Monday, 3 June 2013

Oral Prozac

I read a pretty good article the other day about anti-depressants and depression/mental illness/creativity. If you can’t be bothered to read it then in a nutshell Alex Preston (brother of Sam from The Ordinary Boys fact fans) wrote about his experience with SSRIs, particularly Prozac, and spoke to other writers, artists, musicians and painters who had taken the drug and talked about how it affected their creativity. Though there were a few who said they had been through periods where they couldn’t get out of bed, much less work creatively, without the help of medication most said that their work was inhibited by antidepressants.  I identified with a lot of what people said and actually found the article pretty comforting for reasons I’ll explain later.              
I must state here that I don’t think there is anything inherently romantic or superior or desireable about being depressed, fucked-up and/or ‘creative’ but chronic mental instability and the drive to write or produce stuff in other creative fields do often seem to go hand-in-hand. At least that’s how it’s been for me and a lot of the people I know. Freud said creativity was a product of neurosis, of course Freud said a lot of stuff that was bollocks but for some people maybe it’s true, so get rid of the neurosis and do you get rid of the creativity too?
When I was about fourteen I got a copy of ‘Prozac Nation’ by Elizabeth Wurzel and read the whole thing in one night staying up until three in the morning, this was no mean feat because I am a slow reader. Around this time I wrote to penpals from the back of Select music magazine, they were usually as lonely and depressed as I was and we all said that ‘Prozac Nation’ was our Bible, I haven’t read it since because I suspect it’s actually not very good but whatever. Although PN didn’t paint an entirely optimistic picture of Prozac it made anti-depressants look romantic to me and the fact that my favourite author at the time took anti-depressants must make them pretty great. I was plagued with insecurities, obsessions, neuroses, anxiety and sadness, not unusual with what the medical establishment calls mental illness. It was and still continues to be to a lesser extent a fucking lonely experience which made me feel cut off from the people around me, though many of them were busy making my life a misery back then so fair dues perhaps, but maybe the feeling of isolation mental illness can bring is the reason why many of the ones thus afflicted want to do something creative, to express themselves and reconnect, though in my case the fears associated with that can often make doing that terrifying and risky because you fear an even greater rejection that could come from exposing yourself creatively and that may cause even greater isolation. At least that's how it feels. So I now understand that romanticising the process is a strange thing to do.  
As a teenager I never quite believed in mental illness (and I still think it’s a problematic phrase which can be used to deny the complexity of human experience) I believed more that the world was a terrifying and dangerous place, which it can be, but the idea of labelling the things that I experienced depression (and/or anxiety and/or the whole host of other diagnoses I’ve received since then) and being able to take a pill which would make it all go away and enable me to be happy and which was taken by the author of my favourite book seemed really appealing. But I didn’t go to the doctor at 16 because of the glamour, I genuinely felt like I couldn’t live with what was in my head anymore, I needed to stop thinking. The year before I’d taken a paracetemol overdose and ended up in hospital, this was a way of trying to communicate the uncommunicatable stuff I felt, like art I suppose. Talking about my thoughts and feelings wasn’t an option because I regarded them as completely unacceptable and also psychotherapy was for ‘proper’ nutcases and I didn’t want to admit to being one of them. So 16 was the first time I started taking anti-depressants and lo-and-behold I felt a lot calmer on them, stuff didn’t bother me as much so job done. But job not done. I didn’t feel like myself, I felt a lot more numb and like I wasn’t experiencing my feelings authentically. I was definitely not a robot but not myself either, I guess what I lost was my sensitivity to things, I didn’t become selfish –though I could have done with being a bit more selfish- but I definitely lost a part of me so I stopped taking them.
My problems kept coming back so I took them again and again on and off for the next ten years, it’s a weird paradox when you want to escape your authentically fucked-up self but then you can’t cope with the feeling of not being authentically yourself. Also I noticed the effects the SSRIs had on my libido and they were not good, not that many doctors took that concern seriously which is funny as other people go to the doctors for the express purpose of raising their low libido.
Creatively they affected me: they numbed me out and made it harder to write stuff. Many times I find writing quite painful because I’m a perfectionist and perfection is impossible. I have a sadistic inner critic and I’m terrified of rejection which is part of life especially if you write or play in a band. Stuck between these things and the irrepressible urge to 'make stuff' and express things that in day-to-day life I find inexpressible means I write stuff but find it hard to get much of it finished which is frustrating.
The last time I took antidepressants was after I had a breakdown at the age of 27, I was on Seroxat for a year and although I hated it and was planning to come off it before I even started I can’t complain too much because it kept me going. Whenever I come off antidepressants I’m evermore determined not to take them again but you do what you can when you need to I guess. These days I attempt to cope with exercise and meditation and taking wussy herbal stuff like Rhodiola for short amounts of time and talking to friends of course, sometimes these things work better than at other times. 
It’s really hard to convey what one’s mental state feels like, language is certainly inadequate to do it and when I talk to other friends who have been diagnosed with mental illness, or would be diagnosed that way if they went to a doctor, and they tell me what it is they worry about or feel ashamed or scared of I listen and I can appreciate how hard it must be but often find it really hard to understand why those things bother them so much and often when I try to explain myself to people they sympathise too and see that it’s hard but can’t understand why things in my head work the way they do when they can often just use logic to see why I don't need to feel the way I do. I guess the person who got closest to explaining how things feel for me was David Foster Wallace in his not-properly-finished book The Pale King where he talks about there being a ‘deeper type of pain that is always there…which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from’. There should be something worrying about the fact that a dude who hung himself articulates your feelings best but I guess most people probably feel like that to some extent and we all like to kid ourselves that we’re special and our pain is worse than everyone else’s.
So why did I find reading about all the neurotic or depressed types whose creativity was scuppered by antidepressants comforting? Well, like I said, although I know I’m not special, I identified with the way in which the lessening of the neuroses made many people feel less able to create art and so if Freud had a point in my case and the neuroses is actually what drives me to do stuff then even if I am held back a lot by the inner critic those fears are probably what drives me to do anything in the first place, so much as it hinders me perhaps there wouldn’t be anything without it. Thinking about things this way make me more able to accept feeling shit I guess rather than fighting it all the time. Perhaps the problem, for me at least, with antidepressants as a ‘cure’ is they don’t make me feel very integrated, perhaps they make me feel even more detached from myself because this medication is pretty crude and no one really understands how the mind works, what I know is you can’t just zap serotonin into one bit of the brain without it affecting everything else. When I got over my prejudices about psychotherapy and about being mentally ill (whatever that term really means) I became big on therapy because I  thought that might make a person feel more integrated as a human being somehow and therefore able to do what they always wanted to do (be it creating art or whatever else) and somehow feel ok about themselves at the same time.  In my case I’ve had therapy on and off for about ten years, including some fairly long-term stints and whilst I do feel I have a lot more insight into my ‘condition’ it’s never made me feel as solid as I'd like to. But then who knows what I’d be like if I’d never had it.
With regards to therapy this darkly comic story by David Foster Wallace again also made me feel better because it’s so well-observed and it exposes what is often the futility of spending so much time trying to ‘fix’ yourself/feel better, not that I imagine I will ever totally stop trying. But after all the medication and the therapy and all the other desperate things one does to try and feel better there’s actually a comfort in finally being able to stop making so much effort and accepting that maybe this is just how things are at the moment. And if I make anything at all despite all the mental sadomasochism then that might also be precisely because of the mental sadomasochism so it wasn’t all a total waste. And if one day things improve, though my creative writing tutors would shoot me for using such a cliche, that’s a bonus.

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