Speed has tripped the light fantastic in America for more than 85 years. From Ritalin and Adderall to the twice-methylated Breaking Bad stuff, speed seduces both overbright founders and scurvy garage-dwellers. But it’s not the drug for right now. Speed is not only deadly; it’s defeatist.
It’s been two sobering years. We’d do well to take stock of what we were blind to in the raciest days of Silicon Valley and the government-as-usual Obama years. When the writer Casey Schwartz gave up Adderall after having it define her youth, she identified deep regrets: “I had spent years of my life in a state of false intensity, always wondering if I should be somewhere else, working harder, achieving more.” America is plenty intense—and it requires more freethinking from its citizens now than ever. It’s time for a reckoning with reality, reflection and reform, principled action. It’s also a time for civil disobedience. As grandiose as Adderall makes some people feel, the history of amphetamine as a drug of subjugation—used to compel obedience in soldiers, dieters, and unruly kids—haunts it.
In 1933, 46 years after Lazăr Edeleanu, a Romanian chemist, fatefully synthesized amphetamine—a mix of mirror-image molecules, levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine—Smith, Kline & French picked it up and sold it as Benzedrine. Wouldn’t you know, enterprising hacker-tweakers soon prised open the inhalers, liberated the speed-soaked cotton strips, and swallowed them.
Benzedrine as an “alertness aid” then shipped out to war. Months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the drug was, quite literally, weaponized. Military commanders, writes Nicolas Rasmussen in On Speed: From Benzedrine to Adderall, greatly feared another humiliating epidemic of “shell shock” like the one that had crippled the Allied armies of World War I. To keep soldiers looking on the bright side of war, armies began provisioning the men with amphetamines. Psychiatrists on the battlefield rechristened shell shock “operational fatigue,” and soldiers were relieved to hear they had a manly sounding physical ailment, eminently treatable with more Benzedrine. Get back out there, Private.
Combat itself was changed by speed. Speedfreak servicemen of the 1940s made for gung-ho, wild-eyed fighters as the drug supplied them with fool’s courage. They hurled themselves into battle where they might otherwise have been held back by less thrilling but more adaptive human traits: anxiety, prudence, conscience. Commanders liked what they saw, and kept their men dosed.
When the soldiers came home, many were addicted, and their wives were the nation’s next good soldiers. They reproduced the logic of the battlefields: They sucked down amphetamines to wage war on bodies—their own. The postwar obsession with thinness developed in tandem with the speed trade. By the end of the ’60s, 9.7 million Americans used prescription amphetamines. Of those, hundreds of thousands were addicted. The everyday tweakers jittered along, subduing their fears and hungers with the pep pills that were now dyed and looked like candy.
In 1968, after speed killed a dieting woman, an investigative journalist for Life magazine, Susanna McBee, published a bombshell exposé about the overprescription of pills for weight loss. McBee made a tour of doctors’ offices, and—after cursory interviews—was able to cop bags and bags of darling little tablets. Of course McBee had no weight to lose. But the drug trade now battened on the styling of female flesh as a disease.
From soldiers to dieters to children. After McBee’s article, and more deaths traced to diet pills, weight-loss speed became more tightly regulated. But speed changed shape. Just as “operational fatigue” and “flesh” had been styled as pathologies, distractibility got a pharmaworld makeover—and became ADHD. Ritalin prescriptions for kids took off in the 1990s. By 2011, 3.5 million children in the US were on stimulants. A recent formulation, Adzenys, is aimed at first graders and up: It’s orange-flavored and melts in your mouth.
Speed can give kids a wonderful A-student experience. Of course parents want their kids to have that. To know the pleasures of conformity is a kind of bliss; those who pretend otherwise must never have feared that their eccentricities would disqualify them from life. But eventually the wandering mind, the hunger, and the anxiety return.
Speed gooses certain receptors to fake a body out, making it feel tight, urgent, self-important. On speed, you tend to embrace monotonous chores, especially asocial or servile ones, like arid sessions of dusting or coding, as the tiny muscles that line the walls of blood vessels contract. Speed also curbs mucus, while relaxing the lungs. So while users have symptoms of fear that may read as excitement, they also breathe easier.
You’d do well to lay off the starch and read some Betty Friedan on the slavery of scut work.
Eventually, though, congestion returns. The mortal coil tightens. When it does, you may wonder: Why am I taking apart iPads and starching sheets? Good question, and you’d do well to lay off the starch and read some Betty Friedan on the slavery of scut work. Also, sleep. But if speed calls you back, it’s because the power to rise to social demands that elude undrugged brains—that just feels too good.
It’s not immoral to want relief from being too slow, scared, and fat—too disappointing to your commanders. But chasing relief with speed could set you up for brain damage and psychosis. Worse, under the guise of fraud liberation, it locks you into life-draining repetition. You think you’re being gloriously “productive”—even if what you’re producing is expense reports and Fortnite kills—without noticing that you’re missing the reasons for being: food, books, reflection, reform, engagement, adventure, rest, and meaningful work.
Why would anyone submit to this? Years ago, I stumbled upon an illustration of meth’s effects in Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. Danny takes a hit and “Tears rose to his eyes. The icy, disinfectant taste at the back of his throat made him feel clean: everything surface again, everything sparkle on the glossy face of these waters which swept like thunder over a cesspool he was sick to death of: poverty, grease and rot.”
I tried Ritalin in graduate school. I did manage term-paper all-nighters under its influence, and stopped eating; I had the sense that people like bosses were pleased with undernourished, industrious me, that I was doing well by them. But the tensing of blood-vessel muscles evidently reads to my body not as euphoria but as a kind of stifled misery, and sometimes I’d mistake my loss of appetite for grief. More precisely: High on speed, I felt as though someone I loved dearly had recently died. Worse still, I felt too important and prolific to mourn, or even care.