In an ideal world, the only people taking prescription stimulants would be those who have been diagnosed with ADHD. But as Netflix’s documentary ‘Take Your Pills’ shows us, not only is Adderall prescribed to millions of children all over the United States, adults are using stimulants in record numbers to get ahead – whether they have ADHD or not. From colleges to tech companies to finance to entertainment to sports, more and more people are taking drugs like Adderall to increase their ‘human value’. They’re racing to be at the top of their game – and very possibly taking incredible risks with their health.
“At the simplest level, that norms that I would say are driving the use of performance enhancing drugs are those that simply tell us: Your task is to concentrate to perform at the highest capacity you possibly can, and to do it for as long as it takes. Whether it’s at an investment bank or it’s a homework assignment, the question is: How can you come out on top?” – Dr. Wendy Brown, Political Theorist, UC Berkeley in ‘Take Your Pills’
Discovered by Gordon Alles in 1927 and first introduced as a decongestant in 1933, amphetamines were a socially accepted way keep your energy up for hours. Housewives (and women experiencing what we now know as postnatal depression), working men, musicians and writers, those who wanted to lose weight or perform better overall used ‘inhalers’ that would help them get done what needed to be done – or enjoy the fruits of their labors, longer.
In the 1960’s, a public backlash occurred when the risk of addiction was finally recognized and acknowledged. Amphetamine use had permeated industries including the military – Vietnam was seen as the first “pharmacological war” in which US soldiers were given drugs to enhance their fighting capabilities. Amphetamine was soon made a ‘Schedule II’ controlled substance, requiring a prescription. But that didn’t do much to impact its popularity overall (not to mention how this popularity probably contributed to the illicit drug industry that is now worth billions and has taken millions of lives).
Nowadays, prescription stimulants are a business worth $13 billion and millions of people are taking a drug that is chemically one molecule away from meth (most probably don’t know that and would be horrified to be associated with what is seen as a ‘dirty’ drug). And, even though ADHD drugs were first prescribed to treat children, adults are now the majority of the population taking prescription stimulants. In fact, ‘Take Your Pills’ points out that the growing addiction to stimulants – and its impact – is poised to follow in the steps of the opioid epidemic.
As a documentary, ‘Take Your Pills’ does an adequate job of profiling not only the experience of those who currently use stimulants – and see it as a positive – but those who have used drugs like Adderall and, because of their negative experience, no longer take it. Is the tone of the documentary pro-stimulant? Not exactly. But this isn’t a question of whether ADHD medication is good or bad for people with ADHD. The question is: why have stimulants become the answer for anyone who has a desire to get further ahead in our current social construct?
There is no doubt that we live in a competitive world and those who are willing to work harder and longer are seen as being – and possibly are – more successful. In fact, we idolize and deify those whose success has come to them after years of constant work and sacrifice. But the ‘myth of the individual genius’ is a tired trope perpetuated by a public that seemingly doesn’t understand – or want to accept – that success on a certain level cannot exist without outside support of several kinds. We worship, idealize, and reward those we see in the public eye, reaping benefits. But we ignore the reality of the risks taken in exchange for said material success that can include serious damage to one’s health. And this is where ‘Take Your Pills’ could have made a more powerful statement about the dangers of stimulant use over time in multiple industries, including – and especially – tech and finance.
What ‘Take Your Pills’ does do is offer some alternatives. We learn about a nootropics company that sells natural formulations for cognitive enhancement that don’t put a user’s wellbeing in danger. We meet a tech publicist who uses microdosing as a way to increase her creative output. Once an Adderall user, she now takes a very small dose of psilocybin every four days to avoid what she calls the ‘significant burnout and breakdowns’ experienced by those who use prescription stimulants. Rejecting the commonly (and perhaps, flippantly) oft-repeated catchphrase ‘move fast and break things’, microdosing allows her to ‘execute properly’. And it addresses the reality that there are methods available that provide a desired effect without being dangerous.
Because – make no mistake – the danger is real. ‘Take Your Pills’ doesn’t go into great discussion about the impact of long-term stimulant use but hazards exist. According to American Addiction Centers, long-term use of Adderall can result in anything from constipation to depression to thoughts of suicide to a psychotic break. And, because of its impact on neurotransmitters, the more Adderall you use, the more you need. ‘Take Your Pills’ profiles a tech worker who admits his long-term use of Adderall has resulted in decreased effect; he must take more and more to reach the states of productivity he first experienced, as well as design his diet to maximize what his body can absorb. Yet, he believes Adderall makes him ‘awesome at everything’.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, repeated stimulant use leads to changes in neuronal structure and function that cause long-lasting or permanent neurotransmission abnormalities – a reality some might disregard when stimulants are prescribed by a doctor. Stimulants can also have devastating effects on the heart and blood pressure. Amphetamine use has been linked to an increase in strokes and can possibly trigger epilepsy. Perhaps ‘Take Your Pills’ doesn’t ask it strongly or clearly enough: Is it worth it to push your body and mind past its natural abilities to reach a level of success if your body and mind are damaged in the process? If the path to success could lead to a lesser quality of life, it is even success at all?
“I think focusing on the use or abuse depending on how people feel about this is symptomatic of something broader. This highly competitive environment in which people feel compelled to compete beyond their possibilities to get ahead, this kind of focus on material progress and productivity, what’s the cost of that – and is that a cost we’re willing to live with?” – Anjan Chatterjee, Professor of Neurology, University of Pennsylvania in ‘Take Your Pills’
If stimulant use continues to increase, we’re going to find out soon enough.
‘Take Your Pills’ is available now on Netflix.