I read a news item today that has triggered for me a number of thoughts. Pharmaceutical giant Roche has announced that it is closing the New Jersey site where it developed and manufactured the drug that made the company billions of dollars and redefined America’s definition of “normal” forever.
My first thought, thinking that this meant that the drug Valium was finally being taken off the market, was “Goodbye, and good riddance.” Then I read further, and found that Roche is just moving its operations elsewhere, and that 15 million prescriptions are still being written for Valium every year. My next thoughts were musical, remembering the lyrics of a song called “Mother’s Little Helper,” written by the Rolling Stones in 1966 specifically about Valium, the drug that helps “ev’ry mother” calm down and “gets her through her busy day.” At a time when the news media were concentrating on a few hippies and students experimenting with LSD and marijuana and what that might do to the very fabric of society, the Rolling Stones were commenting somewhat presciently about a much bigger drug revolution. Valium was well on its way to becoming the best-selling prescription drug in America.
Why I’m the wrong person to be writing about Valium
I have been fortunate. I have never been afflicted with anxiety or depression severe enough to cause me to seek professional help in dealing with it, and thus have never in my life taken a drug such as Valium or its more modern successor Xanax. But you simply couldn’t live in America without being aware of Valium, and it ubiquitous omnipresence. Remember the scene in the movie “Starting Over” where Burt Reynolds, having a panic attack in a department store, asked whether anyone had a Valium and every person in the crowd around him pulled out a bottle and offered him one? That really happened to Mr. Reynolds, so he wrote it into the movie.
I also have some negative associations with Valium, having watched a dear friend become dependent on it to the point of gulping down handfuls to get him “through his busy day.” Ignoring the warnings on the Valium label itself that say “abrupt or over-rapid discontinuation…may result in suicidal ideation…or actual suicide,” he finally decided to quit taking it, “cold turkey.” He was dead three days later, a suicide. So I’m not the most objective person in the world when it comes to assessing this particular drug and its impact on society. But I’ll try.
Valium didn’t become the best-selling prescription drug in America for no reason. Enough people felt that they needed help getting through their busy days that when it was introduced in 1963, they lined up to get prescriptions for it. Few of them realized how revolutionary this step was – millions of people turning to a powerful psychoactive drug for relief from…uh…daily life.
The fact that Valium became so popular is probably a reflection of how complicated and threatening daily life had become by the early 60s. People wanted relief from the pressures of the world. They just wanted to feel normal. And few of them – either the people taking Valium or the people prescribing it – seemed to notice the contradiction inherent in the fact that they were taking a powerful psychoactive drug to…wait for it…become normal.
Valium, and the antidepressant drugs that followed it (such as Xanax, for which 48.7 million prescriptions were written last year), in a very real sense had the effect of redefining what it was to be “normal” for millions and millions of Americans. This raises some interesting philosophical questions. What does “normal” mean if you have to take a pill to experience it?
There are other ways to feel “normal”
Here, people can read about other ways to “feel more like themselves” again and feel normal – ways that can be achieved by things like eating more healthy and nutritious food and getting more exercise. Thanks to information I’ve found here – and occasionally reported on – I know that if I’m feeling a little angry I can get back to my version of normal by enjoying a nice cup of green tea, or by going to the gym. If my moods need a little boost, instead of reaching for a pill I prepare myself a nice meal of salmon, and allow its high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids to perform their magic. If I someday find myself having a panic attack in a department store, instead of asking whether anyone around me has a Valium, I’m more likely to ask whether any of them have a bar of dark chocolate they can share with me. One small bite of it and not only is the anxiety gone, I’ve taken steps to lower my blood pressure and improve my heart health. Good deal.