Nearly 70 percent of Americans are on at least one prescription drug, and that's not even accounting for epic burnouts like us skewing the numbers. Mommy needs her medicine to control her blood pressure, Daddy needs his medicine for his cholesterol, and your weird uncle who writes for the Internet needs his "whatever you got on you" to ease the boredom. The point is, everybody needs something. So what happens if you need your meds when we're undergoing one of our nation's many drug shortages? We're not just being hyperbolic because our stash ran dry; drug shortages are a real and terrifying thing. Let's talk to somebody on the wrong end of one ...
As an adult with ADHD, I depend on Adderall, one of the most famous and controversial prescription drugs in America. It's proven invaluable in treating the disorder in children and adults, and also, unfortunately, in making sure frat boys can stay up all night playing Call Of Duty. And apparently the DEA is sick of getting whomped by BroDown69 every time they boot up the old Xbox. Hence, the drug shortage. And it's not just about paying closer attention to your homework: My ADHD is entwined with both depression and anxiety. Before Adderall, I was way into self-harm and suicide. Post-Adderall, I've found some better hobbies. It's a pretty big deal to me.
When I finally talked to my doctor about ADHD and scored that first sweet prescription to Adderall, everything in my life changed within weeks. My impulse control was back. I was able to get my work done, which kept suicide and self-harm at bay. I was able to complete my projects -- it was so great that I was furious it took this long to find my wonder drug. And I'm not alone: Not only is Adderall more frequently used to treat depression than you think, it turns out that undiagnosed ADHD is responsible for a lot of depression and suicidal tendencies in young women, because people keep telling us that it's all in our heads. Yes, we know it's in our heads; that is indeed the problem. That's why we're asking you to fix our heads.
The DEA created different classes and labels for prescription drugs based on their likelihood of being abused. Adderall, Vyvanse, and Ritalin are schedule II prescriptions as are many painkillers. That's why their distribution is highly regulated. Shortages have been on and off since 2011, but it wasn't until January 2015 that I began to notice significant problems.
I used to fill my prescriptions at Walgreens, but since changing my health insurance, I've had to switch to CVS. When I first went to fill my 20-milligram Adderall XR (two pills a day) at my closest CVS, I was told they were out of it. So I went to another one and they were out of it, too. I called the next one to save some time, but it turns out that because they're schedule II, they can't tell you if they have the drugs in stock over the phone. You have to show up physically to be rejected. Just like prom night.
Some places told me that they were getting their weekly shipment on Wednesday, but then Wednesday came and, oops, maybe it'll show up in the monthly shipment. I was told I needed to get there quickly when that shipment got in, since they were only allotted one bottle of 100 pills per month, meaning they could, at most, fill three prescriptions per month (fewer, if patients took more than one pill per day). When the next month rolled around, I arrived within an hour of their monthly shipment, and still no Adderall. I went to a Walmart to see if they could fill it, and the pharmacist admitted it's been on back order since the end of December. If this sounds frustrating now, keep in mind I did all of this without the pills I need to stay sane.
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Our health care system functions like a high school group project: When something doesn't get done, it's always someone else's fault. I had a great relationship with my pharmacist at Walgreens and called him in tears one night to tell him what was going on with CVS and to beg him to take me back. (Walgreens and I had a beautiful relationship, before they dumped me out of the blue when their friends at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida started saying shit behind my back. I thought you were better than that, Walgreens! Not like that slut, Rite Aid.)
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Naturally, my pharmacist couldn't help, but he did tell me that everything is the DEA's fault. See, pharmacists and manufacturers are supposed to tell the DEA how many patients need the medication, and the DEA is supposed to increase the allowance to keep up with patient need -- except they routinely forget to. Maybe they have ADHD too? So to follow up, I called the Orlando branch of the DEA and spoke to two different representatives: One blamed the manufacturers for refusing to make the drug, and the other blamed the druggies for forcing them to set these limits. But who's really to blame?
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If the manufacturers don't make the medications, they lose money. Pharmacists can't make money if they don't sell the drugs. Patients, of course, lose their treatments, and in 2011, at least 15 people died because they couldn't get their medications. The DEA, by limiting prescriptions, gets to appear to be tough on drugs, since fewer prescriptions available equals fewer prescription medications sold on the street. Those 15 dead folks are just collateral damage in the war on drugs.
When I called the DEA to ask about the shortage, the first person I spoke to said, "Yeah, we're restricting access to these medications. What can you do? Blame the druggies." When I told him that wasn't good enough and explained my symptoms (which included a relapse in suicidal thoughts, depression, and poor impulse control), he said it sounded like I was addicted to Adderall and in withdrawal.
Patient: "If I stop taking this heart attack medication, I'll have a heart attack."
Flailing Dipshit: "Sounds like you're addicted to heart attack medication."
But even if that logic wasn't pants-on-head stupid, as Cracked has pointed out before, most drug addictions are an attempt to self-medicate anyway. And then there's the difference in how we treat individual drugs: Lamictal has pretty severe withdrawal effects, including symptoms of bipolar disorder, vomiting, and emotional upset. Adderall's withdrawal is mostly just "fatigue and trouble sleeping," and yet it's much more heavily regulated, because it's a stimulant.
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And so we get to the great irony: I could drive down to the nearest college campus right now and buy some illegal Adderall from the first twitchy kid I came across. Sure, I'd pay more for a single pill than I would for an entire bottle on my insurance, but at least I'd be getting my goddamn meds. In trying to crack down on the prescription drug problem, the DEA is actually creating a prescription drug problem.
I wrote an article for Cracked in 2014 about self-injury. After it came out, people began messaging me on Tumblr to tell me how much it had helped them get help and/or stay safe. So I started using my Tumblr to post the other things I told myself to keep sane, and it seemed to help others, too.
Then the Adderall shortage hit.
In that first article, I also mentioned my previous suicide attempt. One of the factors leading to that was a shortage of Adderall -- it was the longest I'd been off of it since starting the medication ... until now. I've avoided trying to kill myself again, but I can't say I haven't thought about it. I just can't keep the ideas out of my head.
This is why medication shortages are a big deal: I know what my life is like with and without the medication, and I know that my returning suicidal impulses and difficulty focusing aren't because of my own failure as a person. I remind myself that these suicidal thoughts aren't from me. The right psychiatric medications don't turn you into a different person -- they correct your brain chemistry to bring the real you back from behind a cloud of crazy. And no matter how much therapy or self-conditioning you have, it's hard to function when your brain chemistry is more Breaking Bad than Bill Nye The Science Guy.
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The last thing the mentally ill need is yet another roadblock between themselves and treatment. You can call it a crutch if you want, but take away someone's crutches and see how much longer their legs stay broken.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ridiculous Myths You Probably Believe About Schizophrenia and 5 Awful Lessons I Learned Living With a Mystery Illness.
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