‘Prozac Nation’: one woman’s lifelong battle with depression

“Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” isn’t an easy book to get through. It’s author, journalist-turned-lawyer Elizabeth Wurtzel, would be the first to admit this.

“I know how taxing it is to do something even as small and brief as having a meal with a depressive,” she writes. “We are such irritating people, can see the dark side of everything, and our perpetual malcontentedness kind of ruins it for everybody.”

“Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America.” By Elizabeth Wurtzel. 368pp. Riverhead Books. $12.00 U.S. 1994.

“Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America.”
By Elizabeth Wurtzel.
368pp. Riverhead Books.
$12.00 U.S.
1994.

Which is why it’s nearly impossible to get through Wurtzel’s 368-page memoir. She’s a Debbie Downer, who overanalyzes and complains — capitalizing on her unhappiness with a book-turned-movie deal.

A Harvard grad growing up in a single-parent, Jewish home in New York City during the ’70s and ’80s, Wurtzel traces her depression to her childhood. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her father often babysat her under the influence of Valium before he disappeared from her life. And her mother didn’t understand her depression, sending her to summer camp and therapy like ordering broken taillights to be fixed.

Depression, however, “is more like a cancer,” than a broken car. “Slowly, over the years, the data will accumulate in your heart and mind, a computer program for total negativity will build into your stem, making life feel more and more unbearable,” she writes. “But you won’t even notice it coming on, thinking that is somehow normal, something about getting older, about turning eight or turning twelve or turning fifteen, and then one day you realize that your entire life is just awful, not worth living, a horror and a black dot on the white terrain of human existence.”

Wurtzel writes like an angsty high school girl — sometimes poetic and insightful, but also with a self-absorbed arrogance. It’s hard to feel sorry for her when she describes sleeping with her friend’s boyfriend, standing up her own birthday party, missing her grandparents visit to her college, or embellishing stories to her colleagues at the Dallas Morning News. Rather than take advantage of her immense opportunities, Wurtzel runs from her problems — going to London to stay with a stranger who only puts up with her as a favor to his ex-girlfriend.

“I can’t stand listening to you,” a former book critic for New York Magazine tells her. “When I was your age, I saved up money, I waitressed for months so I could take myself over to Europe…. But all you seem to be able to do is complain that you miss your ex-boyfriend and you can’t plug anything in! This is ridiculous!”

But as ridiculous as Wurtzel’s stories are, Wurtzel’s morose and self-absorbed account shouldn’t be dismissed. Depression is still a dark and insidious disease that could strike anyone. More middle-aged white people are dying from overdoses, addictions and depression, The New York Times reported earlier this month. Meanwhile, we’ve heard of the string of suicides at high schools and colleges.

Wurtzel blames her depression for most of her ridiculous behavior — the reason she cried for no reason or self-medicated with prescription drugs, hard liquor, pot, cocaine, Ecstasy and boys. Depression, not drugs, is her problem, she says: “I was loading myself with whatever available medication I could find, doing whatever I could to get my head to shut off for a while.” But unfortunately, depression doesn’t have a quick fix.

Although Wurtzel chronicles her childhood and college years, she still battles depression with a psychiatrist-approved drug cocktail. Prozac may be her shield, but any shield can crack.

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The ‘Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood’

Koren Zailckas is a girl I’ve never met yet someone I feel l’ve known. Like me, she’s a girl with a name no one can pronounce, who — too often than not — has felt uncomfortable in her own skin.

Although more than 10 years my senior, Zailckas is someone I could have known. Someone who prided herself in crafting the perfect 30-word lede, or in writing articles for the school paper. Like me, she’s a storyteller — one who can recall F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, Tennessee Williams’, Silvia Plath’s or Edgar Allan Poe’s words almost as vividly as her own. 

Zailckas’ story is one that I can relate to not because I was her during high school, college or post-grad, but because I could have been.

“Smashed: A Drunken Girlhood." By Koren Zailckas. 343pp. Viking. $21.95 U.S. 2005.

“Smashed: A Drunken Girlhood.”
By Koren Zailckas.
343pp. Viking.
$21.95 U.S.
2005.

Her first memoir “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” is one that too many girls experience. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 696,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who’s been drinking; 97,000 students experience alcohol-related rapes or sexual assault; and 1,825 students die from alcohol-related deaths per year.

Unlike Zailckas, I’ve escaped the statistics. I’ve never woken up naked in another man’s bed without remembering how I got there. I’ve also never woken up in a hospital room after my stomach’s been pumped from alcohol. However, “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” leaves me feeling raw and uneasy because it’s a haunting alternate reality of what mine could have been.

The statistics Zailckas presents are as horrifying as her drunken escapades. “Plus, a study by the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK that polled a thousand women found that a third of them had unprotected sex after drinking too much, and almost half had a one-night stand they wouldn’t have otherwise considered,” Zailckas writes.

Those are the unspoken footnotes to her “glamorous” lifestyle partying with her cheerleading squad and sorority girls at Syracuse University. Alcohol is part of college’s allure. There, alcohol is both her safety preserve and her wrecking ball:

“Sober, I’ll cross the street to avoid looking a leering man in the face, but drunk, I will talk him up for an hour, robbing him blind, extracting all the free drinks and flattery he will give me.”

In 343 pages, we learn how Zailckas’ love affair with alcohol poisons her relationships and becomes the responsible driver for her lingering list of wrongs. With alcohol in the driver’s seat, she’s a social, sexy, angry, destructive, depressed and sad kleptomaniac. “I no longer know whether I’m drinking to generate new stories or to forget old ones,” she writes.

Alcohol’s stalks her with terrifying nightmares of robberies, car crashes, flunked classes and murders she’s never committed. She dismisses her frightening blackouts with “whatevers.”

“If you can’t remember it, it never really happened, anyway,” a friend tells her.

But “it’s strange the way the mind remembers forgetting,” she writes. “The fact of the blackout won’t slip away like the events that took place inside of it…. In the absence of memory, the night will be even more memorable.”

“Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” is certainly memorable, despite it’s depressing banality. Even as Zailckas ends her cautionary memoir with an impassioned plea for a sister’s sobriety and solidarity, I can’t help but think that there are a million more girls still wandering streets and bars — getting dangerously buzzed, tipsy, wasted, plastered and smashed with regularity.