A friend of mine recently confided she'd been taking speed — Adderall from someone else's prescription. Upper-middle-class and in her mid-40s, she's not how you'd picture a speed freak. However, she's back in graduate school among the younger generation and therefore on the front lines of a new dilemma.
Research shows that on some college campuses the use of cognitive enhancers — drugs used to treat ADHD — hovers at around 25 percent. Students report that they aren't using it to get high, but to improve concentration. Having grown up in the echo effects of the '60s and '70s, I find this, well, odd.
If one of the prevailing ethical questions in my youth was whether or not to use drugs for recreation, then the question for this generation is whether or not to use drugs for professional development.
Hypochondria gets in the way of all of my drug use. For a headache, I take one Tylenol then wait and see. But after my friend's confession, I was drawn to buzz on smart drugs — that speed up the brain, help you focus, cut anxiety. Who was taking them? Why? To what effect? And, more personally, what would they do to me? I don't have ADD or ADHD. I've always thought I had an opposite disorder, that I call AFD — Attention Fixation Disorder. Still, I'm human and, at 40, not as energetic as I once was. Could smart drugs make me a better writer?
I decided to take a (very) informal poll.
A playwright who'd taken something to help her focus could only clean her desk.
Another writer said she wrote her best work on Lexapro — to treat depression and anxiety. The side effects weren't worth it.
An architecture student used other people's meds to pull all-nighters, saying, "I never drew a straighter line."
I told my husband he should test a smart drug. "Maybe if it goes well, I'll test it."
"Aren't you the same woman badmouthing baseball players for taking steroids, who had a fit when Danica Patrick admitted she'd take drugs if she thought it would give her an edge?" I was. It hit me now that athletes are relatively new to enhancement drugs. Writers have been enhancing their mental states since at least Rig Veda, the Hindu Holy Book from around 1000 B.C., that cites soma, a holy substance used to stimulate higher levels of consciousness. Note Coleridge taking laudanum; Kesey on acid; Stephen King writing with bloody tissues up his nose from his coke addiction.
Are steroids for healthy athletes different because juiced players deceive the public and change the playing field? Didn't we think that Cujo was derived from King's naturally twisted mind and unique internal drive?
Of course, writers are famously imbalanced. Drugs that alter brain chemistry, wisely prescribed, save lives — for people from all walks of life. Likewise, legal steroid is important to health.
I'm talking about drugs that give a healthy person an edge. To dope or not to dope is the new dilemma, one that's becoming an ethical dilemma for all of us. If the average person takes drugs to achieve then all playing fields have been altered. How do we compete in an era of escalating achievement when the competition — even sitting in the adjoining cubicle — is juiced?
The day after my friend's drug confession, I flew to Johns Hopkins to visit my father, suffering from a rare debilitating syndrome. I'd decided that illegal use of cognitive enhancers was as wrong in my case as it is for athletes on steroids, as well as grad students jockeying for straight A's, but I couldn't say why — not deeply.
But, sitting at his bedside, faced with the possibility of his death, all of my convictions were upended. Overtaken with fear, I wanted all researchers and doctors to be taking high doses of cognitive enhancers. If humans can be smarter and save lives, let's be smarter and save lives.
Then, sensing my panic, my father said, "It's going to be okay, no matter what. I've gotten more love than I deserve."
After I left the hospital, this sentiment kept returning to my mind. It made me wonder why people want to achieve so desperately in the first place. Is it that if we don't think we deserve love, we do something to make ourselves worthy, like win MVP, write the great American novel, pull the all-nighter for the A or get the pay bump?
My father wasn't talking about the love derived from achievements. He was talking about the love you get for just being born, for sitting on the sofa or lying in your hospital bed. Being loved — regardless of achievement, in light of natural limitations — is what we really want or at least what I want. At the end, I want to be able to say I got more than I deserve — not recognition, but love.
Maybe it's too late to lighten up on each other, ourselves (and certainly, cognitive enhancers are here to stay for better and for worse). If we could, though, it might be one true way to live — maybe not smarter, faster, or stronger — but better.
Julianna Baggott is a novelist and poet who lives in Tallahassee. Her most recent novel is The Pretend Wife, under her pen name Bridget Asher.