The experience of being ADHD is like that of being in a desert without water, parched and desperate for a drink.
ADHD impacts the regulation of dopamine, leaving adults with ADHD short of the neuro-chemical responsible for interest, reward and stimulation. So we are under-stimulated, easily distracted by more engaging thoughts, daydreams or activities; more easily bored and dis-engaged; and less rewarded by positive outcomes and pastimes.
Two people walk side by side in the desert, one with a sporty backpack containing several litres of water, that has a tube ending just by their mouth. Sipping the water, they can take their time, watch the camels crossing the dunes and can stroll across the sands. The other walker with no back-pack is parched and distracted. They may die of thirst very soon, constantly scanning the horizon looking for any kind of oasis. When a oasis appears they run, hoping to drink deeply and relax, and stay for a long while. In ADHD, the desert is of stimulation and our thirst is for interest and reward. Read more in my model of ADHD.
Rewards are not always healthy
Desperate to find reward where we can, it is often found in drugs from caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and cocaine. Psycho-active drugs often target dopamine, releasing large amounts into the brain, to give a sense of reward and stimulation – “missing” in an ADHD brain. But of course drugs bring unwanted and unhealthy side-affects.
But it’s not just drugs that give this dopamine release: video games, internet browsing, Facebook, fast driving, TV, gambling, sex, food, dangerous pursuits, arguments, even approaching deadlines give a major dopamine boost that give a “fix” to someone with ADHD. With an impulsive, rule breaking nature combined with a disconnect from the future, it is easy to see why addiction is so prevalent in ADHD.
There’s a lot of scientific studies of addicts (thanks to Pete Quily), up to 4/5 addicts are ADHD: 35% of Cocaine Abusers in Comprehensive Psychiatry 1993, 24% of Psychoactive Substance Abusers in Jour Clin Psychiatry 2000, 32% of Cocaine Users and Alcoholics in American Journal of Drug Alcohol Abuse 1999, 70% of Crystal Meth (Methamphetamine) Inpatients had ADHD in Journal of Addiction Disorders 2005, 83% of Inhalant & 55% of Methamphetamine abusers in Japan in Psychiatry Clinical Neuroscience 2005.
Other disposing factors
Of course other ADHD issues also lead us to be more prone to addiction: failure, depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour, lack of restraint and novelty-seeking all play a part too. Of course many adults with ADHD don’t have any problems with addiction, or have resolved these challenges. I fall into that category and have had to part with several addictions along the way. I continue to have some addictive tendencies and in particular have to control my video game playing.
Catch-22, ADHD medications for ADDiction
Many my ADHD clients have wrestled with addictions but are often helped to control these when they start ADHD medications. Since the medications increase available dopamine, many people lose that “something is missing” feeling and find restraint comes much more easily. The problem is that if the addiction is to a substance, then doctors become nervous about the potentially addictive stimulant medications and avoid prescribing. it’s a catch-22 The reality is that ADHD medications help us overcome additions by levelling out reward levels and ADHD children on ADHD meds are statistically 50% less likely to abuse substances.