Just yesterday, I was contacted by a drug treatment center called Steps to Recovery. Amy, one of their staff writers, had written an interesting and informative article about the prevalence of Adderall abuse and addiction amongst college students seeking to improve their mental, cognitive and athletic performance levels. Adderall, it turns out, is a psychoactive drug, a stimulant and cognitive function enhancer, whose principal use is in the treatment of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). However, because it enhances certain memory functions as well as cognitive performance, it is commonly used, and abused, by college students, especially right before exams and term paper deadlines. The drug seems great, the ideal solution to make the grade, but there are hidden dangers and drawbacks to its use, both nutritional/physiological as well as psychological, and the drug often takes its abusers off into precarious and unforeseen directions. For the past couple of years, I have been based in Tucson, Arizona, a college town, and so, this drug and addiction issue seemed to hit particularly close to home.
The Social Symbiosis of Drug Dependency and Abuse
If one takes a little stroll down through the pages of history, one can find interesting case histories of how psychoactive drugs have been used, in many ingenuous ways. There is the ritual use of hallucinogens, or entheogens, like Ayahuasca in the Amazon or the Peyote cactus amongst the Native Americans of Mesoamerica and the Southwest in shamanic journeying ceremonies. In a darker vein, there is the use of addictive drugs to enslave or oppress a nation or a people by a foreign colonial power, as in the Chinese Opium Wars perpetrated by the British around the turn of the last century. But what seems to be the prevalent dynamic, in any given nation, culture or subculture, is a kind of peculiar social symbiosis between that nation, society, culture or subculture and their prevalent drugs of choice. For example, why the predilection for stimulants and amphetamines amongst the Nazis? Because when you’re riding high on them, you’re all pumped up and feeling like the Master Race! The drug of choice of an individual, or a society or subculture, says a lot about the underlying imbalances, fixations or pathologies that are at work in it.
In more traditional societies, the use of mind altering drugs, as in the examples cited above, tends to be kept within a certain circumscribed religious or ritual context and niche, and abuse of the drug for other purposes, and in a general context, seems to be relatively rare. But in these traditional societies, there is also a strong family and social structure, in which the more addictive, dark or destructive aspects of human nature tend to get channeled in more innocuous ways. But within the modern world there has been tremendous social change and upheaval, in which the traditional support structures have degraded or broken down to a large extent. In today’s fast paced modern world, it seems like people don’t want to take the time or to be bothered with the inner psychological and spiritual work on themselves that is often necessary in life, and are rushing around looking for the quick fix. And ironically, the chemical fixes or solutions that they find don’t wind up being quick fixes at all, but rather things that complicate and drag out the necessary work of healing, transformation and recovery.
I have seen, in the people I have known around me in life, many examples of drugs being used as a “quick fix” by well meaning people, which later led to huge problems. A lady friend of mine, who is quite rebellious and independent by nature, told me that her mother would just pop her a benzodiazipene drug to calm her down as a kid, as a kind of instant substitute for proper parenting; this led to an addiction that was very hard for her to beat. When I was in Romania, I met a young lady who was very focused and intent on getting into the national music conservatory whose mother, as a quick fix substitute for proper nutrition – and parenting as well, perhaps – would give her a chemical sedative to calm her nerves before a big performance or audition. After I lectured her on the nutritional importance of fresh fruits and vegetables and a sound, balanced diet in the health and wellbeing of the nervous system, she protested that that was all fine and dandy, but the cold, hard reality of it all was that fresh fruits and vegetables happened to be one of the more expensive food categories at the food markets of economically strapped post-communist Romania.
Here, back in the USA, we may not have the same conditions of economic deprivation to contend with, but there are other deleterious forces at work. Everyone’s familiar with the “Ritalin Generation” – a whole generation of kids who, all too often, were slapped with a diagnosis of ADHD and given drugs that would conveniently mask or manage their symptoms and make them more docile or compliant. A friend of mine, the mother of such a child, complained to me that too many children, perhaps even most of them these days, are pathologized and given a medical diagnosis, and the drugs to boot. Imagine if Einstein, who could easily have been diagnosed with ADD, were numbed down with Ritalin – we might not have the Theory of Relativity. Or, if Mozart, whose behavior was also quite precocious and unmanageable, and left a lot to be desired, had also been “managed” and turned into a placid zombie – the world might not have his prodigious musical creations, and would be culturally a lot poorer. Yes, pathologize a hard to manage child who doesn’t fit, and lude them out with drugs as a quick fix to avoid taking the extra time and effort necessary to help them cultivate their extraordinary gifts. Many times, and this is often symbolized in spiritual allegory and world mythology, a hideous or threatening monster guards a precious gift or treasure.
Then there’s also the allegorical symbolism of the genie getting out of the bottle, or the mad scientist whose creation runs amok. Once these drugs and inventions of the pharmaceutical industry are out in circulation, they may wind up being used, either rightly or wrongly, constructively or destructively, for purposes other than that for which the drug was developed. And no matter how hard you try to control access to the substance, it seems, it always gets out into these illicit and unintended venues. And such seems to be the case with Adderall.
Filling the Hole, Remedying the Deficiency
Drugs are the quick fix; they’re the instant remedy that is used to fix what is perceived as personal inadequacies or shortcomings, or to plug up what we feel to be the holes or deficiencies within us. A Native American medicine man once explained to me that there is, all too often, the looming gap or chasm, that big hole that we feel within between what we are, and what we feel we should be – and there ain’t enough sex, drugs or rock ‘n’ roll in the world to fill up that huge hole. That takes more time, patience and inner work on oneself, which seems to be in very short supply these days. Sure, there is the psychological and spiritual side of the holes and deficiencies we all face in our lives, but all too often, and perhaps virtually always, there is a huge nutritional dimension to that hole as well. Depressive bouts and mood swings, for example, can often be linked to the roller coaster ride of blood sugar instability. Take an inner psychological and spiritual approach and reach out to a Higher Power on the twelve steps to recovery, but at the same time, do something, whatever you can, to improve your diet and nutritional status as well. Nutritionists often like to point out that there is no such clinical entity as a deficiency of a psychoactive or mood altering drug, but there are definite deficiencies and imbalances in things like blood sugar and adrenaline levels, as well as neurotransmitters, and that these can often be traced back to nutritional causes. Many pharmaceutical drugs have been shown to create nutritional deficiencies, so you can be getting into a vicious circle of mounting deficiency and dependency.
If you’re going to use a substance as a crutch, or as a hurdle to get you over a performance challenge in your life, it is always better to use a substance that is more natural and less toxic. You can arrange the possible options that you have for using a substance to aid you in a kind of continuum from the very synthetic, extreme and toxic at one end to the relatively natural, nontoxic and innocuous at the other end. Let’s take stimulants, for example: At the extreme and toxic end you would have amphetamines and pharmaceutical stimulants or “uppers”; then, you would have caffeine and other stimulants; and finally, a gentle stimulant that is not as sleep depriving as caffeine, like Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguayensis) on the most natural and innocuous end of the spectrum. But even this most natural and innocuous option should not be construed as a substitute for proper diet, nutrition and exercise. There are also medicinal herbs, called Nervines, which act as general tonics and balancers to the nervous system. Examples would be Skullcap, Valerian, Gotu Kola,Passion Flower, Damiana and Royal Jelly. These can go a long way as part of a nutritional and health regimen to heal and rebalance the nervous system. The herbal supplement user must also beware that the herb is being used properly, and not abused. An herb that has made the headlines in recent years as being commonly abused as a stimulant is Ephedra, or Mahuang – a Chinese herb that is traditionally used not as a stimulant or energy tonic, but as a remedy for asthma and respiratory tract infections, for short term acute use only.
Greek Medicine on Drug Abuse
In Greek Medicine, there is an intimate relationship between inner predisposition and outer pathogenic agents or factors, including the potential for drug abuse. Simply stated, it states that a pathogenic factor or agent will not be invited in unless the individual or host has an inner predisposition or weakness towards it. And although everyone has their own unique individual constitutional nature and temperament, there are four basic constitutional types, or pure types, from which each individual’s constitutional makeup is composed and derived. When it comes to the potential for drug abuse, two basic dynamics seem to come into play: Either the individual, according to his or her dominant nature or temperament, will crave a drug that feeds or aggravates that nature and is congruent with it, leading to further imbalance, or the drug is sought out as a crutch to remedy shortcomings of a certain constitutional nature or type, where it may be unduly aggravated or imbalanced in a certain individual.
Let’s take stimulants, for example: People of a fiery, Choleric temperament like to seek out thrills and excitement, and are prone to using stimulants to feed this craving for thrills and adventure; this can then consume them, and their energy and vitality, leading to burnout and exhaustion. Such an individual needs to learn constructive moderation and purpose in their search for challenges and adventure. On the other extreme, people who are overly sluggish and Phlegmatic in nature may be attracted to stimulants for the opposite reason – just to be able to drag themselves out of bed in the morning, and give themselves a much needed “kick in the pants”, or a wake up call. Such an individual will find that, over time, the stimulants deplete his or her energy even further, and that the post-stimulant crashes get lower and lower. Time to learn moderation, or to seek out more natural and innocuous substitutes for the hard drugs.
Those of a Nervous or Melancholic temperament can often be plagued by feelings of nervousness, depression or anxiety, and take sedatives or mood elevators to remedy these perceived defects in their inner psychological makeup. On the other end of the spectrum, those Sanguine types who like to follow the pleasure principle often find themselves attracted to “feel good” drugs that induce states of heightened sociability or euphoria to kick what is already the keynote of their inner natures up a notch – or even many notches. Often, the up / down mood roller coaster is linked to similar concurrent swings in things like blood sugar levels. And so, food and diet should be your first medicine or mode of therapy, to stabilize those blood sugar levels. Even candy and sugar can be a feel good drug for many, many people, and has all too often been used as a baby pacifier, with disastrous results for one’s dietary and eating habits later on in life.
Herbs and herbal medicines are often used as an adjunct to dietary therapy when the latter is insufficient to do the job, but they should never be used instead of, or as a substitute for, a sound, balanced diet and good nutrition and eating habits. Then, herbs can essentially become no better than drugs in the way that they are used.
In my website, I advocate Philosophical Counseling as a holistic, drugless substitute for psychotherapy, but most philosophical counselors agree that if an individual is way out of balance in their core bodily functions, and has a hard time getting sufficient sleep or having a good appetite and digestion, that they may need remedial therapy with psychological counseling and mood controlling drugs to bring themselves to the point where Philosophical Counseling and other more natural methods like diet, nutrition and herbal medicine can work. Once this point is reached, Philosophical Counseling can be used to help one get to the bottom of WHY they use the drugs they do, or have a craving or dependency for them. What are you after, what are you trying to find when you take drugs? And, are there any more natural and constructive means for getting there than these harmful, addictive drugs?
For those who want to read Amy’s original article, they can do so by clicking on the following link: