Slater, Lauren. Prozac Diary. New York: Random House, 1998.
Lauren Slater became one of the first people to take Prozac in 1988. Prozac marked a revolution in psychopharmacology because of its selectivity on the serotonin system. In Prozac Diary, she chronicles her experience with the drug and her shifting identity from one based on illness to one based on health. Although Slater has a master’s degree in psychology from Harvard and a doctorate in psychology from Boston University, her account of life on Prozac can hardly be considered clinical. She intertwines her ongoing antidepressant use with memories of an unstable childhood and an emotionally distant mother. She also explores basic questions of selfhood in a society in which people increasingly turn to pharmaceuticals to improve their feelings about themselves. She questions what it means for the definition of self when someone is happily taking antidepressants and claims they feel “more like themselves” when they are on the drugs as opposed to when they are not.
Slater’s diary is a mediation on what it is like to take Prozac. Slater is open about her long psychiatric history. She has attempted suicide and engaged in self-mutilating behaviors, including anorexia, that resulted in five psychiatric hospitalizations. She has carried the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder since she was nineteen and has battled with severe and recurrent depression. She tried many forms of treatment and nothing had been successful. Then she tried Prozac. Her reaction to the drug was miraculous. She marveled at her quick response: “It was as though I’d been visited by a blind piano tuner who had crept into my apartment at night, who had tweaked the ivory bones of my body, the taut strings in my skull, and now, when I pressed on myself, the same notes but with a mellower, fuller sound sprang out” (p. 24). She felt like an entirely new person yet she also noted that she was finally feeling like the person she was always meant to be. This brings up all kinds of issues and questions about identity, mental illness, and medication. For example, if you have been mentally ill and suddenly feel like yourself taking a medication, who is the real you? For Slater, Prozac took away her obsessive compulsions almost immediately, but she also noticed that it appeared to tweak her personality, noticeably her lack of creativity. While she always considered herself an intense writer, for the first year on Prozac she found that she could not write a short story or a poem. Still, Prozac appeared to be a success for Slater. She describes how it changed her, made her feel normal, and after a period of adjustment, she began to enjoy her life. During this medicated time, she finished a Ph.D. in psychology, went on to become a psychotherapist, was gainfully employed, and developed a relationship with a chemist. However, after an extended period on the drug, she noticed that the initial euphoria had worn off and eventually she needed higher quantities of the drug to get any positive effect. This lack of efficacy after long-term use brings into question the ability of Prozac to be a continual cure for depression. Eventually, her love relationship with Prozac ends and she begins to question her chemical and psychological dependency on the drug. Slater begins to be in awe and envious of “regular people” who live their lives without a chemical crutch. In the end, she sums up her relationship with Prozac explaining that it “is a medicine that takes much away, but its very presence in my life has been about preserving as well as decaying” (p. 200).
Slater has a gift with the English language. The text is elegiac and poetic. The flood of lovely phrases and descriptions had me in a state of admiration. She puts into words and prose what I can only feel. Without question Slater is an amazing writer, but at the same time, it didn’t feel as though there was enough here for a book. I think this would have been better constructed as a literary essay for a magazine such as the New Yorker. Obviously a lot of information in this book is dated which brings its relevancy into question. Prozac Diary was written shortly after the FDA approved the use of Prozac in the late 1980s. Additionally, the interest for this book seems limited. I would think that unless one has tinkered with pharmacological chemicals at some point in their life, then this ethereal and sometimes random memoir would likely have not much resonance. As much as I enjoy memoirs about individuals living with mental illness, there were times when I found this book less than gripping. The second half of the text especially felt full of moments where the content added nothing to my understanding of Slater’s mental illness or how Prozac helped her. Reading this book was certainly not a waste of time, but I do think there are better memoirs on psychopharmacology out there.
(While doing some searching about Slater, I found an article in which Slater is accused of making up quotes in a book she published in 2004. I take it with a grain of salt.)