with called an ambulance and followed it to the hospital.
“The entire experience feels hazy because of the state I was in, but I have this fleeting memory of being wheeled into the ER on a stretcher. They had to restrain me because I was biting and thrashing, and it was the worst feeling I’d ever had. I remember being absolutely furiously and utterly hopeless.”
Sturgeon was put into a medically induced coma and woke up three weeks after her overdose. Coma is just one of the many overdose symptoms that Adderall causes.
According to MedlinePlus, other overdose conditions include:
- Hallucination (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist)
- Feelings of panic
- Rapid breathing
- Fast or irregular heartbeat
- Uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body
- Upset stomach
- Dark red or cola-colored urine
- Muscle weakness or aching
- Tiredness or weakness
- Aggressive behavior
- Blurred vision
Adderall and Sudden Death
Adderall can also cause sudden death in children and teenagers, particularly those with serious heart problems or heart defects. Adults may experience a stroke, heart attack or sudden death from Adderall, particularly those with heart defects or serious heart problems.
How Professional Treatment Can Help You
In summary, recreational Adderall use is not safe at all. This is especially the case when it is abused along with other substances.
Cases of Adderall abuse require the critical intervention of services provided through reputable, professional treatment.
The first step of a professional recovery program is known as medical detoxification.
This is when the Adderall is removed from your body via a medically supervised detox, and any withdrawal symptoms or effects are treated and alleviated.
NIDA recommends that patients in treatment receive behavioral therapy and contingency management, two modalities that have shown to be effective in addressing stimulant addictions.
Both treatment options are offered to clients when they enter into residential treatment or an outpatient program. They feature evidence-based addiction therapies like CBT and contingency management, which also serve to uncover the psychological underpinnings of abuse and addiction.