Learning To Be Okay

Over the three years I’ve been on medication for depression I’ve heard milder variations of the kind of invective Tom Cruise is throwing around. It’s always couched in incredibly hostile terms, as if my treatment is a personal affront to others’ beliefs. It’s always judgmental, as most discussion about depression is: that it’s my fault, that it’s a behavioral problem, that I needed to change how I slept or worked or acted in order to be acceptable to others. It’s always personal: I don’t need drugs, why do you? What’s wrong with YOU? When my dog died, I was bummed, sure, but I snapped out of it. Why couldn’t YOU?

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

— The Sun Also Rises

I remember the moment exactly. I was in San Diego, on vacation with my husband, who had flown out there with me to watch Doug Flutie in his first start as a Charger. Because I love Doug Flutie, and my husband, well, I’m a lucky girl, that’s for damn sure. But we were at this hotel we’d been staying at and we were packing up to go home. And somehow I knew, suddenly, gradually, that I was okay.

Okay was a revelation. I could describe it as a laying down of burdens, as the taking of a first deep breath after life underwater. But that wouldn’t be exactly right. It was more like the view clearing, and being able to see, that I would finish putting the suitcase together, get on the plane, go back to work, and it would all be okay. I wasn’t excited, I wasn’t overjoyed, I wasn’t upset. I was okay.

And in that moment I thanked the emergency room doctor who’d started out fixing my wrenched back and wound up referring me to his colleague, the woman who saved my life; I thanked her for spending time with me and listening, really listening, to what I was trying to tell her; I thanked my husband for putting up with three years of crazy before I finally reached the point where I couldn’t deal with it anymore; and I thanked the pills I’d been taking every single morning for the previous three weeks which had done what no other combination of treatment had ever been able to do for me: put me in neutral, so that all things being equal, my first thought was not finding a high place to jump off.

Over the three years I’ve been on medication for depression I’ve heard milder variations of the kind of invective Tom Cruise is throwing around. It’s always couched in incredibly hostile terms, as if my treatment is a personal affront to others’ beliefs. It’s always judgmental, as most discussion about depression is: that it’s my fault, that it’s a behavioral problem, that I needed to change how I slept or worked or acted in order to be acceptable to others. It’s always personal: I don’t need drugs, why do you? What’s wrong with YOU? When my dog died, I was bummed, sure, but I snapped out of it. Why couldn’t YOU?

And I’d like to say it was just the dumber portions of the internets or very distant relations that give me this crap, but last November I had a doctor ask me, sarcasm dripping from his voice, if I “wanted to be on drugs the rest of my life.”

What possible answer is there for that?

No, of course I don’t want to be on drugs the rest of my life. But I want there to BE a rest of my life more than I want to not have to pop a little pill every morning, so you, Mr. Medical Person, you come up with a way to fix my brain and I’ll gladly hand in every bottle of everything I’ve got stashed in the house.

There’s no defense for that. If I say, “I need the drugs,” well, what do we say to people who need drugs? We say they’re addicts, they’re dependent, they’re obviously filling some spiritual void or something with chemical, artificial, bad bad bad substances. Addiction is a personal weakness in our society, addiction is for stupid people, people without will. There is no need in our world that is not looked on as a flaw.

Worse than the people who think depressives have an overdeveloped sense of self-indulgence are the people who think depression equals artistic sensibility. Another asshatted person of my acquaintance once told me “But your depression helps you write, doesn’t it?” The hell it does. Before I started getting treatment I wrote during the times I could actually convince myself it was worthwhile to write. And don’t throw Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in my face. Using your condition as a subject upon which to expound creatively and credting your creativity to said condition are two different things. I’m not either of those women, I don’t know jack shit about the horrors in their heads, but I do know from bitter experience that when you’re in a place where you’re thinking about sticking your head in the oven, you’re probably not thinking, “This’ll make a great movie someday.”

And I wish it was just a matter of people having opinions and bugging me with them. But these attitudes hurt people financially, too. I was denied insurance recently because they classified my depression as a “risk behavior.” That’s right, behavior. As though if I just had better table manners or stopped jumping the Grand Canyon on my motorcycle…

I shouldn’t get so worked up over what some dumbass celebrity says. Only what Tom Cruise is saying isn’t all that off from what I’ve heard before, many times, from (thankfully distant) relatives and (not really all that) friendly acquaintances: Oh, those drugs are overprescribed. Yes, they probably are. So what? Seriously, so fucking what? What possible difference does that make to me?

If you have concerns about the overprescription of drugs the way to deal with those concerns is to talk to doctors and to regulators and to lobby the companies that make these drugs, not to browbeat ordinary people doing the best they can to make themselves less crazy. Ordinary people who don’t exactly enjoy being told to “snap out of it” or “try drinking kiwi juice” or whatever the fuck is supposed to be the new cure-all right now. Ordinary people who aren’t asking you for their input, any more than they’d ask for your ignorant ass to perform open heart surgery or assess their inflamed appendix.

Understand: In offering your thoughts on the matter, you’re presuming I’m so dumb as to not have considered whether or not I was given drugs in a snap decision by a doctor who was obviously under the thumb of eeeevilll pharmaceutical companies. Of course I thought about that. And then I remembered all the time and attention my wonderful doctor devoted to helping me, finding me something that would work without interfering too much in my life, how she coaxed me to be patient with recovery rather than just jumping up doses to try to rush the get-better, how she checked in with me of her own accord just to see how I was. And then I begin having detailed fantasies about folding your presumption four ways and sticking it someplace uncomfortable.

Oh, and the “pills are for pussies” crowd? The ones who refuse to take aspirin because it’ll pollute their bodily fluids? Live your life any damn way you please. Over there. In your own life. Stay out of my medicine cabinet.

There are dangers in treating people who suffer from an illness as though they’re weak, and deserve their suffering all the more for trying to find a way to live through it.

The danger is that people who have a serious disease will feel trivialized and not seek treatment of any kind. And that can damage, can worsen, can rip apart, can kill just as surely as the wrong pill can.

Nobody knows what goes on inside somebody else’s head. I certainly have no freaking clue what goes on inside Mr. Tom’s. There’s been a lot of talk on the blogs lately about whether he’s been brainwashed by Scientology or whatever else. You know what? I don’t care. It’s his life.

And this is mine.

A.

Title of entry comes from Heather’s excellent essay.