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Pill Culture Pops

With the stigma attached to mood-improving (not to mention sex-life-improving) drugs all but gone, New Yorkers are becoming their own Dr. Feelgoods, self-medicating as never before. Inside the new (totally respectable) drug scene.

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Sound the alarm. there’s a new drug epidemic in town. And most of the city wants in on it. “In certain circles of New York, it’s just regular table conversation,” says a 37-year-old publisher. “I was at lunch with clients the other day—it was a totally professional situation—and I mentioned that I have to give a speech at my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. I said, ‘I’ve got to get some Klonopin; I’m going to be so uptight.’ Somebody else said, ‘Oh, I always take a Klonopin before a big presentation.’ One thing led to the next, and soon everyone at the table was talking about how they’re on Xanax or Klonopin or Vicodin. No one wants to go through the hassle of seeing a psychiatrist because they don’t necessarily feel there’s anything wrong with them. It’s just the way life is in New York: Everyone’s stressed about something.”

We have entered the golden age of self-medication. Drugs have become like hair products or cosmetics: This is brain styling, not mind altering. The early buzz was that Prozac makes you a different person—changes you fundamentally, if subtly. But, habitual drug users that we are, we know that’s not true. You’re you on meds, only less freaky and more well-rested.

We have been listening to Prozac now for over ten years. In that time, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, in case you’re not on one) have become as socially acceptable as Sudafed. Not that long ago, the only people who used prescription drugs for their mental health were the deeply and obviously messy. At that time (the crack epidemic still raged), you wouldn’t have talked to your colleagues about what you took for insomnia, you bummed cigarettes off your friends instead of Ativan, and it might not even have occurred to you to take a pill for your garden-variety depression or anxiety. Now the question is not “Should I take something?” It’s “Am I taking enough?” Or “Am I taking the right one[s]?” And any lingering doubts we had about drugging our way to better mental health seem to have been washed away in the past two dark years.

‘The other night, the one person I know who doesn’t take medication said, ‘Is everyone in New York mildly sedated?’ I was like, ‘Wake up and smell the Valium,’ ” says a 26-year-old fashion publicist. “When I was in high school, it was pot; in college, it was coke; and now it’s Klonopin. Last week, my friend asked me, ‘Will you be mad if I don’t show for this benefit?’ And I said, ‘It’s fine, but why not?’ She was waiting by her phone for her psychopharmacologist to call. And I can totally relate. The psychopharmacologist is the new drug dealer—like a Park Avenue drug dealer.”

The line between medication and recreation has become blurred. What is really the difference between fixing ourselves and pleasing ourselves? “For a long time, I just took Ritalin when I thought I needed to concentrate,” says a 34-year-old writer. “But then I realized if it makes me feel normal, I should feel normal all the time. So now I take it when I get up every day—I have a friend who takes it every three hours.” (He also mentions that his dog is on an anti-anxiety medication called Clomicalm.)

When you relinquish the idea that your moods and weirdnesses are a constant, not to be messed with, any mental unpleasantness becomes fair game for treatment with a touch of this, a milligram of that. And once you start tinkering with things between your ears, more and more areas that could use fix-ups—tweaking—become apparent. Even if our doctors were worried about prescribing us Zoloft for depression and Ativan for anxiety and Ambien for insomnia, our friends aren’t.

“Somebody gave me a mother lode of Xanax,” says a 35-year-old man in the design industry. “I often give them out to friends who are getting on planes, or—for people who I know appreciate them—they make a lovely parting gift after a dinner party, packaged in a brightly colored plastic stacking box. I prefer ruby or orange.”

Jan, 25, recently sampled a friend’s Adderall, the drug now frequently prescribed for attention-deficit disorder in place of the less modish Ritalin. “I was helping out my friend, and she was like, ‘You’ve got to try this little blue pill.’ I could conquer the world if I took those pills! I was thinking of getting diagnosed with ADD just so I could get them, but I don’t want to be one of those people. We were having an auction and I was so overwhelmed; I thought, ‘There’s no way I can do all this.’ But after an hour, that little pill kicked in and suddenly I had everything organized and I had made all kinds of lists and put everything in order! My friend said when she tried coke it was like a really, really bad version of her pills. She was like, ‘Why would I ever do coke?’ ”

For many New Yorkers, the promise of the sixties slogan “Better living through chemistry” has been realized. Unless you are recklessly gobbling up piles of pills like Vanessa from Six Feet Under, psychopharmaceuticals feel like a less risky, more precise, more civilized way of getting the job done than those messy, old-school street drugs. Potentially, these drugs could actually get us off those drugs—could make those drugs uncool. “My dealer sells Xanax and Valium along with coke and ketamine and ecstasy,” says a 30-year-old journalist, “and often the prescription drugs are in higher demand than the illegal ones. Sometimes the dealers will do trades: their drugs for your prescriptions.”

As with illegal drugs, there’s a hierarchy of cool within the world of prescription pills. “Mood-stabilizing drugs—the breakfast of champions—that’s what’s still stigmatized,” says the fashion publicist. “Something like bipolar or, God forbid, schizophrenia, those are very taboo because they’re real. It’s still cool to be sane. You’re just supposed to be sane and medicated. You don’t talk about hard-core depression or being bipolar or anything that’s in essence a disorder. You talk about what’s chic and of the moment. You’re not trading those pills at a cocktail party. You trade leisure drugs—Ambien and Valium—anything you’re going to do in tandem with drinking. Ask someone when they take their meds. If the answer is ‘In the morning,’ then they’ve got some shit going on. If it’s ‘In the evening,’ they’re just playing with pills. A morning thing is you’re seeing someone and you’re working through some real issues. An evening thing is you have three martinis, two olives, and a little yellow pill.”

There are a lot of choices in the chemical armamentarium. There’s Klonopin (or clonazepam, the generic), a drug designed to prevent seizures that has the pleasant, fortuitous side effect of calming the truly anxious or putting the relatively relaxed straight to sleep. There’s Ambien, a sleeping pill remarkable for its lightning speed: unlike benzodiazepines (drugs like Ativan, Valium, and the ever-popular Xanax), Ambien can knock you unconscious in twenty minutes flat, so psychopharmacologists often tell patients not to take the pill until they are actually in bed. Recreational users like to force themselves to stay awake on Ambien, because it can produce a cracked-out, almost hallucinatory state of awareness, if that’s your bag.


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