Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

I remember the late 1980s when Prozac took the world by storm. It was like “Gangnam Style”, except instead of one month, Prozac as a meme took five years to burn itself out. I remember it was hard to believe that a new psychotropic drug other than diazepines or primitive antidepressants like tricyclics could exist. It was like science had invented a new mood.

Prozac was the first drug from the new generation of drug naming. These days we have Abilify, Celexa, Zoloft and . . . all these other bafflingly named pills I learn about mostly while I’m fast-forwarding through TV ads on TiVo. Mood-altering drugs seem to advertise on TV. A lot.

Someone in Los Angeles told me the true story about why Elizabeth Taylor made so much money from her perfumes. It wasn’t that they were or weren’t better than other fragrances. It was because in the weeks preceding Christmas and Mother’s Day she bought up all of the TV ad slots around children’s cartoon programming. So when the time came to get something for Mom, kids went right to the perfume counter and demanded White Diamonds, a perfume of proven adult glamour. I think that’s what is happening with TV ads for mood-altering drugs. They’re finding the right slot for the right sort of personality, with a level of accuracy that reminds me of the first Iraq war and watching missiles aimed directly into the elevator shafts of Baghdad’s public buildings. (Memo to self: watch those TV shows on obsessive hoarding to see just who’s footing their bills.)

The arguments that swirled around new drugs in the late 1980s were electric and stormy and vicious. You mean to say I can tailor my personality into something better than what I was born with? That’s an affront to all that’s decent in this universe! You don’t hear much of that any more. The only thing you get is when you bump into someone you haven’t seen for a while, and you come away from the encounter thinking, “Well, So-And-So certainly seemed a bit medsy today. I wonder what they’re taking?” It’s like the radioactively white teeth everybody in North America now sports. One day you woke up and everyone had teeth like game show hosts. And then one day you woke up and everyone seemed a bit medsy.

A few years back I tried that “Harvard drug” – Adderall – which gives you the power to read for 12 hours straight and internalise everything you read. It was a total disaster. No clarity or focus, just an epic headache matched only by a hangover I once had after a night of drinking Red Bull and vodka at a ski resort two miles above sea level. I also tried the ADHD drug for the same thing, and all I remember is my body vibrating pointlessly for five hours.

My father is a doctor whose own father died in 1936 of heart inflammation that in 1956 you could fix with a few pills. As a result, he’s less suspicious of pills than younger generations. My brothers and I all had acne, and in our bathroom growing up we had a salad bowl filled with tetracycline, erythromycin and a host of other antibiotics. The bowl was like something you’d see at a cocktail party at the Manson ranch circa 1967. We ate them like they were candy, and if anyone is responsible for germinating an antibiotic-resistant strain on just about anything, they need look no further than the Coupland children.

I like pills. I like the idea of pills. They confer a superpower on you: the ability to heal; the ability to feel new things; the ability to read Infinite Jest in one sitting. Sadly, I don’t take many pills because in kindergarten the school brought in an anti-drug woman who was . . . about 20? She gave us a lecture centred around her friend who took acid (they actually used the word “acid” in a West Vancouver kindergarten in 1967) and who subsequently developed locked-in syndrome – which, of course, the counsellor went into luxuriant detail describing. “No matter what you’re thinking and feeling there’s no way to communicate with the world. Ever. No matter what. You can’t even blink. And it goes on forever. And ever.”

Of course, it worked – I’ve never taken anything – and I’m all for those “scared straight” lectures, the younger the better. Which reminds me of those anti-drug bumper stickers you see in the US that read D.A.R.E. I asked a friend what it stood for and he replied, “That’s easy: Drugs. Are. Really. Expensive.” (Actually, it stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, an international education programme founded in 1984 that seeks to prevent the use of controlled drugs, gang membership and violent behaviour. Thank you, Wikipedia.)

I think the most successful pill one could invent would be one that instantly makes you unaddicted to whatever drug you’re addicted to. Think about it . . . you could binge like crazy on anything with total impunity, medical or moral. Meth? Game on. Crack? Deal me in. Cigarettes? Woohoo! Needless to say, this new drug would be demonised unlike any other drug in history. I suppose by the same token, if they were to invent table salt right now, it would be sold only by prescription ( . . . causes high blood pressure and/or kidney damage in high doses) and at an exorbitant price. But I do want a pill that gives me a superpower – flight, transparency or telepathy, say. In the meantime, I’ll settle for something that makes me less annoyed by the cluelessness of undertrained hotel staff, or one that makes me read online news articles past the first page. You could call it TwoPage. And you’d need one right now.

Douglas Coupland’s most recent novel is ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, published by William Heinemann.

Twitter: @dougcoupland

To comment on this article please post below, or email magazineletters@ft.com

Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article