Generation Xanax

Article by Miles Raymer

How America’s benzo habit is reshaping pop culture and killing off celebrities one pill at a time.

Fifty million prescriptions for alprazolam — Xanax’s generic name — were filled in the U.S. in 2013, making it the most prescribed psychiatric medication in the country. Prescriptions were rising by nearly 10 percent a year back then, with no indication of slowing down, so 2018 numbers are presumably much higher. And judging by how quickly a casual complaint about an upcoming transatlantic flight is met these days by an offer of a couple of “Xans” to smooth out the trip, there are untold legions of additional Americans taking it off-prescription for at least semi-legitimate reasons. Xanax belongs to America’s most popular family of mood-altering drugs, called benzodiazepines. Even if you only count users with prescriptions, benzos are more popular than MDMA, LSD, heroin, and meth.

It’s impossible for a drug to permeate a society that thoroughly without leaving a mark on its culture, and the popularity of benzodiazepines — Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan are the other top antianxiety meds in this drug family — among America’s creative class has only amplified its impact. Four decades after Xanax first hit the market, this particular benzo surrounds us completely, a primary element in our cultural atmosphere.

The drugs we take have been defining the aesthetics of our times since the dawn of pop culture. Back during the Jazz Age, when radio and records came within reach of the working-class, weed-smoking big band leaders became our first rock stars. Psychedelics gave the sixties their Day-Glo vividness. The hard-edged gloss that got wrapped around nearly every cultural product created during the eighties was so clearly derived from massive piles of cocaine it’s become a cliché. The style of the nineties was shaped by “heroin chic” and Ecstasy-fueled rave visuals.

The past decade was all about weed, as marijuana began to get legalized and Adult Swim-style stoner humor took over the mainstream. But this decade’s been about benzos. Deeper into our century, when people look back at the media we’re making and consuming today, they’ll see the influence of benzodiazepines as clearly as we see coke residue on Reagan-era cultural artifacts. As more of us get on benzos, the dominant cultural aesthetic is getting softer, gentler, and more compatible with the cozy benzo high. Opiates get more press, but in truth, we’re living in the Age of Xanax, this drug being the most popular antianxiety med in a world where anxiety has become the dominant mental state.

How we got here is clear enough. Our brains’ insatiable hunger for information drove us to connect them to fat data-pipelines and we gorged on the ceaseless flow. Then we required increasingly more extreme stuff — from esoteric porn genres to hyperpolarized culture war propaganda — in order to get a response from our fried-out dopamine receptors. Like any addict who’s drifted into the ugly side of a bender, we’re reaching for tranquilizers to take the edge off, only we’re doing it collectively, as an entire nation.

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