Surely, Elizabeth Wurtzel offered the best account of growing up on Prozac, but Katherine Sharpe has made an excellent contribution to the topic in her book: Coming of Age on Zoloft. Recently, Maria Popova wrote an interesting commentary on it for the Brain Pickings blog.
Popova summarized the issue:
Sharpe points out a troubling corollary: In permeating everyday life so profoundly, antidepressants also embedded themselves in youth, with an ever-growing number of teenagers taking psychopharmaceuticals to abate depression, ADHD, and other mental health issues. And while relief from the debilitating and often deadly effects of adolescent depression is undoubtedly preferable over the alternative, it comes with a dark side: Antidepressants confuse our ability to tell our “true self” from the symptoms of the disease, and from the effects of the medication, at a time when the search for selfhood and the construction of personal identity are at their most critical and formative stages.
In other words, how do you know whether your feelings are really yours? How do you know whether your complacency is really a sign of what is going on in the world and not an artificial, chemically-induced emotion? If you are feeling upbeat and optimistic does that mean that you have reason to feel confident or that you have been drugged? If you are not feeling anxious about lurking danger, does that mean that there are no lurking dangers?
Prozac will do wonders for your moods, and, Popova notes, in some cases that is all to the good. Yet, in others, it places vulnerable individuals in a condition that, strangely enough, resembles what happens when someone is traumatized.
If you have been hurt or abused, your mind will go into trauma avoidance mode. You will become overly sensitive to some stimuli and numb to others. Thus, you will not be able to trust your emotions.
Knowing your mind, in the sense of knowing what you are feeling is critical for your ability to negotiate your world and navigate everyday life. If you cannot trust your emotions you will be disoriented and disaffected.
Sharpe offers what appears to be the view commonly held by today’s therapists. Adolescence, therapists believe, is a time when young people are supposed to find themselves, thus to discover what they feel when they feel like themselves:
Worries about how antidepressants might affect the self are greatly magnified for people who begin using them in adolescence, before they’ve developed a stable, adult sense of self. Lacking a reliable conception of what it is to feel “like themselves,” young people have no way to gauge the effects of the drugs on their developing personalities. Searching for identity — asking “Who am I?” and combing the inner and outer worlds for an answer that seems to fit — is the main developmental task of the teenage years. And for some young adults, the idea of taking a medication that could frustrate that search can become a discouraging, painful preoccupation.
Allow me to correct some of this. If you feelings are a guide that can help you to make your way through reality, you need to know how to read them correctly, how to read them as a function of current reality and not as a function of past trauma. The issue of how it feels to be Me or You does not make a lot of sense, to me at least.
For example, if someone walks up to you and asks: Who are you?, the correct answer is to state your name. You may be Frank Jones or Jocelyn Martin… but, until the new order arrives, that is who you are.
Surely, when someone asks you who you are you do not respond by saying that you feel mad, glad, sad or bad. Such information may or may not be relevant to your interlocutor, but first, he needs to know who is feeling these feelings.
It is also fair to mention that if your mood shifts one day from mad to glad, you will not think that you have become someone else. Regardless of what you feel, if you are Frank or Jocelyn when you are sad you are Frank or Jocelyn when you are in love.
The concept of identity requires clarification. First, we must first notice that identity is a relationship. We say that something is identical to something else. Or else, we can say that it differs from something else. You might want to believe that X is identical with itself or that X is identical with X, but that feels like a tautology. It is useful for creating a formal logic, but it will not solve your identity crisis.
Furthermore, your identity is not just something you feel inside you. As the Chinese would say, it involves your face more than your feelings. Your face is what you present to the world; it signifies your social being.
If you feel that you are Frank and everyone you meet sees Mac, you will quickly be unsure of whether you are Frank.
Were it not for therapy people would not be overly confused about who they are. Yet, it is not enough to know your name; you must begin, during adolescence, to establish your good name.
Adolescents do not need to discover what they feel. They need to know what they should do. Scientists generally agree that the area of the brain that controls ethical behavior does develop until a child reaches adolescence.
Adolescents need to begin to create an identity as ethical beings. The first rule that a teenager should learn to follow is this one: to be good to his word, to keep his promises, to do what he says he will do.
If his actions correlate with his vows, his commitments and his promises he will gain an identity. Thus, he will be to others what he says he is… there will never be a doubt of who is he or what he is going to do.
If you say you are going to do one thing and then do another, you will never know which is the real you—the you who promised to do this or the you who did that. Rummage through your emotions all you want… you will never find out which one is really you. Of course, no one else will know either.