Adderall Addiction Amongst California Tech Workers Requires Intensive Treatment

Keeping up with the demands of Silicon Valley can, at times, feel impossible. As the result of the cutthroat culture, a growing number of tech workers are now turning to “cognitive enhancers” like Adderall that ostensibly help you work better, smarter, and faster. However, Adderall abuse comes with significant psychological and physical dangers. For tech workers in California, however, the recovery process itself may seem like an equally uninviting endeavor. Seeing past the barriers to treatment to understand its benefits is an essential first step to healing.

In Silicon Valley, drugs are nothing new. Between 80-hour weeks, extreme expectations of excellence, and plenty of disposable income, many tech workers have both the motivation and means to develop substance abuse issues. “There’s this workaholism in the valley, where the ability to work on crash projects at tremendous rates of speed is almost a badge of honor,” says Steve Albrecht, a substance abuse awareness consultant. “These workers stay up for days and days, and many of them gradually get into meth and coke to keep going. Red Bull and coffee only get them so far.” Indeed, unlike those who use drugs purely for fun, some in Silicon Valley see illicit substances as enhancing their professional abilities, driving them to take ever-greater risks with their health in order to attain greater achievement.

But illicit stimulants like meth and coke are usually not the first drugs people try when seeking to enhance performance. Instead, substance abuse often begins with what many erroneously believe to be “safe” stimulants such as prescription medications designed to treat ADHD and ADD. For California’s tech workers, this often means Adderall. However, while Adderall may appear to enhance your cognitive aptitude and ability to perform, it can also be deeply damaging to your emotional and physical wellbeing, compromising your health and interfering with your ability to trust in your own talents.

The Appeal of Adderall for Tech Workers


At first glance, Adderall seems a far cry from illicit drugs. You don’t need a dealer to get it; even if you don’t have ADD or ADHD, Adderall can often be prescribed to you by a doctor if you have even a cursory knowledge of the symptoms they’re looking for. You don’t have to hide your supply or sneak away to the bathroom to use. Unlike cocaine or meth, we do not have a vast cultural catalog of cautionary tales warning against Adderall use. In fact, many users don’t even associate Adderall with getting high, but view it from a purely utilitarian perspective: it seems to solve a problem.

For tech workers in Silicon Valley, that problem lies in the culture of work itself. “Regardless of what community leaders will tell you, tech loves the narrative of pushing through a narrow victory. It’s hard-based into the format,” writes Cori Johnson. “Tech workers are chasing the high of the win; tech investors are chasing the high of ROI. This addictive cycle has fostered the myth of the hero hacker for whom maximum labor can be extracted in the shortest time possible.” Rather than recognizing the unrealistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy nature of such a culture, Johnson says, “we mythologize this self-abuse as superhuman.”

However, it isn’t just those with extreme aspirations who seek to live up to superhuman expectations. Rather, being able to perform at the highest possible level at a crushing pace is too often considered the price of entry and a necessity for staying relevant in an industry where there are a thousand young, smart, and hungry Stanford grads ready to take your place should you fail. In this environment, prescription stimulant use has become, in many ways, normalized; it is seen as a kind of neurological hack, allowing you to surpass the frustrating limits of natural biology. Rather than being understood as a potentially damaging drug that should be taken only by those with a legitimate medical condition, Adderall has instead become conceptualized as a cognitive enhancer that “high functioning […] people take to become higher-functioning.” Within this understanding, the risks of use, abuse, and addiction are too often rendered invisible.

The Dangers of Adderall


When taken by people with ADD or ADHD, Adderall can be life-changing in the best of ways. However, when taken by people without these medical, it can have damaging psychological and physiological consequences that are too often overlooked, including risk of abuse and addiction. As tolerance builds and you need larger and more frequent doses to produce your desired effect, you may experience psychological disturbances and distress both as the result of the medication and as symptoms of withdrawal. As psychopharmacologist and psychiatrist Dr. Samoon Ahmad explains,”[In] someone who starts to abuse the medication, you will see long-term effects, which is almost a burnout where you may start to see irritability, depression, dysphoria, despondency, agitation.” In some, symptoms can manifest as drastic mood swings, rage, paranoia, suicidal ideation, and even psychosis due artificially elevated dopamine levels and disrupted amygdala activity.

In addition to the psychological risks, Adderall also presents physical dangers. “It can have numerous cardiovascular implications,” says Dr. Ahmad. “So it can increase your blood pressure. It can increase your pulse. When people abuse it or are using high dosages it can cause cardiac arrhythmias. It can cause stroke. It can cause heart attacks.” While younger users often perceive themselves as being protected from serious events such as heart attacks and stroke by virtue of their youth, Adderall increases the risk for such events regardless of age. In fact, Adderall-related emergency visits by young adults ages 18-25 rose by more than 156% between 2006 and 2011, which researchers attribute to the growing trend of using the drug for cognitive enhancement purposes.

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The Belief of Benefit


People who see their professional success hinging on Adderall use may naturally be reluctant to recognize the risks of their drug use or even believe that the benefits outweigh them. After all, the benefits are immediate and observable whereas the risk of a heart attack seems distant. However, despite Adderall’s reputation as a cognitive enhancer, this is no solid evidence that it actually enhances performance.

In a widely publicized study conducted at Dr. Martha Farah’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers tested subjects without ADD or ADHD on “a variety of cognitive functions, from working memory, to raw intelligence, to memories for specific events and faces.” Participants were given these tests after being administered Adderall and again after being administered a placebo. The participants were not told which pill they were taking either time. The results of the study were a surprise to many: the data revealed that Adderall was not in fact linked to better test performance. However, it was linked to a belief that Adderall had enhanced performance, a belief likely caused by dopamine release. Of course, the study itself is not definitive, but part of a growing body of literature on Adderall that suggests it only provides limited usefulness in cognitive enhancement in people without ADD or ADHD. Other studies undertaken by Dr. Farah suggest that “lower-performing people actually do improve on the drug, and higher-performing people show no improvement or actually get worse.” Taken together, there is no strong evidence that high achievers such as those who typically populate Silicon Valley realize performance benefits from Adderall.

The belief of benefit, however, is significant. First of all, it reveals that the dopaminergic impact of Adderall is powerful, even for those who aren’t looking to get high. It also explains why so many who use Adderall as a cognitive enhancer are so reluctant to discontinue the drug; while withdrawal effects are certainly a concern, so too is the fear that you will no longer be able to achieve what you want to achieve—even if the drug doesn’t actually help you to achieve in the first place. For tech workers, this means that you may not only fear that your job will be compromised, but your fundamental sense of identity may come into question. Who are you if not your intelligence, your work, your achievements? And if you believe Adderall is essential to optimizing your intelligence, your work, and your achievements, who are you without Adderall?

Overcoming Barriers to Treatment


The psychological reliance many people develop as part of their Adderall addiction can present a significant barrier to seeking and engaging in treatment. At the same time, high-achieving professionals like tech workers also often reluctant to participate in treatment due to fear of stigma, fear that you will not fit in with other clients, and fear of being away from work. However, the right approach and the right treatment program can help you overcome these barriers and begin the recovery process.

Growing recognition of substance abuse in Silicon Valley is helping to break through damaging stigmas that have historically permeated the tech industry. As a result, more people are speaking out about the cultural changes that must occur in order to break through the ideal of the superhuman worker. As Johnson writes:

We have to prioritize sustainability and long-term success over shorting a bet. A culture that equates self-abuse, conspicuous consumption, and adrenaline chasing with ‘winning’ must be dismantled in order for drug abuses to lessen. Workaholism, the hero hacker narrative, and fast turnarounds should be scrutinized instead of celebrated.

While enacting widespread cultural change will take time, more employers are taking steps to support workers who are struggling with substance abuse and helping to break down stigmas by offering educational workshops and employee assistance programs. As a result, taking time away from work to participate in treatment is no longer the potential professional threat it may once have been and you may be surprised by the supports available to you.

When seeking treatment, connecting with a treatment program tailored to the needs of highly accomplished workers and executives can also remove some of your internal barriers to treatment. By being surrounded by peers who understand your unique situation, you can forge a sense of belonging and camaraderie as you move through the recovery process together, sharing your struggles and your wisdom. At the same time, your treatment can be structured in a way that allows you to maintain contact with work if necessary, allowing you to work on your recovery without neglecting essential professional activities.

The most valuable part of treatment in these programs, however, is the opportunity to deeply explore yourself and the possibilities of life without drugs. By working with highly skilled clinicians, you will be able to remove your psychological reliance on Adderall and develop a new, more authentic sense of self in which you honor and trust your own innate abilities. When you learn how to recognize your own value and purpose without the use of drugs, you can reject harmful internal and external narratives that jeopardize your wellbeing and perpetuate a destructive culture. In realizing true transformation in your own life, you can bring renewed innovative energy into your professional world.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.