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Pill Culture Pops

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Of course, there’s good old Prozac, which has a new fan base among ecstasy aficionados since Johns Hopkins researchers George Ricaurte and Una McCann conducted a study on animals that showed that ingesting Prozac within six hours of taking MDMA (ecstasy) prevents “most or all of the serotonin system reduction” associated with the drug, which is to say you don’t crash.

Wellbutrin helps people stop smoking, and unlike other antidepressants, it rarely has sexual side effects, but it doesn’t seem to work as well as, say, Zoloft on depression. “When I first went in for depression, they gave me Zoloft and stuff like that, and there was basically a guarantee that I would have trouble having sex and getting aroused,” says Robert, a 59-year-old management consultant who started mucking around with his mental state before the advent of Viagra. “I specifically remember thinking: I’m depressed. The one thing I still enjoy is sex, and you’re taking that away from me? It’s like a Woody Allen twist, like, ‘Sure, we’re gonna cure you, but now you can’t read.’ As I remember, Zoloft was very good as an antidepressant, but it had a very deleterious effect on my erection, so that’s when I said, ‘Give me a break.’ I opted for the middle ground, which was balancing a little Prozac and a little Wellbutrin so I could have a little sex.”

With solutions come side effects, and compromises—and cocktails—need to be made. “I take an antidepressant called Celexa,” says Sabina, a 25-year-old graduate student, “and I take Ambien. And then I stay up an extra half-hour just so I can feel kind of looped—I call it my little Ambien party, a party for one. Also, I sometimes get Ritalin from a friend, because I’m in school now and it’s harder to get a prescription for that.”

Even though Sabina is obtaining her pills through creative trade routes, the fact that somebody went to a doctor makes her feel that she has nothing to worry about. “In a way, you feel like it’s prescription—it should be okay,” she says. “In my life, most of the time, I try to be natural and good to my body, but when it comes to prescriptions . . . I’m not too worried about it. I have fun with it. And there’s a certain sort of cool about it.

“I don’t think I need any of it,” she continues. “Like with Celexa: I just wanted to see how I felt so when I go off it, it would give me a comparison, a reference point. And there’s no stigma because it’s New York, and we all have that image of the New York neurotic. I moved here from Boston two years ago, and I felt way more aware of being anxious once I got here. Then again, I moved here five days before September 11.”

New York has been the epicenter of our national fearing and grieving period, the house where we’ve held the shivah, and our medicating has gone up correspondingly. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Website, whitehousedrugpolicy.gov, between September and October 2001, new prescriptions for benzodiazepines (usually prescribed for anxiety) increased a whopping 23 percent in New York City, compared with an 11 percent increase nationally. Likewise, we took 26 percent more sleeping pills here, while the rest of the country spiked only a more modest 11 percent. Though we took more than twice as many of both of those drug groups as regular Americans, the place you could really see New Yorkers lapping the rest of the country was in our consumption of antidepressants: We went up 18 percent, and they went up 3. As one young woman puts it, “Even your mother was medicated on September 12.”

Lorraine, a 58-year-old mother of two who lives on Central Park West, says that September 11 pushed her from being an occasional Ativan borrower to becoming a full-fledged pill fan: “I love Paxil. I love it. I started after September 11, and it wasn’t specifically about that, but I realized that I was obsessing about everything. I’d been in traditional therapy for ten years, and my therapist didn’t really believe in medication. But then a friend started seeing this fabulous psychopharmacologist and I said, Why not? So I went to see him, and he told me, ‘You know, with all that’s gone on in your family, why shouldn’t you have some relief? Why shouldn’t you get to feel better?’ He was like Dr. Feelgood. He said I could take Paxil for the rest of my life and Ambien every night. He felt I had low serotonin.”

“I love Paxil. I love it. What it’s done is it the glass is half full. People say ‘I’m anxious’ and I think how quaint.”

Did he give her a test?

“No.” She laughs. “I was wondering how he knew that. But I love Paxil. I love it. What it’s done is it makes me feel more like the glass is half full. People say, ‘I’m anxious,’ and I think, How quaint. I was supposed to go down to a lower dose, but I was thinking on the way over there, You know what? I really don’t want to. I’ve been through enough.”

The last time she was at general Store, a Portlandy restaurant on Avenue B where they play soothing acoustic guitar and serve omelettes in personal-size cast-iron skillets, Molly Small dumped an enormous container of pills—blue ones, green ones, ovals and squares—all over the antique pine table so her friends could pick out a few things to take on their flight to L.A. “Friends who ask for Xanax or Klonopin generally need it,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having something on flights. If you have a plane phobia, there’s no reason to sit there and freak out the whole time when you could take a Klonopin and pass out and not deal with it. Because what are you going to do about it? All this face-your-fear shit: That’s so very eighties, and I don’t really believe in it.”

Today, she is dressed in a peach-and-black-striped slip dress and massive silver hoop earrings. Everything about Small is big: big voice, big eyes, big breasts, big hair. Seven years ago, she had a big nervous breakdown. “Like you think that people have ‘nervous breakdowns’ and you know what that means? But I did,” she says. Now she takes various drugs at various times of the day: Prozac in the morning, Klonopin in the evening, Neurontin at suppertime.

She is tired, she says, of defending herself against concerned relatives and friends who are worried about her pill-popping. “People are like, Who knows what you could be doing right now if you weren’t medicated? It’s just crap. What I could be doing is crying in my room. Look, I take a minimum of fourteen pills a day. It’s not attractive. It’s not something pleasing. It’s something you have to explain to people when you start dating. I’d prefer they make one little pill that I could swallow casually, because I really do think it’s the volume of these pills—the way they’re all different sizes and shapes—that makes people think it’s like I’m in Candyland and I’m playing. But I’m not. I’m trying to keep myself sane.”

Despite the prevalence of medication in this city, the assumption persists (among the uninitiated) that taking meds will make you a grief-free zombie— that you’ll lose your edge and end up more of a suburbanite than a New Yorker. “That’s crap,” says Small. “It’s not like I walk around happy as a bee. I’m still just as conflicted and crazy as I ever was. I’m still pissy and cynical. But now I can live my life and I’m content.”

Actually, Small recently gave up Prozac for a while, just to see if she could: “You have doubting periods; you have periods where you think, Oh, I’ve just moved from being addicted to one kind of drug to another. Or: There’s nothing really wrong with me—I’m just creating all of this.” She laughs. “I went off Prozac in December. By the end of February, I was a complete and total nightmare.”

For all the well-meaning, drug-eschewing people in her life who offer advice, Small has a little tip of her own: “When I see people who so obviously need to be on medicine, I’m like, What are you waiting for? There’s an answer. I have this friend who’s been this anxious, depressed wreck for the last year or so. And it’s like: You are depressed all the time. You need, need, need, need. I really don’t have the patience to sit here and listen to you talk about how miserable you are when you won’t do anything about it. I almost find it like if you didn’t go to the dentist and then you started freaking out that you have cavities. Take care of it. Suck it up.”


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