Elizabeth knows all about it. A senior at an all-girls school on the Upper East Side, she’s dealt with her parents’ suggesting medication to treat her attention-deficit disorder for years. There was the Ritalin in sixth grade, which she despised, then the Concerta in eighth, which was even worse. In her sophomore year, she was put on twenty milligrams of Adderall a day, and found that her study habits (though not her eating habits) quickly improved. “So then, the other day, my mom decides to try my Adderall and she flips out,” Elizabeth told me. “She couldn’t believe how strong it was, how much it changed her mood. She called me literally crying, and insisted I go off it. And I’m like, that’s bullshit. I’m not going off this during my senior year of high school when I’m trying to get into college.” What bothered her most, she said, was the notion that suddenly her parents were looking at her like she had a drug problem because of a drug they’d put her on. “And I always take it as directed,” she said. “A lot of my friends take it recreationally, which, I’m sorry, is just sort of dumb.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse released a study stating that “the most dramatic increase in new users of prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes” had occurred among teens. Those findings are echoed by the just-published National Survey on Drug Use and Health, one of the government’s most exhaustive looks at drug trends, which observed that pharmaceuticals have grown in popularity while use of substances like marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD have declined. “There’s almost an expectation that someone’s going to bring Ambien or Adderall or Xanax to a party these days,” says Tessa Kleeman. “One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that when I go into classrooms to talk about drugs, students will often bring up their concerns that doctors are overprescribing medicines.”
As Timothy and I spoke, he was joined by his best friend, Nadia Smirnova, a 17-year-old senior at Bronx Science with magenta-streaked hair and an array of piercings in each ear. “I was the same way with the Wellbutrin,” she said when he finished describing his stint with Prozac, her tone casual, as if she were pointing out something glaringly obvious. “During my freshman year, I was always having these episodes, right? Like I’d break down in the hallways crying and have to skip class.” Looking back, she said this probably had to do with Ephedra, the now-illegal diet pills that she used to take every morning to wake up at 5:30 for the Queens-Bronx commute. “They make you really hyper, and then you just crash,” Nadia said. To pep herself up for tests, she felt she needed something, so she started taking Adderall. Recently that helped her get through the SATs, though with mixed results: a 720 in math, but just 580 in verbal, because she had to excuse herself many times to go to the bathroom—with Adderall comes dehydration, and a tendency to consume lots of water.
So Nadia decided to stop using Adderall, which was easy enough. Her experience with Wellbutrin, however, was more complicated. “I had a friend who was on a lot of drugs,” Nadia explained. “She was doing coke, smoking weed, doing Adderall, constantly drinking—then her doctor gave her a prescription to Wellbutrin.”
One day in Spanish class, Nadia’s friend tapped her on the shoulder and showed her the bottle of pills.
“I don’t want to,” said Nadia, who had just turned 14.
“Are you scared?”
“Shut up—I’m not scared.”
“Then take some.”
“Fine,” huffed Nadia, swallowing a pill on the spot.
She started taking it every morning in class, and within weeks the episodes dissolved. Problem was, a few months later her friend’s prescription was abruptly terminated. “Her mother found out her boyfriend was dealing coke and took her off everything as punishment,” Nadia continued, wincing at the memory. “So I had to go off it just like that! It was tough. I really crashed. The episodes came back, but worse.” Nadia talked to her mother, to whom she is close, mentioning that she was depressed and that—who knows?—maybe medication would help. But her mother was adamantly opposed to antidepressants. A few weeks ago, Nadia decided to give up all drug use, but wanted her name in this article because she hoped people would understand her frustration: that even adults don’t see the difference. Doctors and dealers, illicit and essential, dumb fun and dire necessity—these distinctions mean nothing anymore. The line between recreational use and medical use has, for many kids, become a hoax, an anachronism, a lie. And though this behavior seems most prevalent among privileged New York teenagers, it is far from restricted to that group. Where there is easy access to prescription pills, there will be kids inventing their own ways of using them. Which raises the question: How much are pills redefining what it means to be a teenager?
Here’s the scene: A. is in the kitchen of her apartment on the Upper West Side, laughing with her best friend and feeling perfectly, perfectly stupid. Two fashion-conscious 17-year-olds, they are each holding a steak knife, using the serrated blade to crush two pills of Xanax on a mirror. It is early August. Summer’s in full swing: Weekdays blur into weekends, every night buzzes with potential for mischief, and this evening A. has the house to herself. Her father, who works in entertainment, has lived in another state since her parents separated when she was 11⁄2. And her mother, a teacher, is out in the city, as she often is, doing who knows what with who knows whom.
Speaking of parents: The Xanax was swiped from her friend’s father, who has Parkinson’s disease, and with it a bottomless prescription of what A. calls “the hard-core” two-milligram pills (and which her friend sometimes covertly pops to dull the stress of having a sick dad): oval-shaped tablets meant to be split into fourths, but which can cause a mute, dreamy feeling when swallowed whole. This sensation, they’d heard from a friend, is magnified exponentially when Xanax is snorted—shoots straight into your brain, and two seconds later you’re floating, tingling, reality morphed into a waking dream.