There are times in my life when I can’t help but wonder if something’s wrong with me. I have one big week, going out and doing one big activity or event every day, and the only way I can get through it is taking cortisone! Yet I see all these people in go-go-go mode plugging away at such a full, “normal”, “healthy” lifestyle week after week without taking anything…or do they?
How much of what we consider a fulsome life is only achievable for most people through the unflinching use of performance-enhancing drugs? My own natural energy and stamina levels aren’t exactly the best, but I’m nowhere near meeting the clinical criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome (which up to 2% of Americans suffer from), and I read stories from plenty of people who are a lot more lethargic than I am. All told, my levels of energy and drive would seem to be rather typical.
Yet I just can’t keep up with the standard of a fulsome life we see in corporate media and social media alike; before you go “oh, social media is just the highlight reel of others’ lives blah blah blah”, I socialize quite a bit in real life, and it seems anyone with even a mildly active social life, which is a lot of people, lives up to that standard. Masses of people, tens of millions in America, really do flit from activity to activity on an everyday basis without collapsing from exhaustion, even while holding down a day job, which I don’t have to do! It’s as if they have superhuman levels of stamina, energy, and drive. Maybe they do, courtesy of their medicine cabinets.
Better Living through Chemistry: we can’t see it, but we know it’s there
This wouldn’t even be particularly surprising. When people hear “performance-enhancing drugs” they think something top sportsmen use to get an edge over the competition or the heroic doses bodybuilders take in a kind of chemical warfare to see how much the human body can withstand in the quest to build muscle and cut fat, but by all indications the far more common usage of drugs to enhance performance is to just perk you up to the levels of performance the genetically gifted can achieve naturally, rather than to achieve anything obviously superhuman. As Scott Alexander describes in the context of the labors seen in work and school:
I didn’t realize how much of a psychiatrist’s time was spent gatekeeping Adderall.
The human brain wasn’t built for accounting or software engineering. A few lucky people can do these things ten hours a day, every day, with a smile. The rest of us start fidgeting and checking our cell phone somewhere around the thirty minute mark. I work near the financial district of a big city, so every day a new Senior Regional Manipulator Of Tiny Numbers comes in and tells me that his brain must be broken because he can’t sit still and manipulate tiny numbers as much as he wants. How come this is so hard for him, when all of his colleagues can work so diligently?
(it’s because his colleagues are all on Adderall already – but telling him that will just make things worse)
Hmm. I wonder; we’re sorta giving everyone, even our own friends and comrades, a false impression of what’s achievable naturally for all but a tiny elite. The truth is if you can’t do mind-numbingly boring office work you shouldn’t feel bad about it; basically nobody else can either! It’s just that “everyone else who can do it so naturally and effortlessly” all got help from their medicine cabinets. Sure, there are people who stay up for nights on end without getting tired who are obviously on speed, but for every one case like this there are thousands who just seem naturally energetic. Only the large number of them in the general population looks unnatural.
So it is with building a muscular physique, even what to all outward appearances is a normal naturally-achievable one. Most research on the subject agrees that the lifetime prevalence of anabolic steroid use among males is around 1 in 20 (this is a typical source). Not 1 in 20 bodybuilders, mind you; 1 in 20 of the whole male population! Sure, this is lifetime prevalence, not the amount on them at any given time, but the rub is you tend to keep the muscle you build when on-cycle, so those former users are still reaping the benefits of that enhancement. 1 in 20 is enough to suggest that there are more natural-seeming good physiques attained by anabolic steroids than there are actual natural good physiques! Consider: after you subtract the fat blobs, the stick-thin, and the steroid users you’re left with a very small slice of the male population who have a normal muscular physique and achieved it by all-natural means.
So again, if you go the gym for a year and find you’re not even a tenth of the way to achieving the results Instagram fitness models got in that period of time, you probably don’t have crummy genetics or did anything wrong; you’re just missing out on the little helper from their medicine cabinet that for a variety of reasons they don’t tell you about. Steroids aren’t just for top bodybuilders; they let you build a natural-level physique but with far-less-than-natural levels of work, which permits you to do things other than dieting and training, like, you know, actually having a life.
We see performance-enhancing drugs in realms beyond giving you more energy and more muscles. Players in classical orchestras, for example, very commonly take beta blockers to steady their heartbeats, giving them the nerves of steel required to expertly caress those instruments in hour after hour, concert after concert. Performing artists take them to combat stage fright.
The point of all this? Far more people than you might think have learned the power of the dark side and are leading a richer and fuller life because of it. To butcher Palpatine’s famous line from “Revenge of the Sith”: “The dark side of the pharmacopeia is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural.”
For a variety of reasons pharmaceutical enhancement tends to be kept private. You see people, you see their accomplishments, and you see their natural traits, but you don’t see the dark matter, the invisible stuff, that supports it all and exerts a gravitational pull much greater than the stuff you can see. Our first instinct when we don’t measure up to the standard of excellence or even normality is to look at the traits we can see in others, turn our gaze to the mirror, and weep at our own inadequacy, but perhaps we’d be better served to instead look at what we can’t see in others, turn our gaze to the mirror, and contemplate the possibilities of self-improvement modern technology and technique offers. Your goals may be more achievable than you think…