A poor case study

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Alex Pre­ston

The Drugs That Changed Our Minds by Lau­ren Slater Si­mon & Shus­ter, 416pp

In Prozac Di­ary (1998), Lau­ren Slater wrote pow­er­fully of the way flu­ox­e­tine had trans­formed her pre­vi­ously chaotic life. While the au­thor recorded a hand­ful of neg­a­tive side­ef­fects – a pro­found loss of li­bido, for in­stance – the reader was left with the sense that Prozac had pieced back to­gether the shards of Slater’s ex­is­tence. In some ways, The Drugs That Changed Our Minds is a se­quel to that book. Slater is now in her mid-50s, re­cently di­vorced, and on a cock­tail of an­tide­pres­sants. She’s “a con­sumer of polypsy­chophar­macy”, hav­ing taken flu­ox­e­tine, ven­lafax­ine, olan­za­p­ine, arip­ipra­zole, clon­azepam, lis­dex­am­fe­tamine “and prob­a­bly one or two other tablets I’m for­get­ting be­cause there are so many”.

The book weaves be­tween Slater’s per­sonal his­tory and a wide-rang­ing nar­ra­tive of the de­vel­op­ment of the psy­chophar­ma­log­i­cal in­dus­try, with each chap­ter fol­low­ing a new evo­lu­tion in the an­tide­pres­sant mar­ket. Where Prozac Di­ary was a (mea­sured) cel­e­bra­tion of the power of mood-al­ter­ing drugs, the tone here is far more jaded. Slater has seen her men­tal and phys­i­cal health eroded by the he­do­nic logic of pill-pop­ping: she needs to take more and more with each pass­ing year just to stay (more or less) sane.

Slater swal­lowed her first psy­chi­atric drug – imipramine, for de­pres­sion – at 19. “Now, 35 years and 12 drugs later, my kid­neys are fail­ing, I have di­a­betes, I am over­weight and my mem­ory is per­fo­rated. As the years close in on me, my life­time now seems se­ri­ously fore­short­ened, not be­cause of a psy­chi­atric ill­ness but be­cause of the drugs I have taken to treat it.” Slater’s sex drive has been more or less per­ma­nently erased and she found that Prozac stripped her of her cre­ative im­pulse. “It was as if flu­ox­e­tine had dried up the well from which my deep­est dreams and images sprang.”

This last point might ac­count for one of the fail­ings of The Drugs That Changed Our Minds: the un­even qual­ity of the prose. When Slater takes us through the his­tory of chlor­pro­mazine and lithium, flu­ox­e­tine and Tofranil, the style is co­gent and flu­ent, if oc­ca­sion­ally a lit­tle dry. When the nar­ra­tive rounds to her own ex­pe­ri­ence, though, things are on shakier ground. Slater notes early on that she’s “com­pul­sive by na­ture”. There’s some­thing com­pul­sive about her writ­ing, too. First, the de­scrip­tive prose is of­ten painfully overblown: ev­ery noun must have its ac­com­pa­ny­ing ad­jec­tive. It’s as if she fears the soli­tude of the unadorned word. There are too few de­scrip­tions of the ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers and too much of Slater’s own life story, much of it ei­ther repet­i­tive or otiose. Where Slater does give us Oliver Sacks-like case stud­ies they are fas­ci­nat­ing. But they are too brief.

This is a bet­ter book than Jo­hann Hari’s very sim­i­lar Lost Con­nec­tions, pub­lished in Jan­uary. Slater shares with Hari scep­ti­cism to­wards the 20th cen­tury’s an­tide­pres­sants; they also both write il­lu­mi­nat­ingly on the ther­a­peu­tic pos­si­bil­i­ties of psy­che­delic drugs like magic mush­rooms, but Slater is bet­ter on the grotesque cor­rup­tion of the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try. Slater’s at­tempt to con­struct an over­ar­ch­ing his­tory of psy­chophar­ma­col­ogy stum­bles partly be­cause the de­vel­op­ment of one drug reads much like any other. More prob­lem­atic, though, is that her cen­tral case study – her­self – is nei­ther in­ter­est­ing enough nor writ­ten about with suf­fi­cient elo­quence to hold our at­ten­tion.

Pill-pop­ping … Lau­ren Slater’s book shows how lit­tle we know about how the hu­man brain works

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