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I often feel the need to make up for lost time. I lost ten years of my life tussling with mental illness. I’ve grown tired of a “two steps forward, one step back” recovery. It seems every time I push myself closer towards fulfilling my aspirations, I regress a little. So can you really blame me for taking shortcuts as I pursue my dreams?

I’ll be candid… I’ve used nootropics to get ahead in life.

By definition, nootropics (noots) are drugs that improve one or more aspects of mental functioning. Said to enhance memory, attention and motivation, these “smart drugs” are commonly employed as study aids and productivity boosters.

I first came across nootropics two years ago, shortly after my return (fresh out of the psych ward) to business school. A cocktail of sedating medications had me nodding off during lectures and unable to focus on assigned readings.  Stuck in a mental fog, I struggled to keep up with a piling workload. Instead of accepting that I was in over my head, I pushed myself to study harder.

Another student seemed to be having similar difficulties.  So I was curious upon noticing sudden and dramatic improvements in this student’s academic performance. What was his secret? Adderall, of course.

Only I couldn’t take amphetamines. To someone prone to psychotic breaks and substance abuse, speed would inevitably result in rapid mental deterioration. But I was tempted by the prospect of augmenting my cognitive functioning for academic gains, so I sought out an alternative study aid.

Through my research, I discovered an array of products promising nootropic effects. These substances, often labelled as “dietary supplements”, are unregulated and can easily be purchased online.  I trialled a number of these products only to find them useless.  The mental fog remained.

It was only after I had abandoned my search for an effective smart drug that I learned of a psychostimulant called Modafinil.  Similar (in ways) to an amphetamine but without the nasty side effects and potential for addiction, Modafinil is a highly sought after nootropic. It is also a controlled prescription drug. So I approached my doctor and made my case. The mental fog, I explained, was debilitating.

Fast forward three months and I can tell you Modafinil is not, by any means, the “Limitless” pill it is made out to be. It’s true, the mental fog has lifted. But despite its benefits (enhanced mental acuity, alertness and the ability to focus for extended periods of time), I question my use of the drug. Modafinil has its downsides, and users can experience insomnia, irritability/agitation, anxiety, overstimulation and borderline delusions of grandeur.

I wonder if taking this medication simply masks my underlying fear of failure. I’ve worked hard to ensure a bright future for myself.  I’ve held onto my ambitions, despite my illness. But I have limitations I need to acknowledge and accept. Mental illness has restricted my capacity to tolerate stress and cope with the day-to-day pressures that can accumulate and lead to relapse.

I know, deep down, everybody has their own unique set of limitations. With or without Modafinil.  And I’ve learned that pushing myself too hard, and too fast, can have devastating consequences. I don’t want to forfeit all the progress I’ve made by testing my limits. So maybe slow and steady wins the race, as they say.

I suppose I sometimes forget how much progress I’ve made over the years. I need to remember, “two steps forward, one step back” is what makes my journey so fulfilling. It is what makes my journey a success.


**Limitless, a 2011 film starring Bradley Cooper (based on “The Dark Fields”, a novel by Alan Glynn), follows protagonist Eddie Morra as he stumbles upon an experimental cognitive enhancer that promises unbounded mental faculties.**

About Andrew Woods

Having been diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder and OCD at the age of seventeen (while attending the University of Victoria), my struggle with mental illness has been a full spectrum experience. I have made much progress since my last hospitalization (three and a half years ago). I returned to university, eventually earning a degree in Economics and a diploma in Business Administration. Today, I have aspirations of following a career in writing and communications. Currently, I spend my time as a mental health volunteer, working as a mental health navigator, exhibitor and communications support volunteer.

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