03/29/2012 09:58 am ET Updated May 29, 2012

Our Blasé Attitude Toward Pills

Are pills the new alcohol?

Here's a quote from the March 26, 2012 New York Magazine cover story, "Listening to Xanax: How America Learned to Stop Worrying About Worrying and Pop its Pills Instead," by Lisa Miller:

So reliably relaxing are the effects of benzodiazepines that SAMHSA's director of substance-abuse treatment, H. Wesley Clark, says they've gained a reputation as 'alcohol in a pill.' And their consumption can be equally informal. Just as friends pour wine for friends in times of crisis, so too do doctors, moved by the angst of their patients, 'have sympathy and prescribe more,' says Clark. There are a lot more benzos circulating these days, and a lot more sharing.

The article is accompanied by an illustration called "Chill-Pill Matchmaking," which shows "four anxious archetypes and the drugs that might suit them." The recommended pills are Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin and Valium.

Last I checked, these were some heavy-duty drugs, and yes, some people cannot function without them. But those who can function without them would be better off trying to deal with the anxiety another way. Because Xanax is extremely addictive, it is only approved by the FDA for up to eight weeks of use. In Great Britain, it is only approved for four weeks of use. Withdrawal symptoms can last for up to a year.

The thing is, pills and alcohol are not equal. Consider this: According to the CDC, nationwide, one person dies every 19 minutes of prescription drug overdoses. Mixing drugs and alcohol can be deadly, but many people don't think twice about popping a Xanax and still having their alcohol of choice.

I remember being in my 20s, living in Manhattan, going out every night with my friends. Drinking was the center of my social life, and I didn't want to give it up, even for one night. If I was on antibiotics, and the doctor said drinking was not recommended, I drank anyway. I'd rationalize it, telling my friends, "It's not like the doctor said definitely don't drink. He just said he didn't recommend it."

Many people who already drink alcohol as a regular part of their routine are simply adding the pills on top of it, instead of substituting one for the other.

In an article on the dangers of mixing prescription drugs and alcohol in the Miami Herald, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN chief medical correspondent, explains that part of the problem is the perception that legal drugs are safe. If a doctor prescribes it, it must be okay.

Dr. Gupta says in his interview with the Miami Herald that doctors need to give stronger warnings. According to Gupta, when doctors say, "Don't drink if you are taking this medication," it seems like a courtesy warning. Gupta believes that "a warning that a person dies every 19 minutes would be a stronger warning."

Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.

Pre-order Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up on Amazon here. Friend the Drinking Diaries on Facebook or continue the conversation on Twitter