The Sunday "New York Times" article "Mother's Little Helper" describes acid use by a Mom to save her marriage and her mental health. But what do we expect of women? And do we risk normalizing drug use even as we experience about as many deaths from opioids as guns or car crashes? The stories we tell ourselves about who we are are critical. Injustices and challenges can prompt societal change rather than escapism.
The Sunday January 7's New York Times featured the SundayStyles' cover story "Mother's Little Helper" (titled on-line on January 10 as "How LSD Saved One Woman's Marriage"). Apparently drug use is now a style choice, like trendy floral prints.
More seriously: Ayelet Waldman, wife to Michael Chabon -- and a former Harvard-educated public defender and writer in her own right -- was minidosing on acid, an apparent "trend du jour." Til the supply dried up, it increased her flow as a writer, and boosted her mood and her ability to cheerfully churn out smoothies. Also it improved her mental health issues, saved her marriage, and helped her write her soon-to-be-released "A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My Life."
One can't help but be impressed with her accomplishments and wish her well. Yet the article lacked context. Contrasted with the largely extraordinary New York Times' reporting from that day -- which featured numerous strong, accomplished, beautiful women who have struggled to and succeeded in finding their voice -- its deficits are all the more noticeable. Within the broader context of acid's effect in untethering one from reality, societal issues around mental health, continued unbalanced gender roles, and the challenges of our current moment, it falls far short of offering potentially transformative insight into ourselves and our world.
Let's address each one in turn.
That Day's New York Times Context: Most striking initially was a message that directly contrasted with key insightful, featured articles from that day.
The front page (A1) references "An Opioid Tide, Coast to Coast" on the epidemic that is now killing about as many people -- more than 33,000 -- as guns and car crashes. The two-full page, heavily illustrated article tells six heartwrenching stories of men and women who have struggled with addiction. The implicit message: the daily use of hard drugs is NOT recommended.
The Arts and Leisure section allocated a full page to Annette Bening in "Asking, and Answering, Tough Questions." The famed actress speaks articulately to the new pressures on women to "be hot -- that's the number one thing," as well as to go to college, get a "really good job," be "married [with] children and managing it all," and "always [be] really happy and fulfilled".
"How does that reflect on where we are with feminism, the women's movement, and freedom for women?" she poignantly asks.
From the same section (SundayStyles), Modern Love's "Refreshing a Mother's Memory with Love and Stories" speaks to the unconditional love and support of family members, even at a time when a mother can not recognize her implicitly favorite daughter.
But while the Times featured numerous accomplished and thoughtful women that day, the Sunday Review's front page also listed in the top left couple of inches: "More Reasons to Blame Mom." The article is titled, "Yes, It's Your Parents' [not Mom's] Fault", although the article discusses primary caregivers (and perhaps overemphasizes the role of attachment theory -- vs. communication -- in having functional relationships.)
Should the at-times schizophrenic New York Times maybe minidose on acid? Because this does seem to send a mixed message: instead of "Kids, don't buy drugs. Become a rock star and they give you them for free" ("Love Actually"); don't do heroin, do acid (trade in the low-class rural hard drug for the hipster one, characterized in the article as being viewed by some as "an illicit, chemical form of yoga.")
Acid and The Unreality of Lucy's Sky: Why not minidose? Particularly as post-acid Ayelet "chirped about the loveliness of the blue skies and hummed upbeat ditties as she whipped up banana-strawberry smoothies?" (The new Stepford Wife is both competent AND chirpy.) Because it isn't real. The one hard drug I tried was half a tab of acid dissolved in a beer, several decades ago. And it was wonderful: my buddy and I walked around and had conversations like, "Look at the horses, aren't they beautiful?" "Oh my God, yes! Look at the sky." "It's so gorgeous!" (Yes, it's always the sky.) The colors were amazing and everything was out of this world. Yet it was the furthest I have ever been from reality. And while reality ain't always pretty; it's helpful to live in, when possible.
Additionally beyond it being illegal (and escapist), risks of using LSD include adulteration, variations in potency, and the lack of knowledge of the effects of sustained microdosing on the brain, issues discussed in paragraphs 20 and later.
Where is Father's Little Helper? I have a friend who went away for the weekend and her partner-tracked, marathon-running husband took care of the two toddlers. When she came back, the house was trashed and he had taken the TV down from the attic. No he didn't run for "father's little helper," he congratulated himself on surviving the weekend with his girls.
Another friend (who outearns her husband, as most of my friends who stayed in the workforce do) said if she evenly split child stuff, she'd end up divorced: such a statement is implicit in many marriages I see and society at large. Many nations recognize the challenges of parenting. They support living arrangements with the extended family, affordable and high-quality child care, and tighter-knit communities. Meanwhile we drift towards greater social isolation; often with more working hours, higher expectations, and less benefits.
Alternate Diagnoses and Remedies: The larger frame put around this usage of an illegal drug is also worrisome. It is unclear to me that she needed it, despite mental struggles mentioned briefly in the article. The first reference is to her mood having "not a trace of morning surliness" (?!) "or the suffocating depression that had been dogging her for months," while mentioning briefly depression and Bipolar II disorder (much less serious than Bipolar I and characterized by hypomania). She also suffers from premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a more serious form of PMS.
Left out are serious questions about her health and alternative remedies: Did Ayelet have key health indicators tested like Vitamin D (tied to schizophrenia), thyroid, iron, B12, etc. -- many that negatively affect mood and energy -- each time she was diagnosed and treated? Were they all normal? Is she on any medication with a side effect of depression, as a startlingly high percentage of medications do? How much therapy has she received: did she try doing it daily or multiple times a week? How did her experiences in her past affect her, including presumably emotionally wrenching experiences while serving as a public defender? Has she tried spending 24 hours every weekend with a single friend or away from her family? Has she tried going away for several weeks, like in Michael Moore's "Where to Invade Next?" Has she tried mostly getting off her phone and computer, which can cause overstimulation (remember when people were paid to take pages and provide immediate service)?
Additionally, many people I know have taken many month sabbaticals, has she tried this? Has she taken the kids out of most of the activities today's highly scheduled kids do now to lighten her load? What does Chabon really do in terms of support and what is his mood like -- his award-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay" is hardly all sweetness and light? Why is she so concerned about globalizing language, when every person who is not comatose in 2017 recognizes the terrifying trajectory we may well be on and many are, as Martin Luther King Jr. called it, "creatively maladjusted?"
What are her two teenage children and their friends dealing with and sharing with her given common experiences of cancer, depression, suicide, drug usage, eating disorders, and/or insufficient sleep in teens? Why does the article close on the light note that her kid will be so cool because his Mom is on acid, even as 1 in 7 seniors used hard drugs in the last year and about 150,000 young people accidentally overdose on drugs?
Have home life expectations been boosted also? The expectation used to be that home life with two teenagers like Ayelet's would be fairly chaotic, emotional and contentious. Even the brilliant remade 2003's "Freaky Friday" with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan rolls through scenes of slammed doors, failed tests, parental disapproval for a boyfriend, overloud music, and even more heated arguments. Why should family life with teens in 2016 be all chirpiness and smoothies?
So too largely unaddressed are questions about what may well be unrealistic work expectations. As artists -- creative writers, painters, etc. -- often have down periods, why does she expect to be in the flow a lot? (As a writer I can count the number of days on one hand when I work til 7 p.m. without noticing where time went; it certainly isn't many times each month.) In fact, journalists writing intensely have typically taken many smoke breaks. Is it not unrealistic to expect such great productivity?
I was struck by the failure to illuminate potential health and emotional considerations, coupled with the what appear to be unrealistic expectations harbored for mood and work.
Generally I was left with the impression that Chabon is probably married to a woman with great wit, intelligence and wisdom; and one of considerable accomplishments. One who birthed his kids, probably got up thousands of times at night with them and otherwise supported them, while excelling within the top fraction of one percent academically and career-wise. After reading the article I thought that maybe he should thank his lucky stars and try alternative ways to support her, just as women often unconditionally and arduously support family members.
A Larger Take and Talk About This Moment -- We are in precarious times. The questions we ask about our society and ourselves, and our struggles to find solutions are critical now. The Times' often shows it recognizes this through insightful reporting. But it needs to go farther in framing our challenges.
We are going from a First Lady, if gifted with the potential to be even more powerful, as discussed in the Sunday Review's lead story "Michelle Obama's Turn", has already proven to be an eloquent advocate for women. Yet the most famous speech of her replacement, Melania Trump, was a direct ripoff of Obama's. We are moving from a president who did more to advance accountability for campus rape than any other to one who bragged about sexual assault, something Michelle Obama says she "can't stop thinking about." We transition to a hypermasculine president and social media that emphasize a "beautiful" exterior for women over the inner strength and, at times, chaos, that represents critical energy to transform our lives and our planet. The stories we tell ourselves about who women are, and who they can and should be, will frame our future.
We felt unsettled, and rightly so. But the path forward relies on our ability to ask the right questions, our ability to tell complicated stories, and on our ability to tolerate pain -- in ourselves and in others -- that is often the driving impulse behind resistance and radical social change.
Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.