A lot of knickers twisted in the press this week over the supposed inefficiency of prescription anti-depressants. Cue a yapping, snarling media circus as purists, luddites and professional disapprovers up and down the land leapt on the chance to get snooty with the medicated classes.
Non-prescription medication also took a hit this week as the government once again announces plans for a smackdown on binge drinking, of which this country ‘officially disapproves.’ Hot on the heels of this year’s first cannabis panic, we can expect a couple of weeks of low-level outrage over the shocking new phenomenon of stumbling, puking, lairy young women rampaging through town centres at night, frightening well-behaved residents with their loose morals and looser knickers.
Calling drinking, drugs and other personal pharmaceutical solutions a new social problem is an established tradition: blame is squarely apportioned to the moral failings of a younger generation or to an emergent culture of decadence, rather than looking at historical precedent and analysing more endemic social spurs to the problem of booze-n-drug culture.
However, conservative rhetoric surrounding the introduction of the English Gin Laws in the early 18th century bears a striking resemblence to contemporary tabloid and broadsheet anti-drink propaganda. In 1721, Middlesex Magistrates decried strong spirits as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”. The same official committee in 1736 complained that ‘It is with the deepest concern your committee observe the strong Inclination of the inferior Sort of People to these destructive Liquors, and how surprisingly this Infection has spread within these few Years … it is scarce possible for Persons in low Life to go anywhere or to be anywhere, without being drawn in to taste, and, by Degrees, to like and approve of this pernicious Liquor.’
This is not a new phenomenon: people have been drinking to avoid the pressures of consumer-capitalist living for centuries and more, and for as long as the industrial age has drunk away its sorrows, that drinking has been fetishised as moral or spiritual weakness in an almost religious manner by a disapproving establishment platform. Those under most pressure – the poor, the young and other ‘Persons in low Life’ – have most to gain from pharmaceutical paradigms of escapism. From the infancy of industrial capitalism, people have got as high as they are practically able to, and for good reason.
Aspects of living in a consumer-hypercapitalist state put the majority of people, and especially young people or people on low incomes, under more stress than they can reasonably bear. Young men and women receive confusing messages about how they are meant to behave: the notion of ‘owing something to society’ conflicts with a post-Thatcherite selfishness that has snowballed into aggregate imperatives to over-achieve financially, socially, academically, physically and romantically. We are told that we must ‘make something of ourselves’ or consider ourselves failures – unless we are born cripplingly poor or disadvantaged, in which case we have already failed. The pressure to consume and keep consuming is equalled only by the pressure to transform oneself into a marketable product. No wonder we drink. No wonder we swallow pills and smoke weed. No wonder we turn up at our GP’s surgeries stuttering and muttering to ourselves, biting our roseate young lips in distress, asking for a cure.
A confession: I am a drinker, a smoker and a happy champer of both prescription and non-prescription medication. I have been taking Fluoxetine (prozac) for two years now, and have suffered no side-effects apart from moderate weight loss and an unprecedented propensity to get strangely excited about socialist comics-artists and japanese cartoons. On top of this, I binge-drink, at least according to the official definition of binge-drinking (4 units per session, or half a bottle of wine, or two pints of Guinness) on a semi-regular basis, and self-medicate with drugs of various organic origins, copious amounts of strong tea and the occasional sneaky cigarette. I am a sexually and politically forthright young lady, and enjoy regular, vigorous, thrusting, deviant ideological debates with both men and women. Throughout all of this, I am happier and more productive rotting in my messy, unsanctioned, hard-fucking, deep-thinking, hungover, substance-abusing lifestyle than I have ever been in my more well-behaved years.
Self-medicating with prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs, drink and promiscuity is serving me better than any of the other ideas I had for making the pain go away in my teenage years – to whit, self-harm, self-starvation, abusive relationships, terrible poetry and the music of Radiohead. I have found paradigms of escapism and emotional regulation that suit my headspace and lifestyle, and I consider myself lucky. You want me and the thirty million other reprobates up and down the land to clean up and behave? Show us something better.
Here’s the thing: people like altered states. Altered states help people to escape the tedium, horror and misery that percolate even the lip-smackingly happiest of mundane human lives under industrial capitalism. However you choose to legislate or regulate, the people of Britain will continue to drink, abuse drugs, sleep around and beg their doctors for stronger medication in the absence of anything more constructive to deaden their distress. Drinking, stoning and swallowing pills aren’t just part of the culture: as Zoe Williams noted in the Guardian today, they practically are the culture. We have been defined and have self-defined as a nation of drinkers for centuries, and for centuries a dedicated and vocal conservative faction has pronounced the drinking classes morally bankrupt and deplored the excesses of the younger generation. Simply legislating against or officially denigrating drink, drug and now happy pill culture will not make a blind bit of difference to the impulse of ‘Persons in Low Life’ towards chemically altered states. Show us something better. We’re just dying for something better.
The image on the top-left is the 1751 print ‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth, one of a series of prints produced to popularise stricter alcohol legislation.