Binging on Barbiturates in the Big Apple

Binging on Barbiturates in the Big Apple
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There isn't a drug that Sam Lansky hasn't done.

Early on in the 27-year-old TIME editor's debut memoir The Gilded Razor, we learn that Lansky has taken everything from cocaine to crystal meth -- and so many prescription pills even Jacqueline Susann would blush.

And he was only in his teens.

The Gilded Razor is a precocious work, tracking Lansky's deep descent into drug and sex addiction during his adolescence in New York City. The book is clearly one written by a discerning cultural critic -- Lansky is a TIME's deputy culture editor -- whose penchant for unpacking contemporary culture is very apparent, especially in odd and sometimes unexpected places. As we read about the teen Lansky performing blowjobs on older men on Manhattan balconies, his thoughts are interspersed with commentaries on likes of Finnegan's Wake and Steve Martin.

Born in the Pacific Northwest, Lansky had all the promises of a clever teen: an Ivy League education and encouraging college prospects in New York. But Lansky lost most of these when the pull of prescription pills -- including Xanax, Prozac, and Adderall -- coupled with hardcore illegal drugs, proved far too strong to resist in his mid-teens. As his parents' separation began to be finalized, Lansky moved to New York with his distant father and found that he could best numb his angst with booze and barbiturates -- and boys. (But not always in that order.)

While Lansky's confessional memoir may appear like a long self-incriminating story of substance abuse -- joining the list paved by the likes of Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation and Augusten Burroughs's Dry -- it is far more self-critical and probing than the others.

Unlike Wurtzel's Prozac Nation, which really reads like the ravings of a solipsistic teen whose retelling of her deep descent into depression blames everyone and everything around her, Lansky dispassionately recounts these difficult but very defining moments from his teen years. In doing so, he touches upon another deeper and more complex phenomenon in the gay community.

The Gilded Razor interrogates the gay male experience of today, looking at how so many gay men gravitate toward illicit substances for relief and stability from their sometimes painful and troubled experiences growing up queer. Lansky -- through his own experiences with drugs like cocaine and crystal meth -- shows how our gay male culture of instant gratification, body image hang-ups, and difficulties growing up gay make the allure of drugs immensely attractive to many of us.

It's now no surprise then that gay men have even carved out their own vocabulary for drug use, often with acronyms for describing sexual exchanges that are defined (and prevaricated) by drug use (i.e. "PnP," denoting "Party and Play," whereby gay men smoke crystal meth and have wild -- and often unprotected -- sex).

As for Lansky, his drug abuse worsened by age of seventeen, with his addiction extending to not only prescription pills -- which he mostly sources through a "Brownstone" doctor who helped rich kids with sleeping problems -- but also to sex. This sees him go on weekend-long benders where he mixes meth with other uppers and downers, gets fucked by lovers and strangers, before finally staggering out to daybreak to email another older guy before the morning is out. "I had been filling prescriptions for hundreds of amphetamines a month, using so much cocaine that I left bloody chunk of flesh wadded in Kleenex roses," Lansky writes.

His story is a revealing, unvarnished tale of being gay and self-medicating today, one that is not isolated to men like Lansky or even New York City. Lansky's writing is addictive, as he exposes the way drugs of all forms -- meth pipes of hard-core abusers, prescription meds from rich private school kids, booze bought with fake IDs -- ripple out and affect many gay men across the gay community. These drugs are often the impulse for self-destruction, not only as a teenager but also as a gay man, thus often being a necessary and important journey of self-knowledge.

Reading Lansky's polished prose -- and talent for harsh, unapologetic self-incrimination -- also sees his work also connect with the other infamous novels of alienation and abandonment in New York City (where much of his memoir takes place). In particular, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. This connection goes beyond the mere similarity in location, but to both narrators' willful self-destruction, as their curt prose conceals their more complicated thoughts and their experiences of depression and disillusionment.

By the book's end, Lansky has made multiple trips to bedlam and back -- and even multiple mental health facilities -- so there's no "neat" ending that so many drug and depression memoirs seem to offer. This is, however, a necessary ending, demonstrating that drug and alcohol addiction is never a cut-and-dry recovery -- it's a lifelong journey of learning and self-discovery.

The Gilded Razor proves to be a rare, and very welcome addiction, to the teen depression memoir canon, since it is was one of the few stories of adolescent angst -- coupled with self-harm -- that is about the young gay male experience.

Since we already have a deluge of straight people telling their stories about their descent into depression and addiction, Lansky's memoir is an illuminating interrogation about the gay experience of today, one that is often a battle between self-knowledge and the pleasures of substances to hide the pain we all experience.

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