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SXSW Doc ‘Take Your Pills’ Explores a Different Drug Crisis

The Netflix documentary produced by Maria Shriver and her daughter Christina Schwarzenegger highlights a lesser-known drug epidemic in America. 

photo from "Take Your Pills doc

Take Your Pills, a new documentary on the ongoing drug epidemic, premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival last week and is currently streaming on Netflix. Directed by Alison Klayman and produced by Maria Shriver and her daughter Christina Schwarzenegger, this documentary sheds light on one of the most commonly used and abused drugs in the United States: Adderall.

Adderall is an amphetamine that’s been around for decades. It was once used as a nasal decongestant, a weight loss pill, an energy enhancer, and, most recently, as a way to help children and adults living with Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD.

When a person uses a stimulant like Adderall, the effects can be almost euphoric. They’re able to retain information, feel energized and inspired, and concentrate on one thing for hours at a time – all reasons why college students, in particular, are drawn to use and abuse the drug.

Schwarzenegger was one of those students. She was diagnosed with ADD as a child and briefly took Adderall in high school before stopping because of the side effects she experienced. When she headed off to Georgetown University, she struggled to keep up with the rigorous academic course load and began using the drug again. After graduating from college in 2013, she found herself reeling from her transition off of Adderall. Her personal experience led her to help produce this documentary. She went to her mom with the idea, hoping to get her help with the project. After a bit of researching, Shriver was so surprised by how prevalent use of the drug was in not only on college campuses but in the workplace that she and Schwarzenegger approached Netflix with the idea for a film that would hopefully draw this problem out of the shadows. 

“I had an identity crisis,” Schwarzenegger says of quitting Adderall. “You go from being your best self while taking it, you become addicted to it and then going off it, you have to confront a different reality and try to figure out who you are as a person. These are common experiences that I’ve heard from my friends who have taken the same drug.”

But students aren’t the only ones abusing the drug. The documentary interviews professional athletes, music executives, artists, and a coder from Google who all admit to using amphetamines to get ahead in their respective fields. What drives people to this addiction may be a reflection of American culture.

“This story isn’t new,” Shriver says. “It’s an epidemic in our country but it’s also quite particular to our country and to this time.”

“Everybody’s taking it to get ahead and to stay ahead,” Shriver says. “The startup culture, Wall Street, the military, colleges, you name it. People are being asked to work, really, 24/7. They’re being asked to perform 24/7 and they are taking this highly addictive drug in order to keep up. So something that was originally started to help kids with learning disabilities has now ballooned into almost the drug of choice for Americans.”

“This is a drug that promotes something that we all want, right? To succeed, to get an edge,” Klayman says. “I think that’s something that we all strive for, but at what cost?”

The physical effects of using Adderall long term can be debilitating. Mood swings, suicidal thoughts, heart disease, liver problems, they can all pop up with little warning in someone who abuses the drug.  

These consequences can be exacerbated by the reality that Adderall abuse can lead to abuse of even more drugs.

“One thing that I learned from making the film is that this is a cycle of abuse,” Klayman explains. “When you take uppers, you need downers, right? I think whether it’s happening within the same person or in society at large, if you’re taking something that’s bringing you down, you also might be taking something to keep up function. I think it would just be naïve, it would be wrong to say these are exactly the same issue but also, it would be wrong to say that they’re totally separate issues.”

Take Your Pills also tackles the stigma and the inequality that’s still prevalent in the addiction space. Why, for instance, do people look down on meth users but seem to shrug off the abuse of amphetamines when the main difference between the two drugs is how they’re processed by the body? Both are stimulants, both act on the central nervous system, and both produce euphoric highs, but meth acts quicker and can become more addicting as a result.

Still, as the film proves, when we think of meth users and people who abuse a drug like Adderall, we picture very different groups of people. Just like how the crack epidemic was met with criminalization, whereas today’s opioid epidemic is being treated as a health care concern, the race and class of the addicts are just two factors that explain the difference in treatment addicts receive.

“We live in an incredibly unfair and unequal society,” Klayman says. “Drugs are just another part of that.”

Shriver, Schwarzenegger, and Klayman hope that their documentary can become a resource for those suffering with addiction and draw attention to a problem that still largely lives in the shadow of America’s arguably more well-known opioid epidemic.

“We live in a judgmental society,” Shriver says. “And we judge people by their weight, by their skin color, by their gender, and by the drugs they take. So this is an informative documentary. It’s inspiring, I think. It’s sparking a needed conversation.”

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