T H E A W F U L T R U T H | B Y C I N T R A W I L S O N
Fighting the big monster with a little knife
OR, ADVENTURES WITH ANTI-DEPRESSANTS.
for some reason, everybody in L.A. is miserably crazy and fucked-up. When I
lived there in 1995, I didn't know anybody who wasn't on some combination
of prescription drugs, the major arcana being Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin
and Paxil, the lesser Lithium, Xanax and Ritalin, and nobody I knew would
turn down a line of speed or coke or anything else that might lift us for
15 minutes out of the toxic gloom that coated us all like volcanic ash.
L.A. wraps around your psyche like a black rubber python, cutting off your
windpipe and sucking all the dopamine out of your ear canal. It's like a
creeping paralysis. After a few months every cell in your body forgets what
it was like to ever be happy, and you get so bereft you find yourself
crying in your car if the Jack in the Box clown speaks to you in a tone
that is halfway kind. I couldn't pull into a parking garage there without
elaborate thoughts of suicide. Just waking up in the morning to 109-degree
heat, with the sky shimmering like gasoline and knowing you have to get
dressed and communicate with your fellow L.A. citizens brings impossible
sadness, and you feel so God-awful sorry for yourself, there is just no
pressing on without pills.
I had an excellent psychologist in L.A. who specialized in trauma survival.
Half of her patients had suffered "ritual Satanic abuse" during their
childhood years, their mean parents having sold them to be impregnated by
goats, cannibalized their fellow Cub Scouts in the rec room and such.
Still, I fancied myself one of her most pitiable cases, my pain was so
glutenously thick and acrid and all-pervasive. At one point during our
therapy, I was sitting on her couch, trembling and weeping as usual, and I
realized that I had no idea WHY. From that point on, I started talking to
her over and around my tears as if they were some kind of vacuum-packed
ski-mask shrunk over my face.
"This is annoying," I'd say to her. "I just can't stop crying. There
doesn't seem to be any therapy to it or any end in sight, it's just
self-perpetuating like one of those clocks."
"Maybe we should consider the possibility that your condition is biochemical."
Oh, sweet words. I started salivating at the idea that some authority
figure like a doctor might actually give me pills to swat away my
disgusting mental state.
The first psychiatrist to whom she referred me was an old, questionable
Tolkien dwarf who kept all of his files fanned out randomly around the
airless room under dirty coffee mugs, with books laid open on their faces
and hair all over the rug. I told him I thought I needed anti-depressants
and he whipped out his prescription pad and asked, "What kind?"
I felt a warm surge of ability to abuse the situation. The doctor started
me on Paxil, which after three days had me in such a deranged, scowling
hysteria I felt like some chattering Greek tragedy wraith, covered in sores
and with bugs in my hair.
"One out of 100 people has that reaction," said the doctor. "What else do
you want to try?"
For six months, I played anti-depressant roulette, experimenting with
different pills and dosages.
Eventually, I was awarded the diagnosis flavor of the month, Adult
Attention Deficit Disorder, and given additional drugs appropriate to that
mess. There were terrible side effects to all the pills, which were a big
subject of conversation everywhere you went in L.A.: Zoloft (we called it
Soul-Off) made you feel like you were walking around with your head in a
transparent bucket of fabric softener, which made your sex organs shrink
and dull to the zygote stage; Wellbutrin made sleeping a challenge even to
people who swam several miles a day; Paxil and Prozac made a lot of people
twitteringly psychotic; and all of the speed derivatives for us ADD kids
made us focused but weird -- those of us used to multi-tasking in our heads
like octopuses now had to slow everything down to a one-pencil-at-a-time
basis, with the spookily deliberate quality of accident victims in therapy
for brain damage.
Our science knows so little about the brain. My L.A. pharmaceutical
floundering made me feel that trying to fix your head with the drugs we
have available is like employing different trained chimps to try to fix
your TV set -- if you're lucky, maybe your problem will be one of the apes'
specialties. You probably won't get a good picture, but it might be better
than the Terrible Noise.
Still, despite the voodoo hunt-and-peck project of finding out which pills
actually worked for you, there was some relief, because there was Hope. The
drugs were strong, and after a few weeks, you would notice that the right
pill would give your head somewhere else to go. It wasn't good and it
wasn't bad: It was purgatory, a Zen station of zero emotion to reflect in,
at times when you would normally be chewing all the skin off your thumbs
and crying on the phone to your mother, telling her how you wanted to stick
your head in the oven.
Several months ago I hooked up with a girl I vaguely knew to collaborate on
a theater project. Talking to her on the phone, I realized that something
had violently shifted in her since our first meeting. The mature,
thoughtful scholar I had once known had morphed into a shrieking motormouth
jibbering at breakneck speed, one tangent veining off into smaller and
smaller tributaries of tangents until neither of us had any idea what we
were supposed to be talking about. She was jabbering with the insanely
selfish, non-stop gush of somebody who has just snorted two grams of coke
and gone bungie jumping and had strange sex in the last 10 minutes -- it
was intolerable. "I just found out I'm manic-depressive -- right now I'm
manic," she burbled, segueing into another monologue that would go on for
40 or more minutes before she'd take a full breath, usually in order to put
some carbohydrates in her mouth.
When I visited with her several months ago, she was a jackhammer of
conversation, sexually obsessed with an 18-year-old boy and polishing off
two different full Italian entrees before the steam had stopped rising off
them. She gained 35 pounds in two months. Manic people get that way --
supercharged with monstrous, insatiable appetites that roll out and
everywhere, into your face. I saw her again a few months later, and she had
completely returned to her old reasonable personality; she was calm and
focused and she listened to you, looking you in the eye and actually asking
questions. She was so night-and-day, 180 degrees, Linda
Blair-as-opposed-to-Satan different, I just gaped at her with my mouth open
like a sea bass.
"Well, I guess the drugs finally kicked in and started equalizing me," she
said, when I asked, incredulously, why she was now so pleasant to be
around. I was ready to kiss whatever bottle of pills she had in her luggage
as I would have the hem of St. Jude, patron of hopeless cases.
I stopped taking everything last year, a couple of months after several
Santeria rituals miraculously improved my outlook. Even then, I was still
unsure of my mental footing, so I started staggering my pill intake -- I
had it down to two a day, then two every other day, and then one day, I
just stopped. I've felt fine ever since. One of my friends who went through
the same experience that I did, with all of the same doctors and various
medications, told me that he had eventually stopped taking everything too,
by changing his diet and getting regular acupuncture treatments. I feel
like the pills were a last resort, the last stop on the road before it
ended up inside the gates of some ultimate psychic penitentiary, the place
of total insanity or suicide. And like all last resorts, they're no bed of
posies and cupcakes but sometimes they do the job. They can give you that
little edge you need over the wailing monster -- the tiny flash of a blade
that tells you that you might not be utterly doomed after all, if you can
fight a little smarter. And sometimes that's all you need.
July 15, 1997
--- Rohit Khare /// MCI Internet Architecture (BOS) /// firstname.lastname@example.org Voice+Pager: (617) 960-5131 VNet: 370-5131 Fax: (617) 960-1009