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Numb and Number

I’m no stranger to sedation.

As a teen, whenever the storm of adolescence would shudder through my soul and come surging out of my face in the form of sobs and tears, my mother would offer me Valium. She tried to pass it off as aspirin, assuming I didn’t recognize the big ol’ V carved into each tiny, white anxiety-quasher. I usually declined to take them, arguing a $20 bill and a ride to the mall would better serve my particular brand of woe. But once in a while, like after a gnarly breakup with a dreamy boyfriend, I’d gulp down my mother’s little helpers and wait for the utterly undue, blessedly baseless calm it promised.

As a mother myself now, I don’t use prescription downers — which may well be because I don’t yet have teenagers. But I don’t begrudge anyone whose life-coping strategy falls short of focused yogic practice and transcendental meditation. How could I, when my own stress elixir is a big spoon, a can of chocolate frosting, and a brain-deadening string of TiVo’d Desperate Housewives episodes?

I heard an ad on the radio yesterday, though, that surprised me (and in our increasingly tranquilized society, surprises are becoming rarer and rarer). It was a local dentist whose primary appeal to customers was that — whether they’re getting a filling or a root canal — he will make sure they’re good and sedated. “Imagine sleeping soundly through your entire dental procedure and waking up refreshed, with little or no memory of the visit,” read the Web site, when I investigated further. “Most patients report having little or no memory of the experience, including sounds or smells!”

Optimal candidates, it reads, are people who have busy schedules, can’t stand needles, and “hate the noises, smells, and tastes associated with dental care.”

So that’s pretty much everyone, right?

Don’t get me wrong — I’m no freedom fighter in the war against drugs. Who doesn’t crave a little mind-whacking chemical intervention when the day goes dreadfully wrong? When you’re trying to finish a column, say, and your toddler is wailing about his menacing molars and your dog is trying to attack the poor FedEx guy and that freaking parking ticket is still laying on the kitchen counter unpaid and there’s a war in Iraq that you really should be out somewhere protesting? If I had a bottle of Xanax in front of me right now, I might very well deplete it. Because even a privileged life can be nerve-jangling.

However — and not to be a Tom Cruise here because I honestly think the guy could use some sedatives — what’s the cost of paving over all our bad feelings? How long before we, as a culture, can tamp down every anxiety we can name, from embarrassment to social nerves to those oh-so-unpleasant survival jitters that perk up when we’re stuck in an elevator with a creepy weirdo?

Certainly prescription mood enhancers are a blessing for folks grappling with devastating life events, or the kind of psychological demons that stonewall one’s ability to get through the day. But like any great drug, sedatives are becoming a health problem. Recent news stories report kids in Houston, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia have been hospitalized for addiction and overdose on downers like Xanax.

Then there’s the more philosophical pickle: Isn’t a little anxiety good for us? Doesn’t it help us regulate our behavior in ways that keep us safe, healthy, and hassle-free? If the prospect of having our teeth worked on causes our ribcages to constrict around our lungs and racing hearts, we could seek out a Halcion-hyping hygienist. Or, we could resolve (ahem) to start flossing more. When the chaos of our lives bubbles to boiling and threatens to burst out through our throbbing temples, we could pop an Ativan. Or, we could see it as a sign we need to reprioritize.

I feel that sometimes strong emotions should be fully experienced, rather than numbed. I feel there’s value in stress and lessons in fear. I feel the promise of pharmaceutical peace is as dangerous as it is appealing. Mostly, though, I’m just glad I can still feel at all.

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My columns are collected in three lovely books, which make a SPLENDID gift for wives, friends, book clubs, hostesses, and anyone who likes to laugh!
Keep Your Skirt On
Wife on the Edge
Broad Assumptions
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