Pill Culture Pops

Photo: Chago Akii-Bua & Brian Jones

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.

The Right Pill When…Ambien
•Job interview tomorrow at ten.
•The plane to L.A.Klonopin
•Husband wants some space.
•Marijuana-delivery guy is late.
•Hate to socialize. Have to socialize.
•Ex is dating a celebrity.
•Shrink leaves in August.Percocet
•Chewed out by the boss.
•Dr. Feelgood: my dentist.
•Relaxing takes time– that you haven’t got.Ritalin
•Big dinner to organize.
•Deadline pushed up.
•Studying for the bar.Valium
•Son won’t take to toilet training.
•Is that a gray hair?
•Internet blind date tonight.Viagra
•Bumped into ex-girlfriend.
•Had three too many cocktails.
•”I swear, this has never happened to me before.”Vicodin
•Time to kick back.
•Class reunion coming up.
•Got rejection slip from publisher.Wellbutrin
•No smoking ever.
•Will the market ever go up?
•Passed over for promotion.Xanax
•Have to fire the nanny.
•Got seventh parking ticket this month.
•Paxil prescription has run out.

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.”

Well, that was the conventional wisdom until recently. Ron Winchel, a Manhattan-based psychopharmacologist, says that the psychiatric community is only now coming to realize the potentially disastrous effect of treating bipolar people with SSRIs—and that bipolarity isn’t the easiest thing to recognize. “SSRIs are almost benign, except to the large number of people who at first look to doctors as if they have a unipolar depression, but who in reality have a variant form of one of the bipolar disorders,” he says. “For them, exposure to any antidepressant can actually make them worse, because if you give someone who is potentially bipolar an antidepressant, you can engender more of the ‘high’ side of their disorder. That leads to more depression, because you have accelerated the cycle.”

Winchel calls this “an enormous problem,” because bipolarity can masquerade as regular vanilla depression. “They may never even show mania till after they’ve been exposed to these medications. So what percentage of people who we are blithely handing out SSRIs to, thinking, Oh, there’s no side effect, are actually bipolar?”

But Winchel is also quick to point out another, less frightening, equally surprising medical possibility: “Everyone is always asking me, ‘Is this going to hurt my brain after I’m on it for a long time?’ But no one ever says to me, ‘Is it going to be good for my brain?’ There’s a couple examples—like lithium—where a drug has actually been shown to encourage the growth of healthy brain cells in regions of the brain where there is diminished activity in people with mood syndromes. And we do believe that it is bad for the brain to experience spurts of anxiety, because they are associated with secretions of chemicals that are actually toxic for the brain. So the possibility that some of these drugs that we’re using in psychiatry have neuroprotective effects is real.”

The creative usage and trading of psychopharmaceuticals—the cocktail party as pill bazaar—is what worries the doctors who prescribe the drugs. “There’s a tremendous amount wrong with it,” says Darwin Buschman, a clinical psychopharmacologist affiliated with Mount Sinai, Lenox Hill, Saint Luke’s, and Gracie Square. “Psychostimulants, which include Ritalin and Adderall, and benzodiazepines, which include Xanax and Ativan, are both highly addictive. When one is addicted to benzodiazepines, withdrawal can be life-threatening—particularly with Xanax. Heroin withdrawal is very uncomfortable but not life-threatening; same for coke. But with benzodiazepines, you can die. Period. So I am very careful as to how I prescribe those medications.”

Buschman says that “if you take a benzodiazepine every day for a month, you are addicted,” but he also says that he has patients who take these drugs several times a day and have been doing so for years: “They’re addicted, but it’s what they need. I make sure they don’t run out so they won’t have life-threatening seizures from withdrawal. See, it’s complicated, because while you can die from withdrawal, you cannot overdose on these medications. You can take 5,000 Valium, and you will sleep for a very long time, but you will not die.”

For many doctors, the frustration of working with psychopharmaceuticals is the somewhat arbitrary regulation of the different genres: Some of the least dangerous drugs are the most highly monitored, especially here. New York is the only state in which benzodiazepines are considered a controlled substance, which means they require a triplicate prescription. “Meanwhile, Vicodin isn’t a controlled substance, and it’s infinitely more dangerous than Ativan,” says Buschman.

“What drives me crazy is the people who say ‘Why don’t you try Saint-John’s-wort?’ ” says a high-profile 39-year-old who just started taking her SSRI again after an ill-fated psychopharmaceutical hiatus. “I’m like, what the fuck is that? Because it doesn’t have a stigma and it may not work? Because it’s not regulated? Because I can buy it at some disgusting health-food store? It just amazes me. I was telling this friend: For the past few weeks, I’ve had traditional, horrible depression. I’ve got to go back on meds. And she was like, ‘I don’t know, man.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been smoking a lot of pot.’ And she was like, ‘You’ve got a high-pressure job! That’s okay.’ So I said, ‘I smoked a cigarette the other night,’ which for me is a really big deal. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said. Then I said, ‘I think I should go back on meds.’ ‘Oh, man,’ she said. ‘You better watch that shit.’ Why?! It’s not like coke or alcohol or drugs, where you wake up the next morning and the problem is ten times worse.”

Ubiquitous lawyer (and Bonfire of the Vanities inspiration) Ed Hayes says, “I just wish the medication had been available to my father and his father. If they had this, they wouldn’t have been drunks. I have very primitive values as to what constitutes masculinity, and I used to think taking medication would mean I wasn’t man enough to handle my problems.” He got over it. “Now I take a simple medication, and the side effects are nothing.”

Before Viagra, the only options open to doctors trying to keep their patients both erect and depression-free were to minimize their dosage, prescribe intermittent “medication holidays,” or supplement an insufficient dose of a given SSRI with Wellbutrin. Even now, when you can buy Viagra over the Internet, some men still opt to work within the new sexual terrain they find their medication has redrawn for them. In certain cases, SSRIs can have the effect of delaying orgasm rather than causing impotence—not necessarily an unwelcome event for all men (or their partners).

“When you first notice the sexual side effects, you’re probably so depressed you just want to get better and you probably don’t feel much like having sex anyway,” says a filmmaker in his early thirties. “But then you start to feel better, and of course you notice. It’s a weird thing … I have friends who say they’re into it because it makes them last longer. For me, it’s not a great thing, but for some reason I was like, Yeah, I can live with the fact that my sex life is totally screwed up. But the second I noticed I was getting fat, I was like, Forget this.”

“I take at least 14 pills a day. 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.”

Like other prescription drugs circulating through the city, Viagra also has a second life. “Viagra has worked its way into the gays, at least, for recreation,” reports the designer who favors perky stacking boxes stuffed with Xanax for his party favors. “The idea is you’re doing a lot of crystal and a lot of gay party drugs, and it makes it hard to get it up. So the combo plate is you do that and Viagra and it keeps you hard and, um, ups the ante so you don’t have to worry about getting a softy from doing too much K.”

It reminds him, he says wistfully, of his very first prescription party drugs: “My first experience with pills was with downs, to come off disco drugs. It could have been a Valium, and sometimes you’d score with Rohypnol before it became the date-rape drug. That was the best. After you’re through partying, after however long you’ve been up, you want the thing that’ll bring you down the fastest and the hardest, and that’s how the hierarchy was set up.”

Using prescription drugs to work a little harder, sleep a little better, relax a little faster, has become a given in the city’s mainstream. “A friend of mine coined the term cosmetic psychopharmacology,” says Winchel.

Is this good, or is this bad? is a quasi-philosophical question, an ethical question, more than a medical question. We do enter into this in psychiatry because of the emerging issue of whether or not there are some people we cannot diagnose with a symptom but who seem to benefit from an antidepressant nonetheless.”

A friend of mine who is currently taking Zoloft seems to be getting more agitation from this question than relief from her pills. “If you’re taking something to make your life suck less, then why don’t you just make your life suck less? This is 2003 in an advanced society of which you are one of the most fortunate members! Think if you were a little child in Cambodia who never got education, and compare that to your incredible fucking life! And you’re depressed? How can you be sure it’s not just that you’re a spoiled brat? They say chemicals are not something that you would respond to if you were not depressed, but part of me thinks that’s bullshit.”

It’s true that there are similarities between the way we test meds and the way we used to test witches. If a woman swims, she’s a witch, so you have to kill her; and if she drowns, she’s innocent. But either way, she’s dead. If a person is depressed and a medication affects her mood, then she needs it; if she’s depressed and it doesn’t, she needs a different one. Either way, she’s got to be medicated. “The way that people take it in New York,” says my friend, “I mean, everybody is on something, and that’s stupid! It’s impossible that all highly functioning people are depressed and that they all live in Manhattan.”

I ask what her psychiatrist says about all this.

“She says I’m probably on the wrong drug.”

Pill Culture Pops