Drugs for Grades

The tame, constricted rebellion that is Adderall addiction.

The sorry state of teenage rebellion today
The sorry state of teenage rebellion today

Photograph by Wavebreakmedia Ltd./iStockphoto.

Even the phrase “the study drug” seems mildly contradictory, an oddly tame and constructive form of rebellion, a prescription drug abuse with a very modest, one could say almost praiseworthy goal: to concentrate a little better on a paper or test.

When I read the New York Times’ recent piece on teens and Adderall, which began with an engaging description of a boy snorting the contents of the pills in a parked car before his SATs, it felt a little hyped, like one of the alarming trend pieces the New York Times periodically likes to run about teenagers doing this or that. (And, in fact, they ran a strikingly similar piece about college students in 2005.) But in a companion piece in which the kids described their brushes with Adderall “in their own words” their anxious, moderate, type-A accounts cut a little closer to the spirit of the times.

Before I go any further, I should say that I do not mean to minimize anybody’s struggle with “the study drug.” Nor do I mean to romanticize drug use in general. I grew up in a house with an older sister who was a heroin addict, so I do not entertain any lofty or ungrounded fantasies about the glamour of drugs. However it does seem a little sad, or at least telling, that one of the prevailing vices of current teenagers is so relatively wholesome and so circumscribed.

The world these kids describe, the pressure to do well on a test, the looming of college admissions seems so narrow, so conventional, so devoid of the grandeur and delusion we associate with adolescent excess and aspiration. A 16-year-old girl from the Midwest writes, in a sentence that accidentally flirts with satire: “I found a complete surge of adrenaline and ecstasy flow through my brain as I tackled factoring, science notes and a four page paper …” The excess they are describing, the drug abuse they are engaging in, is so functional, so alpha, so relatively healthy and goal-oriented, in its own way, that it almost (and I do mean “almost”!) makes one nostalgic for the old-fashioned wildness or self-destructiveness of a different crop of teenagers.

The comparison looms in part because the kids lapse into the melodramatic language of drug addiction: “Something inside me that sparked the drive to be independently successful died, and I swallowed the pills.” It would be almost reassuring if these kids were chasing visions, or art, or, you know, freedom from bourgeois constraint, or escape from searing inner pain, and not just trying to get into a slightly better school.

One feels a perverse glimmer of nostalgia for the blazing vision and crazy ranting of Norman Mailer in his controversial 1957 essay, “The White Negro,” in which he is talking about the existential dread and carpe diem-ism of the post-war, drug-doing generation:

Who knows that if our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the State as l’univers concentrationnaire, or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled (at what damage to the mind and the heart and the liver and the nerves no research foundation for cancer will discover in a hurry) , if the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.

Were he writing now, of course, the “rebellious imperatives of the self” would lead one to snort a $3 Adderall in the parking lot before your SATS, to the “ecstasy” of factoring and science notes. As the rise of “the study drug” rather beautifully reveals, in our current landscape Mailer’s distinction between death by conformity and escape from death by conformity have collapsed into the same thing: the rebels, the pursuers of other people’s prescription drugs, are seeking only greater conformist success.  

The thrill of the illegal, the frisson of the forbidden, in the case of the study drug, is pretty tepid and constrained. The truth is that the line between the kids who are prescribed this drug and the kids who buy or borrow it is probably fairly thin to imaginary. Many describe how easy it is to get the drug (one says, “I know how to say the right things to the psychologist to get the diagnosis,”) and when one thinks about it, what self-respecting teenager doesn’t feel distracted by small problems, or strong feelings, or Facebook, and in a certain way couldn’t “ attention deficit disorder” be a pretty good generic developmental description of those years?  

One of the kids who writes to the New York Times is angry. She says, “I am sick of the expectation of a ‘perfect’ kid.” This gets at the heart of the rebellion we have stolen from these kids: even their drug abuse is in the pursuit of perfection.