Medicating Myself Without ADHD Medication

You Do Not Have To Take ADHD Medication

Self medicating for ADHD

I’ve stopped and started medication 4 times.

Things I don’t want: 

  1. To take ADHD medication
  2. To have to take a pill every morning
  3. For you, or your child or a loved one, to have to take ADD medication

And guess what?  Good news!  You actually do NOT have to take medication.

No one does.  Yes millions of people have used Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder medication and many still do.  Because they have found the upside outweighs any downside.

So, to be clear, I’m not Pro-Medication.  As one ADHD specialist said, ‘I’m not Pro-Medication. I’m Anti-Suffering.’ Well said.

DEALING WITH ADHD

It’s estimated that perhaps 20% of adults who are suffering with ADHD have been diagnosed.  And perhaps half of them are doing something about it.

Doctors may recommend a treatment plan, and medication can be one aspect of treatment.  Exercise, diet, mindfulness, coaching, etc..  are other strategies that makeup a balanced, multimodal, or holistic approach.

Unfortunately, the majority of adults who qualify as having ADHD don’t understand why they struggle with organization, emotional sensitivity, overwhelm, procrastination, motivation, anger, and so on. Lacking a good explanation, they invent bad ones.  ‘I’m lazy.  Weak-willed.  Hopeless.  Dumb.  Flakey. Unreliable. Bad.’  And what’s the treatment for being Dumb?  Or Bad?  Or Hopeless?  Nothing.  Because this is who you are.  (Rather than something you have that adds an extra layer of challenges to everything you do.)

Unaware of what’s going on, they have no hope of overcoming it.  They are not dealing with it, getting it treated, or figuring out ways to manage it.

Or are they?

Actually, I’m going to suggest that the vast majority of people with undiagnosed ADHD have found ways to ‘treat it.’  It’s very haphazard.  It’s not a conscious plan.  But they’ve stumbled upon strategies that actually seem to help them, unfortunately some have appalling side-effects and long-term costs.

WHAT’S YOUR ADHD MEDICATION?

In our video series, ADHD Medication: Straight Answers to Big Questions, a number of specialists outline many of these ‘unconscious strategies’ that we adults with undiagnosed ADHD use to wake up our brains.

In fact, I’m going to suggest that every adult with undiagnosed ADHD has finds ways to ‘medicate’ themselves.

I came to this conclusion after interviewing 18 adults from two local ADHD support groups.  They spanned a wide range of ages and experiences.  Almost all of them mentioned how they managed to get by before finally being diagnosed: Caffeine.  Nicotine.  Cannabis.  Extreme sports.  Alcohol.  High-risk careers.  Constantly changing jobs, homes, and relationships.

It sounds outrageous, but I’m going to suggest… Pretty much EVERY SINGLE ADULT WITH UNDIAGNOSED ADHD IS MEDICATING THEMSELVES.

No wonder.

We want to feel calm, clear and in control.  We find things that help us focus.  In other words, we do things that give us the blast of neurotransmitters that we’re lacking.  The stimulants we use may be the result of sex, gambling, shopping, drugs, or any risky activity that gives us that blast of adrenaline.

I speak from experience.

MY NAME IS RICK AND I’M A COLA-HOLIC

Fifteen years ago I was undiagnosed.  As I read over the results of the ADHD screener tests the school had given my 12 year old son, my mind was racing.  Until I saw that list of ‘symptoms’, I had no inkling I might qualify as having this ‘disorder.’

Gradually, over the next few months, as I worked with Dr. John Fleming, and devoured book after book, I began to see hundreds of ways ADHD had undermined every aspect of my life.  And in some ways it had propelled my life forward.  Certainly my ADHD wasn’t a disaster for my career in comedy.

As for my first marriage?  Failed friendships?  Disastrous finances?  That’s where the damage lay.

ADHD Meme

Sorry, Doc. I Don’t Do Drugs!

At first I was terrified of the idea of taking an ADHD medication.  Then my doctor mentioned a phrase invented by addiction researcher Dr. Edward Khantzian.

The term was ‘Self-Medicating‘.

We ingest or inhale or sign up for something that wakes up the brain.

We treat ourselves.  With substances or behaviors.  Or misbehaviors.

No wonder I crave 5 or 6 cola drinks a day. It’s not the sugar, it’s the caffeine.  The stimulant.

If you’d asked me, I would have said, ‘It helps me focus.  Makes me more productive.’  It was ‘a help.’

The problem is that these ‘crutches’ are not conscious, informed choices, and they usually have severe side effects.

My Unplanned Treatment Plan

ADHD explained why I always had 1,000 things on the go. 

ADHD explained why I was totally alert and alive on stage in front of thousands of people.  I was relying on Adrenaline to make up for the lack of Dopamine.

You may well know that feeling of having a shortage of neurotransmitters.  It’s like running the appliances in your house on 63 volts instead of 120.  That’s how the routine tasks of life felt to me.  Doing ‘normal life’ felt draining and disheartening.  I thought I was just lazy.  But even the best appliances struggle to run on 63 volts.

This is why I believe almost every single adult with undiagnosed ADHD is medicating themselves.  (And if you consider ‘Avoiding’ a form of self-medicating, well, I’d argue it’s all of us.  For example: ‘I don’t like going to loud concerts.’  Or, ‘I can’t talk to my sister, I get too angry.’   Or, ‘I turned down a promotion because it meant way more paperwork.’)

Until we are diagnosed, and even after that, we are ALL relying on something, usually several strategies or crutches, to manage our symptoms. (If you dislike the term ‘symptoms,’ call them your traits, quirks, mindset, or challenges.  Whatever works for you.)

The Upside of Self-Medication

I do want to acknowledge that yes, some forms of self-medicating may be positive or productive.  Being addicted to exercise is probably better than being a shop-a-holic.  Finding a career  that works with my ADHD has been a blessing for me.  The problem was that eventually it was the only thing in my life that gave me any joy and I spent way too much time doing it.

At that point it wasn’t something I loved, it was all I had.  The adrenaline from overwork and caffeine were my strategies for ‘undiagnosed ADHD.  For others, it may be gambling, alcohol, substance abuse, extreme sports, addiction to drama, explosive anger…  All viable ways to wake up the brain.  But not particularly sustainable.

Once I understood what was going on and recognized how I was self-medicating, I was able to replace the massive doses of caffeine and ‘overwork’ with Yoga, Mindfulness, a coach, and a number of different strategies…. Including medication, yes.

How about you?

What was your form of ‘self-medicating’ before you knew what was going on?  And what strategies and practices do you use now?

Thanks so much,

Rick Green

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80 Comments

  1. Avatar
    dougdougy April 16, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Caffeine is an interesting one. At the moment i’m unmedicated and drinking 3 large coffees a day. While i am ‘wired’ on the coffee i have been paying close attention to what it is actually doing to my adhd. It seems to ‘trick’ my add into thinking it is getting treated when in actual fact the caffeine is making it worse. I do get a crap buzz off it but i definitely get more agitated, my mind races (dex makes it slow down or stop), i get much more fidgety and my ticks get worse (sniffing, picking at my fingers, grinding my teeth). I looked up what caffeine actually is and it is pesticide that the plant makes to ward off herbivores. So i have ‘pesticide’ running thru my system and wonder why everything feels worse…. Dex vs caffeine? there is no comparison. Back to the dex i think.

  2. Avatar
    madreamer April 16, 2017 at 11:41 am

    Hi Rick,
    In the comments below you mentioned a book you were writing with Dr Charles Parker, and in it is a discussion about vitamin deficiencies impacting medications. Is there an ETA on your book? Big hugs, ma

  3. Avatar
    sivanaholler April 17, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    When I was younger, every time I had to do a chore or anything I found mundane, I hated doing it so much that I would drag it out for forever. The reason I drug it out for forever was because I was either listening to music or was thinking about something else. Now I still do the same thing (I’m actually supposed to be cleaning my room right now, but I don’t want to because it is boring and because I’m bad at organizing) the only difference is that I have a very vivid imagination, and I use that to keep me entertained and stimulated, but I try to use my imagination sparingly, so that every now and then I come back to what I am doing, and try to somewhat pay attention to my actions. When I was younger I used my imagination, but I used it so much that I hardly knew what I was doing and often forgot what I was doing. I still do that sometimes, but I can almost regulate it.

  4. Avatar
    Rebshort April 17, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    I self medicate with marijuana. I don’t smoke a lot – I’m scattered enough already, but my little one hitter is a part of most of my days. I’ve always enjoyed weed recreationally and have only in the last 10 years or so related it to my ADHD. Sometimes the weed helps and sometimes it makes the ADHD symptoms worse. I tend to smoke by myself and late at night so I don’t affect anyone. It does lively up myself a bit. I’m 64 and retired so I am not sure I am going to do much else with my ADHD other than medicate with weed and hide out. My ADHD, which is really not a get rich quick scheme in any way, does not affect me economically much anymore. My cost to smoke weed is about $500 per year, which is probably cheaper than any medication would cost me, although possibly not as effective. Nice, though. Things are more pleasant and funnier…usually.

  5. Avatar
    Pallist April 19, 2017 at 9:19 am

    I’m a total daydreamer. I was the girl in the class who was always in trouble for never paying attention because I was lost in my thoughts. When I was very young, my family said I had TV-itis, because it was all I did and no one on my favorite shows got mad at me. If I wasn’t watching tv, I was devouring a good book. Stories and movies of all kinds were my addiction (except horror movies which gave me nightmares). I don’t call it medicating so much as avoidance by zoning out of my life with its myriad of problems. But it was something I was good at. My single regret is that I didn’t become an English major or Librarian. I was sure doing either would bore me to tears
    I was scared of weed, was ambivalent about smoking and couldn’t get addicted (though I did try!). So I fantasized all the what-ifs I encountered on TV and in real life. The more experience I gained the more critical I became and got better at deconstructing my need for fantasy and escapism. Eventually all the daydreaming led to me writing a science-fiction trilogy. Hopefully the first book will be published by next year!

  6. Avatar
    cacklingblur October 16, 2017 at 11:03 am

    I take it watching all those ketchup-soaked 1950s driver’s-ed films would not be an acceptable “self-medication” either?
    scheiBe.

  7. Avatar
    cheezibreezi January 29, 2018 at 11:17 am

    I’m not sure if this makes sense, but I medicate myself with art and optimism. I’m constantly doodling, whether it’s in class or on my homework. I’m always bursting with energy, something I channel into optimism. It really helped to keep an agenda so I can cross off stuff I have to do and not just get distracted and aimlessly browse the internet. Like I am now. Oops… I should be writing down my thoughts for the day!!

    • Avatar

      CheeziBreezi, medicating yourself with doodling is awesome. In fact, you might want to check out Fidget To Focus coauthored by Sarah Wright about the value of fidgeting or having a distraction to help one focus. In my first job, as a demonstrator at a very cool Science Centre, the only aspect of the work I loathed were the bi-weekly staff meetings. I wanted to scream at some point. I was squirming in my skin. Finally, I started bring along playing cards, coins, and other magicians tricks, and practiced them as I listened. I was able to sit still and even pay attention if my hands were busy practicing tricks, over and over.

  8. Avatar
    bethany February 19, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    So glad I stumbled onto this site. I think that maybe ADHD is the explanation I’ve been waiting for. I have yet to get a diagnosis. Just one thought: yoga/meditation makes me want to jump out of my skin. I’m an actor and I also find like Linklator voice exercises (which involve a lot of stillness and listening to one person guide you through imagery) make me want to tear my hair out. I know meditation & yoga are good for me, but how do I do it when that level of stillness just makes me want to jump out the window?… sorry… not totally on topic… just thought of it because you mentioned yoga or mindfulness or something as part of treatment.

    • Avatar
      bfowler1000 March 4, 2018 at 12:59 am

      Bethany – I’ve never heard anyone ever make the comment you did about your reaction to Yoga, meditation, etc. – but, you hit the nail on the head. You described my experience to a “T”! And it might be helpful for you to know that when I was formally diagnosed with ADHD (as an adult) the testing center said I had the most pronounced case of ADHD that they had ever observed in an adult. (Back then, they used to actually give you a battery of tests, and if the differential in the score between tests A & B were more than 10 points, then you had a clinical diagnosis of ADD). It was so frustrating to come out of the yoga or meditation class with everyone talking about how great it was, and I thought I was literally going to scream – I thought there was something seriously wrong with me……….. nope, just wired differently. So, you’re not alone on that one!

      • Avatar
        Rick Green - Founder of TotallyADD March 5, 2018 at 4:01 pm

        BFowler1000, I love your description of it. I found yoga very hard to stick with. But that’s true of almost everything. It was only seeing the payoff, seeing the progress that I was motivated to make the time each morning. The 20 minute routine paid off in terms of energy and focus. But then my wife, who does not have ADHD, is a yoga teacher, and in some of the training sessions for each new level of certification she finds sitting and meditating for 10, 20, 30 minutes or more is painful at first. But she’s forced to stick with it, and suddenly everything shifts.
        Maybe that’s true of every ADHD strategy, that it takes time and often some tweaking to see that it works, or doesn’t.

  9. Avatar
    heidilykke September 23, 2018 at 1:12 am

    I did buy videos from you *Pats my own back*
    I think this is a great site. I honestly still don’t know if I have ADD or if my lack of impulse control, major executive dysfunction and failure to regulate emotions is from Aspergers, which I am recently diagnosed with, but I honestly relate more to ADD. However the therapist blatantly disregarded that.
    My ways of self medicating has been sugar, Pepsi Max, shopping (the worse I feel the more I feel a need to spend money) But mostly avoidance. To a point where I basically socially isolate myself all the time and stay clear of anything than can tempt me and make me lose control (like men! =unsafe sex, drugs = I hate the idea of losing control of myself, any form of gambling machines/casinos = I’ve been lost and broke there before) So I basically avoid feeling anything, it’s safer…

  10. Avatar
    cbag January 13, 2019 at 3:35 am

    My 20 y/o daughter was diagnosed with ADD on Monday. Her symptoms didn’t present until after high school because she was a super athlete throughout her life. ADD started presenting when she quit sports after her first year of college leaving her crippled emotionally with extreme depression, but it was always present; she just managed through it by always moving–self medicating. Currently in her third year of college she has self medicated by maintaining a high GPA including the dean’s list most semesters. She’s been prescribed Vyvance, but hasn’t started taking it yet. She is getting ready to study away in Europe in two weeks where she’s been set-up with a therapist. She is also starting to get herself moving again. I think we’re on a good path. I realize now looking at my life through my rear view mirror, and with my daughter’s diagnosis, that I’ve self-medicated all my life. I was given an impossible childhood, a challenging young adulthood and twin girls in motherhood because someone (my God) knew I possessed a superpower to get myself and my loved ones through tough times. I would not have been able to succeed in this life without it. I also drink coffee, sleep very little and organize everything and everyone around me. If taking a medication will help me do things even better then I may need to try it, but probably won’t. Somehow menopause helped to calm me down, but it sure hasn’t slowed me down. If anything, I’m more focused during stressful situations. I wonder if what has gotten me through these challenges will hurt me later. I also want to mention that my daughter and I love your site. We haven’t purchased any videos yet, but plan to. My daughter is a rhetoric major w/ a concentration in film & media and what you’ve done with this site and your career is what she aspires to do some day too. Thank you for helping us navigate ADD without big pharma and other annoying sponsors.

  11. Avatar
    mweihrauch March 22, 2020 at 11:50 am

    That’s really funny with Cola! I am known for being a Coke Zero addict by all my friends (I dont smoke & dont drink alcohol). I dont need the sugar, just the sweet taste + caffeine. I always recognize fellow ADHD persons, when someone is also craving Cola or energy drinks.
    (Edited by mod)

  12. Avatar
    amianime April 1, 2020 at 7:15 am

    That’s funny

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