Long Before They Declared It An Epidemic

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March 21, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Michelle Site


(1) Anxiety or tension associated with the stress of everyday life usually does not require treatment with an anxiolytic.

At nineteen, I worked at a pharmacy in Wayland Square. I stood at the front counter for hours herding tiny shapes from one bottle to another. We shelved our bestselling drugs within reach and on a slow Tuesday, I counted sixteen of the twenty were anxiolytics. I love that word, anxiolytic. It is so full of magical thinking, born from a world where anxiety is something we can wipe away like bacteria or dirt on a counter.

(2) Anxiety pours itself into the cups of your uncertainty because nature does not like empty spaces.

When we speak about cancer, it is typically as an other – a part of our bodies but apart from us, a parasite that we need to excise. But with anxiety, it is everywhere and nowhere. It lives in us and with us. Our bodies somehow steeped in it, even though we cannot map its mass or its source.

(3) The placebo effect is about our beliefs and expectations, the cultural meaning of a treatment.

If we frame anxiety as a mind convulsing in the future tense, straightjacketed in a body that can only exist today, it appears more as a habituated response to cognitive dissonance than a physiological disease. Dissonance implies a pulling apart at the most fundamental level. But in the human mind, what are we pulling apart?

If we trust the way we lyse the inside of our brains with opioids, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, alcohol, we could presume the most basic unit of our minds are cells. While cells may be the smallest unit of biological life, it is risky to presume that qualifies them as the smallest unit of the mind.

For the longest time, like science, like medicine, I wanted to believe everything can be explained and treated on a cellular level. But altering the perception of pain on a cellular level is not a cure.

(4) Diseases and myths both need a point of origin.

Etiology investigates cause or reason, usually expressed in historical or mythical explanation. Etymology studies origins of words, how their meanings evolved through history. Both root out genesis, trace development. One asserts definitive meaning. The other admits meaning bends.

Where do we draw the line between a learned response and a physical condition? How do we know what is a history and what is a narrative? When do we let go of explanations and reasons to search for another cause?

(5) We used to live among wild things, mountain lions on the ridge and fires raging on the prairie. 

Why do we cling to anxiety, this infection we fail to pin down? How does it manage to spill everywhere but live nowhere? How do we hold it inside of ourselves?

Where is the screwdriver, the one constantly turning inside of you, winding you so tight? Where are the screws?


(1) FDA Drug Bulletin, Volume 10, Issue 3. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, Food and Drug Administration, Nov. 1980.

(3) Goldacre, Ben. “Battling Bad Science.” Ted.Com, TED Talks, 2011, http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_goldacre_battling_bad_science/discussion?language=en.

(5) Biss, Eula. On Immunity: An Innoculation., 2016. Print.


Michelle Site is an American poet and designer living in Norway. Her work
has previously appeared in Rust+Moth, HA Magazine, and Puerto del Sol.


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