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Hopeless But Not Broken: From George Carlin to Adderall Protest Music

Photo by Thought Catalog | CC BY 2.0

George Carlin, in his book Brain Droppings, told us that his motto had come to be: “Fuck Hope.” In his autobiography Last Words, Carlin recalled, “The election of Ronald Reagan might’ve been the beginning of my giving up on my species. Because it was absurd.”

We can only imagine how Carlin, who died in 2008, would have described the 2016 presidential election, in which Americans were given a choice between two of the most disliked people in the entire nation. If Carlin thought that the election of Reagan was absurd, what would he have called the election of Trump?

Hopeless, however, is not the same as broken.After Reagan was elected, Carlin became artistically energized, recounting, “I began to do something about my political ignorance.” He discovered Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky, Hunter Thompson, and Gore Vidal—writers, Carlin tells us, “who said things in a daring manner, truly dissenting voices.”

Carlin had been a self-admitted “people pleaser” comic in the 1960s. He then connected with the counterculture in the 1970s. In the last chapter of his life, he became something of an anti-authoritarian prophet, who continues to remain easily accessible for young anti-authoritarians via YouTube.

Carlin was a far better therapist for critical thinkers than are the vast majority of my mental health professional colleagues. Shaming hopelessness as some kind of character flaw or, worse, psychopathologizing it as a symptom of mental illness only adds insult to injury. Hope missionaries ignore the reality that pathologizing hopelessness does not make critical thinkers more hopeful, only more annoyed.

I know many mental health professionals who espouse hope but who are broken and compliant with any and all authorities. In contrast, I know anti-authoritarians who, like Carlin, express hopelessness but who are unbroken and resist illegitimate authorities. Carlin modeled a self-confident rebellion against authoritarianism and bullshit, and he provided the kind of humor that energizes resistance.

There are many reasons beyond U.S. presidential candidates to justify one’s hopelessness about U.S. institutions. I don’t know the exact moment when I became hopeless about my mental health profession, but my experience has been that one can be embarrassed by one’s profession for only so long before that embarrassment turns into hopelessness.

In 1980, the same year Reagan was elected president, the American Psychiatric Association published its revised diagnostic “bible” (the then DSM-III), ushering in a newly invented mental illness called “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The symptoms of ODD include often argues with adults and often refuses to comply with authorities’ requests or rules. At that time, I was in graduate school for clinical psychology and already somewhat embarrassed by the pseudoscientific disease inventions of my future profession; and throwing rebellious young people under the diagnostic bus with this new ODD label exacerbated my embarrassment.

My embarrassment transformed into hopelessness as it became routine to prescribe tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs to ODD kids; to diagnose kids with mental disorders merely for blowing off school while their entire family was falling apart; and to prescribe Ritalin, Vyvanse, Adderall, and other amphetamines to six-year-olds who had become inattentive as their parents were engaged in a nasty divorce.

Achieving hopelessness about my profession had great benefits. It liberated me from wasting my time with authoritarian mental health professionals in efforts at reform; and it energized me to care solely about anti-authoritarians who already had their doubts about my profession and sought validation from someone within it. Embracing my hopelessness about my profession made me whole and revitalized me.

Energized, I discovered a small handful of unbroken dissident mental health professionals in organizations such as the International Society for Ethical Psychology & Psychiatry. I connected with ex-psychiatric patients who had become artists and activists, some of them running their own mutual-aid organizations such as Western Mass Recovery Learning Community. I also connected with courageous filmmakers and journalists such as Robert Whitaker, who sacrificed a secure career to create the website Mad in America, which reports on psychiatry’s failings in the areas of science and social justice.

Embracing hopeless about my profession led to my connecting with those rebelling against it, which resulted in my becoming more hopeful about the human spirit to resist illegitimate authority. Recently, I’ve discovered a group of young singer/song writers from a variety of musical genres singing about their experiences with psychiatry. From hip hop to folk, there are many songs just about Adderall, the ADHD amphetamine drug. Two of my favorites are by Leah King and Evan Greer.

Leah King has a beautiful and haunting voice, and in “High On Adderall” I feel the pain of her entire generation. She sings: “I’m not sober enough to save the world, save the world. . . . I’m not angry enough to, I’m not angry enough to change the world, change the world, change the world. ‘Cause I’m high on Adderall, on Adderall. And I’m high on Adderall, on Adderall.” In the face of her generation’s ostracizing psychiatric drug truth tellers—calling them “pill shamers”—Kingis brave to pour out her soul. While Leah King takes me back to folk singers such as Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, Evan Greer makes me think of Phil Ochs, whom Greer has covered.

Greer self-identifies as a “queer activist singer/songwriter, organizer.” In his “Adderall Song,” he sings, “Mrs. Greer, your son acts up in class, asks the questions that you’re not supposed to ask. Mr. Greer, it’s pretty plain to see, your son has got ADHD, and the doctors say he needs 30 milligrams of amphetamines. . . .When I turned eight years old, they put me on the pills. One to focus me at school, help me follow all the rules. And one to keep my tears away, because little boys should never cry. One to help me through my day, and one to help me sleep at night. . . . Now I recognize the system, I see what they’re really for. I’m not giving you my money, and I won’t take them anymore.”

George Carlin expressed hopelessness about humanity in general—which he saw as “circling the drain”—but he had great admiration for artists with courage. And so Carlin would have likely had affection for Leah King and Evan Greer, especially given Carlin’s familiarity with speed. In recounting his own history of drug abuse, Carlin noted:I’d always used Ritalin. That was my speed during my so-called straight years: the groundwork was laid early on for my attraction to cocaine.”

Given Carlin’s cynicism, I doubt that he would be surprised to see doctors increasingly pushing speed on younger and younger kids for merely blowing off school. Witnessing a mental health profession that is fast on its way to achieving complete ignorance about the nature of human beings would simply have validated Carlin’s general hopelessness.

By virtue of anti-authoritarians’ different temperaments, some of need Carlin’s humor to be energized to resist illegitimate authorities and bullshit, while some need hope in order to fight back. Thus, while shaming and pathologizing hopelessness does no good, neither does shaming and pathologizing hope. Perhaps both hopeless and hopeful anti-authoritarians can agree that shaming and pathologizing simply does not energize resistance. But perhaps I am being too hopeful that such agreement is possible.

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Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist often at odds with the mainstream of his profession, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His most recent book is Resisting Illegitimate Authority: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Being an Anti-Authoritarian―Strategies, Tools, and Models (AK Press, September, 2018). His Web site is brucelevine.net

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