Aldous Huxley Foresaw America’s Pill-Popping Addiction with Eerie Accuracy We’re Now Living in the Brave New World

Who ever thought the Rolling Stones and Aldous Huxley would agree on anything?

This apparent ease with which Americans have come to accept Valium—along with its fellow benzodiazepines, from Librium (chlordiazepoxide) and Klonopin (clonazepam) to Ativan (lorazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam)—is shocking. Huxley had it down. Quickly establishing itself as a basic “staple in medicine cabinets, as common as toothbrushes and razors,” Valium became what Andrea Tone describes as the world’s first blockbuster drug, “the first $100 million brand in pharmaceutical history, and between 1968 and 1981, the most widely prescribed medication in the Western world.” At its peak sales, in “1978 alone, Valium’s manufacturer, Hoffman-La Roche, sold nearly 2.3 billion tablets, enough to medicate half the globe.”
Like Thorazine before it, then, Valium is much more than just a new medication prescribed to treat another psychological illness. More importantly, it dramatically extended the reach of psychopharmacology itself. Whereas Thorazine and early antipsychotics (i.e., major tranquilizers) were used to treat seriously mentally ill patients suffering from schizophrenia and other readily identifiable psychoses, generally in asylums, a new generation of benzodiazepines or minor tranquilizers, such as Valium, began to “confuse the typical perturbations that are part of everyone’s life with true psychiatric disorder” (Frances).

No longer limited to treating major psychoses, Valium offered a new pill for everyday life: for the home, for the office, for the classroom, for the airplane, for the stage, for suburbia, and for public life at large. Everyone can take it and seemingly for almost any everyday anxiety, from prenuptial jitters to performance anxiety at work or social anxiety at a cocktail party with the neighbors. Consequently, “psychiatrists in the 1960s were faced with the alienation of everyday life in a way that no earlier generation of practitioners had been” with the result that psychotropic drugs became widely available to the masses, en masse, to treat an ever-increasing array of everyday anxieties and minor psychological disturbances for the first time (Healy 2002). Pills were no longer restricted to treating major illnesses; they became new panaceas for almost every imaginable form of quotidian distress, spilling out of psychiatrists’ specialized offices and the halls of asylums into patients’ common medicine cabinets.

Check out the The Rolling Stones’ Lyrics to Mother’s Little Helper.

What a drag it is getting old
“Kids are different today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill
There’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day
“Things are different today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak
And goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day
Doctor please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
What a drag it is getting old
“Men just aren’t the same today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
They just don’t…

By Robert Bennett
March 21, 2019