Many decades ago as a teenager I followed a TV series called Twilight Zone. Rod Serling was the host and wrote most of the shows, but not all. One episode in particular has stayed with me to this day: Number 12 Looks Just Like You. John Tomerlin adapted it from Charles Beaumont‘s 1952 story, The Beautiful People.
As I remember the episode, people in some imagined future-world valued harmony. They regarded unattractive people as somehow divisive and a threat to peace. They believed that, to enable citizens to truly love and accept one another, it was necessary for government to require every member of society to agree to a surgical procedure, called the transformation. Surgeons transformed each person into one of a dozen archetypes—each archetype having been identified by researchers as appealing to all other people.
The heroine, eighteen-year-old Marilyn Cubele, decided against having the surgery, because her father had committed suicide after coming to regret his transformation—it had cost him his identity, he said. Nevertheless, her friends and family pressured Marilyn to go along. After all, everyone else was having the surgery, they argued. Did she really want to be less attractive in a society of beautiful people?
Eventually Marilyn broke down and agreed. The surgery went well. Without her knowledge, the doctor gave her an experimental drug to ease her mind; to help her accept what he had done to her. In the last scene we see Marilyn talking to her best friend. She says, Valerie, you know the nicest part? I look just like you.
At about the same time another writer caught my attention, this time from print media. I began to collect and read everything available from the novelist Ayn Rand. I even subscribed to her newsletter, The Objectivist.
Ayn Rand marketed herself as a utopian idealist who believed capitalism and minimal government worked best for rational human beings. I attended a lecture by this unusual woman, and wanted to meet her, but that story is for another time.
Ayn Rand is relevant to this article on Xanax, because she wrote about an ideal world where reality forced a certain fairness on people and on society in general. If people did irrational things, their lives unraveled; they tended to fall into disarray. Rand believed happiness must be earned. It shouldn’t be acquired without intellectual effort. It wasn’t a birthright.
People were to strive for and achieve happiness through rational thought and action; by right-living. Joy was not something just anyone could bestow on themselves with a drug, legal or illegal. Rand could not imagine a future where people would display bad or irrational behavior yet continue to experience a comforting happiness, all because they took tranquilizers and antidepressants.
But now, decades after Ayn Rand’s death, researchers have learned that people may suffer depressions for no easily discoverable reasons. Depression, we now know, may have nothing to do with behavior or right-living. In many cases, it is a chemical imbalance in the brain and hormonal system that could have any number of causes not necessarily related to behavior.
Because depression is the main reason for suicides, doctors often prescribe anti-depressants and other mood-elevating drugs—like Xanax—to suffering people. The clinical results are often amazing. Psychiatrists today spend much less time administering expensive and time-consuming therapies, like psychoanalysis and out-patient counseling. The right drug, properly prescribed, is sometimes all it takes to rescue people from their emotions-gone-awry.
In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, before effective tranquilizers and anti-depressants were socially accepted and widely prescribed, schools required students to take Health as part of Gym. I remember Health-class instructors teaching that people suffering emotional distress had two options. They could change their environment, or change themselves. The third option—drug-rescue—wasn’t on the table. Many of the drugs available today hadn’t yet been invented.
I’ve never taken anti-depressant drugs, so I’m unfamiliar with their effects. But I did suffer for many years from a heart arrhythmia, called supraventricular tachycardia. Doctors prescribed a number of drugs to control it, including the mood elevating tranquilizer, Xanax.
Although it’s been a few years since my last exposure, I am familiar with Xanax, having used it daily for years during two separate periods. I quit the drug twice, once by tapering, and once suddenly—providing me with a direct experience of its addictive properties.
For those who have never used it, the main thing I can tell you about Xanax is it works as advertised. If you suffer from panic attacks (the cause of some episodes of tachycardia), Xanax stops them cold.
If you suffer from anxiety, Xanax stops that kind of suffering as well. The first time I took this brand of benzodiazepine, I dropped to my knees and thanked God for the people who invented it. Just knowing the drug is out there, gives me the confidence to live without it. It’s that good, at least for me.
One thing I never suffered from while taking Xanax was irritable bowel syndrome, an anxiety driven disorder that bothered me a lot when I was younger. The weeping blisters on my feet cleared-up completely. Though baldness continued to plague me, my social anxiety disappeared. I became fearless. Sometimes I took risks in social situations unthinkable in pre-Xanax years. Most of the time the benefits outweighed the risks.
But sometimes I crossed social boundaries with bad results. I still do that now, but not as often. For some reason I prefer feeling the pain of social anxiety to being dependent on a drug that eliminates it. And truthfully, Xanax taught me what it felt like to live free, without fear. Once I knew it was possible—that my body and mind were capable of it—I let the drug go.
I guess I felt like Marilyn Cubele, the girl in Twilight Zone, who didn’t want to be surgically transformed. It has something to do with the dignity of the human spirit, as writer John Tomerlin put it in Number 12. I want to believe I can be happy without a drug, that I can face life without a pill or injection to get me through. I suppose I want to be just like you.