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Listening to Xanax

How America learned to stop worrying about worrying and pop its pills instead.

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Illustration by Lola Dupré, based on an original photograph by Shaun Kardinal  

Last summer, near the end of my mother’s life, I woke up in my childhood bedroom in the middle of the night in a fever of panic. My heart was thrumming, my mind racing. In 1819, the English poet John Keats called anxiety a “wakeful anguish,” and so it was with me. Relief seemed impossible.

Then I had an idea. I wandered into the room where my mother lay dying and found the hospice nurse—a gentle, generous soul—sitting quietly beside my mother as she slept. She looked up from her fat paperback.

“Do you want to hold her hand?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I’m looking for the Ativan.”

The nurse went back to her book, and I went rummaging through the pill bottles. Point-five milligrams and fifteen minutes later, the anti-anxiety medicine prescribed to my mother had bound itself to my GABA receptors, and I was calm enough to sleep. Afterward, I felt the occasional twinge of regret about my priorities at that moment. Then a friend told me she had swiped drugs from her just-dead mother to cope with her own surging anxiety. “I was glad for it,” she said.

In my Brooklyn kitchen last December, not long after a report circulated about veterinarians using Xanax to treat post-traumatic-stress disorder in military dogs, a neighbor mentioned that she had begun to carry Xanax in her purse after her first child entered kindergarten, for relief from the uncontrollable separation anxiety she felt each time she boarded the subway and headed to work. “It was just so obvious that time was passing, and I could never get it back,” she told me. Another friend, the breadwinner in her family, started taking Xanax when she saw that she was about to get laid off, then upped her dose when she did. Around Thanksgiving, I found myself sitting on a plane next to a beautiful young FIT graduate in a rabbit-fur vest. Before takeoff, she neatly placed a pillbox on her knees, plucked out a small tablet, and swallowed it. “Control issues,” she said sweetly, giving me a gorgeous smile. As we became airborne, she reached out and clutched my hand.

If the nineties were the decade of Prozac, all hollow-eyed and depressed, then this is the era of Xanax, all jumpy and edgy and short of breath. In Prozac Nation, published in 1994, Elizabeth Wurtzel describes a New York that today seems as antique as the one rendered by Edith Wharton. In the book, she evokes a time when twenty­somethings lived in Soho lofts, dressed for parties in black chiffon frocks, and ended the night crying on the bathroom floor. Twenty years ago, just before Kurt Cobain blew off his head with a shotgun, it was cool for Kate Moss to haunt the city from the sides of buses with a visage like an empty store and for Wurtzel to confess in print that she entertained fantasies of winding up, like Plath or Sexton, a massive talent who died too soon, “young and sad, a corpse with her head in the oven.”

This is not to say that clinical depression is ever a fashion statement—it’s not. In the nineties, just as now, there were people who were genuinely, medically depressed, who felt hopeless and helpless and welcomed the relief that Prozac can provide. But beyond that, the look and feel of that era, its affect, was lank and dissolute. It makes sense in retrospect that Clerks, that cinematic ode to aimlessness, and Eddie Vedder (in his loser T-shirt) came along as the country started its two-decade climb toward unparalleled prosperity. In 1994, all the fever lines that describe economic vitality—gross domestic product, median household income, the Dow—pointed up. Just as teenage rebellion flourishes in environments of safety and plenty, depression as a cultural pose works only in tandem with a private confidence that the grown-ups in charge are reliably succeeding on everyone’s behalf.

Anxiety can also be a serious medical problem, of course. It sometimes precedes depression and often gets tangled up with it (which is why Prozac-type drugs are prescribed for anxiety too). But anxiety has a second life as a more general mind-set and cultural stance, one defined by an obsession with an uncertain future. Anxious people dwell on potential negative outcomes and assume (irrational and disproportionate) responsibility for fixing the disasters they imagine will occur. “What’s going to happen?” or, more accurately, “What’s going to happen to me?” is anxiety’s quiet whisper, its horror-show crescendo the thing Xanax was designed to suppress. Three and a half years of chronic economic wobbliness, the ever-pinging of the new-e-mail alert, the insistent voices of prophet-pundits who cry that nuclear, environmental, political, or terrorist-generated disaster is certain have together turned a depressed nation into a perennially anxious one. The editors at the New York Times are running a weekly column on anxiety in their opinion section with this inarguable rationale: “We worry.”


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