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Our Complicated Relationship with Medication is the Theme of the Documentary 'Take Your Pills'
March 16, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Maybe the biggest hurdle in discouraging people from taking drugs is that in most cases, drugs work.

If you want a buzz, a drug can give you a buzz. If you need to stay up late to finish a paper, a drug will keep you awake. If something hurts, a drug will make it hurt less.

Take Your Pills, a sobering and at times academic documentary that focuses on the Adderall and Ritalin era of American pharmaceutical life, repeatedly acknowledges that truth while balancing it against the fact drugs can have other consequences as well.

Take Your Pills, which is directed by Alison Klayman and becomes available Friday on Netflix, isn’t a lot of fun to watch. It takes a methodical approach in mapping how this major part of the contemporary drug culture evolved. It dives repeatedly into medical terminology and explanations of human cognitive functions.

But since almost everyone in America has either taken one of those drugs or knows someone who has, Klayman’s documentary provides a calm, rational, step-by-step primer on why they have become so pervasive.

Starting with the simple fact that for many people, they work.

At least at first.

One subject here is Eben Britton, a former NFL player who discovered that Adderall provided several benefits. It gave him more energy to fight through fatigue. It diminished the pain from his multiple injuries. It seemed to slow the game down, so he could follow what was happening and he had more time to react. Perhaps best of all, it replaced a sense of frustration with a sense of possibility, a feeling that yes he could.

Klayman also talks with people in less extreme occupations. That includes a raft of students, mostly college students, who say Adderall enables them to focus on a paper, or a test, or studying in general.

They need that focus, they repeatedly explain, because college and the eventual job market have become so competitive that getting a B instead of an A can feel like the difference between succeeding and getting left at the side of the road.

That’s precisely the argument Klayman’s subjects make in the tech world. The ideal tech worker, she’s told, is one who never says “no” and will work seven consecutive 16-hour days to write a new code. Even healthy young millennials sometimes need some help to keep up that pace – and if they don’t take that help while the two people at the adjacent desks do, then those other two people are going to win the prize. 

Consistent with those arguments, Klayman interviews a string of doctors, teachers and psychologists who talk about the pressure of contemporary society.

Working backward, the pressure often begins with parents who fear their child will be left behind if he or she has, for instance, attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD).

The most common response to an ADD diagnosis, of course, is medication to help the child focus.

And very often, it works.

But perhaps for the child, and perhaps for the society at large, it can also open the door to longer-term issues – and Klayman follows several of her subjects through their drug cycle, to see how they feel in retrospect.

Almost all feel some ambivalence. They experienced side effects they didn’t like. Students wondered whether their success was something they really earned, or whether the performance enhancement from Adderall was a kind of cheating.

Several regret taking attention-focusing drugs at all. Most don’t, even the ones who didn’t like the side issues, and this underscores Klayman’s main point: that the issue is fiendishly complicated.

Products that were developed as a solution, not for the first time, create unintended and unforeseen problems. So how do you mitigate the problems without compromising some of the solutions?

And that’s even without getting into other issues on which Klayman touches tangentially: the high-pressure promises and promotion by companies that want to make money from these drugs; the inevitable black market; the fine line between use and abuse; the naïve belief that addiction always happens to someone else; the ongoing debate over why some stimulants are revered and legal while others are reviled. And so on.

Klayman also notes that medical science and mankind, in the eternal search for magic bullets, have been exploring stimulants since the beginning of time.

Which isn’t inherently a bad thing. Take Your Pills notes that stimulants helped Allied pilots stay alert during air attacks in World War II, just as Adderall and Ritalin have enabled many a child to become a functioning student.

However complex the discussion, Take Your Pills marks where we are now and explains why we really should figure some things out as we move forward.

Valuable television isn’t always fun television. Or easy television.

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