Keeping It Together in Sobriety: Part Two of Five

I have to do five things, all the time, to stay comfortable in sobriety. Taking my meds every day is one of them.

I bought these earrings from Etsy. They are the structural formula for a specific molecule, rendered in silver. People often ask me about them, which gives me the opportunity to say, “They’re serotonin. They make me happy.” This always gets a laugh, albeit sometimes a thin, nervous one.

Fourteen years ago, when my son was a few weeks old, I took him to the doctor for one of the endless-seeming check-ups that are required during a baby’s first year of life. I held his warm, chunky body in my lap while our family doctor did all the things she was supposed to do him. I remember it all through a foggy glaze of sleeplessness and hormones, and was likely hungover. Our doctor finished with him, pushed her wheeled stool back from us, shifted her reading glasses to the top of her head, looked me straight in the face, and said, “Where’s your depression at right now, on a scale of one to ten? I’d say about a ten?” I froze, utterly unable to disagree, and left her office with a prescription for Lexapro. A few years later, during a murky period, I added Wellbutrin to my mornings and things cleared up.

This isn’t my first ride on the SSRI railroad. At various times in younger stages of adulthood, I’ve needed a little neurotransmitter boost to keep moving forward. I’ve stayed on them – sometimes knocking them back with wine because why not – until the ground came back and I could stand solidly, then eased off. This time, I’m on the ride permanently.

About ten years ago, I decided to answer this question for myself: What would I be like without meds? Four years of high-octane brain functioning seemed like enough, and I abruptly stopped. Boldly, I did this unencumbered by scientific information or medical advice. I was a month or so into this experiment when I stopped for sushi on my way to Portland, Maine, and midway through my rainbow roll, the HMS Serotonin was torpedoed and sank. I was on my way to a major literary event, at which I was scheduled to take the podium and introduce the writers Richard Russo and Andres Dubus III. The event was a fundraiser for the nonprofit I worked for and another organization and, as such, had been planned by that executive director and me. It’s a long drive from where I live in easternmost Maine to Portland, and I had decided to drive half way after work that day, spend the night with a friend in the Bangor area, then arrive in Portland the following day.

The sushi place was in Ellsworth, about a half hour from my stopping place for the night. Halfway through my meal, I lost my mind. This attack of crazy had been building for weeks, with increased feelings of dread, sadness, nervousness, and fear, but I had been confident I could muscle through it. That night, though, chopsticks in hand, I went from eating to crying to fleeing in under ten minutes. It’s not easy to describe a panic attack to someone who hasn’t had the pleasure. It’s a little like the upside down in Stranger Things. A little like catching a glimpse of that dude from The Shining and knowing he’s coming for you. A little like learning that the calls are coming from inside the house. And it’s a lot like those three things combined, except that it’s in a real restaurant, which means you’re insane and you know it, so in addition to being terrified you also get to feel bad about yourself for being such a freak who can’t even tell a restaurant from a horror film mashup. I dropped cash on the table, and left my raw fish behind. Somehow, during the drive to my friend’s house, I squelched the crazy and was able to fake my way through the rest of the evening. The next morning, though, I was weeping before I even woke up, and it didn’t stop when the sun came up or when my friend got up or when I had coffee or when I had to cop to what was going on to my friend who (thank the goddess) is a mental health professional.

The sadness and panic were double-teaming me which is, again, hard to describe. It’s like the shadows are darker than normal, and everything is a shadow, plus the universe wants you dead today, but it’s not paranoia, it’s just clarity, and it’s hard to find a good argument to convince the universe to choose another day. The only thing certain was that I was in no way fit to be onstage introducing two writers whose combined literary importance meant that I had no business being there anyway, so it would be far better for everyone if I just called in sick to the major fundraising event, right? Wrong. Everything was wrong.

The story has two happy endings. (1) My friend understood what was happening. She drove me to Portland, where I pulled it together enough to get myself behind the podium and make what I’m told was a clever, witty introduction. (2) I went back on meds. I’m not going off again. The experiment was a success, in a way, because I got an answer to this question of who I would be without turbocharged serotonin receptors: a fucking mess.

This is especially important in sobriety because my old coping mechanism for feeling like I might die was to engage in behavior guaranteed to make me die, and if you don’t understand that logic it’s just because you don’t have a substance use disorder. Self-destruction as a response to threats of danger makes sense to brains like mine.

I know there are people who think SSRIs are overprescribed, keep us from developing our own coping skills, become part of the problem, benefit only the fat cats in Big Pharma, blah blah blah blah blahblahblah. They might be right. I don’t care. It’s serotonin. It makes me happy.

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