PART ONE: CLOSET
Prescription psychiatric medication has affected my life almost since I was born. It wasn’t as if granulated Prozac was mixed in with the spoons of pumpkin mash that were zoomed-zoomed into my little baby-gob. But I was born into an assortment of people who were held together as a family for at least seventeen years longer than they ought to have been with the assistance of prescription medication (and a fair amount of non-prescribed self-medication) administered to a particularly reluctant member. I grew up in a home held together by scripts and obligations.
But it wasn’t until I turned fifteen that I was first directly prescribed psychotropic medication. I can’t remember the precise turn of events that lead to my being sent to the same psychiatrist that had been treating my father since the year of my birth. Trying to dredge up clear memories of 2005 (much like the years 1990-1999) is like flicking through the pages of an almost entirely redacted testimony. But I do have available from that year some clear and verifiable historical details that point to something having gone badly awry. Physically, I went from being a chubby cherub of a child to a thickshake-guzzling lard-arse of a Bar Mitzvah boy, to a tall and slim post growth-spurt fourteen year-old, having dropped twenty kilograms one summer after waking up on a November morning for the first time with a body image, looking in the mirror, yelping, “I’m fat!”, and then commencing a strict exercise regime involving a daily five kilometre run, and a strict eating regime which required me to record every calorie that I ate, resulting in my becoming a waif of a fifteen year old, nearly six feet tall, but weighing less than fifty kilograms. There was also an alteration in my academic performance. Having been the Dux of my year at every prizegiving since primary school, in Year 9, I not only was the Dux, but swept the pool of every single individual subject prize for which I was eligible (actually, there was one I didn’t get – Physical Education, but is that really an ‘academic’ subject?). Contrastingly, at the end of Year 10, my pool had dwindled to a single prize for ‘Academic Proficiency’ (this was awarded to the overall ‘number three’. I mean, who really wants to accept a prize for being number three?) Another detail I remember from that year was mysteriously losing my ability to engage in any sort of conversation, after having been loquacious to the point of consistently being labelled an “intolerable disruption to the entire class” in the previous year’s school report.
2005 was also the year that my mother returned to full-time work for the first time since my birth (actually, since before my parents immigrated from South Africa). She has since revealed that the reason she waited so long to do this, despite having been a career woman before my older brother arrived, was that she only felt ‘safe’ enough to leave me during the day alone with my father (who worked from home) once I was ‘big enough’ for it to seem sensible to do so. I think that says enough about the quality of my relationship with my father. And that year also marked the occasion, four years before my eventual, far messier, ‘official’ coming out, when during a springtime Afternoon Gym excursion while I was sitting in the bleachers with five girlfriends watching the boys play tennis, I unexpectedly found the words “I think I’m gay” coming out of my mouth, proceeding to attempt to erase this event from the history books (after a sleepless night of panic) the next day by approaching each of these girls individually to convince them that I had been possessed by an evil spirit and it had been an out-of-body experience, and begged them never to tell any one about the incident for as they long as they lived. To their credit, not only did each keep to their promise, but one of those girls actually developed a crush on me a year later, and then got really upset with me when I still wouldn’t ‘go out’ with her (“even though I AM straight, promise!”) We’re still friends.
Perhaps a good counsellor could have helped me unpack the backpack of emotions that was crushing my Anorexic teenage shoulders (they became rather less slender the next year when I discovered the gym and became obsessed with weightlifting instead of dieting), but once my mother cottoned-on to my troubles, she drove me straight to our ‘family psychiatrist’, whom she informed of my troubling ‘symptoms’ (weight loss, disinterested in studies, anti-social behaviour, physical inertia…she didn’t know about the gayness). He prescribed me Seroquel (Quetiapine), an antipsychotic medication used in higher doses to treat schizophrenia and in lower doses a range of ‘mood disorders’ like the one by which I was supposed to be affected. I obediently took the pills for six months before asking my mother to take me back to the psychiatrist to request that I be allowed to discontinue them. One of the more facile reasons I gave was that I could no longer see the answer to an algebra problem as soon as I saw it written on the board. But I also explained to him that I wasn’t just thinking differently, my entire life had started to feel different. I told him how I remembered once being able to feel a distinct feeling, a feeling I couldn’t quite put into words, but the closest word I could find was joy (I didn’t then know the word ‘jouissance’), when I opened my eyes in the morning and first saw the world. And I’d feel the same sense of this something-like-joy when rolling through each of the unchanging features of my morning routine – the taste and texture of three Weet-Bix, honey and banana on my tongue (the cereal biscuits at first crispy and then soggy by the final bite when they had soaked up most of the residual milk), the sensation of hot water dripping down my still sleep-cramped shoulders, the feeling of my weight being physically shifted by the bus on the way to school, the plastic of the earphones pressing on my tragus bone, the sense of ‘arrival’ inspired by the site of the grand wrought iron school gates as the bus pulled up to the curb and its doors folded open.
I explained to him that since the medication had first started to ‘work’, this feeling had vanished. Waking up had become just waking up, breakfast just breakfast, the school gates just the school gates. I told him I hadn’t realised I was feeling anything about those banal, everyday fixtures prior to taking the medication but now that I could distinctly discern such a feeling through its absence, I really missed it. I was frightened to face the rest of life as just motions to go through. He let me come off of the medication. And then, despite the quality of my home life only continue to deteriorate my mother drifting further away, and my birthday wishes to start the next year as a ‘normal’ heterosexual teenager remaining unanswered), I managed (thanks in no small part to the JCV Hi-Fi System and 2 Disc Mariah Carey ‘Greatest Hits’ Compilation I got that year for my birthday) to survive the rest of my teenage years pharmaceutical-free.
Until six months after the end of my topsy-turvy post-matriculation gap-year, shortly after the extravagant party I threw myself for my nineteenth birthday, when I woke up one morning, lying on the same sheets on which I had rested my heavy head every night of my childhood, in the same house which I now only shared with my recently divorced mother, and tried to get up. I couldn’t. There was a large block of lead on my body. When I reached out, all I could feel of the world, or myself, was suddenly leaden.
Aside from my sexual repression and fraught relations with my mother (and even more fraught relations with my father), there were many legitimate reasons for me to be scared of the day. My waking hours were stretched between: volunteering almost (or more than) full time for a Jewish youth organisation that exacerbated my sense of alienation rather than providing the sense of belonging it promised; working almost (or more than) full time as a tutor at a factory-like ‘agency’, manufacturing essays for the children of the exceptionally well-heeled, most of whom would leave the agency less capable of independent thought or effort than when they arrived and whose huge fees mainly benefitted the philistine autocrat at the helm of the business (a former teacher of mine who’d taken to belittling me at every opportunity out of (well-justified) insecurity over the marks my students were getting in comparison to her own (and the trusting rapport I was developing with their parents); and studying (actually) full-time the most competitive law degree in Australia, law being a subject for which I had absolutely no passion or interest, but thought it was just what clever people were meant to study.
Though entirely within my own power to alter, these soul-sapping occupations seemed like immutable, permanent facts of life (doesn’t everyone have to work? doesn’t everyone hate their boss? If I stop volunteering, doesn’t that make me a bad person?) and the longer I forced myself through days that felt like fires after frying pans after volcanoes, the bigger my block of lead grew, and the harder it was to see the sources of my anguish with any sort of perspective or objectivity. And receiving fewer clear messages from my increasingly shut-down and neglected feelings, my ‘problem-solving brain’, began to turn inward to my vast internal storage vaults of painful thoughts and memories, running-riot to find anything it could to piece together an explanation for just how unbearably awful I was increasingly feeling all the time. And because this ever-expanding, pervading feeling was so increasingly divorced from, and disproportionate to, ‘real-life circumstances’, my internal problem-solver had a particularly hard job because it was required to find an explanation that far exceeded the banal features of my small existence so it ended up putting together some spectacularly dark and intellectually complex formulations to ‘explain’ its state. I won’t elaborate on these rather fearful poetic flights of fancy, but what’s interesting is how as my mental state deteriorated, my brain in its effort to construct an intellectual framework through which to comprehend debilitating emotional pain, lost its ability to differentiate between bona fide memories and those that I had appropriated from books and films and other modes of entertainment which operate through one’s capacity for empathy.
It was in July that I found myself using memories absorbed from Holocaust writings to understand what was happening to me. I started to wake up imagining I was in a concentration camp. Even though I hadn’t read Primo Levy’s book since High school, its pithy description of the experience of waking up in Auschwitz remained lodged firmly enough in my memory to flutter through and attach itself to the experience of waking up each morning in my haunted childhood home:
Like a stone the foreign word falls to the bottom of every soul. ‘Get up’: the illusory barrier of the warm blankets, the thin armour of sleep, the nightly evasion with its very torments drops to pieces around us, and we find ourselves mercilessly awake, exposed to insult, atrociously naked and vulnerable.
I was aware of how perverse it was for a middle-class Jewish boy in 2009 lying in his comfortable bed on the third floor of the Woollahra terrace-house owned by his parents to exploit the memory of a Holocaust survivor to pretend that his experience of depression had some sort of meaning, but the fantasy that I was surviving a concentration camp was one of my only sources of comfort during an almost comfortless time. It was also practically helpful in achieving the task of actually getting myself out of bed, the single greatest challenge of the day. I thought to myself, “if Primo Levy could throw himself onto the concrete floor of his cabin and face the Kapo, I can face the dragon lady downstairs and the dragon lady at the end of Captain Pipers Road.” But when that ‘carrot’ mode of inspiring myself out of bed began to fail, I altered the Auschwitz fantasy to make it have the unignorable potency of a ‘stick’. I remembered reading accounts of other Holocaust survivors that credited their survival on an ability to get themselves out of bed in the morning without any hesitation, and before the other inmates, so that they could bathe before the very limited water ran out, thus fending off the diseases caused by poor sanitation. And so I began to imagine that my literal survival depended on immediately getting myself out of bed and not thinking about what I had to do, powering through my morning routine as ruthlessly and mechanically as possible. And embodying the iron-clad survival instincts of a concentration camp inmate for the first thirty minutes of every day proved to be a highly effective strategy in battling through a completely packed-out, but joyless existence.
I was too afraid of my trigger-happy mother to tell her about any of this, but at some point I did tell my elder brother (then, as now, my most trusted confidante, and ally in the war we’d both been fighting our entire lives in our different ways) about my daily morning dissociative mental acrobatics, and pretty soon, I was being driven back by mother to the same psychiatrist as four years prior. This time, he prescribed me Escitalopram, a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, and a common anti-anxiety medication. I desperately wanted to believe that this was the magic pill it had been promised as, the one that would blast away the leaden block above my bed. But when I first started taking it, the tremor with which I used to come into consciousness became worse, and I began to give up hope of the block ever shifting.
That was until one Saturday morning, when slightly dazed, I found myself fully awake and standing upright on the floor beside my bed, completely unaware of having performed any cognitive processes to get myself from my familiar position of leaden prostration to an unfamiliar position of dignified readiness for the day. Some invisible force had pulled me straight up. And just as I was about to start threatening myself to get my legs moving towards the bathroom, this same force pulled me to the basin and began to move my hands to turn on the shower taps, and before I knew it I was back in the bedroom and putting on a fresh set of clothes, which I didn’t have to put any effort into choosing (which was somehow still all clean and colour-coordinated – but not too matchy-matchy, of course), and found myself ready to leave the house thirty minutes before my usual departure time, time which I used to fold and stow away the mountain of clean clothing on my desk and then transport the ocean of dirty washing on my floor to the basket, and then unpack and repack the dishwasher in the kitchen. When I drove to the premises of the tutoring agency (also the house of the owner), my heart didn’t lurch out of my chest every time a green light that I was trying to make turned orange, my hands didn’t start madly perspiring when I made the turn onto the street on which the house stood, and when I found a parking spot, I didn’t have to stay in the car for five minutes to calm myself down sufficiently so that I felt sure I wouldn’t disintegrate the moment I walked through the door. When I did proudly walk on to the factory floor, and the principal lifted her toad-like face to glare at me and ask if I remembered “this time” to close the side door (to keep the dog from getting out), I glared right back her and told her “of course I did, my sweet darling angel master and protector”, and marched straight in to the dining room to await my first customer, and when he arrived, the words of the Waiting for Godot essay I was writing for him (sorry, I mean, helping him to write for himself) flowed out like champagne from a freshly corked bottle rather than drops of blood from a boggy stone, and when I walked out of the house with a bunch of orange bills in my shirt pocket from the hand of my spikey-haired pimp, instead of going home and adding them to the growing stash in the shoebox at the bottom of my wardrobe and then crawling into bed, I drove to the David Jones department store in Bondi Junction (at ten km/h over the speed limit, with all the windows down, blasting “Boom Boom Pow”…because them chickens were so jackin’ my style) to buy myself a new pair of Tom Ford sunglasses to shade my eyes from a sun that no longer hurt because it now illuminated a world that seemed very much like it was worth living in.
That day saw just the first few splutters of the pharmaceutical rocket that had been recently rammed into my brain’s serotonin centre. In the space of about a month, I went from feeling barely alive after twelve hours of sleep to springing out of bed after just four, I went from sharing my evenings with Elena Gilbert, Kurt Hummel, Betty Draper and a 13” Macbook screen to rummaging through my phonebook in search of whichever ‘friend’ I could find (new or old, fun or not-so-fun) that happened to be doing something, or just going out alone and ingratiating myself with whoever I could find that seemed vaguely attractive or interesting (this being Sydney, real estate and self-tanner being failsafe conversation starters), and then dancing and chatting (and just generally having a jol, doll) until the early hours of the morning, and conveniently being able to drive back from wherever I had been carried away because I hadn’t need to take a drink (or imbibe any more elicit substance) to fuel these nocturnal shenanigans thanks to my now seemingly boundless reserves of energy. My shoebox full of plastic ochre-coloured bills (we have plastic money in Australia) was soon depleted, but too un-anxious to prevent a factor as annoyingly practical as money impede the replenishment of my wardrobe or my bid to paint every corner of Sydney-town red, I walked into a bank and convinced the lady-clerk to approve me for a five-figure credit card without providing any proof of earnings. And after having earlier in the year received a letter from my gym querying why I hadn’t used my membership in two months, I made a last-minute decision to run my first ever City2Surf (a 14.6km ‘fun run’ across a topographically grueling route through Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, the centrepiece of which being the aptly named 2km ‘Heartbreak Hill’), completing the course in sixty-eight minutes, and celebrating crossing the finish line with a bottle of Sav Blanc and half a pack of Marlboros. Similarly impulsive decisions included moving out of my mother’s house into a friend’s parents’ guestroom and leaving my job at the tutoring agency with the kind of “you wanna see what an actually good piece of writing looks like?” resignation letter anyone that has ever hated their boss has always dreamed of slamming on his or her desk. I also booked a last-minute plane ticket to South Africa to be a counsellor on the same month-long Jewish summer camp at which I had volunteered the previous year (after my ten months in Israel) because I wanted to get the hell away from Sydney, because moving out of my childhood house to the next suburb along wasn’t quite far away enough to erase the memories of the past or sufficiently distract me from the unacknowledged realities of the present, and I had remembered that camp as being the best experience of my life, and I wanted to feel that much love and connection again, and I still had a couple k’s of credit left on my magic card, so why the hell not?
Well, because a tent shared with four almost-strangers, with whom you are responsible 24/7 for the safety and wellbeing of two hundred precious darling South African Jewish sixteen year olds, on a beachside campsite 120 kilometres south of Cape Town, is not an ideal location for a two month-long medically induced state of hypomania to tick over into a full-blown manic-depressive episode. One night halfway through the camp, I suddenly found myself having lost the ability to sleep. Or eat. Or think about anything in a vaguely proportionate, rational or optimistic way, and I really didn’t know what was happening to me, because as far as I was aware the ‘magic pill’ that I was still taking had fixed me, and when I sent my father an email about this, he suggested I try having a cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. So after two nights without sleep, I made an unplanned and stealthy escape from the campsite, leaving behind my trunk and hitching a ride to Cape Town with a family who had just dropped off a late arrival, then spending six sleepless nights in the guest bedroom of a friend’s parents (I’ve slept in a lot of lovely guest bedrooms!), during the days doing an exceptionally good job of putting on a happy face so as to not alarm the sweet middle-aged middle-class Jewish couple, while in the evenings literally and physically pulling my hair out, until the day arrived when they left me alone to go visit their son on the campsite, which I strongly encouraged them to do, stressing that some ‘time alone’ would do me good. I won’t say exactly what happened after they left me, other than to summarise the long-distance telephone call that took place after I woke up from a medically induced 16-hour of sleep in my aunt’s house in Johannesburg (in another guest bedroom), during which I finally said to my mother what had been on the tip of my tongue during every one of our thousands of conversations over the previous five years:
“Mum, the good news is that I didn’t kill myself. I didn’t even try it in the end. I stopped myself. I made the call.
The bad news…your son’s a poofter.”
The doctors at Netcare Linksfield Private administered enough Xanax (a tranquiliser) to keep me physically docile and Olanzapine (an anti-psychotic) to keep me free of ‘dangerous thoughts’ (except the gay ones) until I was deemed not a risk to myself or passengers on an airplane, and one week later, I flew back to Sydney.
If you’re wondering how no one in my family managed to predict, or attempt to prevent, my dramatic crash to the ground during the preceding Icarus-like flight towards the sun (with drops of melting wax long being visible from my flimsy wings), the answer is that the man whose genetic footprint makes up half of my own is not a person of whom that question could reasonably be asked, my brother was very sensibly already living in the US and chasing his dream, and my mother was too exhausted to really think about what was going on with me by all the effort it took her to ‘just cope’ with the trauma from the daily hell of her 27 years of marriage and her own similarly neglectful and abusive childhood which preceded it. Besides, she was convinced of my being on the ‘right track’ by the family psychiatrist, who even after the ‘breakdown’, was still adamant of having done his job exemplarily (hadn’t he cured me of my blues?) She responded to the revelation of this man’s long-running negligence by sending me to a different psychiatrist (one who was highly renowned in the Eastern Suburbs Jewish community – the first psychiatrist was based in the North Shore where my parents had originally lived). The new doctor was an absolute weed of a man who prided himself on his hobby cattle farms and on the fact he only wore two pairs of trousers (which I would bet were purchased at Lowes) and hadn’t upgraded his Lexus in over a decade (despite the fact that he charged four hundred dollars per consultation). We were all very convinced (I and my mother, that is) by his performance denigrating the previous shrink’s inability to pick up on my ‘latent genetic bipolar disorder’ and chiding his error in prescribing an SSRI booster without the ‘safety valve’ of a mood stabiliser. But this psychiatrist shared the trait of the first in not really wanting to hear about the millions of horrible thoughts that had been cascading through my head since the crash landing (who would want to hear about such depressing things?). Whereas someone taking a more holistic look at the ‘patient’ may have delved into the very real immediate stressors and unresolved history of trauma which had brought about the initial depression and spurred the pharmaceutically-assisted hypomania which came along to replace it (depression and hypomania both being responses to pain, the first involving numbness and the second busyness). This new psychiatrist just saw both states as being ‘chemical imbalances’ which required a different cocktail of medication. He convinced me my ‘bad thoughts’ were just imaginary spectres manufactured by an unsound mind and would go away as soon as my “meds were balanced again”. So he increased (yes, increased) my antidepressant to get me out of the crater left by the crash, but added in Lamotrigine, a mood stabiliser. At my behest, he began tapering me off the anti-psychotics and tranquilisers.
Perhaps I should have seen the same fundamentally flawed approach to my ‘rehabilitation’ at work in this new doctor and kept psychiatrist shopping. But the problem is that when you’re still in the grips of a nervous breakdown and you’re holding on for dear life to whatever shreds of sanity and selfhood you have left, a purely pathologising narrative (“you’re sick and you just need to take pills and wait to ‘get better’”) is far too appealing to question. When a chain of destabilising events causes the storage rails holding up all the boxes of packaged emotional pain you’ve been stowing to buckle, and you’re only just crawling out from under the avalanche, the last thing you want to do is turn around and start sifting through that mountain of terror. So it suited me also to wait to ask myself the high-stakes questions that had suddenly stormed the forefront of my consciousness (“am I really suited to a vocation as potentially well-remunerating but soulless as law? Is there actually a good reason why I seem to hate (as well as love) my parents so much other than that I’m evil? Are additional pairs of Nudie jeans really going to make me any happier? Am I an abomination of nature?”) until they had some of their sting medicinally taken out.
PART TWO: CANDYSTORE
And sure enough, a few weeks after the readjustments were made, my emotional bogeyman began to diminish into mere nuisances, and as soon as the spring was back in my step, I sprang straight into a slightly gayer, less Jewish version of my old life. In my hyped-up phoenix-rising-from-ashes state I was able to devise and execute knee-jerk (but, on balance, astute) decisions to move out of home for good (or so I thought!), and not only quit the Jewish youth organisation that been the ‘spiritual home’ of my youth (having from the age of thirteen spent all of my Sundays at its meetings, all of my summers and winter holidays at its camps, and ten months (and twenty grand) on its leadership and ‘self-actualisation’ programme in Israel), but also ditch all of my friends who predated the start of university (including those from the youth group with whom I had essentially grown up). And helpfully, the near-eradication of my anxiety meant that any structural problems in my life that couldn’t be ‘fixed’ with a rashly drafted email could just be ignored. I no longer felt concerned about my shallow lifestyle or flawed value system, so I just went back to earning and spending as much money as I could (graduating from Bassike and Nudie to Salvatore Ferragamo and Maison Martin Margiela) and surrounding myself with company who would celebrate me for my reliable extravagance. I still didn’t like studying law, but I no longer hated it. My childhood retreated into the recesses of my mind, and I was able to limit the time I spent with my parents by living out of home, so I could just reconstruct the narrative of my upbringing (including the calibre of the parents who had performed the bringing-up) however and whenever I needed to. And after five years of consciously trying to re-wire my brain into a women-desiring one, those wires certainly didn’t magically disentangle themselves the moment I revealed my true nature to the world (after coming so close to destroying it once and for all), but why should I have worried myself about becoming comfortable with my sexuality? On paper I was ‘out of the closet’ and being congratulated for my new camper-than-camp demeanour. Did I really need to actually have sex? I was too busy working and studying and shopping and exercising and socialising to have a boyfriend, so I decided not to be glum about my transition from a closet-case to a eunuch.
By many objective measures, I didn’t have a bad life. I was doing well financially (having formed my own tutoring enterprise after causing a bit of an exodus from the agency with my departure), I was doing well academically, I lived in a beautiful flat with a beautiful gay housemate and his beautiful gay cat Buster, I had a tremendously full social calendar, my abs were on-point and I was always fabulously dressed. I even visited my parents each once a week and didn’t smash a bottle over either of their heads. I went to the Beresford every Sunday, left my credit card behind the bar, dropped $150 on Espresso Martinis, usually ended up at Arq until early the next morning, and still managed to rock up to my Real Property lecture at 9am. I threw lovingly catered house parties and took overseas holidays at least twice a year. And because of the effectiveness of the mood stabiliser that I was taking, I was able to consistently live on overdrive without ever breaking through to hyperdrive (and then plunging straight down again into that other state which is rather more bleak but sort-of rhymes with ‘hyperdrive’).
But there was a small problem. About six months after my dosage of Lexapro was adjusted, the wind in my sails started to go out again. I started to get this tingling feeling somewhere in my third toe on my right foot telling me that something wasn’t quite right. So I told tell the psychiatrist that I was starting to get depressed again. And so he did what he thought was his job and bumped up my dose of antidepressants. And then in a couple weeks, my nose would be out of Maters & Johnson and back in the latest All Saints online catalogue. This same procedure happened about five times, until thirty months after my crash, I found myself taking 40mg (the maximum dose) of Lexapro, and once again starting to hear the demons knocking on the door of the floodgates. But this time, I decided not to ask for more reinforcements. In fact, I decided to give all the reinforcements back. I made the decision to take on the flood full-force, like a proper grown-up and not a weak mentally ill lifelong psychiatric patient. Typical of the tenor of the times, this was a decision I came to after a 24-hour bender (beginning with a Beresford session that left twice the usual damage). As soon as the hangover was over, I arrived at my psychiatrist to deliver a carefully worded, highly impassioned, hour-long diatribe about authenticity and determination and growth and resilience, a not quite Oscar-worthy performance, but one good enough to earn the limp-wristed psychiatrist’s reluctant consent.
With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say my motivations behind this first attempt to withdraw from medication were spot-on, but unfortunately my execution missed the mark pretty horrendously. One theory I have for why people suddenly have an urge to come off their medication after years of comfortable numbness (and then it goes badly) is that their sense of intuition, which has become increasingly desperate after having been buried under layers of medicated Styrofoam, one day decides to muster all the energy it has left at its disposal to send through a single, sharp, un-ignorable message to the conscious brain, something along the lines of “get rid of this insulation, all of it, immediately, or you’re going to die”. Then if the conscious brain actually does obey the simple command, the intuition waits and bides its time until all the layers of medicinal Styrofoam have dissipated, at which point it beings furiously screaming at the conscious brain the full list of reasons it has spent its gagged years preparing of all the ways in which the brain has screwed everything up and sentenced everyone (mind, heart, and body) to an intolerable existence. Meanwhile, the conscious brain has become so used to ruling without opposition that it has no ability to take any of this criticism in a constructive way, so it takes out an AK-47 and starts shooting inside its own House of Commons.
In other words, just because the impulse to remove oneself from medication might be a self-serving rather than self-sabotaging one, does not mean it shouldn’t be approached with extreme caution. What psychiatric patients don’t properly appreciate when deciding to withdraw from medication is that the world they will wake up in once their last dose has worn off is not the same world in which they made the decision to withdraw, the world in which ‘everything seemed fine’. And not actually being able to think with any brain aside from your own, you cannot accurately predict the ways in which the world will differ. You might wake up and hate your job, hate your family, or even hate aspects of yourself you previously didn’t even notice. Or rather, you might think you hate these things, but when your intuition learns to speak again at a normal volume, you might just realise that there were certain problems in certain areas of your life to which you were previously too numbed to pay any attention. So anyone coming off medication needs to allow for a long come-down period for readjusting to an unmediated emotional experience, during which stress needs to be minimised as much as possible, and no significant life decisions should be made (until you have worked out how to reconcile your thoughts with your intuition). And then once you’ve started to feel things in an authentic but proportionate way, and have learned to listen to your own emotions with understanding and compassion (as well as reason and rationality), there needs to be a lot of space and flexibility in your life for any modifications that need to take place once you work out what is required to make your life a happy place, and not just a safe one.
No one coming off medication thinks about any of this because the very medication they’re taking by design suppresses all anxieties, even the ones that are justified. But I was especially gung-ho about withdrawing from my mountain of meds given my general fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, deal-with-it-when-I-get-there mode of living (which I’m still trying to work out if it is a symptom of over-medication, or just a manifestation of my personality – I think maybe a combination). So instead of making efforts to give myself more breathing room, I tapered off of my meds when I was completing the most difficult semester of my law degree (fourth year, first semester – four compulsory law units), at the same time as applying for summer clerkship programmes at the best corporate law firms in Australia (programs which were an essential part of the very narrow tunnel to a ‘happy, successful’ life’ that had been constructed in my mind), working as a paralegal at a small law firm about which the less I say the better and tutoring fourteen matriculating students to pay for the too-expensive flat in which I lived alone, the darlings and their crazy HSC stress being the only visitors to my temple of solitude and studiousness. So of course as soon as my own mid-year exams were over (and with them, my rigidly timetabled twenty-hour days of which the single hour at the gym was the only one that wasn’t motivated by sheer terror), the lifelong emotional wounds which I still hadn’t ever really stopped to address (and had only dealt with by wrapping in layers and layers and layers of Lexapro and Lamotrigine) suddenly were able to breathe, and quickly began to bleed, and bleed (and BLEED), and within a month, I was racing back to the psychiatrist screaming for a script, not the slightest bit put off by his sinister told-you-so grin. But he must have forgotten to take his vitamins that morning, because he prescribed me a different anti-depressant, Prozac (that part made sense – Lexapro had stopped working), but didn’t also prescribe a mood stabiliser to put a ceiling on the boost I was sure to receive from the SSRI. And the Prozac made me no less suicidal, it just completely prevented me from getting any sleep, once again turning my life into 24/7 dysphoria. Not wanting to alarm anyone, I tried to break the rapidly accelerating spiral myself by taking Xanax (prescribed for ‘emergencies’) to steal a few hours of slumber each night, and then upping the dose when what I was taking stopped working, jumping from two tables to four, to six, to…… waking up alone in the Emergency Room of the RPA, and the next day being driven by my aunt to a psychiatric clinic.
Again, if there was a calm, clear-headed person to help me conduct a play-by-play review of this particular conflagration, they may have realised that just like the first time I had ‘broken down’, a purely ‘medicinal’ solution to severe, but very real and (with some time and effort) healable emotional meltdown had escalated a messy personal crisis into a full-blown medical emergency. But there were no such people around. My doctor was a man who possessed the right mix of character traits to have found the 10+ years of highly-specialised medical training required to become a psychiatrist appealing as a young man (mathematical-mindedness, meticulousness, competitiveness, self-importance and not having a fully-formed sense of empathy). He had spent three decades churning through ten patients per day like faulty brains on a giant assembly line, pinpointing symptoms, diagnosing conditions and tweaking chemical levels. Now that he had a full-blown medical emergency on his hands, he was not about to put away his prescription pad. I, myself, was hardly calm or clear-headed, given that what I had feared the most since discovering that I was as ‘ill’ as my father, being involuntarily sectioned into a psychiatric clinic like he had been, had actually come to pass. I had been entirely stripped of my agency, I wasn’t even allowed legally to make decisions for myself. As for the terribly well-meaning members of my immediate family, they continued to wait on the sidelines, waving their fists and yelling, “this is what happens when you go off your meds!” On top of all this, though nervous breakdown number two had the advantage of being on Australian soil, it had the disadvantage of extraordinarily unfortunate timing, arriving the week before the start of the next university semester, which also coincided with my four first-round clerkship interviews, (upon which now more than ever I envisioned my future happiness to depend). There was not a chance in hell I wasn’t going to attend those interviews – so I told my still-raging but now totally incoherent intuition (which, in hindsight, was most likely trying to tell me to keep the hell away from those law firms!) to quieten the fuck down, leaned over to the sixty-two year old balding man at my bedside and said,
“doc, gimme everything you got”.
And he did – prescribing the mood stabiliser Lamotrigine, an emergency dose of the anti-psychotic Olanzapine, and to get me moving from the ground floor of the Sydney Clinic to the sixty-fifth floor of the Governor Philip Building as quickly as possible, he administered the tri-turbo antidepressant Effexor, an SNDRI (Serotonin and Noradrenaline and Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitor), which unlike standard antidepressants such as Prozac, not only stops your Serotonin producers from relaxing, but also revs up your Noradrenaline and Dopamine production. The starting dose of 75mg might have worked for a mildly unwell mental patient, but not this deeply disillusioned deep thinker, and so the doctor increased the dose to 150, then to 225 and finally up to 300mg, triggering the most rapid and spectacular ‘recovery’ the Sydney Clinic had ever seen. Not only did I walk away from the Clinic with a clerkship offer in hand (after dazzling a Senior Partner and member of a prominent Australian political family with my suite of HD’s from the previous semester, and a twenty minute mid-interview rhapsody on Ulysses, at the conclusion of which I took the glass lift back down to Ground, slumped into my mother’s Toyota Yaris and was whisked back to the Clinic, leaving her with my belt and tie, both ‘forbidden items’) but within a month, I was back at University resuming my full load and getting my rugby team of seventeen year-olds results entire bands higher than they deserved. By the end of the year, I was again staging one, two (three, week…) long benders and going on lavish overseas holidays and dropping ten grand on one of either of my two platinum credit cards during single-day shopping sprees. I was back!
I’ll always hold some resentment from that time for being deprived of one particular sentimental experience. Soon after I was admitted to the Clinic, my mother flew my brother in from New York to ‘look after me’ and it just so happened that this coincided with a visit to Sydney from my eldest first cousin who was then living in London. With her five habitually scattered grandchildren together in Sydney for the first time in as long as anyone could remember, my maternal grandmother, who was in the early stages of frontotemporal lobe dementia (possibly from watching too many Sex and the City marathons) chose this moment to have the heart attack that would allow her to exit the world while surrounded by all her family and still in possession of some of her marbles, and all of her dignity. My attendance of her bedside was my second to an emergency room in the space of one week, but this time I was standing alongside my brother, three first cousins, mother and aunt, forming an arc around our flawed matriarch, sending her off with her favourite showtunes (the lyrics displayed on our iPhones, “I could have spread my wings… done a thousand things… I could have danced, danced, danced…”). She was the person I felt the purest love for out of anyone in the world, and she was also my biggest fan (cheering the loudest at every one of my speech nights, even when I only walked away with a single lousy book). After whispering my farewell in her ear “Goodbye June spoon” and hearing her soft reply “goodbye Sam, my sweet little lamb”, I left the hospital with eyes that had remained dry as deserts, changed into my Armani Collezioni suit and Ermenegildo Zegna tie and caught a cab to the ‘meet-and-greet’ cocktail evening of one of the firms where I was interviewing the next day, mingling with partners with the same un-sipped bottle of Peroni in my hand the whole night, presenting a picture of perfect composure and employability. The funeral, a few days later, was a similarly greyscale experience for me, but fortunately there exists a Jewish custom of the ‘consecration ceremony’, whereby the family of the deceased returns to the grave a year after the death for the laying of the tombstone, an occasion for which I was far less medicated, and for the duration of which (and for several hours after), I cried inconsolably, which is exactly what I’m finding myself doing while trying to end this paragraph, and since I’m sitting at a public picnic table overlooking Clovelly Beach and now making a bit of a spectacle of myself, I’m going to get back to talking about medication, which is after all the topic of this week’s post (which I’m not sure is still just a ‘post’ at this length), not ‘dead grandmothers’. Maybe I’ll get onto the topic of dead grandmothers another time, because mine (a woman responsible for such quotations as “if I was born thirty years later I would have been Samantha Jones….I would have been a slut) was an absolute doozie.
I roared into 2013 with as much antidepressant adrenal horsepower under my bonnet as a Bugatti W16 engine, with Lamotrigine acting as a speed limiter to keep me travelling straight along the Autobahn towards Hamburg, Germany, where I was due in August of that year to spend the last semester of my law degree at Bucerius Law School, a private institution reputed to produce the best corporate lawyers in all of Deutschland. And it turned out that I needed every single one of the three hundred milligrams of Effexor I was taking to make it over the line. The year opened with my return from a second infamous Mexican romp (during which I unexpectedly found myself at the same private beachfront New Years party as Demi Moore, Nate Berkus and 100 other ‘friends’) to find in Sydney an email that brought to light the falsehoods that barely held together what was left of my relationship with my father, a charade which I was just as responsible as he was for perpetuating. But I didn’t have time to mourn my newfound semi-orphaned status because I still had a month left of my all-important summer clerkship, so I just decided to continue boozing nightly, often at firm-sponsored events among the cohort of thirty summer clerks (who were like robotic, suited-up high school kids), with my antics, which were already at my usual level of outrageousness (which is pretty outrageous), becoming even more outrageous, and one or two of those antics resulting in my being summonsed to the equivalent of the school principal’s office and told that I wasn’t graduating (i.e. that I could finish the clerkship but there would be no graduate solicitor’s job for me when I finished university).
But instead of letting what would have previously been a devastating setback get me down (I literally said something along the lines of “fair enough, that’s your decision” when told the news), I just decided to fly to Beijing to meet a friend who was working there as a journalist and buy myself a new fur coat and drink a bottle of champagne in the emporium and then move flats for no reason other than I was suddenly ‘bored’ with the old one (I tended to get ‘bored’ of flats as soon as their lease’s expired) and threw a ‘house-cooling’ for Edgecliff (as I did for all my old flats) and a ‘housewarming’ for Rushcutters Bay (as I did for all my new flats) and before I had a chance to worry about a new graduate job, my twenty-third birthday rolled around (for which I threw a catered dinner at my flat for my inner circle of thirty friends) and the following day I had an interview (which had been in the works for nearly a year) for a graduate job at a UK ‘magic circle’ law firm, for which a case could be made just as good as the case for any other firm of its being the best firm in the entire world. I then received a call exactly one hour after seven hours of aptitude tests and interviews had completed from the darling graduate recruiter who was the last to interview me to let me know that “we also thought you were too good for an Australian firm”.
But though full-steam-ahead seemed to be working out well, as my departure date drew closer, my now once again well-and-truly repressed voice of intuition somehow began to make itself heard above the fireworks, the exhausted, muffled squeak emerging from the depths sounding something like “this – is – not – sustainable”. So I returned to my psychiatrist, told him that I understood full well that I needed to remain on a mood stabiliser but thought my dose of anti-depressant was excessive and convinced him to allow me to reduce it by three quarters in the month before my flight. If you’re wondering how I’ve managed to repeatedly convince two different psychiatrists to drastically alter their ‘expert medical opinions’ of my pharmaceutical requirements in the space of a single session, I’ll give you the same answer that I would to how I’ve managed to convince bank clerks to approve a university student without any proof of income for multiple platinum credit cards, which is that when I’m borderline-hypomanic, I think I might be capable of convincing pretty much anyone of just about anything.
So I left for my big adventure with a suddenly diminished rocket in my pharmaceutical pocket, but managed to protract my inevitable come-down by a couple of months because my adventure began with three weeks in New York (for the ostensible purpose of visiting my brother), which turned into three weeks of self-medicating my way through the penthouse lofts of Greenwich Village and the underground clubs of Hells Kitchen, then kicking up a similar storm in Shoreditch and Soho during a two week visit to London (which was for the ostensible purpose of ‘popping in’ on my darling future employers, some of whom also seemed to also enjoy a good drink). These delaying tactics ensured that when I did eventually have my crash landing, it was again in spectacular fashion, with my now almost bandage-free emotional wounds (into which the tumult of the previous year had really dug its claws) starting to gush out again just after I moved to the Hanseatic City of shipping containers and pedestrianised shopping streets to live with a bunch of unhinged Germans in a house that was literally falling into a canal, studying with a new cohort of corporate psychopaths-in-the-making (very similar to my peers from back home, except more European (less irony, more self-importance) and without the studying-law-to-help-not-harm-the-planet minority that there is in Sydney) in classrooms sponsored by firms like the one that had already claimed my entire post-university existence, and doing my best to stay buoyant by focussing on alcohol-intensive pan-European adventures that were increasingly losing their lustre. The familiar brushstrokes of insomnia and Benzo-induced sleep also began to re-enter the picture.
Realising that the situation was heading in a very concerning direction, but being too scared to tell anyone back in Australia how bad things were, I went to a German psychiatrist who just jacked up my Effexor and injected me then-and-there in her rooms with some sort of tranquiliser which to this day I still cannot identify, sending me on my not-so-merry way with a Xanax prescription. At the end of a particularly black week, I attempted to lift my spirits by attending a gathering at a TV Executive’s penthouse in the docklands to which I was invited by a friend of my cousin (who had politely hooked us up over Facebook when I told her I was feeling a bit blue), a messy affair which happened to take place the night before I had a trip organised to Frankfurt to visit the debonair, gay nephew of my mother’s Polish best friend (who had been expecting me since my arrival in Germany), setting me up for an early morning coach journey during which I learned that combining tri-turbo anti-depressants, sleep deprivation, resurging depression and anxiety, four shots of Café Patron, six shots of Hennesy X.O. and half a bottle of Laurent-Perrier (all of which I was too polite to refuse – especially from zie Germans!), Benzodiazepines and a 12 Euro coach-seat stuck in full-recline position on an old bus spluttering its way at 150 km/h down the A-7 Autobahn is not the best way to fend off a third manic-depressive episode, or prevent as-yet unexperienced psychosis-like symptoms from appearing.
I’m not going to say too much about what happened next because, as my most Kafkaesque nervous breakdown, ‘round three’ formed the basis of a novel I spent a lot of 2014 and some of 2016 trying to write, a novel which is now teetering on the edge of the trash basket on my computer’s hard-drive. But it was in a public German psychiatric clinic exactly half-way between Hamburg and Frankfurt that I was administered with truly Teutonic doses of the anti-psychotic Quetiapine, and my Effexor was bumped up to its former giddy heights. Yet ‘sick’ and debilitated I was, there was absolutely no possibly of my choosing to withdraw from my last semester of law school (and jeopardise the golden job opportunity awaiting me on the other side) so I weaned myself off the Benzos I had been taking to enable my early release from the clinic (with a 5,000 Euro bill), returned to Hamburg, moved out of the disintegrating dump and into a nicely renovated flat in bourgeois Eimsbuttel (shared with a neat-freak gay makeup artist) and ploughed on through the remaining ten weeks of the semester at Bucerius on enough Zombie pills to turn Nicki Minaj into the mom from What’s Been Eating Gilbert Grape? This mode of living actually turned out to be tremendously conducive to my finally becoming the perfect Corporate Law student because I was sapped of all my intellectual curiosity and emotional or aesthetic sensitivity, and sleeping twelve hours a night ruled out socialising, so the only activities I was capable of were studying and going to the gym (and some occasional tutoring over Skype in an attempt to plug the hole in my haemorrhaging bank account). So I ended up not only finishing the programme, but topping three individual subjects (out of my admittedly small international cohort) and returning to Sydney an absolute shell of a human, but looking super-built.
It was then that I recognised that three nervous breakdowns in four years was far too many for a twenty-three year-old, and that I didn’t want to approach the rest of my life constantly on the brink of another. I felt a bit like the ‘victorious’ European powers looking back at World War Two as the dust was settling on the battlefields, and realising that it was essentially a war of their own myopia’s making, a result of their ‘punish the losers then just get on with it’ approach to Versailles, which returned (or strengthened) the same stressors in the minds and hearts of those devastated nations that triggered the first war, causing the still very maligned world political order to collapse twenty-one short years later. I wanted to be like Belgium and France and Luxembourg and Holland in 1957, after taking my time picking up my pieces, and conducting a non-judgmental review of the chain of events that lead up to the madness, sitting down in my own Capitoline Hill and drafting a visionary plan for rebuilding relations both internally and externally, from the ground up, rather than merely just patching them over. I wanted to to establish a lasting peace that wasn’t only stable, but thriving. I wanted my life to have the EU! I didn’t want my life to have, well, whatever Theresa’s little England is going to have. But the Treaty of Rome wasn’t built in a day, so for the first time in my life, I made a truly sensible, holistic and forward-thinking decision in relation to my mental health, which was to open up some space to let my wounds breathe, and time in which to search for some kind of ‘new normal’ in a life that had never really known one, by pushing back the starting date of my two year compulsory period of military training (sorry, I mean “solicitor’s training contract”) at the London law firm, buying myself an entire year for introspection and healing in Sydney.
PART THREE: TRENCHES
And 2014 turned out to be the best, but by no means the easiest, year of my life (so far, that is). It started with a reshuffle of my values away from consumerism, image obsession and social-media-driven social competitiveness (see my first blog post, “social media”, for more details on this particular revelation) towards the values of meaningful, authentic human connection, creativity, self-care and self-expression. Having been released from the soul-sapping shackles of law school, I made the almost unprecedented decision to ‘re-open’ the Bachelor of Arts with which I had combined my law degree, which had been a kind of ‘supplementary’ degree that I had already graduated from two years prior (after completing all the required arts units, receiving the degree certificate in the mail because I didn’t bother to attend the ceremony – actually, I ended up missing all of my three eventual university graduation ceremonies, either because I was overseas or because no one wanted to go with me). Most students doing the combined five year law degree programme who want to finish with Honours in their BA’s (or BSc’s or, for the members of the cohort born completely without any human urge except the desire for money, their B Comm’s), do this by putting the rest of their law degrees ‘on hold’ after the third year (when they would ordinarily graduate from the BA) to do an extra ‘Honours year’ in their chosen major (involving a 15,000 word dissertation) either because they were really passionate about whatever they were combining Law with, or (more commonly) to be rewarded for the blood, sweat and tears of their dissertation with having the letters ‘Hons I’ glimmering from their CV’s when it came time to impress the top tier law firms with their summer clerkship applications. I declined that more conventional ‘pause mid-way’ option when I finished my third year because back then I had viewed my BA as a mere stepping stone on the path to my future illustrious, highly remunerated corporate law career, of which I was in a hurry to commence, and I was fully confident in my ability to secure a clerkship without any impressive letters next to my name, on the strength of my Grade Point Average and dazzling personality. Which is why it didn’t make sense to anyone when after finishing five years of law studies and securing the best graduate position that anyone graduating from Sydney Law School could hope for, I undertook a gratuitous Honours Year in English Literature (I think it’s telling that I ended up choosing the topic of ‘love’ for my dissertation, specifically crafting an indictment of the overly political and practical love practiced in contemporary society and discussed in literary theory, by contrast, exalting the rarefied, ‘philosophically procreant’ kind of real love practiced in the micro-utopias of Plato’s Athens and Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford (as depicted in Symposium and Brideshead Revisited), subtly suggesting that these fruitful (for the world, as well for the boys) Edenic Realms were able to bloom only because there weren’t any chicks around to nag the freewheeling fellas about procreation and other artless and practical things. Understandably my lesbian, feminist, queer theorist marker tried to skewer my masterpiece (to which was appended a bibliography with no less than 114 sources), but I still scraped a First.
While filling the gap before the start of my superfluous sixth year of tertiary studies, I set to work shopping for a new psychiatrist, eventually finding the perfect antidote to my previous two well-intentioned, well-trained prescribing machines. He was relatively young, non-Jewish, gay, trained as a psychoanalyst and operated from the front reception room of this exquisitely appointed terrace in Surry Hills (i.e. not in the Eastern Suburbs or the North Shore). He didn’t have a cat, but there’s no such thing as perfection. After telling this very receptive man the entire ‘medical story’ summarised above (his response being, “you’re a spectacular storyteller!” – I sincerely hope for the sake of my future career plans, or lack thereof, that he was correct), he delivered an opinion that was completely contrary to that which continued to be promulgated from the sidelines by the fist-waving members of my family, that being that my ostensibly self-destructive inkling over the previous years of having been prescribed too much medication had been entirely correct, although my practical follow-through had left much to be desired (but he told me not to be too harsh on myself because of an almost complete lack of proper professional or familial support). He was baffled that psychiatrist after psychiatrist had just pumped me with more and different antidepressants in a way that was just revving up ‘bipolar tendencies’ rather than actually treating underlying emotional triggers and flawed coping mechanisms. But for all his understanding, at the end of the day, he was still a doctor and understandably his top priority was containing, and preventing at all costs the reoccurrence of, a recent bona fide medical emergency, and not actually helping me achieve the richest, most meaningful life of which I was capable. So his solution was to do the previously unthinkable – to take me off the antidepressants everyone else was convinced were the only things keeping me from necking myself, but to keep me on the anti-psychotic Zombie pills and the sensation-numbing mood stabilisers, just in case I got too excited about anything at some point in the future. I wasn’t quite happy with this solution, seeing as how the Zombie pills were preventing me constructing a sentence longer than seven words (thwarting the development of my Kafkaesque novel), so we reached the compromise of gradually coming off both the anti-depressants and anti-psychotics, but staying on the old mood stabiliser Lamotrigine and adding a new mood stabiliser Lithium, just as a precaution to keep me tracking in the same three dimensions as everyone else.
The month I spent dismantling the antidepressant tri-turbocharger that had been gradually structurally embedded into my brain was not only emotionally gruelling, it was physically excruciating – Effexor has one of the harshest withdrawal symptoms of any medication (of any kind) and I would strongly encourage anyone thinking of taking Effexor to consider whether they want to take it for the rest of their lives, and if not, if they’re prepared to go through twenty-eight days of being struck by lightning every half an hour. The two months of withdrawing from the prolonged emergency doses of anti-psychotics was similarly bleak, my nightly sleep dropping from twelve hours to three and then back up to six or seven once my brain had gotten used to life outside an iron straight jacket. It was at this point the Lithium (the original and still ‘psychiatrist’s choice’ mood stabilising treatment for bipolar disorder) that had been prescribed to take the place of the zombie pills started to cause me to have renal failure (a failure for which I am extremely grateful to my clever kidneys) resulting in its being pulled overnight, leaving me unexpectedly only on the lighter-impact Lamotrigine just in time for my twenty-fourth birthday (a Katy Perry-themed extravaganza with lots of cupcakes and pink margaritas). And so after six months of being on the least amount of medication I’d been on since I was a teenager, I found myself in the best psychological shape of my life.
For this I could thank not only a life that was now generally more attuned to my values, but also significant lifestyle changes that included reigning in my nocturnal activities (but still going to the Beresford from time to time), healthy eating and regular exercise, keeping to a regular sleep pattern, having both a degree and job (still ‘freelance tutoring’) which were flexible enough to be moulded around hobbies and activities conducive to positive physical and mental health, and didn’t force me to keep to an unhealthily rigid routine confined to a classroom or office. In addition to a psychiatrist, I started to regularly see a psychologist, who I had first met when I was in the Sydney Clinic, and who was the first out of the many I had come across during my various psychiatric adventures whose knowledge about life and its many foibles I didn’t immediately discount as being inferior to my own. I can’t stress enough how important it is for anyone with any sort of ‘psychiatric condition’ to see a psychologist alongside a psychiatrist, so they can balance a clinical ‘medical opinion’ with the compassionate observations of someone interested in them as a multi-dimensional human and not just a pathological specimen, someone who cares whether their client’s life is happy, and not merely ‘symptom-free’. I think the problem with finding a good psychologist is that it’s far too easy (as opposed to psychiatry) to get a psychology degree and most psychologists are very sweet, gentle, well-meaning women that didn’t really know what to study when they finished school but wanted to ‘help people’, and because they met their equally beige middle-class accountant husbands before graduating and then immediately started pumping out offspring, they didn’t get a chance to gain much life experience and so they don’t have much to offer their significantly more complicated patients much other than what’s in their facile textbooks. And when you’re teetering on the edge of a Nietzschean abyss and some blonde woman is suggesting you try applying lavender oil to your pillows before going to sleep, you just want to tell her to fuck off (or say “that’s a nice suggestion, but I actually sleep on a layer of broken glass under Syd Einfeld Drive, and I don’t think I can afford enough lavender oil to overpower the smell of piss”). But good psychologists can be life-changing, or at least life-enhancing, and are really worth hunting for, and investing in. Mine certainly wasn’t afraid to let me unravel my bandages and bleed a little over her brown chesterfield, and she also taught me how to be my own nurturer (the first one I ever really had), and not just another disciplinarian of my beautiful emotions.
Additionally, following the advice of both of my mental health practitioners, I established strict personal boundaries in respect of the co-dependent, manipulative, trauma-ridden familial relationships that still survived. And lastly, and I can’t overstate the importance of this point, I discovered yoga. I’m not going to add to the superfluity of preachy expositions on the myriad benefits of yoga, other than to say that I found it tremendously helpful in my battle to dislodge the tyranny of my problem-solving over the rest of my being. I used to be a firm sceptic, but it was only when I let go of my ego and belief that I was “too smart and complicated for yoga and meditation and all that mumbo jumbo to help in any way with my very sophisticated problems”, that I realised that though a regular yoga practice wouldn’t necessarily make any of my deep-seeded emotional issues go away, it would provide me with a tool for redirecting all the energy coming from these emotions away from my ‘monkey mind’ and back into my soul and body, allowing me to take a break from the labyrinths and feedback loops of my own mind’s making in which I had been trapped for most of my life, by helping to reconnect to the world of the ‘here and now’. This in turn started to prevent the emotional signals from my intuition being converted by my brain into the indecipherable nervous energy that made up the shroud of anxiety which lifelong efforts to problem-solve rather than diffuse had only left me running around in large circles. The irony for those who live their lives in a purely cerebral way is that the only way to truly ‘fix’ your psychiatric issues is to let them go – to allow the over-trusted, overpowered, overworked brain to surrender control over ‘truth’, and to accept what is beyond the realm of comprehension (something that both my psychologist and string of lovely yogis have been gradually succeeding in teaching a hopeless over-thinker like me to do).
So if I was so firmly on the path to nirvana at 24, how did I end up a complete basket-case at 26? Things began to become a little pear-shaped when the second semester of the Honours year came long and I made the unfortunate realisation that though I had finished my law degree, I still had to complete the practical legal training required to qualify as a lawyer in Australia before leaving to start working as a solicitor in the UK, so I decided to pick up a second concurrent full-time tertiary study load by doing the fast-track College of Law PLT course while doing English Honours, on top of the 30+ hours each week I tutored to pay for my still-too-expensive flat (which was now in Darlinghurst, after I got bored of Rushcutters Bay). The pressure-filled six months this created (which also included delightful familial encounters such as the time my mother stood outside my twelve-story apartment building yelling a mixture of threats and bribes until I let her in, at which point I had to hide in my bathroom until she stopped yelling me, with neither of us now being able to remember what she was yelling at me about) came closest to full meltdown in October, when I had the due date of my dissertation, my final College of Law exams and my fifteen precious darling HSC students’ final exams all inside the same pressure-cooker fortnight. If you’re wondering how a person fits three full time occupations into a single existence, each day I spent about six hours tutoring, six hours on College of Law study, and at least eight hours on my dissertation, leaving two to four hours for something sort of like sleep. When it was all over, I was still in one piece (looking fabulous actually, darling), I had passed all my qualification exams, most of my students had gotten marks in the high 90s, I had a First Class Honours degree to add to the feathers in my cap, and had inadvertently sent myself into a zone that must have been pretty close to hypomanic, this time without any antidepressant assistance (or any other chemical assistance other than a steady flow of ciggies and espresso). And it was in this state, when I was about to leave for a fourth month, last hurrah, more extravagant-than-ever round the world escapade, that I went to my (perhaps my slightly too trusting?) psychiatrist and said, “doc, I know the timing is not ideal, but I’m moving to London next year so it’s now or never. Besides, I’ve never felt better! What’s there to worry about? So I’m coming off the stabilisers, okay? Sorry, what I meant to say was, would you please let me taper off my stabilisers, my lovely physician?”
I could have easily had a nervous breakdown in any one of the fourteen countries I visited on that (mostly solo) trip, which included such far-flung, potentially nervous-breakdown inducing destinations as Cambodia and Colombia, but I never stayed in any of them (or stopped drinking) long enough to listen to myself. And then when I came back to Sydney, it was for a chaotic two weeks of bag packing, attending my Solicitor’s Admission Ceremony (with a family member actually joining me!) and saying my goodbyes for what I thought (hoped) was forever. So the first place I stayed long enough after withdrawing from medication for the anvil of emotion that had chased me literally around the world to land was London, a city in which I was settled in all of two days before the start of the training contract at my ‘magic circle’ law firm, a training contract which commenced with a ‘seat’ in Mergers and Acquisitions working literally under the nose of the partner who holds the record for the highest number of billable hours in a year recorded by a lawyer at a firm of over two thousand lawyers.
I’m not going to give too many factual details about Nervous Breakdown Number Four, which transpired in March 2015 in London, UK or Nervous Breakdown Number Five, which transpired in December 2016 in Luang Prabang, Laos, partially because what was originally meant to be a blog post on medication is now longer than my university dissertation, and partly because those two occasions and the giant string of ridiculous events that took place between them (which because of the lack of any intervening period of calm or recovery are better viewed as one protracted nervous breakdown) constitute material which I am already using as VAGUE AND INDIRECT inspiration for the STRICTLY FICTIONAL AND IN NO LEGALLY RELEVANT WAY FACTUAL novel that I am currently writing (the first draft of which looks like it will be twenty times the length of this piece, which I suppose we should start calling a novella given it has expanded well beyond the word limit of a blog post or a feature article). But this ‘novella’ would be incomplete without a pharmaceutically-focussed synopsis of London 2015-2016, so here it is:
After eleven consecutive days of sleeplessness (only one of which was actually caused by my benevolent principal not allowing me to leave the office because I was needed to proofread last-minute changes to the transaction documents of the billion-pound deal that only closed 4pm the day after its ‘execution date’) in the serviced flat in which I had been put up (which itself looked across a narrow London City lane directly into the offices of a rival law firm, at least 20% of the lawyers of which were working through the nights which I wasn’t, the light from their offices blearing through the cheap blinds on my full-length bedroom windows), I found myself grasping onto my last slim threads of my sanity, and after doing some Googling, I found myself at the reception desk of a Central London NHS clinic with a week-long waiting list for appointments, begging for someone to write me a script for Xanax and Lamotrigine. The most solid East-End lass you’ve ever met agreed to see me and wrote the scripts, and made a space for me as her last patient every Tuesday thereafter at 8.30pm just “because I’m worried about you, love”, letting me pour my heart for as long as I wanted (which was not very long, because I was anxious to get back from my work ‘dinner break’). God save the NHS!
But then, after the three darkest months of my life (which considering the nature of the years that preceded it, I think says something), most of which was spent in the Panopticon-like prison of my shared office, the sun came out on a crisp May morning in London Fields (where the wildflowers were already in bloom when I moved there after losing the City flat) to illuminate the true nature of the events of that bitterly cold March. It became abundantly clear that what that year’s ‘breakdown’ had signified was the throbbing intuitive organ buried inside of me, which had either been neglected, medically straightjacketed or downright abused for most my life, had suddenly found itself an open stage and an uncovered microphone, and sensing the immense danger that lay ahead, in one final attempt to make itself heard, yelled with all its might. And because I hadn’t ever learned to listen to my intuition even when it was speaking at a normal volume, now that it was screaming like a raving lunatic, all I had been able to make out at the time had been:
▄︻̷̿┻̿═━一 ▄︻̷̿┻̿═━一 ☠☠☠☠☠☠☠☠
And because most of my life I had been conditioned to believe that any overly-emotional or ‘self-sabotaging’ behaviour I had ever exhibited was attributable to a horrible, incurable mental illness (whether that be homosexuality or ‘bipolar disorder’), I of course got completely freaked out at this sudden, 24/7 internal screaming. I never stopped to consider whether something was actually wrong outside of my head. As far I was concerned, a lifelong, incurable disease had just ‘flared up’ again. And I had taken what I thought was the sensible, responsible course of action, which was to not tell anyone, keep calm, and seek medical attention. I didn’t miss a single day of work despite my ‘utilisation’ continuing to exceed 120% for my first couple of months (I don’t know if any non-lawyers will understand how horrific a figure that is – 120% utilisation means 12 hours billed per day, which means about 15-16 hours spent at work each day – on average). I was too scared (and too busy) to tell anyone in Australia about my relapse, which fortunately meant that there wasn’t an opportunity for my family to corroborate my self-diagnosis, and panic me further, and tell me how I had to immediately return home to go straight into a psychiatric clinic. Although it was horrendously lonely, just sitting in that office dealing with all of this on my own gave my slow-on-the-uptake rational mind the time it needed in the corporate trenches (where though over 100% of my time was required, only about 7% of intellectual capacity was needed for the work I was actually doing) to work out that I hadn’t been ill at all (or at least not before I made myself so by pummelling my intuition into submission). It took all that time for my supposedly terrifically clever brain to work out what it had taken my intuition only a matter of hours, and to properly decipher the message that nearly got mistranslated as a command to commit a tragic and irreversible act, a message that actually was saying:
GET OUT! GET OUT NOW! GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN! GO! GO NOW! DO NOT PASS ‘GO’, DO NOT COLLECT TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS (OR £40k)! JUST GET OUT OF HERE! THIS IS NOT A GOOD PLACE! THIS IS AZKABAN! LOOK AT THESE PEOPLE!!! THEY ARE DEATH EATERS!! THIS IS YOUR SOUL SPEAKING AND I DO NOT WANT TO BE EATEN!! What are you doing there on the edge of that bed? Do you think you’re some sort of Moses Marcus Aurellius? What are those – deep breathing exercise? Do you think you’ve become immune to anxiety-triggered insomnia just because you’ve been doing yoga for a year? FUCK YOGA – JUST LISTEN TO ME!!! I KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON HERE, WHEREAS YOU NEVER HAVE AND CLEARLY NEVER WILL! I’ve been trying to keep you away from this place anyway I could for the past five years, but now that you’ve finally stuck your nose right up to the abyss, I’m just going to have to bring out every piece of heavy artillery at my disposal to stop you falling in. I’M NOT GOING TO LET YOU SLEEP! NO SLEEP, NEVER!! NO WAY, JOSE! You can sleep as much as you want once you are the hell away from this giant corporate incinerator that will swallow you up into its squalid belly and spit you out as another contract laying machine like the rows of suited battery hens rotting in their glass cages just outside your bedroom window! Just go take another look if you need proof. See what I mean? LOOK AT THEM!! Look at that forty year-old hag in a crinkled Marks and Spencer blazer almost collapsing onto her keyboard. Do you know how old she actually is? TWENTY-SEVEN!!! She was probably also a starry-eyed hot shot from somewhere nice and sunny like Sydney when she arrived at the ‘magic circle’ three years ago. And just look at her now! THAT’S MAGIC FOR YOU!!!! Do you want to be that hag in three years? NO! THE ANSWER IS NO! NO!!!!!! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, CHOOSE LIFE! ACTUAL LIFE, NOT TRAINSPOTTING-IRONIC-LIFE! Just pack your things, leave the key under the mat, take the lift down to Ground, tip the nice door-man, get in a cab and L-E-A-V-E!!!!!!
Or something along those lines (wait for the novel for a longer, more eloquent description, without the J.K. Rowling or Danny Boyle allusions – there will only be middle to highbrow literary allusions in the novel). But somehow even once I had decoded this exceptionally clear, direct message from my gut, I managed to rationalise myself out of listening to it. I made a long list of reasons for staying at the job even though I knew it was making me miserable, the least romantic of which was that I would have owed the firm a whole heap of money from all the strings-attached sweeteners they had offered when they still thought they needed to woe me over from paradise (sweeteners which soon after being greedily gulped down left a too-good-to-be-true, sick-to-my-stomach feeling that now makes complete sense). Other reasons for staying included ‘not wanting to be a quitter’, not quite being ready to walk away from such a once-in-a-lifetime (please God, let it have just been once!!) opportunity, and desperately not wanting to go back to Australia for reasons that only became clear when I was eventually forced to return. Despite having felt like I was lucky to have got through those three months in London alive, Australia still seemed like an even greater hell and one that I had only just escaped from. So I conjured up an extremely fanciful plan, one borne out of sheer desperation and perhaps fuelled by the close-to-hypomanic state in which I may or may not have been at the time (who will ever know?) The plan was to keep participating in the Hunger Games of the City of London, but to start making everyone else play according to my own rules. And I’d do this by reconstructing the remainder of my Training Contract as being a ‘field research mission’ (from which I could walk away at any time) for the revolutionary novel I was going to write at the end, one which was going to be so inspiring and widely read that it was going to turn the sordid, sequestered world of corporate law inside out. I thus reimagined the experience through which I was only an eighth of the way from being an introduction to a lifelong career in which I was inevitably going to die at my desk, to being a thrilling escapade of espionage, and a noble sacrifice of a small chunk of my precious youth for the sake of the betterment of humankind.
An essential part of this fantasy was that following my two years of undercover field research, I was going to spend another two years writing in the tropical paradise of Laos, resuming the previous year’s hard work (any progress now being entirely undone by the intervening mayhem) of untying all the emotional and spiritual knots inside me and working out who the fuck I actually was. Why Laos of all places? I suppose in my head it seemed like the closest place to being the exact opposite of both London and Sydney (even being roughly halfway between the two physically), and it was during a fortnight trip to Laos before London (part of my last-gasp ‘world tour’) that I had most recently felt like life was, incontrovertibly, worth living. Don’t make fun of me – writing a novel in Laos was a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel that I had to manufacture for myself in a moment of desperation when I just couldn’t see any. And the light had to be extra artificially bright to get me through a particularly dark and long tunnel. But it worked. Undercover corporate misery proved to be much more endurable than authentic corporate misery. It even became fun. Not the work – there is nothing fun about corporate law when you take it seriously. But there’s plenty of fun to be had around the edges of such a life, once you know where to look.
To cut a very long story (of which very soon you will have a chance to read a strictly fictional, only inspired-by-true-events version) short, the fun started coming to an end when I left London (walking away after eighteen months when my research ledger had become not only full but overflowing, at a point when the firm was more than happy to cut me loose, my ‘medical situation’ having been brought to light), after selling my worldly possessions to get a few pounds back into my almost cleared-out account, embarking on a completely unnecessary ‘farewell tour’ of some of my favourite European destinations (from my fortnightly weekender breaks from ‘field research’), and boarding a one-way Frequent-Flyer funded BA flight (after a blowout East London send-off) to Luang Prabang (actually, to Bangkok, for an equally unnecessary ‘wind-down’ week of drinking at hotels, and then to Luang Probang) to commence a two year metamorphosis into an ascetic ball of spiritual light and the writing of my memoirs (I mean, FICTIONAL novel). It was only when I touched down in the Kingdom of a Million Elephants that I decided that my research mission was over and real life could begin again (or for the first time, really). And of course, real life beginning again meant withdrawing from the medication that had been supposedly ‘holding me together’ (or holding me under) for the previous 18 months, the stabiliser Lamotrigine. But I wasn’t concerned about coming off the medication in the slightest, even though I could remember how badly withdrawing from medication had gone previous times. This time was different! All I had previously been doing wrong was not listening to my intuition, and now I was doing just that, so what did I have to fear? Besides, what did I have to fear about anything, really? I was liberated, I was free! I had created my own Ten Plagues and delivered myself from bondage in Egypt. I had, just four days after arriving in Laos (and after not having ran more than 10 km since I moved to London), run the Luang Prabang Half-Marathon (that’s 21km, in case you didn’t know) in under two hours, after starting at 5.30 in the morning after having had two Beer Lao longnecks and half a pack of Qionghua ciggies the night before. I could do anything! What did I need medication for?
You may be suspecting that this particular psychiatric tale will end in another spectacular trainwreck. But actually, it didn’t. I stayed in Luang Prabang for three months and made somewhat of a success, albeit a short-lived one, of my knee-jerk, misguided decision to move to the end of the earth (unlike the success that Theresa May promised to make of Brexit). I was for a short time the talk of the town and made myself enough expat and Lao ‘Hi So’ (High Society) friends that a crowd of twenty showed up to the housewarming that I threw for the dilapidated (but by Lao standards opulent) house I managed to rent for myself on the outskirts of town (with even the fact of my renting a house being somewhat of a miraculous feat given the nature of the ‘real estate market’ in a country that until the 1990s was completely closed off to foreigners, and which is still ranked 123 (out of 175) on the World Corruption Index). I was sort-of trying to do the right things with respect to my mental health – eating healthily and drinking (a bit) less, doing yoga now and then (made more difficult by buggering up my alignment by completing a half-marathon without any training), hiking, going on boat trips etc. I was even writing (although it’s all in the trash now).
But despite all that, just as I finished weening myself off the Lamotrigine, nightmares started to return. I was prepared for nightmares about law firms. In fact, I was relying on nightmares about law firms for material! But the nightmares that were starting to keep me awake in an otherwise sleepy-as-can-be village weren’t the nightmares of a corporate lawyer. They were the nightmares of a lost little boy. They were nightmares of being rejected by my father and abandoned by my mother and growing old alone, diseased and shunned. But I persevered through increasingly hollow days in the sun. I was staying afloat, with some help from my new (but themselves somewhat adrift) friends. That was at least until the morning that one of the principal objects of my nightmares showed up in full physical form on my doorstep. From then, sleep no more did I. And it wasn’t Macbeth that had murdered sleep this time. It was most certainly a lady.
After bringing in 2017 with 72 hours of undifferentiated day and night, I could no longer hide the darkness from my mother, when she found me silent and motionless, in the foetal position, having collapsed while trying to pack for the holiday we were meant to take together in Vietnam. And then, eleven years after the warm hand holding a blue pill was first held out to me, I once again found myself accepting a pharmaceutical form of parenting (this time Valium purchased from a Lao supermarket) because it was still the only form that was being offered. And after a consistently-medicated eleven day non-refundable trip-for-two from Hanoi to Saigon (a trip which, in her defence, I never explicitly objected to completing, nor did I give her an inkling of the thoughts that were tumbling through my collapsing mind), I was taken back to Sydney to ‘recover’. But unlike my companion, I had kept my cool almost the entire time, only blowing my lid in rather spectacular fashion once we had arrived in Sydney Airport, and then cooling down after two days of staying with my aunt. No hospitals were involved. Neither were any anti-Psychotics. I managed to wean myself off of the Laotian Valium six weeks after I returned home, but did carry on, for a time, with the stabiliser Lamotrigine I had returned to taking the day that mum had come to visit.
PART FOUR: ZION
When I returned, I felt defeated, humiliated, hopeless. I felt like the smallest human being on the planet. I was ready to abandon every one of my hard fought epiphanies I thought I’d reached about myself and the world and to succumb to conventional wisdom. I was ready to move back in with my mother, for a time. I was ready to live in Sydney again. I was ready to go work for the first corporate law firm that would be silly enough to hire me, and keep my head down and never say a word and hope no one would ever suspect that I was too good-looking and well dressed to be a lawyer. I was ready even to jump straight back into the closet, lock the door and eat the key, and go find myself an unsuspecting nice Jewish girl to marry and start providing for (and even have sex with, if she felt it was absolutely necessary). And I was ready to bring back out my ‘bipolar disorder’ hat and wear it to the grocery store and wear it to Shabbat dinners and let them put plastic bibs on me and give me as much medication as I needed to survive this life of absolute safety and sterility until the day I completely faded away.
I was really that down and out. I was so very, very terrified of the place in my mind I had visited now for the fifth time in just twenty-six of what I hoped would be many, many years. I wanted to do everything in my power to never ever go back there again. And I was being encouraged all around to just “be safe” . But, fortunately or otherwise, though I inherited the raw intelligence (and love of cars) of a certain member of my immediate family, I did not inherit his overweening survival skills, so what did I do a couple of months after I first made my resolution to never try anything again? I went and bloody well changed my mind. And that included my resolution to keep taking medication forever. So I decided to come off Lamotrigine again, even while I was arguably still clinically depressed, even though I had no idea what I was going to do with my life after that.
And that actually turned out to be an exceptionally astute decision. It was a decision I made with the consent of both my psychiatrist and psychologist, both of whom kindly jumped back on the case as soon as I returned from Sydney. I decided to take this course of action as soon as I was over freaking out about the mere fact that ‘I’d had another nervous breakdown’ and realised that all Luang Prabang 2016 had been was that the intuition I still hadn’t learned to listen to had once again resorted to hysterical screaming after its attempts to speak nicely had failed. And the screaming, properly translated, would have said:
Is this what you call listening to your intuition? I’m pretty sure when we last had a chat like this in Lamb’s Passage, I didn’t say “there’s no real hurry to get out of this place, so please put me into an indefinite coma, then make up a bunch of convoluted reasons to stay in your soul-destroying job for 18 more months until it almost kills you again, and then move by yourself to a third-world Communist country….and then wake me up and we’ll talk”. And I’m also pretty sure that when you stopped taking those intuition-silencing pills in November and I found myself being able speak again, the messages I began to send weren’t, “wow, you’ve done such a great job without me. Laos was a really great idea. It was such a great idea that I think you should not only rent a dilapidated house on the river, surrounded by sinister Lao villagers, but agree to pay the entire lease’s rent upfront with the last scraps of your savings”. I can’t be entirely certain, but I’m pretty sure that’s NOT what I said.
Wait a second….wait….what’s that strange accent I hear? Is that woman speaking English or Afrikaans? That’s not…? Oh my God, it is. It’s her. You invited her, here? You invited a woman who is too scared to drive over 40 km/h or stand on her own balcony on the sixth floor of an apartment building to visit you in one of the most lawless countries in the world? And offered to take her on a tour of Vietnam? It’s just the two of you going? Jesus. Christ. I’m not even going to waste my breath. I’m just going to start repeatedly smacking you over in the face until you somehow get us out of this.
Good fucking luck, mate.
Aside from managing to decode that message, with all the time I had on my jobless hands in Sydney, I was able to do the required detective work to work out all the mistakes I had unwittingly made while withdrawing from Lamotrigine in Laos (of course beating myself up about every single one, at least initially). The first was withdrawing from a mood stabilising medication while I was on an emotional ‘high’, which meant that because of my overly optimistic state of mind, I withdrew too quickly and carelessly (not thinking about the inevitable changes in the way I felt within my own skin, and how I’d engage with the world), and I had no strategies in place for the inevitable turbulence that would result from the transition to my new existence. The second was that I had fooled myself into thinking that by fleeing to Laos, I was embracing free-spiritedness, whereas in reality there was not enough flexibility in my life for the changes that would be required once I was able to process the correct instructions from my intuition. This was because I was convinced that despite the ‘ambitious’ nature of my Laos plans, returning to either London or Sydney was just ‘not an option’ (for reasons as silly as promising not to return to London until I had a publishable manuscript, or as serious as fear of returning to the city-sized scene of my haunted childhood in Sydney). I was also already drinking pretty constantly (there isn’t much else to do in the evenings in Laos), so I wasn’t aware of my own transition from medication to self-medication. But the biggest mistake I made was, well, Laos itself – a country without any real health infrastructure (or any infrastructure), a country where I didn’t have any support network because my friends although lovely were very new (and somewhat problematic) and a country where the legality of my fully-paid lease and even my migration status was….questionable (correction, would have become questionable – I ended up evacuating just before the tourist visa expired).
During my weeks of lethargy in Sydney, I was also able to research more carefully the physiological consequences of withdrawing from the specific medication that I had been taking, research I had never done before because I always thought delving into the pharmacology of my medications would just give me even more reasons to be afraid of life, and I trusted my doctors. Regardless of whether Lamotrigine had actually provided me any sort of therapeutic benefit (which I might never know, given the sheer range and force of other variables to which my poor little brain has been consistently subjected), it was the drug that I’d been taking the longest (seven years), and stopping it (no matter how carefully) was undoubtedly going to disrupt my brain chemistry. Though approved in 2003 for secondary usage in bipolar disorder, Lamotrigine is not a ‘classic’ mood stabiliser like Lithium. It is actually an anticonvulsant, first developed by GlaxoSmithKline in 1994 to treat Epilepsy. So it is designed for, and is potent enough to, stop chronic and debilitating seizures caused by hyper synchronous firing of neurons. It works as a sodium channel blocker, which means it impedes the operation of sodium channels, the electric pathways in your brain through which operational messages required to perform any action of which your body is capable are sent. So effectively, Lamotrigine’s mood stabilising qualities derive from the fact that it ‘cools down’ all of your neurotransmitters, preventing your brain from ever getting ‘fired up’ enough to put together an extreme mood or an extreme thought. It follows that it has potent analgesic properties, which means it blunts your ability to feel pain (and believe me, that includes emotional pain). So my research concluded that for 2,500 days, I had been numbing my brain with an anticonvulsant with the power to prevent all the severe seizures that I had never even had to begin with, forcing my neurotransmitters to fire up much harder than they would otherwise to compensate for the introduced neurological freeze (especially when I was demanding those neurotransmitters continue to stay up all night getting me those last-minute HDs!) So I realised I would need to tread extremely carefully when coming off Lamotrigine, not just because of how withdrawing from mood-altering medication would affect my emotional experience of the world, but because I was divorcing myself from an imprecise and powerful instrument that been steadily altering the functioning of my entire brain in ways I hadn’t previously imagined.
This information gave me the insight I lacked on every previous withdrawal attempt, and so this time during the tapering-off, I decided to give my long overworked and caged-up neurotransmitters the time they needed to adjust to being happy, easy-breathing ‘free range’ neurotransmitters. This wasn’t just by avoiding spinning them into hyperdrive by using a carefully curated aspirational Spotify playlist to stimulate my brain into animating my beer-bellied body through a half-marathon. When I began tapering off Lamotrigine 53 days ago, all the conditions that had sabotaged my failed withdrawal attempt in Laos had reversed. I was no longer riding a high. I was broke and almost possession-less. The grandiose aspirations of an artistic life which had been pulling me through the corporate hell of the previous two years had failed spectacularly. I had two degrees and qualifications to practice law in two legal jurisdictions that I never wanted to use again, and I even if I wanted to, I didn’t think any law firm would hire me. I was a single 26 year-old gay adult man living in his mother’s spare room (correction, sleeping in his mother’s bedroom while his mother slept on the couch until I managed to clear out enough junk from the spareroom and buy myself a gumtree mattress). There was nowhere further down to go.
I was also now back in the developed world, in a country in which I had every legal right to remain (and receive top-notch free (or almost free) healthcare) as long as I wanted, and I was being supervised by two highly skilled mental health practitioners, both of whom endorsed my decision to withdraw from Lamotrigine (my psychiatrist’s response being “why would I object? I didn’t put you on Lamotrigine in the first place. That was the crook from the Bloody Devil of an Institute you paid $500 to see you for thirty minutes in 2009. I don’t think Lamotrigine even does anything for people like you except occasionally give them deathly rashes. I wanted you on Lithium but you had philosophically obstinate kidneys.”) Additionally, for the first time in my life I had absolutely no plans, commitments or expectations placed upon me. There were no leases, no three concurrent full-time loads, no billable targets, no students, no (significant) credit card debts. Just time to think, and more importantly, room to feel. And all the pressure I had previously felt to continue running from my past, which had driven me to the point of complete exhaustion in an obscure landlocked country, and to continually hack with a little axe at the roots of my family that kept crawling back around my legs, had finally been removed by my family and past tracking me down and bringing me back home in a tied-up sack to face reality. After avoiding my complex feelings for the person whom I both loved and feared most in the world for nearly two years, the sound of her singing to the John Legend song playing through her Beats while she rode her exercise bicycle at its lowest resistance setting was now the first thing I heard when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I heard in the evening before I went to sleep was the sound of her water-flosser irrigating the last pieces of chicken soup (the same soup as every night) from between her incisors. Circumstances had made acceptance, rather than avoidance, the only practical path forward – and that was a skill that I was having to learn with unprecedented speed.
And because my memories of how badly a mismanaged withdrawal process could go were still so fresh, I was extra careful to monitor the lifestyle factors that were within my power. I hadn’t touched a sip of alcohol in 63 days (since the arrival of my mother in Laos) and that state of abstinence would continue through the 35 days of tapering and for 60 days thereafter (128 days of not drinking – I’m now on day 106). I was going to bed as to close to 11 and waking up as close to 7 as possible every day. I was meditating every morning for 15 minutes and doing an hour of exercise in the afternoon (3 days yoga / 2 days free-weights / 2 days pilates). I was being extremely mindful about what my brain was doing as the dosage was dropping (I could actually feel my brain during meditation, in the same way you might feel your stomach after a bad curry, doing weird vibrating things like an over-active CPU). I tried to use the mindfulness techniques I had picked up to identify what was happening to my brain, and avoid emotionalising or intellectualising a bodily readjustment (“listen you crazy rapid firing neurons, what you’re doing is making me feel a bit uncomfortable, but I’m not going to get scared or angry or sad or add fuel to the fire by getting nervous about all this nervousness – I know you’ve been in handcuffs for a long time and just want to have a bit of a run-around, so I’m going to let you do that, knowing you’ll eventually tire yourselves out and settle down”). I was also sure to tread carefully around others (especially the female person on the other side of the wall) and avoid making any big decisions (or putting pressure on myself to find any of life’s ‘big answers’) until my internal see-saw was back at horizontal, keeping a mood and sleep diary to help me work out when that point had arrived.
It has now been twenty days since the last milligrams of psychiatric medication passed through my lips, after an eleven-year rollercoaster. I’d love to finish that sentence with “and I’m just fine”. Except I’m not exactly “fine”. That’s not to say that I’m “ill” either. The first distinct emotions that began to make themselves felt again as the grey membrane of medical numbness began to dissipate were not pleasant emotions. They were fear, betrayal, abandonment, loneliness, humiliation, disappointment, disillusionment, shame, envy, insecurity, rejection. And feeling all these distinct emotions again, especially all at once, really fucking hurt. But it was so much better being able to feel emotions (even if it meant having to get up and walk out of public libraries mid-sentence to find a nearby park-bench on which to collapse and burst into tears for ten minutes, worrying that someone might steal my laptop, but worrying more about returning to the ‘quiet room’ and disintegrating again) rather than losing the emotions in a shroud of vague undifferentiated anxiety, a shroud that left no other option than to intellectualise the pervasive general feeling that life was awful and always would be. But the painful stage was just the first of many. Soon I began to feel a full range of emotions again, including gratitude, connection, joy, excitement, curiosity, love, hope. And my capacity for thought also began to expand (which has its pros as well as its cons). As you’ve now had the misfortune to witness, my weekly blog-producing capacity increased from 2,000 words five weeks ago to 23,000 words this week. There were some other unexpected surprises, like being able to hear every individual instrument in Schubert’s Ninth Symphony again, or going for walks along the clifftops and seeing the individual outlines of the waves crashing onto each other (instead of just an infinite, swirling, murky tumult), and beholding in this dance of gravity both the generosity and fury of Nature. Actually, sight in general has become a far less encumbered experience, because the double-vision that was previously preventing me holding a visual lock on an object for more than a fraction of a second (a side effect of Lamotrigine caused by its tendency to bind to melanin-containing tissues like the iris of the eye) is gradually reducing. At this point I’d like to mention that throughout the course of my adult life, I have had not a single serious physical health issue that has not been a side effect of a psychotropic medication. But from the medications I’ve been forced / encouraged to take, I’ve developed hearing issues, renal failure, acne, hair loss, erectile dysfunction, obesity (maybe that’s a slight exaggeration), insomnia, somnolescence, migraines and bruxism. I’m very happy to say that I no longer have any of those – everything is once again coming up Roses.
What I can’t say for certain is that I will never have any sort of psychiatric disturbance again, nor that there will never again be some sort of emergency that will require appropriate short-term stabilisation through medication. I’m aware that by not permanently taking preventative medications, I am giving up my right to the feeling of complete safety and security that comes with having safety ropes inside your mind around its dark corners. I know that I am a creature of bipolarity, and that my extremes of emotion are capable of producing turbocharged thoughts that are more powerful, and dangerous, than those of most people, and that my extreme capacity for thinking is capable of distorting and mixing my emotions into self-perpetuating, unreal monsters. I know that these spirals of hyper-thought and emotion can trap me in a world of my own mind’s creation. But my solution to this is to learn how to nurture, and heed, my emotions before they mutiny in desperation once again into pervasive states of depression or hypomania, rather than kill them off before they’ve had a chance even to be felt. I will continue in my struggle to retake the dominion of my ‘problem solving mind’ away from the relations between my heart, body and mind. I am determined to find a more balanced, authentic mode of engaging with my self and the world than the purely cerebral and egocentric (and clearly faulty!) mode I’ve deployed thus far. For this to happen, I know that I’m going to need more time for the cracks in my heart to heal. I know that there is still a great deal of suppressed pain to be felt, pain that I will not be able to ‘solve’. But I’m ready to feel hurt, because without this hurt, there cannot be any growth. I know there is not going to be any smooth sailing, at least for a while. Christ – I’ve never ever been in love with a person that exists outside the pages of a book, and I can only imagine how it’s going to feel the first time a man I love (who is not my father) breaks my heart. But I’m ready for that. I’m ready for emotional breakdowns. But I’m determined that when they arrive, to experience them with my heart, and not to medicate or intellectualise them into something that needs to be treated in a psychiatric ward. No more nervous breakdowns.
Perhaps you’re wondering what possessed me (mania?…I wondered that too) to write such a detailed and shameless account of something as usually closely guarded as a psychiatric patient’s history of medication. The raw emotional energy driving this very rapidly exuded confession actually stemmed from a single incident a month ago. With much trepidation and hesitation, I had taken what I thought was a sensible and respectful course of action in informing my mother that I was coming off my medication, requesting that she take it easy on me during what I knew would be an inevitably tender readjustment phase. She wasn’t happy. I tried to calmly (and succinctly) explain to her my reasons for withdrawing but I was met with “I can’t listen to this again, I have to work tomorrow”. I did not hear anything more on the subject until 11.37 on a Thursday evening a fortnight later, when I was peacefully sunken into the couch reading a new Jonathan Safran Foer novel that I was not enjoying as much as I had hoped to. I heard a creak and looked up. In the doorway of my mother’s still darkened bedroom appeared a large shape cloaked in a pink fluffy nightgown, with bolts of strawberry blonde hair extending in every direction from its round head. I dropped Mr Foer on the coffee table in the middle of a monologue that was becoming cloying. Without warning, a noise boomed from the shape in the doorway:
“it is not acceptable to me that you are coming off your medication!”
I gasped, but before I could respond the shape had disappeared and the door was closed. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep, and by the morning the atomic explosion that been triggered near the top of my left temple had set an electrifying charge down every channel of memory in my mind. I opened my laptop and frantically began to type (…she’s had twenty-six years to listen, now she’s going to hear it at the same time as all of my Facebook friends). If there was any doubt in my mind about finishing the post, it vanished the next day when I returned from a job interview (a corporate job for which I only interviewed in a bid to regain my financial independence) and descended into tears (shed not from being rejected for the job – they called me within an hour of the interview to tell me it was mine – but because the interview room had brought back all the memories of just how much I hated being a lawyer) and my mother responded with “please don’t cry, just think about something else!” The post, now novella, just had to be written (and I wonder how many other huffy and overwrought works of literature were written by sulking sons lashing out at unreceptive mothers – I believe I now know how Hamlet happened).
I do love my mother very much. I wouldn’t swap her for anyone else’s (I’m not just saying that to avoid next week’s post requiring the topic of “homelessness” – you should have witnessed the scene we both caused in Heathrow Terminal 5 when she departed after visiting me fifteen months into my ‘field research’). I know it’s not possible for a person to love another human being any more than she loves me, and I wouldn’t trade that feeling for a million (or a billion!) dollars. I know that everything she did for me growing up she thought was for the best, and now I can understand how she could have thought that. If I had spent most of my adult life caring for a ‘sick’ husband and then one day the only good thing (sorry, the younger of the two good things) to come out of the marriage started mumbling about suicide, I’d also freak the hell out and take him straight to the doctor and start pushing pills on him. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the word ‘hell’ kinda sums up the world of my own mind’s creation in which I’ve been living while my mother has been asleep on the other side of the wall with the apparent knowledge of having done the ‘right thing’ by her son.
If my mother inspired the writing, then my inspiration to actually post, and so completely expose myself to a potentially limitless readership, came when I bumped into an acquaintance on the street, who caught me up on the ‘goings on’ over the past two years in our moneyed, insular, watery corner of the world. This included informing me of the death of an intelligent, beautiful teenage private school girl from an eating disorder and other mental health-related struggles. After my interlocutor left, I broke down on the spot, right on Queen Street (if you’re driving around the East this weekend, and see a six-foot emotional mess on a street corner, please don’t throw tomatoes!) I didn’t break down from the news itself (I didn’t actually know the girl but knew her absolutely darling family, who I’m sure did their absolute best for her) but from the perfectly respectable but very “did you hear?” and “how tragic” tone in which the ‘news’ was delivered. The messenger, who knew me from my tutoring days, clearly had no idea how close to home that story would hit, and obviously thought from my fancy degrees and fancy flats and fancy jobs that I was Mister Happy Successful Harmless Nonjudgmental Gay Man. Which had of course been the impression I was trying to cultivate at the time (especially through my constantly exuberant social media presence), but now it was a cover-up that really bothered me. I felt like telling this well-meaning person ….well, I felt like telling her all of what you’ve now read. And I felt like stamping my foot on the ground and twisting it so as to somehow rewind the clock a year to when the girl was still alive, and I felt like telling it all to that girl as well. I wondered whether she had felt as extraordinarily alone with what she had to deal with as I did, in a society in which the ‘mentally disturbed’ are stigmatised and quarantined because all the normal (or just ‘functionally repressed’) people think emotionality is infectious, when what these ‘sick people’ need most is love, empathy and acceptance. Or just a hug. I wanted to give that girl a hug. I wanted to give myself a hug.
I know that during my little tantrum, I was just being oversensitive and projecting my own experience onto that girl’s, and that every person’s experience of life is unique, and that every family’s circumstances are different (cue Tolstoy quote), and that every family has a right to privacy, a right which I do understand I have now foregone on behalf of my own family. I do apologise to my mother, brother and father for having done this, but I just don’t feel that not publishing this piece is an option if there is even the slightest chance of it reaching someone who feels like they are suffering alone, and might feel less alone after reading it. And more than that, I feel like I have to publish because it’s almost a complete accident that I managed to stumble out of my medical straight-jacket and into a moment of clarity and calm long enough to put any of these long-churning thoughts together, and now I just want to launch them through a cannon and across the universe on behalf of all of those who won’t have that opportunity because their circumstances aren’t as forgiving, or their truth-seeking natures aren’t as resilient. I’m extremely lucky to live in a world where it’s sort-of socially acceptable for me to be gay and professionally obscure, otherwise I’d still be trying to medically silence my screwed-upness and (believing that I didn’t have any other choice), getting ready to bring children into an inevitably screwed-up marriage, then nervously waiting for them to display their own screwed-upness, and then taking them to the same ‘doctor’ who’d done such a good job with me (and he’d try make the child feel better by telling him he had just has ‘inherited an incurable medical condition from his brilliant father’), so that the doctor could give the child something to stop him running away from a home so completely lacking in a foundation of love that you couldn’t even call it broken.
It’s not an accident – it’s a miracle that my intuitive love of truth managed to survive so many attempts to medicate it into oblivion, and it’s too much of a miracle to keep quiet about. Even after eleven years of fucking up my own head and having it fucked up by everyone else, I’ve still somehow managed to take an enormous step backwards and work out on my own what really happened, and start to unravel all the knots and bandages and stitch up my own emotional wounds because I’m no longer scared of a little blood. And it’s not like (or at least I sincerely hope it’s not like) I’m just some clever creative psychopath who’s managed to come up with a brilliant rationalisation for his own craziness to convince everyone that he’s not a menace to society and to convince his long-suffering mother that it’s okay for him to come off his pills so he can go attempt self-destruction again. I have the full backing of two respected mental health professionals who know every little detail and more. My psychologist is a resident at one of the best private psychiatric health facilities in Australia and she has opined on several occasions, “I have seen hundreds of patients who will need to take psychotropic medications for the rest of their lives to function. You are not one of them”. And yet eleven years ago, a ‘family psychiatrist’, a medical doctor, who listened to me talk about the monster I had created by mistreating my emotions and just wanted to tick boxes on an ‘Depression Symptoms Checklist’ and write me a script. And because I desperately just wanted to be a ‘good boy’ (as I had always done, and still do), I started taking the pills every evening because I trusted that doctor and I trusted my mother and I trusted society. So I guess I’m writing this for that boy, for that trembling fifteen year-old boy, sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to look at the bottle labelled “anti-psychotic” in the medicine cabinet, who thought he was going to be ‘sick’ for the rest of his life. I know how much it would have comforted him to read such an unashamed and unapologetic confession by a 26 year-old man who had achieved everything that he had wanted for himself (well, except for heterosexuality, but I’m not exactly sure that still counts as an ‘achievement’), someone who he would have trusted to tell him that he wasn’t sick – that he was actually just too clever and too sensitive for his own good, that he had just been unfortunate enough to be born into a giant mess that had existed long before he came around, that he shouldn’t listen to the people who only commended him for thinking and chided him for feeling (though they where the ones to whom every source from the Ten Commandments to Home Improvement were telling him to listen), and that things wouldn’t always be so bad. I think he might have listened to someone like that.
I know that efforts are being made, but the stigma around ‘mental illness’ and psychiatric medication needs to be broken with a sledgehammer. I’m not good with heavy equipment, but I am good with words, which is why I’ve chosen to use as many as I could possibly muster to achieve the same effect. I can’t bear to hear of another sensitive young creature who had the world to offer and a life of beauty to experience being lost by a society impervious to the human needs of its own citizens. We’re all going through the same battle (almost one in two Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime) and it’s time that we stop being scared of seeing our own flawed humanity reflected in the suffering of our neighbour, and that we start actually opening up to each other. And we need to stop mistaking manifestations of the human condition as being medical conditions that need to be treated in silence rather than communicated openly. We need to become a society where the expression of emotion is celebrated as much as the expression of the intellect, where men who cry are met with love and open arms, and not shamed for being unmanly or weak. Suicide rates for men are three times higher than for women. Suicide is the leading cause of death for all people 15-44 years of age, making up one third of deaths of 15-24 year-olds. Suicide rates are also three times higher for LGBT people than the general population. Though it’s extremely uncomfortable to speak about these issues (believe me, writing this ‘novella’ has been anything but comfortable), not speaking out makes us responsible for their continuation.
We also need to start learning to trust our own guts in making decisions about our own lives instead of blindly trusting members of a sequestered and mystified section of the medical profession whose interests are to ‘keep people at work’, ‘keep families together’ and ‘keep society safe’, and not to help individuals achieve richer, fuller, more meaningful lives. By putting very scary and misleading blanket labels over a broad range of different but equally human and real manifestations of underlying emotional states, psychiatry has created a society terrified of ‘over-feeling’, where people respond with terror to their intuition’s natural response to being ignored or curtailed (because instead of just feeling depressed or anxious, they suddenly ‘have’ depression or ‘have’ anxiety) and instead of telling their friends or family of their troubles, out of fear of being labelled or judged, they visit a ‘qualified’ doctor to divulge to him in secret, hushed tones the specificities of their internal monsters, so that the doctor can label them in a ‘professional sense’ and give them a medication that will make it all go away. And then the last thing the patient would consider after being prescribed would be talking to anyone about this medication (because that would really be a sure-fire signal to everyone to keep their distance), so they just follow the instructions on the label.
So we’ve ended up with a society where everyone is hurting, but no one knows why they’re hurting, where we’re all taking the same medications, but no one knows what these medications are actually doing to them (but they’re no longer ‘unhappy’ so it must be making them ‘happy’, right?), and a bunch of psychiatrists have exclusive dominion over everyone’s hearts and minds. Maybe I’ve now veered into dystopianism (‘dystopian camp’ being my genre of choice). But it’s phenomenal how many intelligent, seemingly self-aware people take psychiatric medication on a long term basis without ever having put any serious thought into how they’re fundamentally changing their emotional experience of the world or potentially doing horrific things to their bodies. Medication is one aspect of a person’s life you’ll never know about until you ask, and it’s truly flabbergasting what they’ll be willing to reveal once you open up about yourself. I’ve recently discovered that a long-term friend (who of course I thought had a perfect life) had been taking the same antidepressant as me for years, except we’d both been too scared to tell the other because we didn’t want someone who liked and respected us to suddenly look at us as a crazy person (a fear which is an unfortunate result of an also very human self-preservation instinct). We would talk to each other for hours comparing the merits of Android and Apple mobile OS systems to help each other decide on a new Smartphone, yet we didn’t talk to each other about the medications which were literally changing our entire brain chemistries and preventing us from getting erections in the morning.
But the irony is that talking about these taboo, mystified subjects is the only way we’re going to get out of this mess. Because doctors don’t have any idea. They’ve almost certainly never taken any of the stuff they’re prescribing themselves, and the studies on which they base their observations are often contradictory and quite inconclusive because, well…no one really understands precisely how a brain actually works. You can’t scan or listen to a brain to tell exactly what an antidepressant is doing to a person’s very complicated experience of life in the same way as you can listen to a heart to see if a medication is properly treating a murmur or if an eye operation has properly removed a cataract. And the question of ‘what’s wrong’ is so much more complicated when it comes to something like anxiety than a heart murmur or a cataract. The medical profession, which relies on precision, really struggles with the imprecision of human emotion. And so the ‘data’ gathered by studies into psychiatric medications is inevitably going to be hazy at best because of the variations in the personal histories and emotional make-up of subjects in a trial, and the variations in their ability to even tell a researcher precisely ‘how they are doing’ in a way that allows their ‘results’ to be tabulated with those of 2000 strangers to produce some sort of usable conclusion like “makes people less depressed”. So psychotropic medications are inevitably blunt instruments, which are used to treat incredibly complex and difficult to pinpoint, emotionally-soured problems and are inevitably going to affect many more features of your mind and body (almost always deleteriously) than that at which they are targeted.
Which is not to say that there is no role in society for psychiatric medications. They do save lives. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that brain-stabilising medications have saved my own life on five separate occasions (though the jury’s still out on whether I would have actually needed stabilising if it wasn’t for the brain-accelerating medications I was put on in the first place, but I’ll let that one slide to the goaly). Patients should absolutely take psychiatric medications when they are unable to manage life without them. But psychiatric medications should always be an adjunct to, and never a substitute for, self-care and meaningful, authentic and assisted introspection aimed at finding and addressing the root emotional causes of the psychiatric distress. A short-term emergency response shouldn’t be prolonged into a lifelong crutch. When someone breaks their leg, they use crutches for the required recovery period, then they take physiotherapy until their leg is substantially operable, then as soon as advisable they are encouraged to walk normally. The crutches are taken away, and everyone forgets that the person once broke their leg. There is a reason why no one puts a brace on that person’s leg a week after the break and sends them off to run a hundred metre race (the analogy here being to my going for clerkship interviews while I was still in a psychiatric clinic) – because then the likelihood of a break turning into a permanent disfigurement is significantly increased. There is also a reason why society doesn’t label the person an invalid from the moment they had their accident, making them use crutches for the rest of their life, because then the leg muscles would in fact atrophy from disuse and the person’s invalid status would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if it were possible for a person to pinpoint exactly what had caused them to fall and break their leg – a hazard in the workplace, a mess on their bedroom floor, someone in their immediate family throwing a lead pipe at them while they were frolicking through a meadow – wouldn’t that person consider changing jobs, addressing their dangerous personal habits or avoid spending time with their immediate family rather than for the rest of their lives pushing themselves through the same hazardous paces in a wheelchair? As I’ve explained at length above, psychiatric issues are much more complicated than a broken leg, but isn’t that an even greater reason we should treat our minds with just as much sense, respect and care which we do our bodies?
I would encourage anyone reading this post before trying to medicate away your (or your children’s) feelings, first try really hard to just listen to them, to listen to your intuition, and not be afraid to make the changes that are being instructed by a source which knows much more than you’re used to giving it credit for, your intuition. And don’t be afraid to share your feelings with those with whom they are worth sharing – you’d be surprised the extent to which they also might be willing to share once the walls come down. Parents, don’t be so scared of looking inward and questioning your own reality that you teach your children to fear their own natures. And if it does come to the point of needing medication, don’t freak out – a lot of people have gone down the exact same path (although many won’t care to admit it) and come out the other side. But don’t trust your most important asset to a prescribing machine either. Make sure you know as much as possible about what you’re getting yourself in for. The really good news is that none of it’s permanent. After being Discount Chemist Darlinghurst’s best customer for most of my adult life (or since it opened), after only two weeks without medication, I feel almost entirely myself again. I can’t say how good it feels to say that. And as part of my efforts to break the ‘mental health’ stigma with a sledgehammer, I’ve included an index of all the psychiatric medications I’ve ever taken at the end of this piece. Feel free if you are taking, or are considering taking, any of these drugs to send me an email to ask me about absolutely anything (but nothing salacious, unless you’re attractive and male), then maybe something positive might come out of the eleven year botched psychiatric experiment that almost became of a beautiful life.
Speaking of my beautiful life, if you’ve been thinking while reading this piece “wow, what an interesting life story”, I should correct you by explaining that the account of my life contained above is only a very narrow and facile summary. It outlines how a life that has certainly ‘had its moments’ has been dulled and distorted by parental, professional (and yes, a fair bit of personal) negligence, as well as a truckload of pills. I am much more than a case-study into the medications that can be used to treat bipolar disorder. And I intend to demonstrate that by finally pursuing a life motivated by the love of truth, and not the fear of breaking down. The truth of my story has never been eclipsed by the pharmaceuticals which have attempted to neutralise it. So if you want the full story (I mean a strictly fictional story inspired by the full story), and not just the ‘medical context’, you’ll have to wait for your copy of my novel to arrive in the mail.
If you would like to pre-order your signed first-edition hardback copy of my debut novel The City, described by its author as “an anthem for a new generation of disillusioned Bright Young Things – at the same time a cross between 1984, American Psycho, Absolutely Fabulous and Portrait (both of an Artist as a Young Man and of Dorian Gray), and like nothing you’ve seen before”, or would like to make any financial contribution to support the process of its writing, please visit my crowdfunding site at Kickstarter.
INDEX: TABLE OF MEDICATIONS
|Branded Name (Scientific Name)||Class of Drug||Years taken||Age at time of taking||Dosage taken||Range of recommended doses|
|1.||Seroquel (Quetiapine)||Anti-psychotic||2005, 2009, 2013-2014||15, 19, 23||50 – 600 mg||25 – 700 mg|
|2.||Epilim (Valproic Acid)||Anti-convulsant||2005||15||200 mg||100 – 800 mg|
|3.||Lexapro (Escitalopram)||Anti-depressant (SSRI)||2009-2012||18 -22||10 – 40 mg||5 – 40 mg|
|4.||Xanax (Alprazolam)||Benzodiazepine (tranquiliser)||2009-2010, 2012-2013||18 – 23||0.5 – 4 mg||0.25 – 2 mg|
|5.||Lamictal (Lamotrigine)||Anticonvulsant||2009-2016||19 – 26||50 – 200 mg||50 – 400 mg|
|6.||Valium (Diazepam)||Benzodiazepine||2012-2016||22 – 26||2 – 40 mg||2 – 40 mg|
|7.||Prozac (Fluoxetine)||Anti-depressant (SSRI)||2012||22||20 mg||20 – 80 m g|
|8.||Zyprexa (Olanzapine)||Anti-psychotic||2012||22||5 – 20 mg||2.5 – 10 mg|
|9.||Effexor (Venlafaxine)||Anti-depressant (SSRI)||2012 – 2013||22 – 23||75 – 300 mg||75 – 300 mg|
|10.||Lithium||Mood stabiliser||2014||23||1200 mg||900 – 1800mg|
Five days before this piece was published online, it was shown to the mother of its author. After she had finished reading it (and she and the author had talked and cried over its content for a couple of hours), she gave her blessing for the release.
Two days before this piece was published online it was emailed to the father of the author. He gave his consent for the release.
This is a free online novella. It is my gift to anyone who needs it. Please feel free to share the story.
Please also feel free to leave comments or ask questions below. This is a space for sharing.
© Sam Bookatz, 2017