Does the use of chemical stimulants mean the person using them is not themselves, or are there times when some chemical input is necessary to reveal a person’s true self?
A response to the question is suggested in the 1949 black and white comedy film Whisky Galore! “It is a well known medical fact that some men are born at least one dram below par,” says Dr McClaren, played by James Robertson Justice, speaking of the schoolmaster George Campbell, played by Gordon Jackson.
George Campbell may enjoy the respect a schoolmaster would command on a small Scottish island of the 1940s, but he is also a man who has lived his life in fear of a domineering mother, particularly in fear of her disapproval of intoxicating liquor.
In the story, a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky has run aground on the tiny Hebridean island on which they live. It is a time when the island’s whisky supplies have run out and the islanders conspire to salvage thousands of cases of the spirit for their own consumption. The saving of the whisky an opportunity for Campbell to break free from the maternal domination that has thus far shaped his life and it also brings a change in the attitude of his mother.
It is a light hearted comedy, but the point made by McClaren is a serious one. The adjustment of the chemical balance in our brains has the capacity to make us different people. In the 1940s, psychiatry was still at the point where hospitals were carrying out damaging brain surgery in the hope of addressing mental health problems. Lobotomies were performed as being thought the least worst way of dealing with difficult patients.
Dr McClaren tells us something that was known for centuries: change the chemistry and you change the person, or you at least change them temporarily. The schoolmaster Campbell becomes a lively outgoing person after partaking of whisky saved from the wreck, but is that the real George Campbell? If the change can only be sustained by chemicals, is it a real change?
Sustained by an anti-depressant called sertraline through the past months, Dr McClaren’s comment has often come to mind. Is it a case of being naturally below par? Does the medication simply establish a normal equilibrium, or is its effect comparable with George Campbell’s consumption of malt whisky? Even if it is not a real change, the literature on sertraline suggests it may be a long-term option.