I READ a review last week which declared that "depression is the new rock and roll"; it was referring to a book entitled Prozac Nation, and subtitled "Young and Depressed in America: A Memoir". The book - already a bestseller in the United States - is by a 28-year-old called Elizabeth Wurtzel, the former rock critic of the New Yorker, who, it would seem, has everything going for her: glamour, beauty, intelligence, success. Except that she's depressed, terminally depressed, and evades suicide with a cocktail of Prozac and lithium.
I was interested in Elizabeth Wurtzel and her gloomy yet snappy autobiography for a number of reasons. First, because my father, a lifelong depressive, seems to get by pretty well these days on regular doses of Prozac and lithium; second, because all of a sudden I keep hearing about friends, and friends of friends, who are taking Prozac. I know that 6 million Americans are prescribed the drug, but I was nevertheless surprised at the extent to which it seems to have spread to the place where I live: Crouch End, a north London suburb remarkable only for the fact that Bob Dylan nearly bought a house here last year.
A couple of years ago, if you went to see a local doctor complaining of tiredness and lethargy, you'd probably come away with some iron pills; these days, it might well be a prescription for Prozac and a diagnosis of depression. Maybe a lot of people are depressed in Crouch End, and everywhere else for that matter, and we never even realised. Or maybe Prozac is this year's Valium: mother's little helper, until we find out otherwise.
Anyway, Prozac Nation sounded interesting and topical, so I went to the local bookshop to buy it. When I got there, I felt a bit embarrassed: for if depression is the new rock and roll, then I'm far too old to be reading about it. I sidled over to the young shop assistant, and said, "Have you got a book called Prozac Nation?" She looked at me, and my baby sitting stolidly in his buggy, with a faint air of surprise: as if it were an incredibly hip record shop and I was an uncool 45-year-old asking for the new Snoop Doggy Dog album. I wanted to say, "Look, Prozac is for everybody you know, not just clever American babes. Housewives take it, right here in Crouch End!" But then I thought that that wasn't a good idea; apart from anything else, she might think I was mentally unstable, and a good candidate for some other, less fashionable psychotropic drug. So I just hovered, uncomfortably, while she fetched the book and put it in a brown paper bag.
Back home, I got it out, and studied the stylishly monochrome picture of Elizabeth Wurt-zel on the front cover: she's pouting, a grunge rock chick with long hair and a cropped T-shirt that shows her desirably flat stomach. Inside, she's looking even more alluring, posing barefoot in her skimpy black slip dress. Now, I'm not saying that you can't be beautiful and depressed at the same time (look at Marilyn Monroe, for one). As Wurtzel points out, "The first time I took an overdose was at summer camp... the year I turned 12, when I had thin thighs, big eyes, peachy breasts, sunburn, and an edge-of-adolescence prettiness that would have made you think nothing could be wrong." Nor am I denying her problems (divorced parents, father who didn't see her enough). And the book itself is very readable, in a glum sort of way. What is mildly irritating about it, however, is the underlying message - both on the cover and in the pages within - that here is a new, groovy kind of depression, for new, groovy kind of people. It's a perfectly natural reaction for "twentynothings", she says, "to a world that seems to be perilously lacking in the basic guarantees that our parents expected: a marriage that would last, employment that was secure, sex that wasn't deadly."
At which point I wanted to say, well hang on a moment, what about all those thirtysomethings and fortysomethings and fiftysomethings, angst- ridden and sad and with flabby tummies, too? Why do they have to be excluded from the trendy Unhappy Club, just because they don't listen to Nirvana? They get made redundant and divorced, and doubtless worry about Aids, just like 21-year-olds do.
The day after I bought the book, I woke up feeling tired and dull, a state which was possibly connected to Ms Wurtzel's subject matter. It was a Saturday, and I took the children to do the shopping in Crouch End. Normally, it seems like quite a nice neighbourhood, but on that particular morning there was nothing to redeem it. A gritty wind blew litter through the streets; and everyone I saw looked grumpy. I bought a loaf of bread, and then gave up and went to see my friend Melanie.
"I've got to have a cup of tea," I said. "I ache all over, I'm exhausted, I feel..."
"Bleak?" she said.
"Yes, bleak. I think I need some Prozac, right now." But of course she didn't have any Prozac, so I ate her biscuits instead and went home. That night, I vomited copiously, just as Elizabeth Wurtzel is always doing in her book; only I hadn't taken too many drugs, simply caught a boring stomach bug.
A new day dawned; and shortly afterwards my five-year-old son Jamie and his friend Joe, who had stayed the night, came and prodded me awake. They were, inexplicably, holding a magazine which had a picture of the young Elvis Presley on the front cover.
"That man looks like a Power Ranger," said Jamie.
"It's Elvis Presley," I said, trying not to be sick again.
"There's no such thing as Elvis Preserley," said Jamie.
"Oh yes there is," said Joe. "My Dad plays drums with him."
I put the duvet cover over my head and told them to go away. If you ask me, depression is not the new rock and roll, and neither is having flu: especially if you're 34 next month, and married with children. !
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