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The other night I went to a comedy club in the wilds of South Jersey.
And laughed and laughed and laughed. The two folks I went there with
laughed and laughed and laughed, too. One of them, let’s call her edgy
as a rogue elephant, calmed out beautifully, as if somebody had given
her a shot.

Positively therapeutic.

Even as we watched the quartet of comics trot out their mostly tired
routines, her whole face smoothed itself and she stopped being such a
supremely annoying itch.

I noticed this.

True, it was clear we were part of a culture programmed to chortle at
the non-humorous flat-line minimalism of a Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern,
or David Letterman. But this wasn’t just Pavlovian conditioning –
something else was at work here.

Worth noting.

After taking a sweaty turn at a Shakespearean-sounding monologue
onstage, Tony, an Orson Welles-lookalike and the club’s acting manager,
told me comedy clubs in America have fallen upon hard times since the
later 1990s. Some have closed. Others have cut back. That night’s
headliner — someone still doing the hilarious song parodies I must have
seen him create way back in paranoid 1984 — was forced to survive, Tony
whispered, by pumping gas rather than performing the three shows a
night, seven days a week of his heyday.

Had we stopped laughing? I began wondering what had changed in
America.

Tony wasn’t sure. Cable TV? I have another theory: Now, instead of
going to comedy clubs, people go on
Prozac.

This comedy club-Prozac connection’s not as far-fetched as it may
seem. Way back, respectable journalist Norman Cousins solidified the
dynamic link between body and mind and spirit when he locked himself
into a hotel room with a handful of movie comedies and his VCR,
eventually penning “The Anatomy of an Illness” after cleverly laughing
himself back to health.

Makes sense. We are programmed to go toward pleasure, away from pain.
If something interferes with this mechanism, usually there’s a natural
drive toward restoring balance, with the operative word being “natural.”

So, people used to haul their sagging butts into comedy clubs to feel
better about themselves and the world.

Lately, they go on drugs. Or online. Same difference.

Hey, it could be a comedy routine: “I read that the number of
millions of people currently on America Online is roughly equal to how
many people are on Prozac. I wonder about the overlap.”

Except it’s not funny.

Why, amidst unparalleled prosperity, are millions upon millions of us
so miserable? Diet soda? Food additives? Something in the water? Some
trustworthy scientist somewhere without an ideological axe to grind
should give this some serious study.

Meanwhile, despite the USA officially “fighting an anti-drug war”
globally, all manner of prescription pills are pushed on the
unsuspecting citizenry in the name of “progress.” Shades of Soma in
Huxley’s “Brave New World.” It’s heeeeeere!!!

I actually just heard mush-brained Kay Redfield Jamison, a highly
regarded professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, praise the practice
of putting pre-schoolers
on Lithium and other psychotropic drugs. Incredible, right? Then I heard
her extol the U.S. surgeon general. I was there! The surgeon general is
our friend? I DON’T THINK SO! Is SHE on these drugs? Of course. They
keep her alive. My psychologically aware friends Werner and Kathy had
dragged me to Dr. Jamison’s recent Borders signing in Philly, promoting
her newest book of revelations, “Night Falls Fast: Understanding
Suicide.” I must confess, hearing Dr. Jamison say all that stupid stuff
to an unsuspecting public nearly unhinged me. I began muttering to
myself as if I had suddenly developed Tics of Tourette’s, and,
momentarily, I wanted someone to engage in projectile vomiting in her
direction — but, alas, Dan Savage
was busy.

Ack! Will these drug dispensers and medical misfits never learn?

They babble. They maunder. They tout. And they rhapsodize. Peter
Kramer, in his deluded paean, “Listening to Prozac,” heralded the
oncoming age of “cosmetic psychopharmacology” where a person could
become “better than well” on Prozac. Soon: Designer Psyches. Next up on
Oprah. Don’t like your personality? Remodel it with pharmaceuticals.

“How about we all take them and we can all stay blissed out forever,”
holistic therapist Pam Ladds says sarcastically. “Maybe politicians and
physicians should start as the role models.”

They probably already have, beginning with Tipper Gore and working
sideways. Wait for the campaign revelation that besides inventing the
Internet, the late-blooming adolescent and presidential aspirant Al Bore
created Prozac with his kiddie chemistry kit.

We Americans have always been fascinated with other people’s
problems. Last decade, I did a truckload of interviews with celebrity
depressives — on drugs and off — and one of the doctors who helped
make them that way. I talked to Peter Kramer in his insidiously
persuasive Prozac apologist mode. I talked to that pharmaceutical
poster-child, babelicious Elizabeth Wurtzel, who wrote “Prozac Nation.”
I talked to Susannah Kaysen who wrote “Girl, Interrupted,” currently a
terrific flick about — be still my heart — those paradoxically
alluring Borderline personalities, plus Angelina Jolie’s lips. I
overdosed on the whole freakin’ navel-gazing bunch.

If you stay up late enough, you may have seen Eli Lily’s half-hour
infomercial hit the airwaves for Prozac, the global anti-depressant
blockbuster raking in three billion bucks-plus a year for the Indiana
drug giant.

I guess they figure if you’re up watching TV past midnight, or in
this case the middle of the night and on weekends, you have insomnia and
you’re a couch potato, which could earmark you as a depressive, so you
are a leading candidate for this universal panacea for everything from
anxiety to zits, now even prescribed off-label for children, cats and
dogs, and soon, perhaps, even your houseplants which exhibit failure to
thrive.

And if you’re not depressed, you might well get that way, after
watching the glut of late-night infomercials — those insidiously empty
sales-pitches-masquerading-as-program-content — for such absolute life
essentials as hydraulic carrot peelers, countertop broilers that heat up
your entire kitchen if your power accidentally goes off, food
dehydrators from the threatened Y2K debacle, permanent if hideous hair
extensions, anti-flab contraptions left over from the torture caverns of
Torquemada, musical vibrators with nostalgic songs for all occasions
crooned by Barry Manilow or Barry White, and magnetic bobby-pins which
double as lock-pickers should you forget your door keys.

When my best female friend went on Prozac, that thought really
depressed me.

Named after one of the virtues, she was, ordinarily, a vibrant,
upbeat, peppy person even when tormented by her inner demons. But
finally, alas, she has succumbed, after seeing her Shadow, become one of
the Medicated Multi-Millions.

“Thank goodness,” her nitwit of a husband sighed in abject relief,
momentarily certain he would no longer have to worry about scraping her
off the patio flagstones someday if she tried, and succeeded, in ending
it all.

Come back, Gentle Readers, I promise you this piece will not,
finally, slip and slide and slink and sink into the Slough of Despond,
and I mean it. What I want to celebrate is the brilliant technique my
friend invented, but used all too briefly: VIRTUAL PROZAC.

This initially helped her adjust to some truly terrible changes in
her life, engendered by moving too far away from her job, family,
friends, childhood home, to a cold, dark, cheerless, distant northern
state where she felt trapped in a burrow resembling an LL Bean catalog.

Certainly Thomas Szasz, the visionary psychologist, once posited that
depression is a logical reaction to a depressing world, or something to
that effect. But that insight has never deterred those legions of
Americans who seem to believe that the Declaration of Independence’s
guarantees of “the pursuit of happiness” means they are entitled to
their psychotropic drugs of choice.

Then let them take Virtual Prozac. It works like this: In any given
stress/terror/anxiety-producing situation, simply pretend you have taken
Prozac. For my old friend — an introvert forced by moving at mid-life
to meet scores of strangers — this strategy was a true gem; suddenly
she became a thoroughly pleasant partygoer, an open, accessible, and
outgoing version of Mrs. Congeniality in anybody’s pageant.

This worked, I guess, because there’s a canny component of cognitive
therapy at its core: we think, therefore, we are. And just think about
all the great features of Virtual Prozac. Besides being absolutely free,
it definitely won’t screw up your sex drive, unlike its chemical
counterpart — which too frequently dispatches the Libido to Never-Never
Land, as in, “Tonight? NEVER!”

And Virtual Prozac won’t give you any of the other unpleasant side
effects no one usually bothers to tell you about. No dry mouth. No
bloat. No emotional flat-lining, as in, “My boy/girl/friend the
numbed-out android.”

Oh, and Virtual Prozac is also portable. You can’t forget to take it
with you. No worrying about our prescription running out while you are
in a foreign country. Or dangerous drug interactions. Or agonizing if
your purse gets snatched. It’s virtually foolproof.

And so it was, for awhile. Virtual Prozac cushioned my friend’s
adjustment to a frightening time, until she lost faith in virtuality and
contacted a psychiatrist to prescribe actual, uh, Prozac. Unfortunately,
the shrink — following the direction managed care has sent mental
health — was merely a virtual therapist who substitutes medication for
counseling.

As for me, I’ll stick with the Virtual Prozac. It’s fine for a time
when, just as my last secretary Phyllis predicted, they have confession
via computer. Can communion be far behind? We already have drive-by
worship and prayers by voice-mail. Why not?

When I get in a bad mood and the Virtual Prozac fails to kick in, I
pray. Or walk in the woods. Or ride a bike. Or listen to some pleasant
music. Or follow my breath, meditating for ten minutes with a white
candle. Or call a friend. Or take some Rescue Remedy or B-complex. Or
write in a journal. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I
ride it through, to the other side.

Listen, gang, with joy comes sorrow. Deal with it. It’s the
inevitable cycle of life. My very own sainted mother was a pill person.
But it wasn’t her idea. Like many tragically inclined ’50s housewives
including Gloria Steinem’s mother, my mom was medicated into a stupor by
her physicians. That’s right. My mother’s doctors socialized her into
taking pills for every little twitch of angst, anxiety, depression,
sleeplessness. Nardil, Tofranil, Elavil and various other weird
chemical sisters were my mother’s great and good friends. It was enough
to switch me to vitamins for life.

After my mother died a decade ago, I went through the house like a
maniac on a tear, opening up the medicine chests, the closets, the
drawers, the cubby-holes, emptying the bottles, the vials, the boxes of
pills and vile potions. I dumped them down the loo in a blind fury.
Pills everywhere, bright primary colors, a lexicon of cold beauty, numb,
dumb, dead like she was, flushing them down the toilet with my tears.
All the bottles with her name on them. Pounds and pounds of capsules and
spansules. Samples hoarded like gold. Drugs for my mother to make her
sleep, to keep her from weeping. I can’t imagine what her life was like,
perpetually dazed, 30 years medicated by a chemical haze. What could she
feel? What was real to her? And why she threw away nothing, except the
love, light, and laughter that might have helped heal her.

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