Years ago, I found myself in a dark place. Successfully leaving it was an experience that has shaken the foundations of how I conceived life to work, dissolving the cosmic institution of personal karma I clinged onto to make sense of reality. It showed me that the emergence of a meaningful experience can be summoned up by the profane act of taking a pill. An item of the size of a pea, that can equip you with the divine power of directing your passion towards any goal whose attainment you deem desirable - but potentially leaving you with more questions than you started off with.
I believe to have left a piece of me out there, in exchange for the seductive knowledge that success in life can be independent of the perception of hard work - the price tag on many of the things we like to achieve. We know our budget for suffering to be limited. So if the devil sells the antidote in the form of unlimited willpower, how much of your soul does it cost you to put it to use?
My attempt to answer this question started with the mundane side-quest of cleaning up my home. Unfortunately - but as predicted by the second law of thermodynamics - it appeared in one of its very likely, unorderly configurations. But I guess that’s just what happens if you’re not doing many useful things with your life - it defaults to chaos. And so does everything it’s involved in.
As if constant acts of instant gratification leave an ugly decay on the fabric of your personal world, mess accumulated layer by layer until I couldn't see what's underneath anymore. Chances are, whatever was under there died of asphyxiation at this point. It made for a good fertilizer, though, as my fears of a fruitless future grew like weeds in this comforting cocoon of convenience. A reality that I couldn’t help but be reminded of every morning, when the first thing that I saw after waking up was an all too real painting of disorder:
Unmade decisions appearing as random assortments of things, laying themselves out as evidence for reckless procrastination over months at a time. Add to that an impressive selection of things and their associated feeling of dread announcing themselves before me - dirty dishes on the desk, vital papers on the floor and the obligatory tower of smelly clothes resting peacefully in the corner, reaching worrying levels of height and instability. I was living in the room of the archetypical loser - a place having nihilism written all over it, the signature of my own inadequacies.
The worries about the direction my life was taking became more intense every day. Though I was able to suppress the screaming voices of conscience for a time - thanks to powerful joys of momentary pleasures and the soothing thought of a tomorrow that’s always a day away - it became increasingly difficult to deny that the maintenance of this vegetative state ad infinitum would result in a very bad outcome. My self-worth was low and getting lower, and every time I looked around my life, I saw factual evidence for assuming this trend’s correctness.
The universe made this very clear by broadcasting the consequences into the increasingly uninhabitable hub of my existence. What it didn’t do was give me a reason to put up with all the problems challenging me. And if it did, my experience was quick to remind me that it will result in failure anyway. To keep my sanity afloat, I continued dissociating myself from the problems I didn’t want to conceive as such. Existence, however, doesn’t care, and so I became just another chronic observer of my own life’s demise.
Worst of all, there was no incendiary for this dumpster fire my life spiraled into: No single person or thing I could blame, a tactic that would have given me at least some relief. God was out of the question, although damning himgave me a newfound appreciation for religion. Instead, my frustration was due to a generic sequence of unfortunate events, like the ones plaguing humanity since the dawn of its existence. If life is the best teacher, it did an excellent job in teaching me how to be helpless.
Like in a video game, I was stuck, unable to come up with a solution to how to proceed. Life's code seemed somewhat not thought through - remember solitaire, where sometimes you find yourself in a dead-end street? It's not completely your fault, but your lack of skill doesn't help either. And as soon as you see yourself getting cornered in, every next move could be your last one until there’s no turning back. My general sense was that I moved closer towards that state, with anxiety getting the best of me. I wanted to start with a clean slate, with the power of hindsight letting me navigate around these pitfalls. I could profit from the knowledge of stepping into them - but to do that, I first needed a way out.
Existing the game is always an option. But once you start getting relief from this though - which I did - your senses should be on high alert to find a better solution. So, bringing the analogy to its end, there’s a third way. And that is cheating. I’m not talking about fraud, stealing or anything else of the kind. I believe that is still in the confines of its rules, although it's certainly a dangerous strategy - one with high risk, high payoff. There is work involved after all - the very thing that every cell of my body wanted to avoid.
Instead, I was looking for a real-life cheat code. Could such a thing exist?
My opportunistic soul afforded me a glimpse of hope when I read about a certain, unethical shortcut in the depths of society’s unconscious - the internet. There was this myth going around of a philosophers stone of productivity. We’re talking a legendary alchemical substance, allegedly giving one the ability to get done every item touched on a to-do list; an elixir said to increase one’s ability to tackle tasks of superb subjective difficulty, the tasks that would otherwise summon one’s inner resistance to execute to an unbearable degree. Basically everything falling under the umbrella of getting your life together.
If there really was a potion that could do that - giving anyone unhinged will to power - what would the implications be? Why wouldn't everyone take it? Or do they, and just don't tell you? It certainly seemed too unreal to be true. Nevertheless, eager to believe in any mystical thing able to take responsibility of my shoulders, my faith in its existence reached a point of no return once I read through experience reports like this one:
The world fell away; it was only me, locked in a passionate embrace with the book I was reading and the thoughts I was having about it, which tumbled out of nowhere and built into what seemed an amazing pile of riches. When dawn came to Providence, R.I., I was hunched over in the grubby lounge of my dormitory, typing my last fevered perceptions, vaguely aware that outside the window, the sky was turning pink. I was alone in my new secret world, and that very aloneness was part of the great intoxication. I needed nothing and no one.
This is Adderall ® for you. Not supernatural, but not less enticing than magic itself.
It's a drug. One that people elevated into into the realm of the absurd. Users talked unlimited concentration, spectrum-like thought enhancement and most of all, motivation - the bedrock of any cognitive skill rests upon. Naturally, I researched the drug with the enthusiasm of a small child flipping through a toy magazine looking for his own christmas gifts. However, being somewhat older at that point, I was painfully aware of the nature of things was their tendencies to not rise to one’s expectations. In disbelief about the suggested magnitude of this device, I asked myself:
Why would it make you interested in something boring, and how would it accomplish such a seemingly impossible feat?
ADD for All
Officially given as a medicine to people suffering from (a set of symptoms summarized under the umbrella term) ADHD, it’s indicated as a tool to counteract genetic disadvantages that limits the ability to pay attention to a life-quality degrading degree. But - as one would expect in a culture defined by drugs aficionado - not having this exclusive license isn’t gonna stop the millions people who wish they did. Cause it looks like its performance enhancement is universal, effective at the very least for the people perceiving their ability to be masters of their circumstances as subpar. They are the one’s hanging on the cliff, reaching out for the hands of every potential compensating mechanisms they can find. (A behavior which should actually afford them the diagnosis. But that’s besides the point.)
So, this famed substance appeared to be nothing more than a strong stimulant. Taking a dive into this world of the addictive class of drugs was something my conscience quickly regarded as an ethically dubious option. (Although at that point in time, I wouldn’t know what’s so addictive about them - but I guess you only do once you’re getting sucked in by its spell.) These concerns were quickly overruled by my expediency and desperation. Extraordinary circumstances warrant extraordinary means, I thought. A substance making life’s dreaded aspects more enjoyable - or enjoyable at all for that matter - would make a very welcomed addition to my medicine cabinet. I had to try it. If it doesn't work, I will be where I left off. If it does, though, any time between now and then will be just more unused potential metastizing into unbearble regret.
And so, faster than law enforcement would have it, I found myself with the substance in my pocket. Placing myself in the in the middle of my room - the material center of my messy life - I took what I needed to take, ready to let go of my innocence. I looked around, starting to contemplate how to best approach this monster and waited for the magic to unfold.
And unfold it did.
I knew when the medicine’s effects began to take hold, as it coincided with an unusual excitement about the idea of cleaning up. Normally, scanning the environment triggered a sense of despair in me. Instead, arousing anticipation set in - a sense of enthusiasm that made me want to dive head-first into whatever disintegrated thing announced itself first, with the mission statement of putting it back together.
“I should organize my clothes, it would be really nice to have everything in place.”
“The desk is a little bit small, work would be much easier if I bought a bigger one.”
“I should rip off the tapestry, it’s a little bit too yellowed.”
These weren’t just ideas for home improvement. They were the battlecries announcing a cathartic cleaning frenzy, of a scale I’ve never witnessed before.
While I was in the midst of picking up large chunks of mess from my surroundings, an understanding of complete subjectivity of priorities unfolded itself in me. Suddenly, nothing in this world was more important than to get the stubborn stain out of the carpet floor. Once this environmental disturbance caught my eye, getting an arsenal of cleaning tools together and this particular job done felt like the most meaningful activity to do in this particular moment. The beautiful thing about it: I had no doubt that it was. This sort of confidence was what I clearly missed just a few hours prior - when uncertainty transpired through every action of mine, leaving me always hesitant whether I was really doing what I was supposed to. Trapped in a limbo of indetermination, I wouldn’t want to risk investing the small amount of ambition I had left into the wrong thing. What a difference a day makes.
My focus ramped up to laser-like state, making any problem implode that it was directed at. Like an interactive experience for the thesaurus page of “cleaning”, I was exemplifying the meaning of the word and all it’s synonyms in a joyous exercise of OCD. Just because. Not even the knowledge about the temporary nature of this blissful and life-positive state could interfere with my emotions. I suddenly understood it: The now is what counts. I mean, it always does - but to get the message, your antennas need to be adjusted. And whatever this stuff did to my brain, said signal was the only one I could receive.
No need to procrastinate, no need to replace the dreaded actions with something more recreational - my enjoyment that independent from my actions, as it was anchored in my intoxicated mind itself. This must be what having the cake and eating it must feel like. I was rewarded for cheating, getting results without the perception of doing hard work - hell, I was glad that there was a challenge ready to be tackled by my confidence to turn the tides, usually subject to the gravity of my deficiencies.
As I reached the delighting plateau of the substance' psychoactive effect curve - which last between 2 and 4 hours - the striking automaticity of my actions switched my cognitive perspective into 3rd person mode: I became an observer of myself, watching how a human being transformed the environment into a place suiting his needs and aspirations, actualizing potential channeled through newfound optimism that expanded into his material surroundings. Someone turned on the windshield wipers, making me see clearly where to go. More importantly, I was able to circumnavigate all the temptations I normally crashed into.
I was not what I imagined a “hard drug” user to be. In fact, if it weren’t for the lack of intoxication, my sober self exemplified many of the clichés the junkie existence is known for: Being a sloth with no responsibilities living on the cost of others. Now, though, engagement drove me to conquer the chaotic fabric of my personal realm, transforming the damn mess into something beautiful. The papers, the dirty clothes, the broken gadgets - the physical manifestations of those dreaded tasks I neglected for days or weeks at a time appeared in front of my eyes, and all they made me feel was a gratifying need to give them the attention they deserved.
After a problem was processed, a thrilling anticipation for the next challenge arrived in my mind. I couldn’t await what part of the gargantuan mission to turn my life a better one would follow. This was accompanied by what can only be described as the opposite of depression: A sense of joy, meaning and satisfaction - the irresistible desire to get things done. I became a servant to a self-imposed responsibility of improving my life. A goal whose every aspect started feeling attainable, thanks to a pill not different in appearance from a multivitamin.
At around six hours in, the effects slowly faded. No gruesome “comedown”, just a sense of melancholy that I inevitably gonna fall into the same behavioral patterns I so triumphantly emerged from. But then again, I did in those six hours what I couldn’t bring myself to do in six months. Time became relative, and for the first time in years, I was confident that there’s enough of it.
Existential Pain Reliever
Truth be told, I was flabbergasted about this aspect of life’s unfairness, intrinsic to the privilege of access to such drugs and knowing about their existence. While it felt great to be on the privileged side, I was in shock how only my lack of inhibition allowed me to get there. What a mighty stark contrast to the deathly downwards spiral that I was sliding down so numbly just a day ago! Not the best lesson for embracing a protestant work ethic, but a prime example for the consequentialist can’t argue with success principle.
The project was a success, I concluded. But why?
What I needed was a justification for embracing the suffering that comes along with any strivings and the mental resistance they induce: a why. As Nietzsche put it:
He who has a why can bear almost any how.
As it turns out, Adderall provides you the feeling of a why on a silver palette. It answers the same old question in the form of transcendental intuition that the most profound inspirational quote can’t inform you about; it answers the question for the meaning of life by making asking for it obsolete. With the drug coldly replacing my need for an organically construed version of a why, I became an effective and efficient version of myself. Instead of perceiving my environment as the thing reminding me of my powerlessness and failures, I began looking at it if it were pure potential that could be shaped by my newfound will to change things for the better.
Not only did I experience wanting to get things right, newfound optimism lead me to view my room in the light of what is possible; that everything could be better - more efficient, more comfortable, more beautiful. A vision that was fuelled by what could be best described as a divine sense of anticipation.
“That must be some addictive stuff", you might now guess. And you would be right. Which is also why it works so well.
So, let’s do away with all the new-agey-ness and take a look at the pharmacological action behind the scenes, which I’m glad to explain to the best of my abilities:
The common denominator of anything considered addictive is this very ability to light up the parts of your brain that are responsible to generate a feeling of motivation - the wanting that's followed by your actions. It is attributed to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which exerts its action by acting as a signaling molecule in the synaptic cleft, the space connecting neurons. Adderall - a mixture of amphetamine salts - artificially increases the amount of this endogenous chemical in the brain, which has a profound effect on one's mood: It makes you anticipate something great - the fuel of the engine that drives your actions, known as motivation.
It usually emerges whenever awareness of progressing towards a goal occurs, propelling you to proceed - but it’s not the reward itself. In fact, there have to be at least two different kinds of pleasure. One that comes with reaching the goal and the other one to get you there, or rather, to not give up. If you liked everything and didn’t want anything, you wouldn’t reach the most primitive goals. And if you wanted everything but didn’t like anything, well, your reward system would lead you astray very quickly, as illustrated in extreme cases of drug addiction.
Dopamine is about mastery and expectation and confidence. It’s “I know how things work; this is going to be great.” In other words, the pleasure is in the anticipation of reward, and the reward itself is nearly an afterthought (unless, of course, the reward fails to arrive, in which case it’s the most important thing in the world). If you know your appetite will be sated, pleasure is more about the appetite than about the sating.
In other words, Adderall gives you something to look forward to - even though you couldn’t see it otherwise.
Though most recreationally used psychoactive compounds of the stimulant category share this mechanism of action, some of them do it in a more sledgehammer-y fashion than others, making even cocaine comparatively mild to the amphetamine derivative that is Thor's hammer aka methamphetamine. Outside of a psychiatric context, these drugs often get discussed in a derogatory manner - even though their proclaimed utility as a productivity consultant is self-evident, making the whole double standard around them a perfect example of cultural hypocrisy.
It’s for a reason that stimulants have an unfading popularity by people under high cognitive pressure, including students, cooks and businessmen alike. Stimulants do improve executive function, undoubtedly a crucial asset in self-imposed endeavors requiring continuously intense investing of resources, such as time and energy, which under normal physiological circumstances are dependent on a mental frame that opens the gates for the flow of motivational energy. It's also no suprise that these are compromised in depressed people for a variety of reasons.
In fact, this power of psychostimulants to make their user's life feel manageable again made them an attractive choice of antidepressants back in the 50s and 60s. It was a time when Ritalin and Benzedrine (a drug very similar to Adderall) were regarded as an efficient tool to treat people's inability to face life. Until neither psychiatrists nor pharmaceutical companies could deny the one inevitable drawback of their long-term effects any longer, namely tolerance to the drug. The credit goes to the body's homeostatic response system, leading to a state where consuming the drug becomes necessary to reach approximately baseline levels of motivation after a few weeks of use.
Nevertheless, there’s a kind of real world applicability that classical antidepressants lack, which primarily care around increased feelings of wellbeing. Stimulants, on the other hand, rather than making one more content, they optimize the functioning in a frame built by a sober mind - at least that’s my experience with them. If you know why your life is shitty, but lack the enthusiasm to change the things you know need change, they can inject some life back into your veins. It’s thus no wonder that even today some of the antidepressant medications prescribed by default do fit more aptly into the category of stimulants, like the amphetamine-related Bupropion, better known by its brand name "Wellbutrin". In some cases, it is co-administered with SSRIs for a more complete pharmacodynamic effect profile.
Caffeine - a drug on par in its ubiquitousness only with alcohol and nicotine - exhibits similar stimulative properties, although with a lot less of a motivational rush and fewer chronic side effects. It should therefore come as no surprise that the world's most used drug lowers suicide risk significantly, infusing psychology with meaning - the drive that makes pursuing goals seem worthwhile.
Put a little bit more prosaic by Mr Camus:
“Should I kill myself? Or get a cup of coffee?”
Meaning in a Bottle
Taking Adderall reminded me of my own efficacy, something I dearly lacked at this point in my life. It calmed the perfect storm of learned helplessness that wreaked havoc on my life: Bad experiences, perhaps some disadvantageous genetic properties and my own self-culpable, bodily neglect. For the first time in months, I could look back on the day being glad about my accomplishment. This might seem benign in many people’s eyes, but not in mine. My room was cleaned up, and I would enjoy to be its inhabitant again.
On the other hand, I opened pandora’s box. What is one supposed to do with the knowledge that you can buy meaning in a bottle? What if you didn't have to find your passion, but could choose it? Would it be a relief, or a pressure?
Sadly, this question isn’t talked about very often. Most often, the discussion defaults to the benefits for people who are using the substance to rebalance their own brain. However, experiencing a lack of motivation can be just as easily explained the things you wouldn’t like to do - lack of interest is indistinguishable from lack of concentration. In fact, I have no doubt that this is most often the case for people who don’t experience the sense of meaning they crave. Although that's certainly not all of it
Therefore, I’ won't deny the moral questionability of those drugs or endorse their use. It’s a fair question to pose whether it’s ethical to use these substances as the fuel needed to engage with a task, or life, for that matter - as life is nothing more than a continuous chain of often bothersome tasks. I don’t know the answer and advise anyone to proceed with caution. Their big danger lies in their seduction to create a chronic habit, loosening your dependence on having a value frame from which your motivations arrive, which might compromise your character development. It’s a valid argument and you might arrive at the same conclusion as Jordan Peterson, saying “Don’t make the thing that guides you ill.” Scientific American is outspoken about this issue as well.
Then again, the question whether to do something or not to always involves contemplating the outcome the pursuit could eventually result in. While two parties could equally enjoy the consequences of a set amount of work, their ability to channel motivation from visualizing positive consequences as well as delay instantaneous gratifications that are in conflict with long term goals differs substantially. This fundamentally different capacity of goal-oriented behavior, known as trait conscientiousness, could be regarded as an advantage in modern society which largely operates in long time frames, at least in the context of our economical confines.
For if personality is nothing more than a set of biologically ingrained proclivity to exhibit certain behavioral patterns, it’s sensible to conclude that its acute alteration can increase one’s chances to progress within the frame laid out by it. Which we of course already do, since it’s basically the incentive behind the psychiatrist drug distribution - to level the playing field. That leaves us with the question why anyone who perceives his ability to pay attention as substandard would need to be labeled as disordered, before he or she can legally obtain said substances.
To present you a potential answer to the question - why people first have to be victimized by themselves and others - before they can follow their desire to compensate or enhance their psychology through the means of a drug, I’d like to refer to Jonathan Haidt’s take on morality, who had put his finger on a fascinating human quality:
The moral implications of crimes without a victim.
Our culture endorses both—relentless self-improvement as well as authenticity—but we often escape the contradiction by framing self-improvement as authenticity. Just as gaining an education means struggling for twelve to twenty years to develop one’s intellectual potential, character development ought to involve a lifelong struggle to develop one’s moral potential. A nine-year-old child does not stay true to herself by keeping the mind and character of a nine-year-old; she works hard to reach her ideal self, pushed and chauffeured by her parents to endless after-school and weekend classes in piano, religion, art, and athletics. As long as change is gradual and a result of the child’s hard work, the child is given the moral credit for the change, and that change is in the service of authenticity.
But what if there were a pill that enhanced tennis skills? Or a minor surgical technique for implanting piano virtuosity directly and permanently into the brain? Such a separation of self-improvement from authenticity would make many people recoil in horror.
If Haidt didn’t know about this factoid, It must be one of life’s ironies. There is a pill for enhanced tennis skill. And we do, in fact, already give it to nine year olds. You might know it. Its name came about as its inventor noticed improved tennis skills in his spouse - user of the drug - who promptly served as the eponym for the ADHD drug methylphenidate, now known as Ritalin.
I found myself in an Escape-Room like adventure, with the Room being my shitty life at that moment in time. And while I got out, I’m not sure to this day whether I was playing by the rules. Or whether the idea of any rules are just part of the puzzle to keep you trapped, a meta-game that you don’t even know you’re playing.
Ultimately, I don’t have any answer to the question whether you should integrate cognitive performance enhancing drugs into your life. So, let’s end this with a rather pragmatic stance, taken by Arnold Schwarzenegger in regards to his steroid use:
If it’s there, you might as well use it.
Disclaimer: The author cannot, in any way whatsoever, be held responsible for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages. This article is based on fictional accounts and does not represent an endorsement of the author for the use of psychoactive substances.