Featured: Top of Home Page

Generation Abracadabra

Jett Stone

In our mile-a-minute society, many students rely on the magic of amphetamines to keep up with their studies. Are they ultracompetitive alpha dogs, or mere cheaters?

“I have never been Christian, but as I was coming down from Adderall, I wanted to read the Bible from cover to cover.” -- Joanna Chiu, a University of British Columbia student on experimenting with psychostimulant Adderall in an article in her school newspaper.

Note from the editor: actual names have been changed.

On a break from studying fluid mechanics, Stanton, an engineering major, stood shivering outside the library, taking long drags on a Parliament Light. Shaking from anxiety as much as from the cold, he waited for his cigarette to burn down before returning indoors.

After a few minutes, Stanton, 22, a grizzly-bearded fifth-year senior at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, was back in the Duderstadt Center, a haven for engineering students. The Sixth Edition of Fluid Mechanics and Design and Machinery were strewn on his desk space, awaiting his return.

With bloodshot eyes and tousled hair, wearing a wrinkled flannel suitable for ice-fishing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he fit the caricature of a 2:00AM college insomniac. Only six months away from a degree, his anxiety at a staggering level, he delved into a sea of equations and diagrams for five hours, breaking only for an occasional smoke. After all, it is Stanton versus thousands of other graduating engineers at universities across the country.

In the two weeks prior to midterms, Stanton pulled five all-nighters, but his focus was not the result of old-fashioned concentration. Instead, he was taking Adderall, an amphetamine psychostimulant used to treat attention-deficit disorder.

“You’re looking to find an edge,” Stanton says of his "study drug" usage. “You’re looking to get the study time in more quickly and efficiently than everybody else.” He adds, "If I didn’t have these drugs, I would be forced to get studying done earlier. I can plan to watch TV all day, because I tell myself ‘I don’t need to study now, I’ll work all night and so much harder later.' "

Stanton hasn't been diagnosed with ADHD, but that's not a problem. Despite their designation as “controlled substances” and the strict regulations limiting their dispensation, these drugs are readily available on any college campus for as little as $3 a pill through a flourishing black market, or in many cases, informal exchanges between students.

“Everyone has a friend with a prescription,” Stanton says.

If pills are unavailable through friends, ADHD medications are readily available on the internet. Just try a Google search for “buy Adderall.”

Precise statistics on the number of students who have illegally finagled prescriptions for psychostimulants are unavailable, but the ADHD drug industry is booming. Total sales for ADHD drugs, which were a modest $759 million in 2000, have shot up reaching $3.1 billion in 2004, and nearly $3.7 billion in 2007. Market analysts from Merrill Lynch predict that U.S. ADHD sales will exceed $4 billion by 2010.

In a combined 2006 University of Michigan and Northeastern University web survey, 8 percent of the 4,580 college students surveyed revealed that they illicitly used prescription stimulants, the vast majority choosing Adderall. Various others studies indicate a far larger percentage of psychostimulant abuse -- closer to 36 percent. These abuse cases range from ingesting a 10-milligram pill a half-hour before an exam to snorting copious amounts of Ritalin and partying for hours.

Students' widespread use of psychostimulants bears with it some danger. The cardiovascular risks and possible emergence of “new psychotic or manic symptoms” are marked -- albeit in tiny print -- on labels, and stories about people abusing these medications are becoming increasingly common, especially after a major Canadian recall of Adderall in February 2005 due to a spike in possible cardiovascular-related deaths.

However, outcry over the ethical implications of these drugs in academia has remained surprisingly uncommon. Despite the drugs' prominence on college campus, administrators haven't seemed to pay the issue much mind, let alone push for the sort of major policies that cover alcohol abuse. And it's surprising that students who don’t abuse study drugs aren’t outraged at the competitive advantage being enjoyed by the Stantons at their school. Why aren’t parents fuming with moral outrage and calling for condemnatory action? Where are the serious repercussions? Isn’t this cheating?

As even the most casual follower of sports must have noticed, concern over Human Growth Hormone and anabolic steroids in baseball has reached a frenzy in recent years. Even the U.S. Congress intervened to save the reputation of the sport, commissioning an investigation outing hundreds of steroid-abusing baseball players. Yet study doping has hardly raised comparable concern.

Some psychologists and academics see the amphetamine phenomenon as indicative of a larger trend in our mile-a-minute society to transform one’s brain into machine. It’s hardly a new concept: In the late 19th century, one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis, Josef Breuer, considered the human brain a finely-tuned machine capable of maximizing response time, speed, and strength. Now, with the advent of psychoactive drugs and amphetamines, such a goal no longer a distant target, but a reality that perfectly complements the increasingly competitive and fast-paced nature of American culture. Or at least it seems to psychoanalyst Peter Shabad, author of Despair and the Return of Hope: Echoes of Mourning in Psychotherapy.

“Americans are anti-intellectual and are always action-oriented,” he says. “They are about get it done, get it done, get it done.” This emphasis on winning at all costs has fostered what he calls a “shame-based morality,” which promotes doing whatever is necessary to succeed and avoid failure rather than valuing the quality of success and the ethical code through which it was attained. The law-school matriculation mantra -- "look to your right, the person sitting next to you may not be here at graduation" -- perpetrates this model of student-versus-student cockfighting.

Because class rank contributes to determining one’s internship and post-graduate job opportunities, high-paying prestigious law firms prefer hiring students from the top percent of the class. This creates an environment where scavenging for any academic edge is the norm, and doing anything to stomp an opponent is nothing to be ashamed of. In the academic arena, taking a pill to ratchet up a ranking by a tenth of a point seems almost benign, especially to Jonas, 22, a struggling law student.

“If I could find some pills, I would definitely use them next time,” he says after taking his first-semester tort-law exam at New York Law School. “I don’t care what anybody says. If you don't do everything you can that first year, who knows what will happen? There will always be a race to get ahead until some of the pressure is taken off the student.”

Perhaps Shabad is on to something important when he says that study doping exemplifies the “natural culmination of American capitalism” and the “intensification of the rat race.” Susan, a first year medical student also uses Adderall to study. “I don’t really tell my friends, except maybe for one other person who openly talks about it,” she says. “In college it’s more prevalent and more talked about.”

A self-proclaimed procrastinator, Susan says using a study drug doesn’t have any effect on her actual intelligence. “It doesn’t make me any smarter, and it doesn’t give me any more brain power.” But what it does do is keep her awake and focused so she can plow through thick medical tomes that may have been otherwise used as a stacked headrest.

Chicago-based psychologist and psychotherapist Elaine Kulp says that the “life and death meaning of exams,” and the notion that “all things are fragile and could be destroyed with one bad grade” are what drive anxiety in academia. “If you go into the exam with that attitude, your anxiety is going to be at the ceiling,” she said.

Dr. Ettner describes the faces of patients as they walk into his office -- some exhibiting clear signs of attention disorders and others simply overwhelmed by the competitive spirit of the culture they’ve been reared in. “These kids come in with sad eyes. I feel the transference of the anxiety, and I get anxious myself,” Ettner says. He asks them what they really like to do in an effort to direct them toward where their passion and enthusiasm truly lies.

Perhaps students should answer this question honestly, because integrity -- like attention -- cannot be measured quantitatively. The rise or decline of our nation’s students and future leaders will not be the result of any modern alchemy. But it seems too many have not yet swallowed that pill.





Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.


Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.


Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.


Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.


Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.


Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.