Off Prozac after a bit over a year, for a time there were colours and movement. But not the ease that I assumed came to other people. I still felt out of step, uneasy in the world. Looking at life through glass, trapped outside on an exposed ledge. And then over time – months or perhaps years – there was the fog and the rattle of chains and the familiar cell. Looking back, I realise that twenty-five years have passed, twenty-five years where I have made my way in and out of fog, with some years encapsulated in green and white pills, and some years marked by the awareness that the fog might roll in, and underneath all, was that the rattle of chains…. (depression is a hydra demanding over-writing and mixed metaphors, while eluding all). Even with the pills, the chains are still there, I am just more aware I am carrying them and that some of the weight is shared with modern medicine. Depression is a kind of knowing – there is no unknowing.
The year before last, just before Christmas, I gave myself an early present. I went to the doctor and asked for Prozac again. I was wrestling with tears and exhausted by the chains. My family was tired as well; depression is a hoar frost for families, unrelenting chill and frozen fog. I have always tried to turn the pain inwards, to protect those close to me, but I know they have suffered from the deadening effect of distance.
While the drug is meant to take some six weeks to work, I can tell the day after I have taken the first capsule. There is colour and light and I can see the wind clearing the shreds of clouds from the hills – but the light has never been as dramatic as that first time.
In those first days, I started writing. I heard phrases and words and would have a beginning and an ending and characters to follow as they unfolded their own narrative. I could walk around the cell with the light on, or along the path at the top of the cliff, or examine the links of the chain. I could see distance and fear and time, and simultaneously mourn and recognise what I have lost. The insistent sense that I was missing something, eased.
Where had these words come from? I began to wonder about Prozac (and anti-depressants more generally) and creativity. I am not alone in wondering. Alex Preston writing in The Guardian in May 2013 on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Prozac, found many writers and artists with many different experiences.
Some writers claimed the drug dulled their artistic impulses. Of his own experience, Preston writes:
Writing on SSRIs was like swimming in mud. Words came slowly or not at all; emotions were perceived as if at a great distance, alien and remote. Even at a sentence-by-sentence level, I was aware of a certain lag in my writing, a syntactic sluggishness – the imprint of a brain that was failing to catch up with itself.’
He gave up writing until he was off the pills, and recalled being ‘haunted by the feeling I was living in the third person.’
For other writers, the drug provided essential mental space. Poet Gwenyth Lewis (the first Welsh National Poet in 2005-2006) told Preston, ‘”When I get ill, I get so ill I can’t write at all …. I don’t work when I’m wretched, I work when I’m happy.’ But Lewis, too, felt distanced from herself.
Lewis, who suffered from a major depressive episode (described in Sunbathing in the Rain: A Cheerful Book about Depression, 2002) in which she was bedridden, unable to read or write, considered depression a warning that she was not looking after her essential self. Depression forced her to slow down and listen to what she needed, to escape from over-commitment, from alcohol; the illness forced her to pursue poetry for without poetry and writing she recognised she would become ill again. Lewis advises ‘[w]hen you’re in the middle of your depression, pay good attention to it, because, tended carefully, you never know where it might lead you.’ In her case, depression led to a freelance writing career.
I believe Lewis – depression can be a warning. Listening to my own voice is an essential part of feeling better. But what if I have no voice to listen to? I have spent so many years not being able to hear the quiet voices. The other voices – the you-are-no-good-voices-and-have-nothing-to-say script learned early – are so much stronger. The insistent voices are a mental tinnitus. Lewis and I are different: hers was a paralysing major depression, mine a low-level misery.
Each person experiences their own depression in their own way, and the disorders also respond in their own ways. I feel like mine is a parallel life, the drugs providing dissociation and distance, as well as an intimacy with my own thoughts. For me, Prozac provides distance from the cliff and the cell; Prozac provides space in which to write.
But both the medication and the illness have a background sense of numbness and immobility. With the drugs, I can sit still (doing nothing) for far longer than I would normally. I can drink coffee, something I can’t do without Prozac because I get too flighty and panicked, but I drink coffee to pull myself out of mental drug sludge. I have fiddled with dosage (of both the pills and the coffee): dropping the Prozac until I am ambushed by the internal voice that berates me into silence; increasing it until the nagging subsided. And this change occurs within a range of 10 milligrams. Without the drugs, I am afraid I will again become mute. Does this make the words mine? Or are the words a chemically-altered voice, one that should be banned as performance-enhancing?
Heather Bauchop is a Dunedin writer and researcher. This is Part 2 of a four-part essay on this topic by Heather Bauchop. Read the essay in sequence: