"Twenty-five years after pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly unleashed Prozac on the red-braced 80s, SSRIs are still the world's most popular antidepressants. They are swallowed by more than 40 million people, from Beijing to Beirut, knitting a web of happiness from New York to New Caledonia. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, of which Prozac is the best known, are the defining drug of the modern age, the crutch of choice for the worried well. In the US, where one in 10 takes antidepressants, you can buy beef-flavoured Prozac for your dog, trademarked Reconcile. The Prozac revolution has not only changed the way we think about depression (aided by Eli Lilly's mammoth advertising campaign); it has also changed the way we think, full stop.
In his 1993 book Listening to Prozac, the psychiatrist Peter D Kramer explored the ethical issues around the rise of what he termed "cosmetic pharmacology". With a daily pill people could now banish social awkwardness or the unhappiness of relationship break-ups, forge brassily assertive personae from their once shy selves. Like the Soma of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Prozac was making people "better than well". Kramer wrote of the "personality transformations" that occurred in a substantial minority of those taking the drug, briefly pausing to speculate as to what impact this might have had on their creativity. While we know, thanks to Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire, that poets are up to 30 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the national average, we have no idea how or if the pills they take to treat the disease affect their creative output.
The French writer Henry de Montherlant said that happiness writes white. For me that whiteness was the colour of a 20mg Cipralex pill – a close cousin of Prozac – taken at the breakfast table. With the depthless chemical happiness of the drug, a thin layer of snow seemed to fall over my mind, blocking access to strong feeling, cutting me off from the hidden impulses that drove me to write. Sometimes I did feel "better than well", but more often I was haunted by the uncanny feeling that I was skimming over the surface of my life. Looking back, those Prozac years have a curious, occluded feel, as if viewed through a gauze.
To celebrate the drug's quarter-century, I spoke to other writers, artists and musicians who have taken SSRIs, trying to establish whether they have been a bane or a boon for our collective creativity..."