The last time I went to my psychiatrist’s office, he asked me how I felt. I said that with the pills he was giving me, I felt as happy as a clam. He then, with the full approval of the DEA, the AMA, and the American Psychological Association, sat down with pad and pen and wrote a few words, thus making it possible for me to continue my drug habit — namely, Zoloft, first cousin to Prozac.
I don’t mind; he doesn’t mind; Pfizer Pharmaceuticals certainly doesn’t mind. Even the drug police don’t mind that I have this habit which has taken me over. After all, it makes me better in every way — a more quiet, more moral, more content American.
It’s a habit, but it’s one I would not willingly give up. No one (least of all me) wants me to go back to those 3 A.M. anxiety attacks, the room quivering with danger, my mind overloaded with panic, the terror out of nowhere that creeps into bed with me, makes reason, hope, desire, wisdom, and sanity not only unreachable, but impossible.
My drug of choice requires a bit of a trade-off, though. Besides ruining my liquor capacity and stonewalling my lust, the pill has put an end to my writing. And I’m someone who couldn’t get through the day without writing a ten-page, single-spaced letter to a friend, who couldn’t make it through the year without sending off a book to the publisher.
Me, a writing junkie, and all I have written in these last eight months is a cheerful letter to the IRS asking if they are going to put me in jail for back taxes. And what you are reading right now.
Someday I’ll write Tales of Zoloft: The Perfect American Drug. Want to abuse it? Ha. Take too many and all you get is a stomachache. For it to kick in at all, you have to swallow it daily, religiously, for four to six weeks.
The perfect American drug. Good for anorexia and alcoholism. Curbs smoking, and even makes people give up shoplifting. Makes us happy when we should be sad, happier when we should be happy.
The key side effect is what it does to one’s sex life. Although I am still mildly interested in passion, it’s nothing like the idiot beast that ran me for so many years. Indeed, I foresee a day when sex criminals will be required to take Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, or one of their many cousins. Say you’re a registered sex offender. Want to stay out of jail? Report to your Regional Antifondle Center every day at noon, where they’ll give you a cup of ground-up Zoloft and watch you drink it. Miss a day’s worth of your liquid control and you’re back in the pokey.
You’ll be happier, they say. Trust us. We did it thirty years ago in the institutions with Valium; we did it fifteen years ago on the streets with Methadone; now we can do it in the suburbs with the wonder drug of the nineties.
When my secretary loses a check, I nod agreeably, ask mildly if she can replace it. When my friend Ramon lets his puppy wet on my rug, I smile. When I get stuck in traffic, I sing 1940s love songs to myself and the other drivers. This week’s favorite was “I Surrender, Dear”:
When night appears and shadows fall, That’s when you know my poor heart calls. Without you I can’t make my way. I surrender, dear. I may seem bold; I may act gay. It’s just a pose; I’m not that way. To you, my love, my life, my all, I surrender, deeeeaaaaarrrr.
My psychiatrist explains that Zoloft tweaks the selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors in my brain, which means I can now experience the innocent joy I’ve missed out on all these years. Seems that while I was busy brooding on the slings and arrows of my fate, all the good moods got shipped off to a secret memory bank somewhere in the outback. Now I can retire, and collect. My account is bulging!
He also tells me that when I go off the drug — if I ever go off it — it has to be done gradually. Apparently, if I quit cold turkey, I might have seizures, wake the neighbors.
Finally, he leaves me with the ultimate in double binds: if I keep on taking it, we know my depression and panic will remain at bay; but if I get uneasy about my new addiction and decide to quit, there’s a chance they won’t let me back on it again. Seems there’s something in the nature of the drug that doesn’t allow a return ticket for those who jump ship.
Could there be a more artful twist than that? We kiss the jewel in the forehead of the toad, move into the castle, and become happy princes and princesses. But if we dare to exit, they pull up the drawbridge behind us, and never let us return — no matter how much we beg, there outside the gates.
Yes, the perfect American double bind, to go with the perfect American drug.
Another version of this essay previously appeared in New Mobility.