Love Song to a Psychostimulant Print E-mail

Tergrugghen_Flute_Player(Written February 2010)

What is it that’s so annoying about VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab”? It’s the reality show that features the good-souled Dr. Drew who ministers—and really listens—to those fallen stars, mostly talent-less one-hit wonders, throwaway children like Mackenzie Phillips or love-starved sex toys like Heidi Fleiss.

What’s so annoying is their helplessness. Being on drugs or being off drugs doesn’t matter. They can’t function; they’ve got addictive personalities; nothing works. The two stock dramatic bits are will he/she pass the drug test or will he/she bolt before the “treatment” is over. They’re forever unstable because life on drugs or in treatment is a hell of denying the self what it wants. Watching adolescents in adult bodies is the saddest thing of all.

It’s also irksome that the cameras roll on and on, “catching” the celebs off-guard, when, in fact, this clan (Dennis Rodman, Tom Sizemore, et alia) is so media savvy and comeback-minded that it’s obvious they crack up or cry on cue, which is hardly caught-in-the-act. Maybe we should have a show called “Film Rehab” for those who emote only when a camera’s present.

I’d like to sympathize with these lifetime train wrecks who are made and made worse by capacious drug-taking and boozing. But sympathy is meaningless. Any consumption magnifies the problem, not the drug but the personality defect: afraid to trust; scared to be vulnerable, unused to love. Such lacks have been covered over or hidden or placated by meth, pot, coke, Jack Daniels. They need to get free of the drug before they can begin to find out who they are. But as addictive personalities, they are only who they are when they’re high or avoiding self-knowledge. They know it; we know it, and yet, strange as it seems, we tune in every week expecting some other end.

Which hatches a third bothersome thing. The show feels passe. It feels old world, beat, predestined. It feels so Jack Kerouac—the brilliant writer of On the Road, who, drug-free but coffee-addled, typed his masterpiece on a scroll in three weeks, but who died at forty-seven from cirrhosis (a pickled liver) brought on by the ravages of literary fame.

“Celebrity Rehab” doesn’t feel right. At heart, it’s puritanical, locking up the sinners in the postmodern “treatment” stockade, while we and the camera scorn them mercilessly, superiorly. I wonder, is this star-interrupted version of the drug life the best representation my culture can accomplish? Can we never disenable our punitive attitude toward drugs? All this aggrieves me until I read The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder by Stephen Elliott, and my faith in human adaptability to altered states—that drugs serve us, we don’t serve them—is restored.

What is Adderall? A psychostimulant made with amphetamine. Taken in low dosages, it improves attention span, decreases impulsivity, treats attention deficit disorder. And it works quite well, so say its takers. For Stephen Elliott it’s a lifesaver. Or, better, a life-enhancer, a necessary tool in the creative writer’s kit. In 2006, suffering writer’s block, Elliott needed help. After four self-referential novels, a book of real-life masochistic erotica (My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up), and a nonfiction chronicle of the 2004 presidential race, he was dried up, a has-been at 37. He took Adderall, and voilá, wrote a clear-eyed book about a dastardly murder he had an (innocent) link to. In the process, he gets to be Stephen Elliott. That is, in the process of taking a drug, not getting off it.

Elliott, like his shipmates on “Celebrity Rehab,” has had his bad drug days—he runs away from an abusive father at 14, lives in foster homes, turns tricks for money and dope. He’s turned around via writing but, by 2006, he is broke, wandering, prone to suicidal thoughts. A psychiatrist gives him the Adderall; at first he loops back into the drugged state, uncontrollable sweats, night thoughts, taken-to-bed anxiety. But then something happens.

Instead of his life being altered by the drug, Elliott finds that the drug gives him control of his life. Soon, he can work, make court appearances, follow a story, make peace with his crazy father, and understand his affinity for women who chain him up and press their heels in his back. Crazy: on this measured amphetamine, his impulsivity is in check, he has structure. Adderall has put the focus on him, not the high. He’s not escaping himself. He is the self he wants and knows himself to be.

This is a flip on the classic idea of our drug culture, where the high is in contradistinction to everyday life. Drugs offer an altered reality as an escape from the stultifying sameness of suburban drudgery, corporate robotics, bourgeois morality. Drugs make us fun, unpredictable, which is part of their lure and their punishment. Drugs help us battle the conformity and authoritarianism of the anti-individual, anti-creative mass.

Now here’s a drug to bring us out of the Great Recession. It’s especially made for artists, actors, writers, and celebs, who are the toughest clan to bring into the pharmacological fold. American life, where producers are king, requires a drug-ameliorated regularity. Even the edgy outliers like Stephen Elliott can be both functional and high, well-adjusted and bizarre, deadline-able and manic. I think we are at the birth of a new radical culture, with the normalizing of the populace via Prozac, Ambien, and now Adderall. The fully medicated society is here—hard-working and high—still another reason to pass a national health plan that will equalize us all.

Our independent dependence is complete. The point of taking Adderall is to incite steadiness, turn our midnight-to-dawn into nine-to-five, become ego-enabling not ego-obliterating. The point is to be altered into normalcy. Why can’t the graduates of “Celebrity Rehab” be given a copy of Elliott’s book and a year’s supply of Adderall? That should do the trick.