I’ve felt a strange writer’s block for the past few weeks. Following abounding experience, my mind seems brimful of reflections and stories, yet when I sit down in front of the computer, I have nothing to say. Whereas I usually let my fingers fly on the keyboard without much of a thought, my ideas and thoughts have lately been fleeting. Or, due to all the back-to-school chaos, I’m too tired to write altogether.
What’s most comical to me is that I am regaining my writing alacrity simultaneously as the voluntary removal of what was temporarily mentally invigorating.
Almost three months ago, I wrote very openly about my relationship with mental health issues and my choice to medicate with antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications and I received a lot of positive support in response. Today, I am on the tail-end of Effexor withdrawals and I feel as relieved as the moment 12 inches of my hair was snipped, simply and smoothly.
Shortly after my brother passed, empty promises of financial and emotional support from my partner at the time, followed rapidly by desertion amidst grief, left me in a state of desolation I wasn’t sure how to weather.
A close friend of mine sent me a David Foster Wallace quote right when I needed it most, “No pain exists that is not endurable for one second.”
With the medication’s calming effects, I took each second at a time – asking, What do I need to do right now to make it to the next second, to survive? – only to wake up at a Buddhist monastery a year later and realize that, in the process, I had become a jocund robot, unsure of both the origin and genuineness of such geniality. A perfectly functioning but only somewhat feeling version of a human being.
I took a pill each day that put my grief on hold just a bit more, so that I could get through my work day without being sick to my stomach, so that I could sleep at night, rationalizing that a healthy mind accompanies a healthy body.
But over time, if I missed even one pill by accident, I was an emotional wreck for the day, unable to manage persistent, involuntary crying spells. The drug had become a placation for my body, a dam, preventing my emotions from polluting my practical purposes; the smallest fissures in the dam, just one day missed, had enough pooled and pressured behind them to inexorably flood the day’s emotions.
The severity of my withdrawals within mere hours of forgetting the medication was alarming. Control of my emotions no longer belonged entirely to me.
Toward the end of my October holiday, down to a short supply of Effexor, I considered my options – pursue the overly-stressful and expensive process of arranging for my prescription to be filled, or attempt to ween myself off the medication.
It was when I realized that my anti-anxiety medication was giving me anxiety that I no longer wanted to cater to Effexor’s every whim, as if this medication had decided to rent out the space in the mind and sweep away the unflattering spots of pain. Ah, the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, each prayer accepted and each wish resigned.
In hindsight, this process may have been easier with my doctor’s guidance, but, wanting to minimize my stress, I chose to use the lower-dosage supply I had on-hand to ween myself off without worrying about the three hour bus to Phitsanulok. Researching Effexor withdrawals beforehand might also have been helpful to know what to expect before the symptoms hit me like a truck. Or, maybe, when I expressed to my primary care doctor last year how worried I was about becoming dependent on a medication like this, my doctor could have informed me of the very common and equally potent withdrawal symptoms.
Brain shivers, for instance, is just one of the symptoms I would love to have been informed of before I started down the Effexor rabbit hole – an electric shock-like sensation that starts at the crown of my head and cascades down my arms. Add nausea, lack of appetite, insomnia, sweating and dizziness to the party, combined with the so-helpful advice, “time is the only ailment.”
And yet, I truly consider myself lucky beyond measure. In my previous workplace, this is something I would have had to keep to myself – after all, it’s not always professional for personal issues and work to blend in the US, so when they do, we act like they don’t. My boss Pee Som, on the other hand, discussed my situation with me at length – expressing her desire to help more directly when I begin to stop taking my antidepressant, “You are a beautiful human. I’m happy to help you let go of being a robot.”
She has been patient with my dizziness, allowing me to rest between classes and teach sitting down, and with my nausea and appetite – taking me to find more bland, soft meals when she sees I can’t stomach the options in front of me; bringing soup to my house when I’m too sick to walk across the street for dinner; checking to make sure I’m eating enough, more than she already does.
I’m greeting this conclusion with pride and zeal – especially seeing that I have again let my fingers roam the keys – combined with overwhelming gratitude for the support I’ve received in the face of an invisible trial. I don’t think anyone around me understands what these “brain shivers” feel like – before I found the article’s explanation, I was at a loss, fearfully struggling to describe the sensation – yet the attempts to support, empathize and understand have proved indissoluble.
As someone who deals with chronic pain, I’ve been aware of the stigmas attached to non-visible pain for some time. Chronic physical pain or mental-health related pain is all too-commonly minimized – people hesitate to believe what they cannot see, which reminds me of one of my favorite Yann Martel moments:
” – ‘These things don’t exist.’
– ‘Only because you’ve never seen them.’
– ‘That’s right. We believe what we see.’
– ‘So did Columbus. What do you do when you’re in the dark?'”
We tend to be selective with our beliefs, leaning more toward those that serve us or affirm prior beliefs and preconceived notions. It can be easier, ego-feeding behavior to minimize the pain of others in comparison with our own, but it’s not the answer.
Invisible pain is real pain that deserves to be taken seriously. That being said, I must reiterate that I am not making a black-and-white claim that anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are something to be avoided. Yes, my withdrawals are challenging and I wish I had been more informed initially by my doctor; Yes, I got to a point where I felt that I had somehow both lost control of my own emotions and dulled them altogether, recognizing a need for more authenticity and balance. After one year of taking these medications, I experienced drawbacks, but this is not to discredit the help these prescriptions presented in my time of need.
I recently finished reading The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, yet another analytical work of art. Toward the end of the book, this conversation was an eerily triumphant read – like a mirror through time, I saw my 2017 pre-medication perspective, spoken by the woman, conversing with a version of my present perspective, resembling Duncan’s voice.
“‘I thought you were the capable type.’
‘I am,’ she said unhappily. ‘I was. I don’t know.’ She didn’t want to discuss it.
‘Some would say of course that it’s all in your mind.’
‘I know that,’ she said, impatient: she wasn’t a total idiot yet. ‘But how do I get it out?’
‘It ought to be obvious, Duncan’s voice said, ‘that I’m the last person to ask. They tell me I live in a world of fantasies. But at least mine are more or less my own, I choose them and I sort of like them, some of the time. But you don’t seem too happy with yours.’
‘Maybe I should see a psychiatrist,’ she said gloomily.
‘Oh no, don’t do that. They’d only want to adjust you.’
‘But I want to be adjusted, that’s just it. I don’t see any point in being unstable.’ It occurred to her also that she didn’t see any point in starving to death.”
– The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood
I was holding my stress physically one year ago, manifesting sickness throughout my body as it spread from my mind. Like Marian’s character, I was malnourished; it would have been futile not to medicate.
That medication served its purpose – relaxing my body so I could work on my mind. Erasing the superfluous stress signals, the busy work, allowing me to tend to source. These medications were crucial for my healing process, and it would be ludicrous for me to confidently claim that I would be where I am today without these aids.
Think about it like this – at this present moment, if I were still suffering on such a grand scale as I was last year, would I be strong enough to take an observer’s perspective of my relationship to my prescription medication, make an objective decision to change course, and endure severe withdrawals while maintaining a rigorous school schedule? This strength is due, at least in part, to the physical and mental support my prescriptions provided.
The denouement of my journey to date has left me with the ability to cogitate and communicate ardently without the physical stress symptoms of last year, the withdrawal symptoms serving merely as a transient detox.
It’s a comfortable October night in Chiang Mai – a short walk from my shared hostel room, through a one-way door and I’m out in the breeze, sitting on the open steel gratings of the fire escape. I’m watching the lights and the people below – the hostel I’ve made my temporary home base is tucked away from the main roads of Chiang Mai, but with enough proximity to people-watch.
I can see the moon through the grate belonging to the floor above, shyly sharing its glow as I experience an ethereal moment with a new friend; he’s sitting to my right, smoking, ebullient conversation joining wisps of smoke.
I am taken from this moment; I am light, lifted above the staircase by intuition, an aerial perspective. I’m relaxed, peaceful, present. My fire escape companion, at a similar height, observes my repose.
“I am relishing in this relaxation, taking 20 seconds to blink.”
I strive to record my travels from the perspective of a contemplative practice – acknowledging what I’m learning and how I’m growing – and I’m appreciative of those who take the time to read my words. As I push through this insubstantial film of “writer’s block”, in efforts to document magic and beauty, including the erudite poignancy of it all, I thank you for your regard. Until you hear from me again, this is my challenge for you:
As often as you can, close your eyes. Take a deep breath in – really feel that breath, every moment of it, and let your shoulders fall further from your ears with each breath you take. Spend 20 seconds there, at least, and enjoy the freshness with which you open your eyes.