Book Report: “Possible Side Effects” by Augusten Burroughs

This is my first time reading Augusten Burroughs. This particular copy of Possible Side Effects came from a thrift store, or perhaps one of those little free library boxes where people generously leave books for me to take home and put on my shelf.

My bookshelves are old dresser drawers I found on the street, castoffs from someone’s moving day. There was no dresser to accompany them, otherwise I wouldn’t have bookshelves and my clothes would be better organized. But I value rows of books to browse and look at more than rows of socks hidden away in a big wooden box, so I’m quite happy with the drawers sitting sideways on my desk, full of books.

Reading Augusten Burroughs’ short-story memoirs makes me feel normal, or at least makes me feel less abnormal, which is beneficial considering my current mid-life crisis. Lisa Simpson erroneously stated the Chinese word for “crisis” also means “opportunity” (“crisitunity” says Homer).

Job opportunity. Investment opportunity. Business opportunity. Political opportunity. Equal opportunity.

Search results cascading across my screen.

A box of puppies tumbling over each other to get out and explore the world.

My mid-life crisis started around the age of 10 and is currently exacerbated by an in-progress divorce and a lack of surety in my career (the latter being a subject discussed in the book).

When I turned 10 I felt more grown-up than I ever had. 10 was a magical age where I was capable of cooking my own meals, playing the piano, and hadn’t been psychologically damaged by adolescence. It was also the age where I began to realize I always wanted to be more like an adult than a child, but I didn’t understand how to get there.

I’m still trying to figure this out.

While Possible Side Effects is often hilarious, it is also sad, and it is this sweet-and-salty mix that comforts while making it dangerous to read. There is an aroma of contradiction — like “crisitunity”. Being a person prone to depression, it’s hard to read a story about a person struggling with alcoholism and finding his place in the world (no matter how funny) without holding hands with my personal demons. However, there’s a bit I took away from the book that I pocketed like a rabbit’s foot or a string of worry beads: “I wrote more… and I drank less”. Which reminds me of a quote from Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society by Antonin Artaud:

“No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.”

I discovered this quote not in the actual source, but in Stockbridge, Massachusetts above the side-entrance to The Lavender Door, the arts & crafts building of the Austen Riggs Center, whose mission is “to improve the lives of emotionally troubled and ‘treatment-resistant’ patients.

“Personality disorders… are enduring, persistent and habitual but maladaptive ways of responding to others or dealing with impulses or stressful situations that interfere with relationships or performance in roles.”

The phrase “treatment-resistant” makes me think of how a surface like wood can be treated to resist moisture, insects or decay; treatment can create resistance. Or how a treat can be used to attract (as opposed to repel or resist) an animal or encourage a behavior. Stating that a patient is “treatment-resistant” implies they are either willfully refusing treatment or are somehow immune to its effects, making the patient the cause of the resistance.

On The Island of Misfit Toys (from Rankin/Bass’ rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) there are toys which apparently are unwanted because they are different from what would be considered normal: a bird that swims instead of flying, a train whose caboose has square wheels, a cowboy riding an ostrich. A doll who seems completely normal, but:

“[Dolly] was cast off by her mistress and clinically depressed, and they didn’t have Prozac back then.” –Arthur Rankin, Jr.

Misfit. Archaic meaning: something that does not fit or fits badly.

A bird that swims, but cannot fly is a penguin.

It is not my purpose here to invalidate mental illness — I’m just exploring my own difference through a set of related instruments. I know how real mental illness is and how important mental health is. My own mental illness probably would’ve killed me by now if it weren’t for the mental health professionals who’ve treated me, who continue to treat me. Treated in the way that I have been rewarded for changing my behavior, as well as in the way I have been given some protection from the constant decay of self. But this is not a cure. This is not a curing process that changes something permanently like firing clay in a kiln.

Maybe I’m just treatment-resistant.

I think she’s wiping the mirror off in the bathroom after taking a shower. It sounds like a small puppy crying.

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