The Awful Truth

Better Living Thru Chemistry

Published November 12, 1995 10:31AM (EST)

For years, I thought that anyone who took antidepressants was just a malcontent, a whimsy-deficient soul who refused to take responsibility for his or her own good time. But recently I was forced to join the Ranks of the Medicated myself, after discovering that medication of some sort is a virtual prerequisite for living in Los Angeles. Nearly everyone here seems to take some enigmatic pill every day to keep their rudder under the boat. Since the ultimate L.A. stigma is attached to possessing any emotion other than Fabulousness, however, nobody talks about it openly -- which, given the evident proportions of deep biochemical gloom, strikes me as being nearly as ludicrous as being in denial about defecation.

Once people have crashed the door of taboo and disclosed that they are mutual members of the tribe, however, they furtively bond with each other over which pill they're taking to keep the beast in the sock drawer. Prozac was, of course, the number one for a while (if you had Nirvana's Nevermind in your CD collection, chances are you too were on Prozac). But many now favor antidepressants such as Zoloft (called "Soul-Off" by those who don't enjoy its spooky detached qualities), or drugs like Wellbutrin, which is daring because nobody really knows why it works and purportedly has the extra bonus of causing some people to have orgasms every time they yawn or sneeze, and a little pink pill I'll call "P" which drives one in a thousand people to become instantly suicidal.

Antidepressants, for all of their high-tech glory, are still prescribed mostly by smell and intuition and voodoo guesswork, and my doctor might just as well have had a dartboard with the names of the 10 most popular pills fanning out from the center in different colors.

I go to a very expensive and reputable psychologist. When she finally decided that I did indeed have a biochemical depression she referred me to a psychiatrist. Knowing that I had no medical insurance and would be paying for the visit in cash, she found one who would see me for $60.

The person to whom I would be entrusting the seasoning of my brain opened the door and I found myself in a small, windowless troll cave filled with plates of unfinished food, pen tops all over the floor, empty wadded-up bags, boxes exploding with dog-eared files sticking out in all directions, and, most disturbingly, clothing shoved indiscriminately into the largely empty bookcases. The doctor was a little Freud-cum-Willy Wonka man with a pointy white Satan beard and the posture of a hermit crab. He found a clipboard under his couch and asked me a few questions.

Thus began our throw-the-baby-in-the-pool-and- see-if-it-swims quest for The Pill That Works. Antidepressants, for all of their high-tech glory, are still prescribed mostly by smell and intuition and voodoo guesswork, and my doctor might just as well have had a dartboard with the names of the 10 most popular pills fanning out from the center in different colors.

The first drug we tried was P. I had been doing such a ghastly amount of aimless sobbing and self-medication with Excedrin PM and six-dollar Merlot that I was thrilled to be told that in four to five weeks I would probably feel much, much better. As any depressed person will tell you, four or five weeks is a second Ice Age, but I was infected with a small germ of hope, so I drove the tumbrel down to Thrifty and bought my expensive little tickets to what I hoped would be the land of well-being.

Within four days I found myself sleepless and rabidly bizarre, with my eyes sunk into my skull like a dessicated raccoon's and an absolute dead certainty that I was feeling far more lucid and much, much better, except that I was definitely going to have to kill myself right away, as soon as I got it together to write the letters.

This attitude only struck me as odd when I found myself weeping openly at the testimonial of a preternaturally cheery Hispanic gas station attendant who cornered me over the beef jerky at the mini-mart: "Eh! Jou only leeve one time! Ees not good to be sad. You got to be happy! Smileen! OK!" and then sang a festive folk song in his native tongue and did a manic little dance with his oil rag. His words were the balm of angels, and I immediately stopped taking the little pink Death Mints (as I had fondly begun calling them) and went back to my unkempt doctor.

"Well," he said thoughtfully, taking the pencil out of his dark, furry ear, "wanna try Wellbutrin?"

"Sure!" I said, thinking it would be truly romantic, since it was the antidepressant my boyfriend was on and I thought we would be even closer on the same cute chemical wavelength.

My first few weeks on Wellbutrin were like the rocketing ascendancy of the retarded guy in Flowers for Algernon. Dogs had complex and colorful personalities. I read and memorized obscure dates in thick textbooks. My sex drive blasted through the roof, and even though I didn't climax every time I sneezed, my entire body was a joyously attuned erogenous zone. I woke up each morning with a list of productive things to do in my head and accomplished them. I walked around like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, braying popular show tunes, clicking my heels, and sweeping old women off the sidewalk in order to ply them with open-mouthed kisses. "There oughta be a law against how good I feel!" I crowed merrily out of the blue in supermarkets and post offices.

Several weeks later, at the peak of my chipperness, I got vaguely upset after a minor phone altercation with my boyfriend and found myself with an amazingly violent fit of physiological shudders not unlike an epileptic seizure. "Gosh, it must be the Wellbutrin!" chirped Dr. Strange. "Wanna try Prozac?" I said I'd think about it.

Today, my expensive and reputable psychologist decided that I might have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder and asked me if I would consider getting on something like Dexedrine or Ritalin, since my drug history indicated that I had a liking for speed. I said I'd think about it. I figure that if medical science is going to root around in my brain like a bunch of chimps trying to fix a helicopter, I might as well opt for the most entertaining prescription.

I've been off all pills for two weeks now, and every time I crack one of the long-haired textbooks I was devouring like airport novels last month, it looks like a vast and unintelligible calculus equation and my eyes cross and I want to watch TV. Dogs look dumb again. I'm cynical and annoyed. The world I live in is a dark and bitter place filled with malicious greed and inconsolable grief. And hey, for now, it's nice to be back.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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