Puritanical Assumptions about Drug Use in the Entertainment Field
by Ballard Quass
American psychology operates according to a long-standing puritanical assumption when it comes to so-called "drug users" in the entertainment field. The party line goes like this:
"They could be as good - or even better - if they were not using drugs!"
Could Jimi Hendrix have been as good - or even better - without drugs? How about Robin Williams?
No. The above citation is a mere statement of faith that belongs in a Christian Science catechism, not in a psychological textbook.
It is a statement of faith because there is no logical reason to suppose that human beings were meant to live their lives without emotional support from mood-altering substances, especially when those substances occur abundantly in nature and grow in profusion all around us, in the form of mushrooms, poppies, ibogaine, etc. In fact, we rely on such emotional support every day when we use drugs such as nicotine, caffeine and alcohol. When we puritanically declare that others be drug free, we simply want them to conform to our own self-serving notions of what the good drugs are. We don't feel any need to expand and sharpen our minds through the use of certain illegal naturally occurring substances: why should they?
(Of course, we're assuming here, as the Puritans do, that by "drugs," we simply mean substances that have not been supplied by a reputable psychiatrist. In other words, we don't so much fear drug-improved performance per se as we fear the use of illegal drugs for attaining this end.)
But the fact is that for many of us, the unmedicated personality says "no" to showing off, to "putting oneself out there," to standing up for oneself, etc., especially before thousands or even millions of people. We are attacked by the psychological quality that Poe called "the imp of the perverse,"* whispering in our ear and telling us to fail. Is it not obvious in such cases that certain mood-altering substances could have the beneficial result of raising one beyond nagging self-doubts, such that one can access and express inner talents that our knee-jerk self-doubt would have otherwise suppressed?
True, a person can cope with this self-doubt by shunning fields like show business entirely, but if that is the field in which one's innate talent lies, would it not be folly for such a person to "just say no" to drugs and thereby just say no to personal fulfillment in his or her life?
Seen in this realistic psychological light, drug use in the entertainment field makes perfect sense - not for all, of course, but for many. But if this statement sounds outrageous to you, let me reword it using terminology that carries less emotional baggage given today's Drug War mentality: "Seen in this realistic psychological light, the use of performance-enhancing medication in the entertainment field makes perfect sense."
The fact that these self-doubting entertainers are taking risks with their lives (by buying performance-enhancing medications on the street) is to be blamed on the Drug War, not on the performers themselves. (How can we blame a person for doing whatever they feel is necessary in order to succeed in their vocational dreams and thus obtain the self-actualizing pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy?) It is the Drug War that ensures such risky behaviour is necessary, first by spreading disinformation about mood-altering drugs (making it difficult for drug users to choose wisely) and then by rendering those drugs illegal (making it difficult for the user to guarantee the purity of the drugs that he or she purchases on the street).
To solve this problem, we have to do more than decriminalize drugs. We have to change American mental healthcare practice so that it recognizes this instinct to self-fulfillment as a (or rather THE) genuine motivating factor in the depressed and the anxious.
Had Hendrix or Williams naively attempted to seek their performance-enhancing drugs through psychiatry, they would have been immediately tagged as potential addictive types. But that is a bad diagnosis. On a fundamental level, those performers did not crave drugs, they craved self-fulfillment. Drugs (or "performance-enhancing medications," if you prefer) were merely a necessary means to that end, even if the hypocritical Drug Warrior (while smoking his cigars and swilling his whiskey) would steadfastly deny it.
Follow-up thoughts March 20, 2019
Yet psychiatry holds to the materialistic notion that the drugs we supply a patient must fix some specific underlying chemical problem, not merely allow the patient to be successful in life -- as if all things good in life (including happiness and serenity) do not follow naturally when we allow a patient to be successful (regardless of our knee-jerk abhorrence for the substances that may be employed toward that end).
To put it another way, psychiatry these days (thanks to its absurdly limited pharmacopeia of mood-altering substances) is not good at helping patients achieve their dreams; instead psychiatry's talent lies in helping patients become satisfied with falling short of their true potential in life (while the psychiatrists insist that - not to worry, Jimi - at least now we are treating the "root causes" of your problems and are therefore being truly scientific about this! So what if you're not a rock star: at least you're getting help from real scientists!)
Yes, Hendrix died of a drug overdose, but only because America never discussed mood-altering substances honestly. Instead, psychiatry ignored illegal substances and Drug Warriors demonized them. The result was that no credible information was out there by which Hendrix might have steered clear of disaster, and even if it were, Hendrix was forced by drug prohibition to rely on street drugs of uncertain potency and chemical constitution.
Yet, the Drug Warriors never learn. They cite each problem that they themselves create (like drug deaths in America and violence overseas) as a reason why the Drug War must go on. It's a circular argument with which they hope to deflect criticism and ignore their own culpability. And it's an argument that psychiatry abets by failing to recognize the true motive behind much illegal drug-taking: namely, the search for self-actualization in life. By ignoring this most fundamental of human motivations, psychiatry contributes by default to the simplistic notion that drug users are rabble-rousing hedonists, a view-point that eggs on the fascist mentality that seeks to suppress illegal drugs with unconstitutional methods.
*See also the correlation that GK Chesterton draws between reason and madness in the first chapter of "Orthodoxy." Though Chesterton never remotely broaches the topic of brain-enhancing chemistry, the phenomenon of madness as he describes it cries out for the intervention of psychoactive substances to distract the mind from mere reason, insofar as there are no other known treatments that have been shown to reliably help a neurotic to think outside the box of the everyday, and thus expand their mental cosmos.
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