This week’s edition of Netflix novelties brings us “Take your pills,” Alison Klayman’s documentary about America’s romance with Ritalin, and especially Adderall. These she presents as the drugs of choice for successful Americans, starting from early childhood and sometimes continuing throughout the productive years.
The chemical behind the name Adderall is amphetamine, and the documentary offers a useful history of its use in America. It couldn’t have been better timed, because this looks like our future, both as a society and as individuals — or at least the prototype for it. Think about it: It’s coffee for winners. It’s feverishly believed to enhance mental powers and that’s the kind of power you need in modern America. A nation dedicated to Enlightenment can hardly say no to brain power.
The documentary, produced by Maria Shriver and Christina Schwarzenegger, presents the results of a certain kind of competitiveness rather widespread in the upper classes. Lots of people are embracing the class divide created by higher education, and they’re doing their best to make sure they and their children end up on the winning side of the knockout tournament that is our education system. That’s a future worth the work.
So we get to look at and listen to college kids who live in this new world. They look like anyone’s kids; they lack self-awareness and they are too self-aware at the same time. They are natural, we wish to say — warm, open, friendly, and loquacious. But they are at the same time painfully awkward. They wish to open up about their traumas, those who have suffering in their past, or about their perplexity and shame at what they have seen and done concerning amphetamines. But at the same time, they seem to be shrugging with their entire being — they obviously feel that it’s not their place to judge, much less do anything about it.
Above all, a kind-hearted helplessness describes them. One wishes them well and would like to know there is a way for them to understand themselves, but one finds precious little reason for that hope. The documentary itself does little for them — professionalism apparently means only using them to make a point for the benefit of a public that badly needs to hear it.
They do have a reasonable hope, however, of taking control of their lives. Several of them speak of having made or preparing to make the moral decision to stop drugging themselves. They sense that there’s something wrong with what’s been done to them and what they’re doing to themselves as adults. They declare very morally, and rather cheerfully at the same time, that the future they see for themselves is amphetamine-free.
That’s not the happy end of the documentary, though. For why are we becoming an amphetamine society? We want success, and productive work requires focus. Some of these kids talk about what they’ve noticed concerning the American class divide. If you’re a rich kid micro-dosing amphetamines for school or career advantage, that’s rewarded. If you’re a poor kid, often not white, dealing in amphetamines on the streets, you probably have no future and your reward is prison. There is a war for success in the highly competitive professions where few are chosen and fewer still get called. There is another war on drugs for everybody else.
But kids go on with their own lives and so many of them feel they need Adderall for their exams. You have to focus, however boring you might find your assignments, so get yourself the pills that make up for your attention deficit! Then we see people who use it to get through incredibly demanding corporate jobs or equally demanding entrepreneurship. You might be taking orders or you might be hustling, but as Bob Dylan said, you gotta serve somebody. And Adderall will see you through! So it turns out the cost of success is not limited to requirements for entry. Getting ahead might just mean now you have to stay ahead. The insecurity of achievement, as well the crisis that failure might trigger, shows what the real psychological costs and the real limits of success are.
Perhaps these drugs are the necessary correlative of the new enthusiasm for work. The more work is said to be morally affirming, tied up with changing the world, making a difference, delivering on Progress, all the while satisfying creative impulses and making room for self-expression and originality, the more completely we are judged by success. And the more fully do we feel we have failed if we don’t achieve success, because in wanting so badly to be successful, we end up believing the myth of meritocracy. So productivity, even drug-enhanced is the measure of worth. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this to our children, but how do we stop if we do it to ourselves?