Out of the Heart, the Mouth Eats
Demand for drugs to cure spiritual problems suggests we have got the whole thing backwards.
There’s a new drug in town, and it’s the same one as last month. Ozempic—the diabetes drug-turned-weight loss injection every woman can’t wait to stick her thigh with—appears to be having the unintended effect of curing other compulsive behaviors, such as nail biting, skin picking, and shopping, according to anecdotal reports. Never letting an opportunity go to waste, the pharmaceutical companies that produce the drug are now studying its potential for a fresh market of off-brand use: addiction control.
The addictions in question seem to be mostly of the mild sort. But while initial studies on the use of semaglutide, the active ingredient in Ozempic, to tame hard drug addictions look uncertain at best, frequent users of the drug have been reporting a decrease in smaller compulsive behaviors for a while now. As one woman taking a semaglutide tells the Atlantic, she found “her food thoughts quieted down. She lost weight. But most surprisingly, she walked out of Target one day and realized her cart contained only the four things she came to buy. ‘I’ve never done that before,’ she said.”
It seems reasonable to conclude from this that the impulse to overeat shares similarities with other impulsive behaviors, of which shopping is the most prevalent. Other behaviors cited include drinking, smoking, nail biting, skin picking, and lottery ticket buying. (Notably missing: Mindless internet scrolling.) These small, albeit destructive, behaviors have less in common with hard drug use, but they are apparently harmful enough that thousands of women and men are calling on their employers to foot the steep insurance bill for the new panacea.
The hylomorphic nature of this impulse control makes perfect sense to those of us who believe, like the ancients, that the spirit and the body are an integrated whole, each acting on the other. Semaglutide causes weight loss by suppressing the physical appetite for food and drink, but appetites also operate in the realm of the spiritual. Science vindicates this: Ozempic works by prompting the pancreas to release insulin by mimicking a hormone called glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1. And research and anecdotal evidence appear to show that GLP-1 also affects the dopamine pathways in the brain, the physical ways in which humans process the more spiritual concepts of pleasure and reward. “That these drugs work on the level of the brain—as well as the gut—suggests that they can suppress the urge for other things too,” according to the report. By numbing the mind, Ozempic purges the body, and we discover once more that we are not merely souls after all.
It is not hard to imagine why a drug that causes significant weight loss for its users is immensely popular in America in 2023. But a culture that demands a cure for even the pettier addictions, such as obsessive eating and compulsive shopping, is telling us something more about itself: namely, that it is suffering not from a lack of pleasure, but from an excess. Indeed, we are so inundated with pleasure-satiating behaviors that, not unlike more serious addicts, experiences that used to represent the height of human satisfaction now barely get us out of bed. (Or into bed, for that matter.)
What is fueling this overstimulation? It may be a shorter list to detail what is not fueling it. The marketing industry hounds us to buy more, do more, and work more to afford the indulgent lifestyle it is selling. Then there is the clanging gong of social media, which stuffs us with new desires and jealousies by the hour—all shoppable, of course, from outfits to body types to more metaphysical qualities such as diversity and even the very sexed nature of our bodies. Having gorged our bellies at this buffet of physical stimuli, we then turn to the dessert table to gorge our minds on news media that call us “smart” for consuming more and being more outraged. Topping it all off is the veneer of what Mary Harrington has called “all-you-can-eat lust,” present in all of these realms, not to mention realms of its own, which politesse obliges us to pretend not to see.
Ozempic isn’t the only indicator of our oversaturated desires. Microtrends such as “off the grid” vacation spots, internet-free phones, and hobby homesteading suggest that many Americans are looking for other ways to escape some of the noise, albeit through the same shoppable methods that caused the ailment in the first place. Undergirding all this is a one dimensional understanding of human nature as driven by desire, and desire alone, one which we have quite literally bought into, even though we always knew it was not entirely true. Now, having gorged these desires and found ourselves sick, we are fumbling for an antacid to help the body, hoping it will also fix our spirits.
The men and women clamoring after semaglutide injections, then, are not simply seeking an easy weight loss program, though certainly they are seeking that. What they are also after, whether or not they recognize it, is the more primordial desire to be free from desire itself. In short, this is a cry for help.
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It is also a cry for science, and the medical establishment with which it has become synonymous, to fix a problem most Americans have given up on, the problem of self-mastery. In the words of one Ozempic user, who struggled for 30 years to maintain a healthy weight, “‘It’s incredibly validating,’ she said, to realize her struggles have been a matter of biology, not willpower.” Another calls the drug “a huge relief” after struggling for years to eat in moderation. “For patients like her,” writes the reporter, “the drug tamed behaviors that had reached a level of unhealthiness.”
We want to believe such spiritual problems can be solved by medicine for our bodies, but perhaps we’ve got the whole thing upside down. C. S. Lewis certainly thought so; in The Abolition of Man, he called applied science akin to magic in its attempt to “subdue reality to the wishes of men.” Opposite these, he argued, stands “the wisdom of earlier ages.”
“For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue,” he wrote. Unlike one more mind-numbing drug, these antacids for the mind may also prove restorative to the body.