I started taking Zoloft about five years ago, after suffering what people often colloquially refer to as “nervous breakdown.” Even as it was happening to me I thought a lot about what the term “nervous breakdown” is supposed to mean — visions of Blanche Duboisian women draped across a settee with pale faces and glassy eyes came to mind.
I was just sitting quite normally in my car when it happened. I was twenty-one years old, sitting in my parked car, and an absurd moment of clarity burst forth from behind the steering wheel.
Death. Yeah, death. That sounds good.
With about as much fanfare as if someone had asked me what I wanted to get for take-out, I realized I was going to kill myself. It wasn’t a decision, even, just a gentle passivity. An understanding. A sigh.
I’d only been dealing with chronic pain and its coeval symptoms for about 18 months, and looking back at it now I realize what a small cross-section of time that actually was. Of course, where I am now, years later, I realize I’ve confronted exactly what I’d been so afraid of then: that it wouldn’t end.
The word pain comes from the Latin poena meaning punishment or penalty, and that’s exactly what it felt like. I had struggled with guilt around leaving my family long before I actually physically left them. I internalized years of ramifications from trying to “break the cycle” of dysfunction that kept them all in a self-consumptive loop of danger and indifference for decades. By resisting those patterns I gave them the impression that I thought I was better than they were.
Internalizing that message made me increasingly confused about what it meant to be a mentally healthy person. It seemed counterintuitive that abandoning your nuclear family and denouncing their behaviors could be healthy. But what would it have been like if I’d stayed?
These were decisions I began to make at twelve, thirteen years old. I made them in a more formal, declarative way when I was sixteen. Ten years having elapsed since that very intentional detachment opened the door for the emotional distancing that needed to come with it — but that, I guarantee you, has not.
Grappling with this — then, on top of that, a slew of mysterious medical ailments that made me feel like I was living inside one of the lower-rated, less memorable episodes of House M.D., was pure, mental tortue.
The fact that antidepressants had eluded me for so long is actually quite perplexing. I didn’t have anything against them. I’ve always been a bit weebly about pills, sure. I certainly don’t want to take anything I don’t need — but it was pretty clear to me, even in my state of perfunctory hopelessness, that I needed to do something. And maybe it would be pills, maybe it would be a different therapist, maybe shock therapy. I didn’t even care what at that point — I just wanted to see daylight again.
I’m at a point where I’d like to try a different antidepressant. I’ve been on a maintenance dose with no serious side effects, but I’ve come to realize that what an antidepressant did for me was this:
It didn’t make me feel better, it just made me feel less bad.
It’s possible my expectations are just too damn high, but I would love for my emotions to run a larger gamut than from uppercase “A” to lowercase “a” — know what I mean? Yes, it’s true, an antidepressant has made it so I don’t get those low, low, lows anymore — but nor do I get excited. Nor do I get high on life. I have passing moments of Piqued Interest and can, occasionally, if I strain, cry at something. But I mostly feel nothing.
I don’t feel good. I don’t feel bad — I’m not actually sure of what I feel, if I feel at all. This drug kept me from killing myself because it made me ambivalent about the bad shit that happens to me. But in the process, it also made me feel like everything is basically not that exciting, like ever.
Or is this just adulthood—?
Sometimes I entertain the idea that my antidepressant usage just happened to coincide with a natural period of maturation that leads to permanent disenchantment. Pathogenic jadedness. Can I really blame the medication?
The thing is, I’m a writer by trade and thus, a creative by nature. Feeling things too deeply has always kind of been my thing. Experiencing beauty, being moved by things — and writing about them — is what makes life rich.
I suspect that this is a struggle many creatives have had — how do you balance the precarious need to avoid killing yourself while also feeling intensely enough to render the world as art, which implicitly makes you happy and drives you deeper into a spiral of all-consuming self-doubt and mental cannibalism?
It’s an oroborus, a self-consuming cycle where the passion fuels the creativity that fuels the self-doubt that fuels the downward spiral into mind-shattering depression. I honestly don’t know what the statistics are on this, if there are any, but anecdotally we just kind of accept that a lot of creative geniuses end up committing suicide. Or, if they don’t, they struggle with these depressive spirals for the entirety of their lives. Some write about it but I suspect there are plenty who don’t.
Of course in my mind I’m always thinking about the two women who have, up to this point, been my biggest influences: Virignia Woolf and Anne Sexton. Both of whom wrote very deeply about their own pain and experiences, both of whom ultimately committed suicide.
Sexton actually has several poems on the subject — one stanza I always remember and that has provided me with much clarity is from Wanting to Die:
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
It’s odd, really. Being on an antidepressant actually hasn’t made me think about killing myself less. It’s just taken away any motivation I may have previously had. So, I do ask “why build” — I just don’t go get my toolbox.
I miss crying.
I’ve never been a big crier. But I would cry at beautiful things. Live music, for one. The first time I ever went to the Boston Pops they were playing a tribute to John Williams and I sobbed the entire time. The first time I ever went to the New York City Ballet I saw Jewels and I cried during the finale.
Not all sad movies made me cry, but there were a few that used to drum up some visceral emotional responses — Requiem for a Dream, which everyone needs to be properly fucked up by at least once in their life. That movie actually terrified me — I cried out of fear and anxiety more than anything else. Still, I miss being moved.
Real life is even less capable of moving me to tears. I remember watching the news of Sandy Hook as it broke and it was the first time since 9/11 a news story made me cry. Mostly because, not unlike when 9/11 happened actually, I felt like things couldn’t possibly go on as they had been. Things would change. When they didn’t, I expected to harden against the cruelties of the world, but I was shocked by how quickly it descended upon me.
It should never be that easy to give up on the world. After all, wasn’t that the whole point of taking these pills in the first place?
Abby Norman is a science writer & editor based in New England. Her first book,ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN, will be released March 6, 2018 by Nation Books/Hachette.