Escape From Valley Of The Dolls: One Writer Overcomes Demon Xanax

Illustration for article titled Escape From Valley Of The Dolls: One Writer Overcomes Demon Xanax

If you know Lisa Carver's writing, you know she's all about owning her experience. The only one she's ashamed of? As she tells Salon, her unglamorous dependence on prescription drugs. As a pill-popper, her account leaves me with mixed feelings.

Carver's made a career of frank confession: talking about a wild childhood, an unreliable drug-dealer dad, her time as a sex worker, her escapades with people and substances. As she writes in a must-read essay in Salon,

I do believe in drugs — for fun and enlightenment. I've tried PCP, LSD, speed, poppers, mushrooms. (I even wrote a book called "Drugs Are Nice.") If it weren't for a one-time use of Ecstasy — which I believe opened up intimacy passages blocked by childhood trauma — I may have gone an entire lifetime without understanding why anyone would want to kiss anyone. E unlocked a door for me. But I didn't understand taking something over and over, walking back and forth through a door already opened wide. That's like watching reruns all day. I've occasionally drunk to black out, only to discover what I was capable of when inhibitions were deactivated. (The answer? A lot!) But I would no more smoke or drink as a daily habit than I would throw darts at my eyes. I was against stupefication in any form — doing computer blackjack at work till you're fired, having compulsive sex with exes who don't care about you. Why would you want to escape life? Life is everything! Nor did I want to escape who I was, no matter how fucked up. I was infinitely interested in strange me, in strange life.


In other words, what she doesn't believe in is numbing yourself to life, as her pill-popping, unhappy mother did. But when her divorce turns ugly and stressful (her husband attempts to use her no-holds-barred confessional writings as evidence of her unfit maternity) her doctor prescribes Xanax. And soon, she's hooked, taking higher doses, using Xanax and Valium first to get to sleep, then to get through the day. And she hates what she's become:

I was pathetic. Dependent, half-alive, secretive, accepting of the unacceptable. I didn't see it that way, because I was in too much of a haze to see much of anything. That's the problem with anti-anxiety medication: Its purpose is to help you ignore internal danger signals that aren't real. Once in its velvety thrall, however, how are you supposed to recognize the warning signs that are real?

And she gives it up, which is rough, but ultimately better than not feeling. Now, I have somewhat mixed feelings about this piece. On the one hand, yes, she had an addiction, as debilitating and unhealthy as any addiction. And it's great that she was able to kick it. On the other hand, I'm always wary of those with a unilateral scorn for prescription drugs, which is what Carver has. Last time I saw my mother, she took me aside for a "talk." It was the usual: maybe I should think about easing off my anti-depressants and take more "brisk walks." Really, she said "it's largely mental" and in our med-dependent culture, it's easy to ignore our body's natural resources. Well, maybe. But nature made me with insufficient endorphins in my adult brain. And before I went on medication I felt an inertia and a crushing sadness and a desire to quit that was profoundly unnatural. And an Ativan has knocked me out of more than one scary spiral of panic and despair. Unlike Carver, I've never been too into drugs - my native instability removed a lot of the appeal. But I'm prepared to take meds as long as I need to. To my mother and her forebears, though, this was something to be embarrassed by, an acknowledgment of weakness better overcome with the forementioned "brisk walks" and a dash of Puritan work ethic. It's not, as Carver says, glamorous; it's not voluntary or experimental. It still carries the taint, for many, of self-indulgence, of Valley of the Dolls-style decadence and indulgent Doctor Roberts tending to neuroses. Of Rush Limbaugh and Betty Ford, rather than Janis and Jimmy. And as a result, when I first started seeing a psychiatrist it was a period of tension between us, and for a long time I felt ashamed. My boyfriend, too, has the former-hippie's suspicion of the "chemical," and it took the undeniable proof of my improvement to resign either of them to the snake oils of Lexapro. It's still not something my mom and I talk about openly.

I guess I feel a sense of this attitude in Carver, both before she went on Xanax and after. And yes, she's right, we're an overmedicated culture. These are serious drugs, or they couldn't effect the changes, good and bad, they do. (As I tell a bored pharmacist every time I pay for a prescription, "Well, I guess I wouldn't want anything cheap in my brain!") Now, I know plenty of people who pop them indiscriminately - anything people have around, anything a hack will prescribe, do you have any leftover Vicodin from your wisdom tooth removal? - just for any momentary break from dull reality. And it's desperate and unhealthy and, unlike many other drugs, can coexist with the symptoms of a functional life. No one would take them if a brisk walk would do the same trick - for good and bad.
My Life In Xanax [Salon]

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I can't begrudge anyone the help of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs. In fact, after years of treatment with stints and cholesterol-lowering drugs, my father finally saw real improvement with his heart disease when he was prescribed anti-depressants. They helped reduce his stress levels and provided the mood elevation necessary to actual alter his eating and exercise habits. It was an unexpected treatment choice by his doctor, but in retrospect we all realize it was probably the best medical decision my dad's ever made.

But as someone who has struggled with depression and has chosen, for a variety of reasons, not to use prescription drugs to treat it, I can tell you the stigma goes both ways. During the darkest days of my disease, I had plenty of friends and family members express exasperation and a, "Can't you just take a pill and stop being a pain in the ass" attitude. Some people see turning to medication as a sign of weakness, others see it as an obvious cure-all. Quite often, for people with mental illness, there is no winning in the eyes of others.