The Acid Test

A Really Good Day BY Ayelet Waldman. Knopf. . $26.

The cover of A Really Good Day

I know three people microdosing LSD or mushrooms: a very young, pearly-cheeked web editor from California; a wealthy, jarringly enthusiastic computer programmer I met at a warehouse party; and a catalogue model with a demure husband. Like everyone, they appear happier and more productive than me. They work in midtown. They live in better neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Their existence does not, however, propel me to alter my consciousness, much as a low-level aversion to scientific nonfiction from independent publishers will forever keep me from reading the book that "popularized" microdosing: The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys (2011), by psychologist James Fadiman, a "former psychedelic researcher." I'm equally resistant to reading a drug memoir that comes in the form of a thirty-day diary, especially one with a self-improvement bent that purports to help you make a "mega difference" in your marriage in a month. (I'm not currently married. I'll never take LSD.)

But I make an exception for Ayelet Waldman's A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. It is by no means a remarkable book, but it's thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless, thanks to the irrepressible levity of its author, from whom we get an honest play-by-play of the emotions required for domestic maneuvers and a handy, abbreviated history of the war on drugs. (Don't forget the "medicinal garden at Monticello," the cocaine in Coca-Cola, or that "there have been no documented human deaths from an LSD overdose.") I bristled only at passages that read too much like what they actually are—the musings of a middle-aged, middlebrow woman married to novelist Michael Chabon with a knack for alarming housewifely banalities: "Today's epiphany: What if mood is a choice?" She writes in the afterword, "I began this experiment as a search for happiness. . . . Over the course of the month, I came to realize that happiness, though delightful, is not really the point."

She's lying. And thank God. Waldman has made a career of insisting that happiness is the point, and this book is only the latest installment. ("I waded into therapy with the eagerness of a dehydrated camel sloshing into an oasis mud puddle," she writes. She has spent half her life indenting her "unique assprint into so many leather couches.") She is best known for her 2005 New York Times article "Truly, Madly, Guiltily," in which she punctured the popular fantasy of mature sexual love as stoic ritual by claiming to love her husband more than her four children, and to prefer having sex with him to playing with them. This article was no "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," but its existence was proof nonetheless that its author can gestate low-sperm-count ideas to term. Later, her feisty brainchild Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace (2009) sat on the best-seller list for weeks. Waldman seems able to inspire moral panic every time she lifts a pen, in part because she's such a hardy perennial, but largely because she does live enough of a fairy tale to act like a princess, or at least the heroine of her own life, writing a bunch of novels catercorner to her famous-novelist husband in a run-down house lined with books, kids, and "wainscoting, stained nearly black."

What makes this even more compelling is that for all her fearless mockery of maternal pieties, her temperament—or perhaps it's just her writing voice—remains that of a woman one errand away from signing herself over to psychiatric care. In this book, she writes, in all seriousness: "67 percent of women's admissions to psychiatric facilities occur during the week immediately prior to menstruation." Perhaps she overreaches in trying to seem relatably crazy. But this is to be expected. She is the patron saint of bad mothers with modern challenges. And so now, for her next trick, she has decided to suggest that responsible drug use can combat garden-variety mental illness.

She begins by detailing what it means to be a white, upwardly mobile Jewish woman who grew up questing for happiness in the face of that cold northeasterly wind, not unlike a ditzy, zesty protagonist from Erica Jong. Waldman rattles off regimens prior without a hint of nostalgie de la boue:

Off the top of my head, I have over the long course of this journey in mental illness and mood alteration been prescribed the following medications: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) including: citalopram (Celexa), its nongeneric and thus more costly fraternal twin sister escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), and sertraline (Zoloft); the serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor), and venlafaxine XR (Effexor XR); the atypical antidepressant bupropion (Wellbutrin); the mood stabilizers lamotrigine (Lamictal) and topiramate (Topamax); amphetamine (Adderall, Adderall XR), methylphenidate (Ritalin and Concerta), and atomoxetine (Strattera); the benzodiazepines alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan); the atypical antipsychotic quetiapine (Seroquel) (a particularly bizarre prescription since I have never been remotely psychotic); the sleep aids zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). I'm sure I'm forgetting some. That can happen when you take a shit-ton of drugs.

This is not A Mother Gone Bad: The Hidden Confession of JonBenét's Killer—Waldman's is a palatable, suburban anomie. (Middle-class paranoia is the thinking woman's boredom.) If you find her too self-serious to be chic, or in fact cringe at this list as an enormous indulgence, it is perhaps because she does not recoil at any whiff of indignity that emanates from herself. I admit it at first struck me as close to the knuckle, but her relentless depiction of her fallibility, as always, won me over. So too does her childish idealism, which cuts both ways: She thinks LSD changed her life, but cannot continue this experiment because it's "illegal." (And prison garb won't suit her: "Redheads look terrible in orange.") Her good/bad mother/wife tessellations over the course of her career have been a handy rhetorical tic. She's not better or worse than her readers, just slightly funnier and more articulate—i.e., a writer.

Karine Laval, Untitled #46, 2014, C-print, 48 × 72". From the series “Heterotopia,” 2014. © Karine Laval/Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, NYC
Karine Laval, Untitled #46, 2014, C-print, 48 × 72". From the series “Heterotopia,” 2014. © Karine Laval/Courtesy Benrubi Gallery, NYC

David Foster Wallace joked in Infinite Jest that there might as well be a Narcotics Anonymous group called "Reality Is For People That Can't Handle Drugs." But Waldman, despite her strenuous mood-altering routine, is far from the sybaritic woman for whom this barb is intended. She doesn't drink much. She's never had a drug dealer's number in her cell. She's just got some unhappiness. "I saw the world through a sad and dingy scrim," she says of life immediately prior to LSD, complaining of, among other things and at various points in the book, mood swings, frozen shoulder, a misdiagnosis of Bipolar II, a correct diagnosis of mild PMDD, perimenopause, and having to use marijuana to wean herself off Ambien. Small amounts of LSD make her feel "cheerful," more likely to "pay attention" and exercise "impulse control." She feels a remarkable focus ("I see why some people microdose as a substitute for Adderall"). A little boost. How many of us really need more than that on a given day?

What's interesting here is not her ill-health, necessarily, but how it affects her relationships with others. As romantic agony is perfectly suited to the literature of TB (the illness of "cheaters"), marital love, especially between two writers, is suited to memoirs of anxiety (the illness of "co-branders"). Literary couples participate in this phenomenon to great effect. As Joyce Carol Oates has pointed out, John Gregory Dunne compared living with Joan Didion to living with a piranha in Vegas: A Memoir of a Dark Season. She famously announced in Life magazine that they went on vacation "in lieu of filing for divorce." (They both claimed he edited the piece.) Chic. Jane Bowles, the sick one in her marriage, bragged that "Paul and I are so incompatible that we should be in a museum." Tellingly, Michael Chabon runs stress diagnostics on his wife: "I sit in the living room, he stands two rooms away in the kitchen, and he chomps on some almonds. I have a severe nut-noise allergy. If the sound of his chewing makes me feel like running into the kitchen to throttle him, then we know I'm a bit more activated than I should be." LSD makes this better: "Today I did not run, nor did I throttle; I just stayed where I was, making a Darth Vader throttling gesture with my hands." (Her self-diagnosed misophonia—selective sound sensitivity syndrome—was "first identified by two married neuroscientists." Go figure.)

When Waldman insists that Michael Chabon is "disturbingly sane," when she calls him "my stoical husband" and a "poor, patient man," I believe her. It's dark—albeit fascinating—to watch her beat herself up while he, unremittingly sane, idly stands by: "It's always my fault when we fight, because my husband is easygoing and cheerful, and I am a bitch." Having put on the mantle of ill-health, she dutifully adds another layer by apologizing for hating herself for being a bitch: "If my self-flagellation is the source of our conflict, isn't it necessarily true that I am the problem lurking at the heart of my family, like a flaw in the center of a diamond?" Bottomless guilt is Waldman's go-to psychological cul-de-sac. And it's a boon to her writing that she's guiltiest about acting out a variation on the old AA adage: "Addicts don't have relationships, they take hostages."

Waldman's persona as the harder-to-live-with spouse (the kidnapper) suffers primarily because she writes so persistently about her perfect husband (who doesn't write nearly as much about his bad wife). In print, their relationship is certainly less attractive than Didion and Dunne's. But I think it opens up a vein of brilliance in Waldman's writing. Particularly when she gaslights Chabon for being sane. She makes this tearful speech during their marriage counseling: "He has terrible taste in women. . . . He's attracted to the neurotic and broken. He specializes in fruitlessly trying to fix the unfixable. I'll never leave him, because there's no point in leaving him. He'll just go out and find someone even crazier than me." Ah, yes, a sane man in his prime! What a great literary hostage. Or husband.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan.