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Anne Thériault | Longreads | September 2019 | 6 minutes (1,607 words)
When I was 20, I cornered my ex-boyfriend in his bedroom during a party and cried on him for two hours, leaving a watery mascara stain down the front of his shirt. When he finally managed to extricate himself, I found his best friend and did the same to him. I made the rounds of the party, rehashing my misery to anyone who would listen: how my ex had broken my heart, how I was certain that I was an unloveable failure, how I thought about killing myself. I knew that I should stop and go home, but I couldn’t; my feelings were huge and immediate; the thought of being alone was unbearable.
I’d always been an over-emotional cryer, but that year was a personal nadir when it came to mental health. There had been the breakup, then I’d lost my housing situation, and finally, financial problems had forced me to drop out of school. I went from being an occasional downer to a wailing banshee party-ruiner. I just couldn’t differentiate between the immediate relief of dissolving into tears and the long-term gratification of cultivating emotional continence — probably because I no longer believed I had a future. My friends were exasperated and wanted to know why I couldn’t just stop doing things that made me feel bad. My answer — everything made me feel bad anyway, and I just couldn’t help it — seemed insufficient even to me.
A few weeks after the party crying incident, I found a copy of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation at a secondhand bookstore. It had been out for nearly a decade, but up until then I’d resisted it. For one thing, I’d actually been on Prozac for the previous three years, so reading it seemed a little too clichéd. For another, I was skeptical that the beautiful girl on the cover, with her clear skin and artfully messy hair, could know anything about my ugly life. But by the end of the prologue — titled, with extreme subtlety and nuance, “I Hate Myself And I Want To Die” — I was hooked.
Prozac Nation is a young person’s book, both in terms of its author and its target audience. It’s full of florid language, sweeping generalizations, and an obsessive, unproductive introspection. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from someone like Albert Einstein, Sylvia Plath, or Edith Wharton. Many of the original reviews were negative, and offered valid critical perspectives on the book. The text did need a stronger editorial grip, at the very least to fix the distracting moments when Wurtzel jumps from one tense to another within the same paragraph. The narrative really was just as repetitive and self-pitying as critics accused it of being. Wurtzel seemed to have no perspective when it came to her own behavior, offering it all up for consumption without any kind of analysis. But all of this (tense-jumping aside) might be the book’s secret genius.
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Prozac Nation was the first time I saw myself reflected in writing about mental illness. Sure, I’d read and loved Plath, Kaysen, and all the other stars of the depressed-lady canon, but none of their work was as relatable to me then as Wurtzel’s prose, at once grandiose and claustrophobic. It’s the kind of book that feels like edgy literature to a white girl in her early 20s, and I don’t mean that as snidely as it might sound; everyone deserves their own version of On The Road or Naked Lunch for that period in their life. Prozac Nation read to my 20-year-old self like something I aspired to someday write, precious epigraphs and all. At one point early in the narrative, Wurtzel voices a worry that her story is “too stupid, too girlish, too middle class.” But that was exactly why it resonated with me. Even the parts that grated on my nerves, like Wurtzel’s frequent bewailing of the fact that she had once been the best little girl in the world, sounded like me. In fact, I had a litany of similar regrets that I dragged out whenever I was down; I called it my catechism, which I thought was witty and ironic. There are certainly times when Prozac Nation feels monotonous and solipsistic, but that aligns with my own experiences with depressive spirals. Repetition and self-obsession are part of the nature of the illness.
What seemed most important to me about Wurtzel’s writing was that she had been messy, and she was willing to detail that mess without apology. Just: here is how I’ve behaved. She offers the reader no contextualizing, no explaining, no objective distance from the events described. I still can’t tell if Wurtzel did this intentionally or not — and, if it’s a device meant to draw readers deep into her own stream of consciousness, she doesn’t always wield it skilfully — but either way, it was a radical departure from how I’d seen women write about themselves. I’d never read a story about a woman engaging in such rambunctious self-destruction that didn’t turn into a morality tale; on the other hand, there was no shortage of stories about men being comparably messy. This isn’t meant to be a bad faith argument about how “equality” means women deserve to behave just as badly as men, but rather that youthful messiness is a reality for people of all genders. There is power in seeing yourself represented, warts and all. How do you survive something if you don’t know that someone else has already survived it, too?
Whether we like it or not, Prozac Nation really did change the landscape when it comes to the way women write about themselves. It laid the groundwork for the what Jia Tolentino called the “personal-essay boom” of the early 2010s, an era when no detail was too graphic, no humiliation too private for sharing. Wurtzel was oversharing before oversharing even became an everyday term we use, writing in a way that made people recoil with discomfort. But, like so many of those XOJane-style pieces, she also made people feel seen. Wurtzel’s writing has influenced how I write about mental illness; it’s made me more committed to relate my experiences in honest ways, rather than style them to appear more understandable or sympathetic. Through her, I’ve learned that it’s much more interesting when I center myself in my own narrative rather than the feelings my readers might have about it. The embarrassing personal details are, somehow, what makes these stories relatable. I’m sure there are many others whose writing owes a similar debt of gratitude to Wurtzel, even if they don’t realize it.
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Prozac Nation was published on September 25, 1994, three days after Friends premiered on NBC. Both are emblematic of that era: angsty Gen-X youth and the golden age of television sitcoms. Like many cultural artifacts that are very rooted in their particular time and place, neither has aged very well. Wurtzel’s semi-premise — that the use of SSRIs was too widespread, that America had become a nation of pill-poppers who were drawn to Prozac because of its name-brand trendiness — seems especially unsturdy. For one thing, she doesn’t even encounter the drug until the very end of the book, and when she does take it, she experiences a swift and nearly miraculous recovery. For another, all of the panic about SSRI consumption seems, in retrospect, almost adorable in its unfoundedness. Doctors were pushing the idea that oxycontin was non-habit-forming in any amount, but people were worried about Prozac?
Many of those concerns piggybacked on the very real problems with mid-century tranquilizer use, but they were also influenced by what psychiatrist Gerald L. Klerman termed pharmacological Calvinism: the idea that a drug that alleviates unhappiness is morally questionable. It’s an attitude that’s still very much present today, even though the use of SSRIs has become more normalized over the past 25 years. Pharmacological Calvinism is what makes your high school friend share those memes describing nature as the real antidepressant. It’s what leads people to view medication that treats anxiety and depression as a “crutch” rather than an ongoing and necessary treatment (which is a weird framing in and of itself, considering that people rarely use crutches unless they really need them). It’s the reason we hear arguments like the one in David Lazarus’ recent Los Angeles Times essay, where he describes himself as a “drug addict” because quitting antidepressants caused him to experience symptoms of depression, and quotes doctors praising the “work” of not taking medication as compared to the “easy” out of taking a pill every day. Of course, some people do experience adverse reactions while discontinuing use of SSRIs, but history has largely proven them to be quite safe compared to many other medications that experience similar faddish moments.
Re-reading Prozac Nation again after all these years felt a bit like being a 20-year-old melting down at a party: embarrassing, but somehow comforting in its familiarity. It made me feel grateful, above all else, for no longer being young. It’s such a relief to get older and be less vulnerable to Big Emotions, to have better coping skills, and to know how to opt out of drama. But I’m also grateful to my younger self for being deep in that depressive morass and still managing to navigate us to where we are now. I don’t hate her for who she was, as much as she sometimes failed to measure up to who I wanted to be. I try to be tender to her and understand that she was doing the messy best she could. Hopefully Wurtzel feels the same way.
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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer whose bylines can be found all over the internet, including at the Guardian, The London Review of Books and Longreads, where she created the Queens of Infamy series.
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Editor: Ben Huberman