Medicating The Human Condition

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 30 2013 @ 8:39pm

Scott Stossel recounts his efforts to cure his crippling anxiety:

Some drugs have helped a little, for finite periods of time. Thorazine (an antipsychotic that used to be referred to as a “major tranquilizer”) and imipramine (a tricyclic antidepressant) combined to help keep me out of the psychiatric hospital in the early 1980s, when I was in middle school and ravaged by anxiety. Desipramine, another tricyclic, got me through my early 20s. Paxil (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI) gave me about six months of significantly reduced anxiety in my late 20s before the fear broke through again. A double scotch plus a Xanax and a Dramamine can sometimes, when administered before takeoff, make flying tolerable. And two double scotches, when administered in quick enough succession, can obscure existential dread, making it seem fuzzier and further away. But none of these treatments has fundamentally reduced the underlying anxiety that seems hardwired into my body and woven into my soul and that at times makes my life a misery.

My assortment of neuroses may be idiosyncratic, but my general condition is hardly unique.

Anxiety and its associated disorders represent the most common form of officially classified mental illness in the United States today, more common even than depression and other mood disorders. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some 40 million American adults, about one in six, are suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder at any given time; based on the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services, their treatment accounts for more than a quarter of all spending on mental-health care. Recent epidemiological data suggest that one in four of us can expect to be stricken by debilitating anxiety at some point in our lifetime. And it is debilitating: studies have compared the psychic and physical impairment tied to living with an anxiety disorder with the impairment tied to living with diabetes—both conditions are usually manageable, sometimes fatal, and always a pain to deal with. In 2012, Americans filled nearly 50 million prescriptions for just one antianxiety drug: alprazolam, the generic name for Xanax.