Fiction · 03/25/2009

American Soma

We noticed it first — we, who I like to think of as the extremely sensitive people, the ones endowed with an unpleasant aptitude for sinking to the very floorboards of despair and feeling the pulses of ugly truth that surge underneath them. I carry splinters in both my palms, and I’ve sniffed the traces of hopelessness that leak like sewer gas through cracks in the parquet. My friend David called us highly intelligent. He said we should look at it as a gift, like ESP, but I’ve never felt that way. If I could live my life as a happy person and give up some of this awareness, I would.

That summer and fall, David and I became temporarily unable to plumb the depths of our depression. The far-reaching but invisible ramifications of misery were no longer registering on our sonar. And it seemed to take place overnight. In the months preceding the election that year, something happened to the entire nation. We were collectively overcome by a rash of good feeling.

Never before had I not been able to think a situation all the way through to its logical end. I often repeated my analyses over and over until I found myself mired yet again in desolation. At the time, I did not know any other way. My wiring ran on well-established pathways. Suddenly, however, in the heat of summer, there was a comforting insulation beneath me. It separated me from my habitual despondency. I sat in my apartment and felt content. To simply breathe was a pleasure. I looked up instead of down, and I began to notice the black squirrels in the building’s courtyard, the pansies in the cement planter outside my office building. Food never tasted so good. Coffee was better each time I had it. I could not explain what was happening to me, although I dreamily considered that I might be outgrowing my defects.

David, too, lost his capacity for sensing the world’s hidden horror. We met for coffee, both of us happier than we had been since childhood. The notion that we were one degree away from lives we both feared, that microbes would invade our bodies, that anger, loathing, and filth would prevail dissipated entirely. I looked at them as ridiculous fixations I could no longer understand. David was less sanguine about the change in his perceptive powers. He thought it was unusual that we should both experience the phenomenon at the same time. “It’s gotta be something environmental. The fucking trees won’t bud next year or the fish will start popping up dead in the Potomac. Then we’ll know. Something’s going on. Start watching the papers.”

We actually hadn’t noticed, but two years before, the FDA, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, had appointed a special committee to examine American eating habits. It was conducted during the height of the Atkins and South Beach trends, and in light of the countrywide preoccupation with weight, it did not seem particularly significant. Apparently, the most popular food in America was found to be pizza, despite all the low-carb proselytizing done by dieting gurus and marketing firms engaged by corporations looking for the next big cash-in. Soda, beer, and coffee were determined to be the most consumed beverages.

The government would not have needed to convene a special commission to gather this data. Committee officials would have been able to determine this at any staff meeting involving food or simply by watching what their aides and interns sat beside their keyboards each morning. But Washington runs on the dawdling conclusions drawn by administrative agencies. If things were done any more efficiently, much of the government might find itself redundant. And, true, the executive officials who actually ordered the inquiry live differently. They, who look down from their vaulted civil buildings onto cities awash in coffee and beer, themselves look forward to single malt scotch, rare sherry, and Amarone the color of bull’s blood. Perhaps this is what prevented them from feeling so content over those few blissful months. Or maybe they all just knew what to avoid. Coffee in the morning? Hell no. How about a Screwdriver or a Bloody Mary? Now there’s the breakfast of champions.

In retrospect, I suppose the real impetus for the investigation was to determine how to reach the most people. What medium was the most democratic, cutting across all ethnic and economic boundaries? How would both rural and urban populations be reached? Would children be harmed by high doses? Neurological experts were consulted on the effect of chemical catalysts on humans of various weights and age groups. It was collectively decided that broad-based clinical trials would be conducted first in metropolitan areas, where the effects would be closely monitored.

Starbucks was approached first. “You have the potential to make more money than you have ever seen before,” were the first words from the official’s mouth during his initial phone call. Several top drawer meetings ensued, during which CEOs and high-ranking government representatives, a decorated military general among them, discussed the possibilities. The last conference commenced at 1:00 p.m. on a balmy Seattle afternoon. It lasted exactly two hours. A rolling humidor holding the chairman’s finest cigars, foreign contraband among them, was brought in at 1:45 p.m. A smaller cart, containing a variety of brandies, was wheeled in shortly thereafter. Hands shook at 2:45 and departure was taken by the federal representatives at 3 p.m. It was done.

Deals were subsequently tendered to the national pizza chains, the two major soft drink producers, the three most successful nationally-distributing breweries, and two of the largest coffee manufacturers, whose products were sold exclusively in grocery stores. Each company was lead to believe they would enjoy exclusivity and therefore, have a decisive edge over competitors. This made the proposal particularly compelling.

The circle of knowledge was kept small. Only one or two people within each organization were aware of what was newly introduced into company recipes. The bags, when they arrived, were without labels. They contained a non-descript yellowish-looking powder. The only lingering question was how the powder’s chemical composition would respond when exposed to heat. Consequently, testing was done using pharmaceutical-grade microspheres, and the results were successful. Without further delay, the microspheric powder was mixed with the dry ingredients of crust dough and stirred into beverage syrups with the customary thoughtlessness of unsuspecting employees. Initially, it was found that its inclusion in brewer’s yeast inhibited the fermentation process of beer. So the powder was liquefied and poured into production tanks before bottling.

Before being ground, whole coffee beans were soaked in a marinade of the special powder dissolved in water. It was treated by corporate HQ as the company’s secret ingredient and was measured out and added to frappuccinos, ciders, and chais. It made its clandestine appearance in every beverage on the menu. Skim mocha? Espresso doppio? A double whip-whip latte? Without fail. It could not be escaped.

We could not see it, but the vesicles of our cerebral cortexes soon glittered with pooled serotonin. Serotonergic neurons projected their axons into the amygdale, making us all less emotionally volatile; the hypothalamus, reshaping our sleep patterns; the hippocampus, regulating our ability to remember; and the cerebellum, tuning our attention like radios. How far the government’s reach had extended. And no one felt anything but peaceful, perhaps better than they had felt in many years.

Despite the appetite suppressing properties of the powder, the consumption of coffee and pizza increased. As soon as the residual sense of fulfillment wore off, people flocked again to the sources they associated their good feelings with. And like hogs to the truffle, their instincts were consistently accurate. Beer was purchased in even greater quantities, and drunk driving increased eleven-fold. People’s hypertension worsened, and cholesterol readings went up in every doctor’s office across the nation. Lipitor and Zocor were liberally prescribed.

Sexual activity also dropped, which, in some cases, was a desired side-effect of the doping. Complaints of STDs decreased in urban hospitals, and free clinics likewise reported a dramatic drop in patient numbers. However, more men went to doctors complaining of sexual dysfunction. A cluster of neurons in the hypothalamus was repeatedly failing to open proerectile pathways in the brain, but of course, no one suspected anything unusual at the time. Doctors prescribed Viagra and told them to cut down their caffeine intake and stress levels.

The changes had a particularly egregious downside: in the cities, people began dying. Amazingly, no one had considered what ramifications an increase in serotonin would have for those already taking psychotropic drugs. But perhaps, perhaps this was a bit of clandestine eugenics, something that was part of the greater strategic chart for the nation. Get rid of those defective minds. It will be said that they overdosed, that they committed suicide. We don’t need them in our gene pool. The future belongs to the healthiest among us.

By the end of October, as the last debates aired and the stump speeches began, most of the general population was enjoying the effects of having been medicated for many months. A general feeling of contentment with the status quo had settled over them like a downy quilt, and the incumbent, whom they associated with this sense of well-being and whom they began to admire intensely, sat at the foot of the nation’s bed and told this largely unaware, self-concerned brood a fairy-tale about what had been and what would be. While he was not a master storyteller, in their chemically altered minds, what he said became a certainty.

When the election passed and the incumbent was indeed re-elected, chemical levels abruptly dropped in foods and beverages. It simply cost too much to continue the program. Billions of dollars had been spent to anesthetize the population. The particulars of each deal struck with participating corporations are, apparently, vague, but every one received some reward for their participation, a so-called ‘remunerative allowance’ for the cost of altering their production methods. But like the water table, the money not retained by savvy lawyers conversant with tax loop holes was simply reabsorbed by that entity which had showered it in the first place. In fact, the government took even more, once profit margins enjoyed a global increase. Still, it was simply not lucrative enough to continue the program. The drug companies supplying the pharmaceutical-grade powders could not continue to meet the new levels of demand, and consequently exacted ever higher prices from federal allocations.

Also at stake was secrecy. To continue the program was to chance exposure and ruin, and the party risked both schism and collapse to secure the results of a single election. Yet never before, they felt, had so much been at issue — a war, an international position. The world was watching with contemptuous eyes. To have power wrested from them then, before things had been brought to a mollifying conclusion, before achieving domination and redemption — two intricately intertwined goals — was unthinkable. Perhaps eight people originally knew the complete truth. And all were considered to be in a position not to speak of it further if questioned. A great deal of deceit, half-truths, and backroom double-dealing was necessary to achieve the outcome.

And apparently, a blissful citizenry was also no longer essential for the theoretical Greater Good. And therefore, we all awoke one mid-November morning much crankier than usual. Our bodies yearned for that which was lacking. Our heads ached. We all collectively perspired. Some of us found our appetites curtailed, while others binged on comfort food, seeking the familiar onset of serenity. Both road rage and murder increased in the months following the nation’s united entry into cold turkey. And the following September, a spike in the birth rate occurred. In searching for what was missing, people found an interim placebo. Their carnal desire had returned, unabated.

If we were generous of mind, we might believe that this had begun as a defensive experiment, to determine whether the American population could actually be brought under a collective spell, to find out if the intrinsically dissatisfied human mind could be drawn by artificial means to support an invasive belief system or endorse a previously unpopular political philosophy. But what incredible timing for such an experiment.

Who has said that the satisfied man will not object, much less revolt? The measures and their decisive success had tremendous implications for society’s future, for the future of the world. To have an entire population follow you willingly into an unmistakably perilous dawn, that, that! is extraordinary, a feat of science and a triumph over free will. Instead of previous generations’ indigence and famine, which alters a man’s spiritual core, we have split level malls, unwanted possessions, and debt to spur our colorless discontent, a dissatisfaction so bland it inspires no moments of action, only self loathing and fresh consumption. We absently fill ourselves beyond satiety, yet remain eternally unfulfilled. To the politicians, we were not fat and happy, but obese and despondent, obeying Newton’s first law of dynamics. The government was the unbalancing force that acted upon us. They set us in motion for their benefit and then laid us again to rest.

How did it work out for us? Oh David and I enjoyed an entirely different perception of reality for a little while. The holes underneath us remained closed. They did not even leak the acrid fragrance we had come to recognize as anxiety, but as we were abruptly and unwittingly weaned of the chemicals, David suffered a collapse. He complained of dizziness and nightmares first, and then suddenly and inexplicably, he began stuttering. Over a period of a few weeks, he went from ebullience tinged with hints of mania to an unresponsiveness punctuated by unexpected outbursts of violence. He had no great amount of money, so he was sent off to St. Elizabeth’s, and I have not seen him since.

So how is it that I know everything I’ve told you? Well, people who know things and shouldn’t talk often do. Give a man too many Manhattans at a cocktail party and revelations can flood from his mouth in great bilious rivers. I once had a strange gift for exciting my conversational partners to divulge both the covert and the shocking. I did nothing but nod my head and widen my eyes at appropriate moments, but it always elicited the same confessional responses. Therefore, I gained a great deal of unwanted knowledge. And knowledge, I’m afraid, brings unhappiness. If I were forced to replace it with something, it would be wisdom. Wisdom has the patina of experience to soften its uneven edges. The raw hysteria that follows knowledge, which often comes at me through every sensory faculty, is why I can no longer travel in the outside world. My experiences must now be filtered and regulated. Of course, because of my condition, no one takes me seriously when I tell them what I know. But then, it could be that they are even more medicated than I am. And wouldn’t that be funny?

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Savannah Schroll-Guz is the author of The Famous and Anonymous. Her work has appeared in many journals. Her collection American Soma is coming very soon from So New.