February 25, 2020

Medication Nation

You'd think we'd know better by now—or at least learn from our mistakes. But while first world problems concerning recreational drug use may have changed over time (both in purpose and side effects), the practice continues, and is likely more widespread than ever. Back in the 1950s, middle-class drug users were often bored housewives. Stressed by repetitive, unfulfilling lives with little possibility of change, they were prescribed addictive benzodiazepines like Valium to help them relax and keep the edge off—keep them keepin' on, as it were. Still, these moms were available to supervise boisterous children who would bike or run home daily for lunch and roam freely around the neighborhood after school.

When the women woke up to the fact that being kept tranquil wasn't enough and fought for fulfilling lives and careers of their own, they went off their “happy pills” to spend long hours in college classrooms and corporate offices. Their children were redirected indoors to after-school enrichment programs where, though increasingly challenging intellectually, often neglected the young body's need for motion and physical release. Newly hatched educators demanded student attention and cooperation 24/7, while classroom sizes grew and their legal ability to act as disciplinarians—in any capacity—shrank. If the teachers contacted parents for help with problem behavior, they often found themselves the object of criticism (accused of not being able to adequately perform their jobs). Typically, parents spent less time with their offspring than did school staff. After an ever-extended workday, they simply didn't have the energy or resources to deal with issues involving the kids. Parent-teacher conferences were rare and sparsely attended.

But then a magic new drug was developed that could make the inattentive and hyperactive child sit still and listen. Suddenly everyone, from parents to educators, were demanding its use for more and more everyday situations—in large classrooms, for unruly young boys, and especially, to keep standardized scores high. Testing determined a school's standing, and served as judge of teacher salaries and jobs. The industry of child psychiatry exploded alongside the increased demand for ADHD-testing. Written prescriptions for Adderall, the latest in a line of amphetamines given children, grew exponentially as well. While the American Academy of Pediatrics claims only 9.5% of Americans ages 4 to 17 have ADHD (in itself a high number, considering the condition was practically unheard of a half-century ago), it's not uncommon to find schools where the drug is prescribed in over 50% of the students in class. I recently read a quote by a Jewish camp director stating his entire 8-to-12-year-old boys group was taking amphetamines. Rich parents demand it so their kids can keep up with Honors and Advanced Placement programs—a necessary edge for applying to elite colleges—while medical practitioners in poor neighborhoods prescribe it so their students can achieve better grades despite the handicap of an inferior school environment. The Adderalled child is able to sit still and concentrate for longer periods to learn his/her lessons.

Unfortunately, the first lesson they learn is this: If you want to do well in life, take a pill.

Psychologists report that by the time these highly prescribed youngsters are ready for college, many no longer suffer from ADHD symptoms. That doesn't mean they stop taking their medication. Ask any college student cramming for an exam or with a term paper due, and you'll find that ordinary coffee has been supplanted by hyper-caffeinated energy drinks. Worse, the “keep awake and high-functioning” stimulant of choice is no longer caffeine but that old, familiar and ever-available Adderall pill. It may exist in a  “comfort zone” of regular prescribed use, but it's still an amphetamine—a drug known to enhance wakefulness, cognition, performance and confidence (just about all one needs to get the job done fast, and excel as well).

Today's coeds self-medicate with Adderall for classwork because it works, and will use it recreationally as an aphrodisiac and euphoriant as well. There's also no fear or stigma involved, as there might be when using other hard drugs. If they hadn't used Adderall before personally, as students, they all know friends and family members who'd taken regular doses (with parental and teacher approval) for years.

So what happens after these amphetamine-enhanced students graduate and arrive at their first jobs? A good friend called to tell me the story of a work colleague who'd encouraged her theater-loving son to get an accounting degree as a “fall back” option for gainful employment. He graduated with honors from the University of Central Florida and was recruited, as many in his class, by a major Atlanta-based accounting firm. His mom thought he was well on his way to a productive career when he called to say his job was in jeopardy: he simply couldn't keep up with the amount of work required (and produced) by his colleagues. Because they were all on Adderall! Years ago, this kid had sworn off any drug use after seeing how it had ruined his addict father's life (a smart move, as addiction tends to run in families).

A light bulb went on in my head. My friend, who'd related this sad tale, had been complaining lately about how she was finding it harder and harder to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of her workload (she's required to meet hourly “stats” as a hospital coder). Same story with her husband, an occupational therapist in his sixties,  who recently began spending several hours at home each night on extra paperwork (uncompensated, of course) that he used to be able to complete during the regular workday. I wondered aloud how other people in their fields were managing. She responded that many senior employees were experiencing similar difficulties, while younger hires tended to be “more computer savvy and simply faster.” Now I'm thinking maybe some of these “faster” young people are simply being boosted by Adderall.

Suddenly it's not only Tour de France cyclists and other extreme sport competitors who admit to using performance-enhancing drugs as a necessary step toward winning first place. Can it have become the default setting for uber-competitive 21st century businesses as well? My first stop in checking into Adderall's usage history was to look it up (as most everyone does) in Wikipedia. Where, despite my suspicions, I was truly shocked to discover this simple statement: “As of 2015, amphetamines, especially Adderall, were increasingly being used by young white-collar workers who work long hours at demanding work. Many felt drug use was necessary to perform adequately.”

Note the word “adequately.” We are not even close to speaking of providing that razor-thin edge of extra energy for international competition here. Since when has super-hero stamina become the norm? The constant pressure to produce, and produce even more, at my friend's coding job has forced her into regular visits with a psychiatrist whom she pays—not for counseling or advice (they don't do that anymore)—but simply for his MD license to write a prescription for a sleeping pill. Only through dosing herself nightly with Lunesta can she block out her workday's inordinate aggravation . . . and get enough sleep to cope with the extraordinary pressures of the day to come. Quite simply, the pill does its job, so she can. At least at work. It's interesting how she never feels the need to turn to any sort of sleep aid when on vacation.

Obviously, my friend's not alone in having discovered that the only way to function in today's “unhealthy” stress-inducing work environment is through medicinal intervention. Perhaps I should advise her to quit the Lunesta and get on Adderall instead? That way, she'll work faster, better, and be left with more time to play (and with her stats up, have fewer worries regarding job security). Then at the end of the day, when the Adderall wears off, she might even get to sleep naturally. A rather simple solution of trading one pill for another, as it were.

Um, wait a minute! Have we really come to this? My friend and her husband will be retiring in a couple of years and, trust me, they are counting the days. I just hope all the added anxieties of their final work years don't translate into a festering disease when they are finally allowed off the treadmill. But what of her friend's young-adult son? The newly hired accountant who played by the rules, and just wants to do the right thing and live a clean, drug-free life? In today's “results are all that matter” pressure cooker society, does he stand a chance? Do any of our kids who aren't born Type A geniuses have a hope for success? What of their lives, and the long-term aftereffects of all that Adderall use? I'm sure the large pharmaceutical companies have taken note, and are already busy inventing the next miracle drug to treat an Adderall-addled generation. More drugs for the side effects of taking more drugs. Can the beat go on? When will it end? And if it ever does, who and where will we be then?

© 2015 Mindy Leaf


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