Like any Gen-X girl who donned an ankle bracelet and twirled around at a Grateful Dead show during the summer of Touch of Grey, I have enjoyed my fair share of recreational drugs. It was never all that big a deal for me — I preferred the comforts of plain cigarettes and Diet Coke to the highs of more potent product. But drugs were a regular part of my life for a long time, so much so that I can make a bong out of nearly anything (including an apple), and yes I WOULD like one of the Percocet you have left over from your dental surgery.
The point is, I just said yes, and have never been one of these, “I won’t even take a Tylenol when I have a headache” kind of purists. Give to me your muscle relaxants, your pain killers, your antibiotics and anesthesia! But there is one class of drug I have steadily avoided, despite every good reason to give them a try.
Depression is such a slithering monster. All tentacles, always reaching for you, always trying to pull you under into the dark. I’ve been fighting it, denying it, trying to find a way to live with it, trying to outrun it, since I was 11. And even that, admitting I was depressed even before I got my period, is so fraught with all of depression’s greatest hits: fear, shame, the immediate need to explain that yes, it’s true, and yes, a doctor even said so. Two doctors said so. Actually three, three doctors, OK, to be technical, one therapist, one psychoanalyst and one psychiatrist (walk into a bar! Ha ha!) all agree that my history of depression started when I was 11 (triggered, in part, by a traumatic event that involved getting abandoned at a bus stop in Manhattan by my father, but that’s a story for another day), and that the times in my life when I considered myself “depressed” were actually heightened times of anxiety or crisis, and when these periods ended I retuned to a baseline of depression.
Baseline of Depression, by the way, is my fantasy band name.
About a year ago, I was in the deep end of one of these “periods of crisis.” This one showed up as an acidic, foaming rage that turned me into a scary, unpredictable, gimlet-eyed insomniac who cried all the time. And if that sounds terrible, consider the fact that my trusted therapist, Joe, who had seen me through more than a decade of my life — a decade that included changing careers, meeting and marrying Jonathan, getting pregnant and giving birth to Emerson, my father’s death, and my mother and stepfather moving away — had retired a year before.
I’m friends with quite a number of genuinely wonderful depressed and anxious people, and so I asked the most talented of my depressed and anxious friends, a stunning writer and photojournalist whom I had been a legit fangirl of before we became friends in real life, if she would give me the name of her therapist. And that is how I ended up seeing Mean Steve, a brilliant psychoanalyst who treats some of New York’s most accomplished and famous artists. So famous is Mean Steve’s clientele that he has a series of doors and waiting rooms you use to get in and out of his office, so you never see who has the appointment before or after you. (I should mention that he is not actually mean. I call him Mean Steve because I hate fucking going to fucking therapy because I should be done with fucking therapy by now I’ve been in fucking therapy for my entire adult life and fuck him and his stupid fucking mystery office I hate therapy. Fuck fuck fuck.)
The details of someone else’s therapy are uniquely boring, and this is not actually a story about Mean Steve and all the crying and yelling I do in his office. It is a story about Dr. Tapas (not his actual name).
About four months into my therapy with Mean Steve, I asked if he could prescribe drugs. This was at Jonathan’s urging, because I had a habit of nibbling at his Klonopin. (This is not a sex thing.) Jon also wrestles with the many-armed monster that is depression and anxiety, and has actual prescriptions for drugs that help him, which he takes as prescribed, because he is brave and good and also smart. I, on the other hand, seek out the dreamy, warm-blanket oblivion of benzodiazepine the way one might enjoy a good Scotch, so I was “borrowing” Jon’s pills, which annoyed him to no end, because those are HIS drugs and go get your own drugs, lady.
Mean Steve does not prescribe meds, because he is not that kind of doctor, but he did offer to send me to his “guy” — the psychiatrist he partners with for patients who need medications to support talk therapy. I was not gracious about this offer. In fact, I believe my exact words were, “Fuck that. I don’t need fucking drugs. Fuck off, Mean Steve.” And if you are observing the fact that I was TAKING drugs while claiming I didn’t NEED drugs, then you are correct.
I was 25 when Prozac Nation was published. I am now 48, and drugs have come a long way, baby. Anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication have been suggested to me before, by every doctor I have ever seen, including my dermatologist, who during an annual skin exam noted my ragged, bloody bitten nails and asked about my state of mind. I have refused even the idea of anti-depressants time and again, because I was scared.
I was scared that my depression was the key to my talent. That without it I’d lose the dark and twisty thing inside of me that sends up the words, that tells the stories, that holds the memories.
I was scared I’d become boring.
I was scared that without depression, I’d have to deal with all the things that made me depressed in the first place, instead of living from crisis to crisis.
I was scared that “troubled former drama major with a passionate temper” was who I was, and that I wouldn’t know who to be or how to be if I medicated away the thing that defined me.
And also, I secretly suspected that I wasn’t depressed, but just kind of an asshole, and they don’t make a pill for that. And if I took anti-depressants I’d not only have confirmation of this, but I’d still be an asshole, just maybe a calmer one.
But I had also just had a performance review at work that boiled down to, “Who exactly does this bitch think she is?” and I was tired. Tired of hearing I was scary, and angry. Tired of hearing I was unpredictable. Tired of staying up all night watching TV I didn’t like and eating food I didn’t even want. Tired of not trusting myself.
And so I took myself to Dr. Tapas, so named because he is Spanish, and handsome, and reminds me of Javier Bardem, but not scary No Country for Old Men Javier Bardem. I fully expected to recite my life history with my usual detachment, because I have told this story so many times, to so many doctors and men in bars, the kind of men who want to hear all about how broken you are on a first date, but instead I surprised myself and ugly cried for 90 minutes.
If it is possible to listen warmly and with charisma, that is how Dr. Tapas listened, and when I was done vomiting up my lonely childhood and frightening father and broken dreams and terrible relationships and self-destructiveness and everything I’ve done to try and fix myself, the doctors and Buddhism and meditation and exercise and eating more fiber and dry brushing my skin and all the books Oprah said to read and hypnosis and yoga and nutritionists and psychics (yes, even psychics) he said this (with a Spanish accent):
“Stefanie. You have worked so hard, and we are all so proud of you. You have done everything a person can do to try and be well. And now, you have earned, you deserve…Prozac.”
Well. Ok then.
I took the first one the next morning.
That day, the first day, I was thirsty and had a headache, and kept texting Jon to tell him all the nuances of exactly how I was thirsty and had a headache. He assured me I was doing great. The next day, I felt a little dizzy. And then on the third day I woke up and it was quiet.
It was quiet. In my head.
I have lived my entire life with a din of voices in my head, telling me all sorts of awful things about myself. That I am lazy. Ugly. Unworthy. A fraud. Untrustworthy. And on and on, from the time I was small, a discord of fear and rage and disgust, so omnipresent that I’d simply come to accept the cacophony as normal. And now it was quiet.
I explained it to Mean Steve this way: It was like my head was the Overlook Hotel, a haunted house, and I could never be sure what was around any corner. I could never be sure what might terrify me, or enrage me, or jump on me and try to kill me. And now all the ghosts were down the hall in one room, having a party. And I couldn’t hear what they were saying and it didn’t matter, because I didn’t need to go to that party. Not ever. And it was safe in my head, to rest, to look around.
It has been quiet for months now. And I am learning how to be a person.
I spent, no joke, all of my free time during the first couple of Prozac months lying on my couch looking out the window. Not reading, not writing, not watching TV. I just watched the sky change. And listened to the silence.
Lately, I have been trying to figure out what I like. Not what will make me smarter or more acceptable, what I ought to pretend to be to be interesting, to be worthy, but what I actually like.
I like succulent plants, apparently. But only tiny ones.
And making quesadillas.
I like the beach. More than the mountains.
I do not like the Grateful Dead, it turns out, but I do have an abiding affection for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Yoga is not my thing, but I am a beast at pilates.
I will never be the kind of person who wants to go on a bike ride with you, but we could go on a hike.
I want to learn how to play the guitar.
And it turns out I am startlingly laid back. ‘A‘ole pilikia levels of laid back. Maholo.
It is so strange, meeting yourself at 48. But I am learning. I am learning the shape of my own desires. That I am more than my history, my ghosts, the ragged edges of my grief and fear. That redemption is possible. That it’s ok to accept the help I need. That depression is a monster but fighting it doesn’t have to be the only thing I do. That I am a work in progress, but progressing. That there is a party going on down the hall that I never have to go to.
I am learning how to live well in all these quiet days.