Sarita Sarvate

The OAKLAND TRIBUNE

Sunday. August 13. 1995

Once deafened by Prozac

BY SARITA SARVATE

YES, I have listened to Prozac. My brain has been deafened by its discordant notes. For the brief period that I took the wonder drug, my numbed mind refused to hear the voices of my soul until I threw the bottle into a trash can and joined a meditation ashram.

Peter Kramer’s famous book, which tells us to listen to Prozac, quotes case history after case history of patients who improved their marriages, got promotions, overcame low self-esteem, lost sensitivity to life’s ups and downs, to become happy, well-adjusted human beings.

There is just one catch. These studies were done over short periods of time, say six months to a year. Happy endings here do not mean the discontinuation of Prozac; rather, the indefinite use of Prozac is cause for celebration.

What will happen to these people in five years, 10, or 30? Will they lose the capacity to think? Will we find some long-term negative effects? No one knows.

A popular medical hypothesis today is that people suffering from depression and other mental disorders have low levels of a brain chemical called serotonin. Prozac boosts the level of this chemical to make the person feel better. Hand in hand with this theory goes the assumption that some people are born with a chemical imbalance in the brain, which is genetically or biologically determined.

Understanding behavior

But the fact that people’s behavior can be chemically altered does not mean that the behavior is genetically or biologically induced. Depression or low serotonin levels could just as easily come about due to stress in the family or work environment. Prozac is so easily available today that my psychologist simply called my doctor’s secretary to order a prescription without a check-up. This should cause us no surprise, since doctors and therapists are under increasing pressure from health maintenance organizations to treat depression with cheap drugs, not expensive psychotherapy.

On Prozac, my intellectual capacity became severely affected; I could not perform the complex analyses I had routinely done in my job. I was overcome with drowsiness. My creativity was gone; I could not write.

My therapist told me these side effects were abnormal. A trip to the library revealed that he was wrong. Prozac has been associated with a host of complications including tremors, upper respiratory infections, dizziness, sexual dysfunction and visual disturbance. In some instances, the drug has induced violent behavior, including suicide.

Despite these warning signs, a disturbing trend among therapists today is the espousal of Prozac as an agency of personality make-over. Detractors note that evolution created different temperaments within the human species for a reason. Inhibited humans often excel at intellectual achievement, while bold ones become leaders and sportsmen.

To alter everyone’s personalities to be gregarious, cheerful, bold and insensitive is to tilt the balance of human evolution.

Improper levels of serotonin are now claimed to be the cause of many social evils such as hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, and aggression among children. In fact, a segment of the mental health profession recommends screening of children for “biological markers” of violence (read serotonin) and treating them with drugs such as Prozac from an early age.

A dangerous extension of such logic is the hypothesis that African Americans genetically inherit low levels of serotonin.

We are indeed living in a brave new world where problems of unemployment, poverty, lack of health care and the breakdown of family can be erased with the administration of a simple chemical called Prozac that turns victims into zombies incapable of reacting to their negative environment.

Political appeal

Imagine Los Angeles without the Rodney King riots, Vietnam without Kent State, and you can see why this argument has a certain political appeal.

On Prozac, I looked at the world with a drug-induced sense of abstraction; life’s daily vicissitudes no longer bothered me because my ability to feel emotion was severely impaired. Some experts note that serotonin occurs in all parts of the brain, and interference with its natural function can result in an impairment of emotional and mental function.

This very numbing of emotions alleviates depression, they claim. Instead of curing the familial or environmental causes of depression, Prozac thus simply treats the symptoms with no guarantee of a long-term solution.

Although in extreme cases of depression, medication might be unavoidable, should we not, as individuals, resist the temptation of a quick chemical fix in favor of a long and hard soul search? Should we not, as a community, offer our compassionate support to those in need?

Perhaps we should heed the preachings of ancient philosophers who taught us that life is difficult and, when you accept this fact, life becomes infinitely easier.

San Leandro resident Sarita Sarvate is a native of India. Now a U.S. citizen, she works as a natural gas industry expert at the California Public Utilities Commission.

Copyright Oakland Tribune 1995