I’m so sad and depressed I must be an artist, I thought to myself. I didn’t seem to be able to do anything else, and it seemed like the right field for someone who felt crazy. While working day jobs, I read The Artist’s Way, I took an improv class, a painting class, and, in a low moment, signed up for an “inflatable sculpture” class at my local “multidisciplinary workspace.” I felt a strong urge toward self-expression, but every time I’d start to create something I’d hear the same voices in my head: You are fucking pathetic. I hate you so much. You need to kill yourself. God you are stupid. I hope you die. You are a spoiled fat useless piece of shit. You are worthless. Everyone would be better off without you.
After suffering from depression for years, a breakdown in college, and hours of therapy, I’d come close to giving up hope. Doctors had prescribed me different combinations of drugs over the years: Prozac, Wellbutrin, Lexapro, Cymbalta, Abilify, Risperdal, Klonopin, and Xanax. Nothing seemed to work, but maybe it was just because I didn’t like the sound of what “work” meant. I’d take the drugs half-heartedly for a few weeks then start to skip doses. I didn’t want to deal with the side effects (nausea, weight loss, weight gain, anxiety, low energy, low sex drive), or with what I saw as the main effect – a blank numbing, a feeling that I was still heartsick, but couldn’t even access it. I would start to think being on the drugs felt worse than actually feeling bad. I’d realize I hadn’t taken pills in a week, then two, and I’d be back to square one.
I had other reasons to be wary of antidepressants: I knew they were the result of a corporate collusion by big pharma, government, and doctors. Psychopharmaceutical medications are used to control the outspoken in society, transforming the masses into docile workers toward the production of the monetary backbone of a capitalist patriarchy. I’d quote Jiddu Krishnamurti to myself: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
In “fixing” me I feared that drugs would rob me of my creativity and my unique spirit. I was sensitive enough to see the poetry in life – and feel its pain deeply – how could I give that up? I didn’t want to be made into a mindless automaton.
But often a snake of doubt would ripple through me; I’d face the reality that without drugs, I wasn’t really engaging in any rebellion against the status quo. I wasn’t attacking the root causes of any oppression. And I wasn’t making any art. I couldn’t focus on anything but myself and my own destruction.
As a last ditch attempt I switched to a new therapist. An empathetic, tough, smart, funny, woman who practiced Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice. She understood my fears and doubts about drugs. Drugs aren’t the whole answer, she said, but she encouraged me to see a psychiatrist she recommended and give antidepressants one more shot, really taking them this time, consistently.
I went, and this psychiatrist gave me tips for dealing with the practical aspects of taking medication (keep it in the bathroom, take it every morning before you brush your teeth). And she helped me deal with a new problem: 0ver the past few years, I’d developed a fear of taking pills. Every time I’d start to take one, my throat would close, and I’d feel like gagging. I’d hold the pill up to my closed lips, willing myself to open my mouth. I’d eventually put the pill back in the bottle. Instead of analyzing what this meant, as my old psychiatrist had tried to do (was it a hidden wish for my parents to sweep in and take care of me? A secret desire to remain sick?), she had a simple idea: she prescribed me a liquid version of Prozac. I sipped the clear elixir every morning for months. It tasted like a sparkling, magic potion, but drinking it felt casual like gulping coffee or alcohol. I stayed with it for one month, then two, then three, longer than I’d consecutively taken anything in the past.
Over time, I came to notice a silent stillness, a reprieve. I didn’t hear the same vitriol shooting out at me from somewhere inside, screaming at me that I should be ashamed. If I listened hard for it, I could find it. But if I didn’t seek it out I felt relatively free. I walked into this quiet oasis with a newfound sense of curiosity, which my therapist helped me foster.
Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT, writes: “Observe your thoughts, feelings and body sensations without judgment. With curiosity, stand back and ‘catch’ thoughts as you would butterflies.”
The writer Philip Lopate gives similar advice to aspiring personal essayists: “An odor of self- disgust mars many performances in this genre… The proper alternative to self-dislike is not being pleased with oneself – a smugness equally distasteful to the reader – but being curious about oneself.”
Taking drugs didn’t have to mean I’d become a carefree bimbo zombie, workin’ hard, playin’ hard. It just might allow me to be curious.
My newfound attempts at nonjudgmental curiosity were made possible, I believe, by the antidepressants keeping my destructive thoughts at bay. Every time I drank a sip of prozac I felt like I was strengthening a fence that protected me from rabid, killer dogs, champing at the bit, desperate to sink their fangs into my throat.
With drugs and therapy combined, I could draw a sketch or tell a joke or write a poem and find the results kind of amusing, or even interesting. Or maybe I’d notice that what I had made was banal, or sad, or confused. I tried to accept whatever I produced “as a blanket spread out on a lawn accepts both the rain and the sun, each leaf that falls upon it.” I started to get to know myself more. I wrote a lot and submitted pieces and was rejected, felt bad, got over it, and submitted again. I laughed often, and cried often too, but significantly less than I’d been doing before. And now through my tears I could sometimes, more and more often, see the people who loved me, and those who I loved, not just darkness.
Not only did taking antidepressants not block my creativity, it also didn’t mean letting go of productive passion, of energy for change, or even raw anger at injustice. Once I started taking antidepressants, in fact, my political consciousness grew, as I could now hold some form of hope, not just despair for the state of the world.
That psychopharmaceutical drugs dull the artist’s spirit is a compelling myth of our culture. And that myth may be true for people who suffer from what is often diagnosed as bipolar disorder or manic depression, which involves periods of depression and periods of mania, a state of elevated arousal and energy levels. But I didn’t have that. For those of us who suffer from regular old unipolar depression, we rarely if ever experience the highs of mania. Unipolar depression is like a constant sinking, trying desperately not to drown. And when you’re drowning, you don’t really have much extra energy to spare to make art, to help others, to contribute to the world; at least I didn’t. I mostly cried and slept and dragged myself through my days.
I have no idea what is best for everyone, and I don’t even know for sure what is best for myself. I don’t think drugs work well without good therapy, or fix your problems. But I do think maybe, for some people like me, they can get you to a place where you can start to work on the problems, to investigate. You may find a quiet room of your own where you can be, dance, sing, fight, write, create, cry and laugh. Hopefully, this will also be a space to work together in peace, with therapists, spiritual mentors, activists, artists, friends, and family, towards making a world that is one day not so sick that many of us need to be on drugs to simply exist in it.