Maybe the only thing we identify with from Valley of the Dolls, Jaqueline Susann’s sensational story of three pill-popping glamour queens in the 50’s, is the pills. Stressed, over-achieving San Fernando Valley moms of today may not be stealing each others coveted Hollywood roles, sleeping with someone else’s husband, or slapping each other dramatically across the face to make a point, but we are downing the drugs: Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Lexipro for whatever-ails-you du jour, Xanax and Valium for anxiety, Progesterone, Estrogen, and birth control for hormone imbalance, Imitrex for migraines. These symptoms, commonly referred to by health care professionals as “mood disorders,” can easily be categorized into ordinary anxiety, depression, bipolar, or perimenopause, and there’s a pharmaceutical redress for each of the them.
Last year, after a particularly scheduled month, I found myself parked outside my child’s school bawling inconsolably because I’d misscheduled “picture day” on my Yahoo calendar. After delivering my daughter to class in a crumb covered, marker-stained shirt with an unbrushed ponytail, I observed the faux-garden backdrop and lighting equipment set-up. I returned to my Prius and sat for a half-hour sobbing about my abject failure as a mother before realizing that I could possibly be over-reacting. This set-off a series of primary care referrals to psychiatric, ob/gyn, lab and therapy appointments to root out the problem.
Come to find that my chest cramps, inability to breath, consistent headaches, laced with panic-stricken power errands, were “merely” anxiety. Merely is in quotes because every doctor I spoke with was completely eye-rolling and dismissive about it. I surrendered my feminist power demeanor and sought rescue from anyone I thought could cure me, serially conveying my symptoms to each physician on the list.
I cautiously popped Xanax, the temporary* remedy I’d been prescribed, while visions of a narcotized Judy Garland yelling at her plebeians danced round my head. *This “band-aid” –the doctor’s word, not mine –was dispensed to me in bottle the size of a propane tank, btw, and was to be used liberally to abate my constant “fight or flight” feeling, jaw-clenching and neck spasms.
Truth be told, I was a willing guinea pig for an antidote. I had sh*t to do, for Godsake! Henceforth, the plan for my well-being was set in motion, to include muscle relaxers with selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to “re-set the imbalance.” All so effortless — one pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and so on…
My brain revolted. There was Lexipro, the Porsche of designer drugs, which, by Day 4, gave me skull shock-waves and had me texting my husband to rush home, while I schooled my 5 year old in dialing 911. Then Celexa, the everyone takes it drug, which kept me up all night with excruciating eye-socket pain. Finally came Zoloft, old reliable, which subtly suspends most cerebral malfunction from depression to anxiety, while killing what’s left of your sex drive. Side-effects! Who cares?
Overnight, I’m a sick person with a different med for each hour of the day. When traveling, twenty different containers to consider. High-maintenance, in a generic haze, with zilch creativity.
After several months, did my constant panic subside? Yes. But I discovered that increasing my work-out and monitoring my daily diet made more of an impact. So once the teeth grinding and palpitations dwindled, I weened* myself off the pills. *It should be noted that you just can’t quit taking SSRI’s, their use has to be ended gradually or you’ll wind up in a psych ward.
My conclusion to the mental health experiment is this: there is no simple fix. With the crunched time we’re allotted each day, a priority has to be made for our general constitution. The obvious tenets of well-being– rest, exercise, eating right, saying no to superfluous commitments and refusing to respond to your iPhone like a Rhesus monkey does to a laboratory cookie, is the only way to a calm pulse and a clear mind.
I know. Boring. Redundant. Just more to do, this taking care of ourselves business, as if we don’t have enough going on. And I’m not decrying all use of medication or promoting almighty perfection, “merely” suggesting steps that may keep us off the nut pharm.
Remember what the dormouse said; “Feed YOUR HEAD.”
Pam Alster, former stand-up comedienne, Lifetime TV writer & suburban mom brings a decade of living on the dark side to light in her forthcoming debut novel Robin’s Blue. www.pamalster.com