In my social circle, benzodiazepines are traded with generosity and goodwill. My first Klonopin was given to me three years ago by a friend, during the third of seemingly endless rounds of layoffs. “You’ll know it’s working when you stop spinning,” she told me as she dug for the foil packet in her purse. Another friend admitted she has recently found herself playing fairy godmother with her Xanax. To friends worried about enduring a family holiday, she doles out a pill; to colleagues fearful of flying, she’ll commiserate before offering a cure. “I can’t fly without half a Xanax,” she’ll say. “Want some?” (Such casual bigheartedness is perhaps abetted by how cheap alprazolam can be. “How’s this for something nutty,” the same friend wrote to me in an e-mail. “Just refilled alprazolam. It was $2.56 for 30 tabs. Less than pretty much anything in the drugstore except maybe gum or Blistex.”)
The beauty of a benzo is its simplicity. SSRIs like Prozac or Celexa can work on anxiety as well as depression, but take two to three weeks to kick in. A benzo is, plain and pure, a chill pill: You can take it when you need to without committing to months or years of talk therapy. A real-estate executive I spoke to packs anti-anxiety drugs whenever he travels to guard against the circumstance he most dreads: being stuck in a hotel room (or, as he was recently, on a family camping trip), unable to sleep and worrying about not sleeping. “It’s just one of my little neuroses,” he says. He finds that as long as he has the pills on hand, he rarely has to use them. “Just knowing they’re there makes me feel better.”
I understand what he means. The Ativan I snagged from my mother is mostly untouched since she died six months ago. Benzos are great when you are freaking out—and they’re great because you know that something will make you freak out, eventually.
The last anti-anxiety drug Americans loved as much as Xanax was called Miltown. Discovered by accident in 1955 by a researcher looking for a new muscle relaxant, it caught on almost overnight. In Hollywood and New York, where busy, glamorous people worked all hours to feed the masses’ appetite for information and entertainment, hostesses served martinis with a Miltown garnish. Tiffany & Co. produced a line of tiny jeweled cases in which a woman might carry her pills. Lucille Ball, Lauren Bacall, Tennessee Williams, and Norman Mailer all took Miltown. Not only did they take it, but they boasted about the relief they felt from the miracle drug the press dubbed “Executive Excedrin.” On his show, Bob Hope called Miltown the “I don’t care” pill.
Against a backdrop of the real and present threat of nuclear attack, it would not be an exaggeration to say that during the Cold War it was patriotic to take an anti-anxiety drug. The medicine kept ambitious working people (mostly men) on an even keel while their children were ducking and covering at school. Miltown allowed Americans to manage the stresses of modernity while “doing one’s job and earning a good salary, but also playing a social role: making decisions and completing tasks while maintaining confidence and control,” writes Andrea Tone in her excellent book The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair With Tranquilizers. It wasn’t just that anxiety was normal. It wasn’t normal if you weren’t anxious.
Valium came along in 1963, developed by Roche to knock Miltown off its perch. Unlike Miltown, which was a word-of-mouth phenomenon, Valium was aggressively marketed as a consumer convenience. The target audience was women, whose grouchiness, stress, romantic woes, and mood swings the drug would cure. One 1970 ad showed “Mrs. Raymond,” a schoolteacher, facing a relatable female crisis. “Valium has helped free her of the excessive psychic tension and associated depressive symptoms accompanying her menopause,” it read. “Now she’s poised and cheerful again.”
Valium’s success was unprecedented. It was the first drug, according to Tone, to reach $100 million in sales. It was also the first drug to trigger in Americans the suspicion that they were being sold a panacea for a condition they didn’t have or that might otherwise be cured by fulfilling work, a good laugh, or a more empathetic husband.
Xanax, approved in 1981, was a massive technological improvement. Valium can linger in the system for as many as 100 hours and had gained a reputation for leaving its users hung over and zombified—“unable to feel warmth, unable to love, unable to cry, to taste, to smell,” as Barbara Gordon put it in her 1989 memoir I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can. Xanax has a similar chemical composition but a much shorter half-life, vanishing hours after it takes effect. It gained a foothold in the anti-anxiety market as a spot treatment; it was indicated for “panic disorder,” which had just been established as a legitimate pathology. But a growing number of Americans found that it worked on quotidian panic as well, the kind that comes with a child’s disappointing, future-ruining report card or an intimate dinner party at the home of the person who signs your paychecks.