For going on about 5 years now, I have dabbled in the use of anti-depressants to keep me in a sort of grounded mode of consciousness where the goal is getting things done in a way that doesn’t result in me curled up on the floor, watching Disney movies, while sobbing. And by “things” I mean, like laundry. Basic human-need stuff. As a writer, sometimes the cloying continuation of having depression was helpful to me. It meant I could take myself out of my life and insert it into something fantastical, like a piece of fiction or even getting really into a TV show or movie, and responding to it in the same sort of imaginative way that I did as a little kid: “Oh, that character represents something meaningful to me, so I will now adopt their persona.” I did this all the time as a youngin’. If you read my last post then you know that I did a lot of dissociating to help me manage what was going on in my fam. I watched the movie Matilda obsessively and would then creep around the house, pointing at things maniacally, and then pretend that my pointing was met with some magical result. “MOM, DID YOU SEE HOW I JUST MADE THE CLOCK CHANGE ON THE STOVE?!” “DAD, I JUST WILLED THE DOG TO PEE IN THAT CORNER! AREN’T I *MAAAAGICAL*?!” That sort of thing.
This coping mechanism carried me into my early twenties. I went through various heartbreaks and hurts as every human does, which was sometimes stippled with periods of intense depression which was most notably weighed down with crippling anxiety, most often in the periods right before bed where every unwanted thought imaginable would careen down the highways of my crazy-making mind and blink on repeat: “Everyone you love will one day be dead.” “You will one day be dead.” “When you’re dead no one will care because you are unlovable. And stupid. And faking it all the time. And ugly. And you’re not funny. And people can see through you. Eat more vegetables. Stop hating mushrooms. Be better than who you are. Oh, yeah, you’re GONNA DIE.” This resulted in me needing to always have to sleep to some sort of noise: sometimes music, but often TV, and by TV I mean, like 99% of the time, falling asleep to Frasier. I don’t know why, but that pompous psychiatrist has soothed me to sleep for like a decade now.
I had always been good at self-soothing. I knew that when nothing could calm my anxiety, I could stand up and do jumping jacks, and that accelarating my heart-rate was some sort of realization that being alive and in the moment was a comforting thing. I had been doing this all of my life, and later learned that this sort of practice had a name: Mindfulness. For that reason, I always have a hair-band on my wrist. Unlike jumping jacks, which cannot always be done in public without explanation, this little trick is really discreet. Popping it against my flesh is a helpful reminder: You exist. You are real. Other people do these sort of exercises in contrast to self-harming. While cutting has never been my thing, self-harming looks like all sorts of different things. To me, it sort of manifests as an Annette Benning in American Beauty kind of tantrum, where I try to slap myself into recognizing that I need to pull my shit together and it turns into a big old meltdown. Not really productive. The rubberband trick works way better and results in fewer throbbing headaches. So between that, Frasier, jumping jacks, a constantly loaded schedule, and a knack for convincing people to spoon with me, I did a pretty good job of getting by on my anxiety-savvy in a jam toolkit, up until I was about 24, that is.
Then in 2009, a dear friend of mine died suddenly. I had just talked to him on the phone a few days earlier, and he’d sounded as alive as ever. He had just moved to Philadelphia and we chatted briefly about planning a visit and then caught up about the respective writing projects we were working on. When I got the call about his death, my reaction, I can imagine, was very cinematic. At the time, my roommate was this endlessly nervous kid who walked to the hospital every time he got too stoned, so in retrospect, my reaction in that moment, still makes me feel sort of apologetic. I became a hurricane: I started knocking things over on shelves, tearing through the apartment screaming and breaking things, and eventually tore through the screen door and outside onto the patio where I projectile vomited onto the ground a story below. It was not pretty, and it’s the only time something emotional has resulted in a reaction so physical. The immediate result of grief is a powerful force, and if you need anything to convince you that you’re alive, that sort of news will do it to you, in the worst way possible.
Following the tumultous aftermath of my friend’s untimely passing, I became nothing more than a slightly higher functioning vegetable. So like, a weed? I was still alive and taking up space and expanding in size and piles of crap I kept adjacent to me, but other than that I was nearly non-functional. I stopped going to work and ultimately quit my job, I moved from my bedroom to the couch downstairs so that the traffic and momentum of people who lived in the apartment were at least reminders that I wasn’t completely alone (nervous stoner roommate moved out shortly after my puke-splosion). I didn’t leave the house, and I barely left the couch. I ate my meals there, I slept there, and if life had afforded me a bed-pan at that juncture, I would have likely accepted it gratefully. All I did, all day long, was watch The X-Files. Luckily at this time, I did have neighbors who, recognizing my decline as something out of the ordinary, did come over often to partake in watching the show with me, and so instead of seeing it as piteous suicide-watch, I delusionally convinced myself that these encounters were actually social events. To this day, I maintain that I was not suicidal. The thing was that I was too depressed to put anything like suicide into frame, to have a plan, to think about it in anyway beyond a sort of abstract notion that sometimes depressed people jumped off high things. I didn’t want to do that. But if I somehow just happened upon death, I wouldn’t have run the other way, maybe. Perhaps the most unusual part of this period for me was my need to keep it to myself. Here I was, physically decompensating in a very overt fashion, but when someone would be like, “Hey Lauren, how ya doing?” I would list off how okay I was. “Doing great, another day of job hunting. Gonna maybe go hiking this weekend.” In actuality, my roommates were talking amongst each other and trouble-shooting how to have a sort of “We’re worried about the imprint in the couch you’ve created since you haven’t moved from it in 3 months” intervention.
At 24, I had seen my share of tragedies, had lost relatives and suffered miserable break-ups, and had my full share of coming of age chaos, but this was the first time that I had encountered the loss of someone my age, someone who emblemized life and adventure and brilliance and charisma, and the very unceremonious and seemingly nonchalant way that he just ceased to exist all of a sudden made me feel like everything was suddenly useless. Those persistant racing thoughts before bedtime suddenly became my constant internal monologue. Why bother doing anything, ever, when the end result was always the same? There was no running from the eventuality of decay and death, no one was safe, ever. That thought flooded me and everything I tried to do. I look back at my journal entries from those dark days and it’s like reading the words of someone floating through a thick layer of mud. “I tried to go to the store today, but when I stood up from the couch, I thought my knees would give out. I heard Sam downstairs and I wanted him to see me off the couch, so I stood next to it until he came upstairs just so I could lie and tell him that I had just come home from somewhere.” This was an everyday occurance.
At some point, my savings depleted itself and I had to get a job. It took three months of nothingness to propel me into forward motion. It didn’t take long before I was hired at a residential group home for children with “behavioral disorders”. The quotations around that phrase is for another post, and all the many layered things I feel about the utter bullshit surrounding childhood mental health diagnoses. But aaaanyway, these kids had all lived the sort of tragedies I couldn’t even fathom, and working in that environment, while grueling, perplexing and complicated, did offer me a well of perspective. I still came home every night with a desire only to drink whiskey and go to bed, but there was purpose to my days now. The thickness of my depression was still weighing heavily in my life, but I at least could say that I was functioning now.
After six months, my insurance finally kicked in. I hadn’t been in therapy in a really long time, since being traumatized as a kid, but I felt that this was something I was willing to explore again, especially as my professional interests began overlapping into the therapeutic service arena. When I called the only available provider I was disheartened to find out that there were no available therapists at the time. “None at all?” I asked the receptionist. “No, not right now. But we can put you on the waitlist. In the meantime, do you have any interest in seeing our psychiatrist? He has some current openings.” The thought never crossed my mind, but suddenly I heard myself saying, yes, I was interested, and accepting an appointment.
The idea of seeing a psyche doctor was very foreign to me. I grew up with a very anti-pharmaceutical, homeopathic mother who shook her fist at the medical model every chance she could. I had been taught to believe that antidepressants were meant for social control, antibiotics for creating phantom sickness, and that pain medication would ultimately get you addicted and turn you into an unrecognizable villain version of your former self. In fact, when I broke my arm after graduating from college and had to spend 6 weeks looking at chunks of my bones sticking out in jagged directions from my shoulder to my elbow, I took my Percocet as prescribed. After a few days of taking the meds, I had a fight with my mom who accused me that the Percocet had “changed me” and I actually flushed the remnants because I was so convinced that I was being controlled by a pharmacological mastermind bent on making me into his minion. Conditioning, folks. It’s real.
Anway, I went to see Dr. Somers with the expectation that he would infer I was not suitable for medication. I even made a point to downplay my current circumstances: “Oh a friend of mine died somewhat recently. It’s been hard for me.” He started asking me all these questions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with my presenting concerns and after about a half hour of note-taking and scrutiny he inched his chair a little closer to me and said, “Lauren, has anyone ever diagnosed you with major depression?” Um, no? At least not…professionally. Dr. Somers scribbled something down on a pad and handed it to me. “This is a script for Celexa,” he said, “I think it might help you.” Dr. Somers spent the next 45 minutes answering every excrutiating question I had as a first-time antidepressant taker. I wanted to know every detail of what I could expect. He was very patient and gave me the basic run down: side affects, mood changes, apetite, etc. I left feeling informed and reasoned to myself that millions of Americans took antidepressants and I was depressed, so why should I be a martyr to it? I promptly filled the prescription and became a statistic.
At first, I didn’t notice anything different with the Celexa, aside from some more physiological odditites. I had to take it with juice, because anything else would give me heartburn. I couldn’t take it too close to bed because it would make me jumpy, but I couldn’t take it too early in the morning, because it made me nauseous. I figured out a good schedule for taking it but other than that, it was weeks until I noticed any emotional changes. I was told that it would take about this long to have any effect, so I sort of stopped noticing after a while. Then, one day, I had a fight with an ex of sorts who I was still actively trying to pursue. They said terrible things to me, accused me of being crazy, and made me feel all the awful things that a messy relationship will afford. I sat on my couch, that favored of depressive locales, and made my go-to crying face. Nothing happened. I sat there for like 20 minutes attempting to will myself to cry, but nothing was coming out. It was off-putting. I knew myself enough to know that any other time in my life I would be doing the whole crying so hard it was coming out in a silent gag type thing. And sitting there, just making the face was like trying to throw up after a night of drinking before the nausea actually hit you. It was terrible. I put on the saddest song I could think of and when that didn’t work, I just sat there blankly. “Well, that was weird,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t describe if there was something empowering about it, or if it was mind-bogglingly counterproductive. I had spent my whole life using my crying face as a means to unwind and come to terms with my complicated feelings. I felt betrayed by my body that some outside intruder was preventing this outlet.
Eventually, I did notice that things were improving for me, little by little. I was sleeping in my bed now, I was going out with friends, attempting to date, eating vegetables. All the little self-care things that had been part of my past regimen slowly brought themselves back into focus, and my life became worth living again. I definitely attribute part of this to Celexa, and the passing of time, because cliche cliche cliche, whatever. It heals the wounds.
Over the next few years, I kept up with antidepressant use. I had been so terrified of falling back into the doom and gloom of that awful period of my life, that I became very conscious of monitoring my moods. Certain things did trigger med changes: for example, when I entered a new relationship and realized that no amount of inventive skill could help me to achieve an orgasm, I switched over to Welbutrin. When Welbutrin became the conclusion for what I can only describe as vibrating vision, I switched over to Lexapro. When Lexapro made me dizzy and nauseous more than it actually helped my depression, I went back to Celexa and finally, landed on Zoloft. There were times when I felt well enough to ween myself off of a med, and a couple times, like a total dumb-dumb, I just quit cold turkey and learned quickly that withdrawal effects of antidepressants are worse than the actual experience of depression. But, for all intents and purposes, I have been medicated for nearly five years. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I betrayed you. My bad.)
While I have many doubts about the pharmaceutical business and feel whole-heartedly that there is a lot of evil mixed up in the efficaciousness of psyche meds, I have worked in mental health settings for the last six years. I have seen firsthand what going off and on and up and down with your meds can to do a person, psychically and physiologically. Beautiful things can come from medication, but ugly things can result as well. I came to a point in my life where I wanted to know who I was again, without meds as a crutch.
Fastforward to the here and now, and I am a month and a half into being a non-med user. I tapered off slowly, as directed this time, after deciding that I was ready to take the chance and let unadulterated Lauren out of her cage. Besides, I reasoned to myself, if I need them again, they will always be there. There is no shame in the med game. I feel like I need to put flashing lights and neon colors around this statement. THERE IS NO SHAME, MY FRIENDS. This is not an anti-meds diatribe, this is just me. Psyche meds help maaaad people, and I am no exception. I just felt I was ready to break out of the pillbox.
It’s strange how depression hits you. It’s sort of this insulating shell, and despite its overall shiftiness, for lack of a better term, there is something deeply reminiscent and almost nostalgic-feeling when it creeps back up on you. A few days after I cut down on the Zoloft, I could feel a sort of pull in my brain, like an “Oh there you are,” recognition greeting me from my brain to my heart to the nerve-endings erupting all over my body. It was nothing like the worst it had been, not even close. Just, this sort of exposed feeling. Almost flu-like, that if I rubbed up against someone lightly on the bus it would make me ache. It was this sensitivity that I noticed first, as I began my taper.
It’s funny that one of the first thoughts I had when I felt myself sort of sinking back into the familiar of my depression was that it didn’t make sense. I actually said to myself, “That’s weird, I didn’t feel this way while I was on meds.” Like, duh. Anti-depressants most definitely have a numbing quality that becomes most apparent when you’re off them. In addition to that feeling of susceptibility, I did notice some positive things. First and foremost, my drive to write became more distinct than it had in a long time. I force myself to write constantly, because I know how good it is for me, how I use it to process and reflect and all the other things that writing does for everyone, when they commit to it. But now it was like a need. I started feeling inspired, getting lines of poems caught in my head and repeating them over and over to myself until I had some paper in front of me, and then, miracle of all miracles, actually remembering what I wanted to say! So often I’ll think, “oh, there’s a good line,” and then I’ll blink, and it’ll be gone.
Also, my dreams have become way less intense. I know there is a chemistry-related reason for why your dreams become so out there on certain medications, but Lexapro in particular, gave me so many bizarre nightmares, practically on a daily basis, that it eventually became the reason why I stopped taking it. But Zoloft was also weird for the dreamscapes and I have noticeably less adventurous sleep patterns these days, though, sadly, I do notice that I’m not sleeping quite so well, despite the lack of weirdness.
Then of course came the randiness. It had actually been sort of nice to not feel so controlled by my libido, especially living in Chicago and away from my boyfriend. Being long-distance sucks no matter what, but when you’re not going off the wall due to lack of sex, it seems sort of manageable. But now, I feel like a 16 year old boy. Spending serious quality time with my sweet baby Hitachi (seriously ladies, best purchase of my life, do yourselves a favor), it feels sort of off-putting to start having weird sexual fantasies about strangers on the bus, your neighbors, your co-workers, your professors…. It’s not like sexual feelings, like, oh I really wanna tap that. It’s like, I WONDER WHAT HIS FACE LOOKS LIKE WHEN HE BUSTS and inappropriate thoughts like that all day long, paired with the fact that yeah, I can’t have sex right now because commitment, and God that’s hard.
Perhaps the most overt and disconcerting part of being full-blown, unadulterated Lauren, is the constant crying. Now I am someone who is relatively quick to tears in the first place. I like watching sad movies and crying, I like listening to sad songs and crying, I like reading sad books and crying. You get the idea. But it’s a private experience. I am not someone who cries in public, really ever. And usually, it’s a certain mood I am in, where the tears will be welcome or at least expected. Lately, I feel like I am constantly on the rag. It’s like this cloying emotional constancy that everything in the world is so tangible and wide-open and isn’t that so beautiful and awful at the same time? Just in the last week alone the following things have made me cry: A little boy running up to his dad on the street and grabbing his hand, a perfectly-shaped snowflake, the way my dog looked at me when I got home yesterday, my Nana telling me she loved me, my boyfriend not responding how I envisioned he would when I told him something, an article I read about a Trans sex worker in El Salvador, an NPR story about an invisible soccer game, a picture of Bruce Jenner making a sad face, every picture that Humans of New York posts on Facebook ever. I just feel way too in tune with everyone’s emotions and it’s making me so uncomfortable, because I like to wear a facade of togetherness, and this is really soiling my own vision of myself.
Lastly, there is this desire to nurture and love that is very new to me. I mean, that doesn’t sound right, it’s like a very specific maternalism. I think that this can be attributed more to my age and stage of life than anything else, but literally every time I see a baby-anything, my first impulse is to figure out a way to make it mine. Enter the kitten that I adopted last week, and you may start to see this trend.
Last week, which felt like the height of my reconnection to the experience of depression (can I stop calling it that? Can I just call it, “not entirely enjoyable fuzziness”? Because I feel like that’s more accurate…anyway), I found out that my friend couldn’t take care of the cat he adopted. Normally, I would be like, “Oh what a shame, seemed like a good cat,” but at this point in my life, before I had a chance to even understand what I was doing, I was calling the shelter where she was now staying and agreeing to come pick her up and make her mine. It was like a completely unthinking move, which is scary, because like, what if that was a baby? Okay, not likely, but you know?
Luckily, little kitten lady, or Hillary Rodham Kitten, as I have aptly named her, is somewhat of a terrorist but a loving addition to my family, which until now has been just me and my dog. I am afraid that if this Winter is any indication of what’s to come if I maintain this feeling of my feelings regimen, I will just keep adopting animals until my life is just one weird exotic creature harem, where I’ll be at the center, just crying and masturbating at the same time.
So this is where I’m at right now. I’m not sure why I decided to “out” myself in this way, but I think that the most cohesive thing that I can think of is the fact that we attach so much shame to our feelings, to asking for help, to being honest about them, and I just think that’s a bullshit way to live. For the last two years, I have been working as a therapist, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that being authentic and transparent is the best way to navigate your relationships, professional or personal. It seems like too much of a chore to be on the other side, as the therapist, and to be this sort of stone-cold beacon of non-feeling. I want my clients to know that I understand and have lived with pain and confusion and nothingness, and that, sometimes I need to snap a rubber band on my wrist so that I don’t have a panic attack.
I don’t mean this to say that I want to be so straightforward in my experiences that I am divulging personal details and crying on their shoulders, I just want to be able to express a kind of “yeah, buddy, I get you,” vibe because what is the point of a clinically frozen interaction? I don’t need to tell patients that I’ve taken meds or have experienced depressive episodes, but I think that having those encounters and talking about them as they are relevant is a strength, if nothing else.
Recently, an acquaintance sent me a Facebook message, asking me what my experiences of mental illness were, based on how much I talk about this subject. After she sent the message, she followed it up by saying that she immediately regretted asking, because it was too personal. I think this is my point, living is hugely personal. Being, and feeling, and grieving, eating, fucking, crying, shopping, EVERYTHING, all the verbs, are so subjective, but there is overlap. There is no such thing as the phrase, “It isn’t personal” because if it weren’t, we would not have narratives, words, tangents, or feelings. The essence of the word personal is being a person.
So, it’s a struggle. It’s weird to feel so open and thin-skinned and there is a discomfort in not having the routine of taking a little white tablet before bed every night that will keep me from getting too caught up in myself. And I don’t know if this is it for me, it might just be a temporary thing. I might decide next week that crying in Thai restaurants while waiting for my bubble tea feels too weird. Or maybe I’ll get used to this, and it will be just another invigorating life experience that gels together all the other ones that have lead up to now. Who knows? All I know for sure is that I have a cat and a dog cuddling in my bed right now, that the heat is on and Frasier is cued up on Netflix, that I’ve been writing a story and cooking a lot of soup, and that things are starting to come together, even if it’s in a haphazard “I glued this shit together with Mod Podge” kind of fragile. So I’m going with that. And if shit gets too real, well, I’ve got this rubber-band.