Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Magic Pill, or Self-Destruction


Everything runs away, beginning with who you are, and at some indefinable point you come to half understand that the ruthless antagonist is yourself.

Philip Roth, qtd. James Wood



A couple weeks ago, I watched a documentary called "Bigger, Stronger, Faster." This movie struck a nerve inside of me like no other movie has for the last six months. I identified with the director's quest for answers about thorny and controversial issues surrounding self-enhancement drugs. The synopsis for the movie states, "Metaphorically we are a nation on steroids. Is it any wonder that so many of our heroes are on performance enhancing drugs?"

Director Christopher Bell gives a portrait of America as a nation striving to be the best in every sector, especially sports. And then he asks: at what point does our need to be the best clash with doing the right thing? There is an underlying hypocrisy to being the best in America. Oftentimes, winning means lying, cheating, or tweaking the rules.

Which makes one think that steroids are bad; end of story. But the movie challenges our assumptions. In fact, I learned that anabolic steroids are neither as dangerous nor as life-threatening as the government and the media will have us think. It is only with excessive use that these drugs become detrimental, and even then the damage to the body is reversible. However, anabolic steroids and street drugs have long been grouped into the same category. Nobody is denying that there are undesirable side effects to steroids, but the leading scientists confess to a genuine lack of evidence about long-term dangers.

So then steroids and other self-enhancing drugs are okay? Right? The documentary is adept at dismantling each new assumption. Midway through the movie I began to see another side. There seemed to be some problems with using steroids that went beyond the drug itself.

The director interviews his own family to uncover these nuances. Mad Dog, his oldest brother, refuses to grow up. He cannot handle working with his father in the office, and we watch him prepare to leave for L.A. with his girlfriend, where he'll try to become a professional wrestler. He swears by his use of steroids; without them he would be nothing. There is a moment when the oldest brother talks about his dream to become a professional wrestler. Sadness and desperation eke out of his voice, and his monomaniacal conviction to follow his dream sounds slightly ridiculous. Strangely, Mad Dog was the brother I identified with the most. He's chasing something called "greatness".

The director's youngest brother, Smelly, coaches a high school wrestling team. He thinks it's alright to use steroids as long as you are "old enough". But during the movie he decides that he's going to stop taking steroids. His wife has recently had a child and the family has become important to him. He promises his wife he'll quit but later in the documentary he tells the camera he might go back.

I have a confession to make; I'm a recovering drug addict. I took Ritalin and Adderall without a prescription for three years while I was in college. And . . . after watching the documentary I began to justify self-enhancing drugs. The movie had some salient points. What's wrong with taking a drug to perform better? We all do it. Some of us have our coffee in the morning; others need a cigarette; others take their cholesterol medicine. And if Ritalin or Adderall are used in moderation--just like anabolic steroids--there are no real dangers.

Compound these rationalizations with the chance encounter I had with a short article in the New York Times entitled "A Case for Pills to Boost your Brain."

"So then I'm not the only one who thinks it's okay to take Ritalin!"

It wasn't long before I was looking up prices for Ritalin and Adderall on the Internet. Of course I didn't have a prescription, so I would have to order through some shady Mexican pharmacy.



For those who are consumed by the need to be the best, a drug that promises an edge can mean the world. When your ability is your identity, the notion of a magic pill seduces. A couple days ago my best friend told me about a drug called Provigil, which was originally invented to treat narcolepsy. Since its inception in 1998, the drug has found countless uses not only for narcoleptics but for anyone who wants to stay awake and pay attention. Part of this drug's appeal is the surprising absence of side effects. Because it is stimulant-like, and not an actual stimulant, the drug does not cause addiction.

Dr. Joyce Walsleben, director of the New York University Sleep Disorder Center, writes, "Should people just use it because they'll feel better and stay awake? That's a question for society to answer. Is Provigil better than drinking six cups of coffee and getting an ulcer? Is it better to fall asleep and drive into a tree?" (Salon)

Ever since childhood I've dreamed of becoming someone different, someone greater than myself. Even in adulthood I am swayed by a fantasy of sudden transformation. I want to be the best at what I do--not a mediocre nobody. I want to be someone. This urge is intrinsic in humans although we express it in different ways. All of us want to be special, admired, loved, known.

I flirted with the idea of going back on cognitive-enhancing drugs. I sat in front of the computer at 2 a.m. debating whether I should begin taking drugs again. What for?

Well, for one thing, I would like to be more productive. I'm not satisfied with my level of output. To become a great writer, which is my goal, you have to write a lot. You have to write every day, say, five to ten pages, or you'll never improve. I'm simply not writing enough in order to meet this goal of mine. (I tell myself this over and over again. I even feel guilty.) And I'm almost convinced that Ritalin or Adderall or Provigil is the only thing that will transform me.

The next morning, I'm standing by the kitchen counter, preparing a bowl of cereal for breakfast. I hear my girlfriend yell from upstairs, "Mad Dog is dead."

"Who?"

"Mad Dog. From the movie. He died in a rehab center this morning."

It has been nearly three weeks since I saw the documentary, but the characters come back to me in an instant. The searching, conflicted director, the determined, monomaniacal brothers, the broken, defeated parents.

"What happened?" I ask my girlfriend.

"He took too many painkillers."

"Oh--"

Maybe I should reconsider my desire to be the best.

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Update: I recently found a relevant blog post by Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and the Tipping Point.
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Paradox of Dreams



There is a puzzling quotation that opens Herman Hesse's early novel, Demian:

I wanted only to live in accord
with the promptings of my true self.
Why was that so very difficult?


This weekend I met with my mentor, Alane Rollings, in Chicago. Alane is a Southern woman with kindness in her eyes. She has a baby doll face framed by dark curly hair and she carries herself with extreme fragility; but inside is a powerhouse of strength and love. She has been mentoring me in fiction and poetry for ten years now.

One summer after my second year of college I sat in Alane's creative writing workshop surrounded by high school kids who admired me for my passion and intensity. A couple years older than these students, I had already begun treating myself as if I were destined to write fiction, as if nothing in the world could change this basic truth.

Alane also seemed to treat me differently. She enthusiastically pointed out the attention I gave to detail in my short, fantastical pieces. There was a feeling of specialness, a halo of uniqueness, hovering over me in her classroom, and although I appeared confident in my abilities, I needed Alane to prove to myself that my quest to become a writer was not an elusive dream.

At the end of the short summer term, Alane wrote on the back of my final assignment--a ten-page short story--that she'd be willing to read another 50-100 pages of the same story. I read those words and my heart sank. Before leaving the classroom, she reassured me that she meant it. My dream could become a reality if I wanted it badly enough.

What happened after that is a long story. I went back to college and became addicted to drugs. I never wrote another page of the short story that Alane praised in front of my classmates. The rest is told in my Novel of Life.

I don't know what dreams look like to other people. I don't know if some people allow themselves to dream as vividly I do. Maybe it's a matter of temperament. Some of us are brought up to be more practical, more responsible. Others meticulously cultivate their irrational side.

My mother never allowed me to have a full-time job when I was in high school. She grew up in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and knew what it was like to work hard and be poor. Without an education, she became a fashion consultant and then a clothing designer for Sears in the 1970s. My mother never stopped working until she met my father; and then she went back to school and became an oil painter.

My father was born in Baghdad, Iraq. At twenty years old he left home for compulsory duty in the Iraqi National Army under president Saddam Hussein. Since childhood he was following his mother's wishes to become a doctor. He worked as a doctor in the army for two years and then was granted a rare, once-in-a-lifetime pass to leave the country.

I believe my father never got to follow the "promptings of his true self". His mother fiercely directed him into medical school in Iraq because it was a stable, higher-paying profession and something my grandmother always wanted to become herself. But my father loved literature and for the rest of his life he would recall the hours he spent alone fervidly reading European novels and magazines from the United States.

A father's dreams are easily passed down to his son. Through this natural process, I inherited my father's lost dreams. And here, it would be nice to say, "Just like my father became a doctor, I became a writer and everyone lived happily ever after." But life is not a fairy-tale.

Alane and her husband Richard Stern seemed happy last weekend when my girlfriend and I visited them at their Hyde Park house. A small house with brown paint and blue shutters, it was built during the World's Fair in Chicago, nearly 80 years ago.

Alane directed us into her living room that faced a large window. The overcast clouds caused the living room to grow dim. Still I could see an infinite amount of interesting things on the walls, miniature pictures, framed sketches and small illustrations; and on the side tables, lots of old books rising up everywhere. The wallpaper had an antique quality to it, but it was well preserved and without a speck of dust. The house reminded me, in fact, of just what it would look like going down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland:

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything: then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves: here and there she saw maps and pictures hung on pegs.

I was surprised to see Richard in such lively spirits. He overflowed with an autumnal vigor, his eyes sparkling with interest. He remarked, "Fantastic!" after either my girlfriend or myself told him a piece of news about ourselves. But I was more interested in hearing about his life. He told us a story about Borges whose apartment they visited in Argentina. It seemed like a dream to hear a personal story about a man universally worshiped in the world of letters. Here was Richard Stern, exactly the same age as Borges in 1979, telling me how Borges directed him to the shelves and "pointed out the exact location of the book he wanted read to him even though he was blind".

(As a side note, I discovered a book about Borges on Amazon, in which Richard recounts this exact same story in an essay entitled Borges on Borges.)


To believe your dreams is a daring, dangerous quest, very often plainly irrational. Think of Don Quixote.

Before going to Alane's house, I had gotten into an argument with my father. Rather, my father expressed his disagreement with my lifestyle (i.e. writing and not having a full-time job). I'd heard the lecture before and so I buffered it with my own peremptory defense, but most of the points I raised were useless.

Why was it so very difficult?

It was so very difficult because my parents unwittingly raised me this way. It was so very difficult because there are conflicting realities in this world. Herman Hesse, I'm torn between what is true to me and what is true to those around me.

My father has never been an illogical or preposterous man. On the contrary, he wants his son to be self-sufficient and financially stable. He wants me, more or less, to embody what Emerson talks about in that great essay on man, "Self-Reliance."

And I want that for me too, but I also have this irrepressible drive to emulate Richard Stern, Jorge Luis Borges, Alane Rollings, and Herman Hesse. My dream is to accomplish what they have accomplished in their brief time on this earth.

But my father has a point that I always seem to forget, "Dreaming takes place in the future; while living is the here and now."

Toward the end of our visit at Alane's house, I broke into a soliloquy about my past. I shouldn't have said another word. As Richard remarked in his essay on meeting Borges, "We talked non-stop for two hours, literature, history, politics, jokes." I too thought our time had passed quickly and enjoyably. But something possessed me in those final moments and I blurted out:

"My father always wanted me to succeed. My father is a surgeon, and I had this . . . this need to perform, to outperform my peers. I took mental enhancements, drugs like Ritalin, to become better than the rest of my classmates . . ."

I went on, unable to stop myself, "And the Novel of Life, this project that I'm working on, it's a work of archeology, I'm digging into my past and finding a lost civilization . . ."

I had nearly become delirious explaining myself to the room, and all I can remember is Alane, and then Richard, repeating the dreadful word "civilization". They repeated it as if it meant something, but to me it meant nothing and I didn't know why I had even said it. It was ridiculous to declare in front of a celebrated author that I was digging up a "civilization" with my "art". A civilization of what? Myself?

Alane led us to the front door and told us where to find the Coop Bookstore on the University of Chicago campus. As I walked away from the brown house with blue shutters, I kept replaying the blunder in my mind, and I kept saying to my girlfriend, "Didn't I sound stupid? Didn't I screw it all up in the end?"

"No, no," she said. "You sounded fine. You sounded intelligent. You were fine."

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