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August 28, 2008

I Took My Friend's Xanax

red and blue pills

Photo Credit: Hugo Chang/iStock Images

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I have an unfortunate history with performance anxiety: In second grade, when my gym teacher gathered the class to watch and learn from my perfect dive, I belly-flopped. In sixth grade, assured by other students that I would win the yearly spelling bee, I didn't show up.

This time, for a slew of upcoming book readings across the country, I couldn't play hooky and didn't want to find out what the public-speaking equivalent of a belly flop was. Instead, I contemplated abandoning my usual alterna-cures and relying on something I'd heard was surefire: Xanax.

Prescribed for anxiety and panic disorders, and sometimes for insomnia, Xanax is a central nervous system depressant that isn't supposed to be used for an occasional case of the jitters. And yet, I know plenty of people — with and without prescriptions — who keep some on hand, just in case.

With my first engagement fast approaching, I still didn't have a prescription. Luckily, three generous friends did.

The reading was in New York. I was nervous that people I didn't want to see would show up. I was worried that no one would show up. I was worried that just enough people would show up to notice that there weren't that many people that had shown up.

I broke a pill in half, let one half rest on my tongue, and swallowed. It tasted bitter, synthetic. But it worked. It might have been the placebo effect, but minutes later, utter calm washed over me. Sweat evaporated off my skin; I no longer felt my heart pounding in my chest. All of my anxieties disappeared except for one: I was worried that the feeling wouldn't last. So I popped the other half and took the stage.

The reading was a success. I enunciated; I answered questions intelligently. The audience laughed in all the right places. I didn't just feel confident — I felt incredibly charming. It was the sort of feeling you get drinking the first few sips of a second glass of wine on a date that is going really well. And it wore off more gently than wine.

I could see why, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Xanax is one of the most abused prescription drugs, despite side effects like weight gain and decreased sex drive. Xanax-maker Pfizer's most recent estimates have 36 million people taking it. I was glad not to have a prescription. Although I didn't physically crave it, I liked the effects enough that having a ready supply would just be too tempting. In fact, I popped a pill at each of my next two readings, just in case. By the fourth reading, I no longer needed my crutch.

Still, there was one little yellow pill left, and a possibly contentious conversation with my father on the agenda.

I took half. I called. He couldn't talk. For a moment, I was annoyed: How many milligrams of bliss was I wasting?

"I'll call you later," he said.

I was glad I'd saved that other half.

Xanax should only be taken under a doctor's supervision.

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