Paxil Americana

New York is in a medicated state of mind.

Published May 15, 2003 10:12PM (EDT)

At first I thought New Yorkers were in a better mood because the war was over. Now I'm beginning to suspect it's because everyone is on drugs. Legal ones, that is. At a big media party the other night most of the talk in the buffet line was about how something called BuSpar is so much more effective than Paxil for taking off the sharp edges. As one brisk female executive told me after an altercation with a "difficult" colleague, "I don't talk to people anymore who aren't on meds. They're too much work."

There's always a commercial payoff to any cataclysm in America and in the case of 9/11 it was the marketing of anxiety. It suddenly legitimized every other form of affluent terror and brought the subterranean pill thing -- growing since the explosion of Prozac in 1987 -- out of the closet. Now, at water coolers all over town, people earnestly debate which prescription drugs make the best "chasers" to even out the side effects of the meds they're already taking. There's even a certain one-upmanship about which one you're on. It's cooler to throw out that you're taking Luvox for anxiety rather than the more familiar Xanax.

The buzzword to all the pill-popping is "enhancement." In the ladies' room at a benefit last week a pissed-off power chick confided how a new medication had "enhanced" her ability to feel like a winner even though she is currently being eased out of her job at a prominent, and downsizing, law firm.

"I was coping horribly," she told me. "I'd never sat in meetings before, where I felt irrelevant. I have high-maintenance issues, yes, but I was never not relevant. Then I got a prescription for Meridia for weight loss and immediately everything felt great! Now I go to meetings and smile all the time."

For flying the unfriendly skies, Xanax and valium are the pills of preference. Since 9/11, jelly-kneed Manhattanites would rather not fly at all, but if they must they want their mood locked in a full upright position. Before she discovered Zoloft a mother at my daughter's school had a panic attack at JFK airport just as she and her kids were about to board a plane to Florida for spring break. She called her husband and made him leave the office immediately and do the two-day drive with her from New York to South Beach. On his return he was fired. So it's just as well he was already on Paxil. Wellbutrin, another feel-good pill, is particularly popular with professionally precarious men. It doesn't put weight on. It doesn't depress the sex drive. Plus it helps you quit smoking. One of my former magazine colleagues, who's on Zoloft to diminish her sense of panic, is married to a man who takes Wellbutrin to dampen his inner rage. For a union of rage and panic they looked preternaturally serene the last time we met.

There is nothing Studio 54 about any of this, by the way. That would be too much fun. This is not about recreation or release. It's about the new mantra of "fixing it" -- fixing whatever interferes with the multitasking urban lifestyle. The sense of an upwardly mobile trajectory must be maintained against all the growing economic evidence that it's sinking. Even in L.A. it's not fashionable to be a wreck anymore. There was nothing interestingly complicated about Winona Ryder's shoplifting. She was just on the wrong meds. A typical response to a tough phone call in Hollywood is, "He needs to up his dose."

We didn't go to war in Iraq. We performed an intervention. The rest is just rehab. The Stepford syndrome has its corollary in magazine journalism. Steve Coz, the editorial director of the weekly Star newspaper, takes me to breakfast to brainstorm possible new editors for the Star. He wants to take the ailing celebrity news-rag upmarket, i.e., in the direction of Us Weekly and In Touch, the other pop-schlock mag that successfully launched a few months ago. This was yet another message to the Star that younger readers crave something upbeat. They don't want the old-style newsprint genre of tragic celebrities with botched liposuction. The readers of the National Enquirer are aging fast. Their offspring no longer need the reassurance of seeing the cellulite revelations of former sex goddesses with bubble-wrap thighs. Readers under 30 want their gossip glossy. They want their gossip lite. Us Weekly and In Touch are celebrity news for the Prozac generation.

The patron saint of the demographic shift in gossip taste is Monica Lewinsky, now, alas, the mistress of her very own TV reality show, "Mr. Personality," in which masked men (who are not the president) vie for the attention of a starring babe.

The readers of Us and In Touch grew up in the Clinton years, the era of affluence, spin and sex in the Oval Office. They are schooled to keep reality at bay. Today the patriotism police roam the airwaves and dissent is out of fashion. Celebrity news bites have become the new lingua franca -- empty, friendly, harmless, more unifying than sports, less controversial than politics. It's as if for every four new conservative circuit judges we can expect four new reality shows and three new froth mags.

I suspect that the rash of recent journalistic plagiarism cases is yet another indicator of the medicated culture. Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who resigned in disgrace for his elaborate fabrications in at least 36 published stories, was only making up for the shortfall in reality. In the Times' breast-beating, four-page self-exposé, his smiling photograph projects only positive feelings. He was always busy, Jayson. The Times knew he was inaccurate but thought he had "issues" that could be fixed. They should have upped his dose.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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