The Awful Truth

Still reeling from last year's stint in Los Angeles, where everyone is miserably crazy, Cintra Wilson muses on the virtues and limits of anti-depressants.

By Cintra Wilson

Published July 15, 1997 8:06AM (EDT)

for some reason, everybody in L.A. is miserably crazy and fucked-up. When I lived there in 1995, I didn't know anybody who wasn't on some combination of prescription drugs, the major arcana being Prozac, Zoloft, Wellbutrin and Paxil, the lesser Lithium, Xanax and Ritalin, and nobody I knew would turn down a line of speed or coke or anything else that might lift us for 15 minutes out of the toxic gloom that coated us all like volcanic ash.

L.A. wraps around your psyche like a black rubber python, cutting off your windpipe and sucking all the dopamine out of your ear canal.
It's like a creeping paralysis. After a few months every cell in your body forgets what it was like to ever be happy, and you get so bereft you find yourself crying in your car if the Jack in the Box clown speaks to you in a tone that is halfway kind. I couldn't pull into a parking garage there without elaborate thoughts of suicide. Just waking up in the morning to 109-degree heat, with the sky shimmering like gasoline and knowing you have to get dressed and communicate with your fellow L.A. citizens brings impossible sadness, and you feel so God-awful sorry for yourself, there is just no pressing on without pills.

I had an excellent psychologist in L.A. who specialized in trauma survival. Half of her patients had suffered "ritual Satanic abuse" during their childhood years, their mean parents having sold them to be impregnated by goats, cannibalized their fellow Cub Scouts in the rec room and such. Still, I fancied myself one of her most pitiable cases, my pain was so glutenously thick and acrid and all-pervasive. At one point during our therapy, I was sitting on her couch, trembling and weeping as usual, and I realized that I had no idea WHY. From that point on, I started talking to her over and around my tears as if they were some kind of vacuum-packed ski-mask shrunk over my face.

"This is annoying," I'd say to her. "I just can't stop crying. There doesn't seem to be any therapy to it or any end in sight, it's just self-perpetuating like one of those clocks."

"Maybe we should consider the possibility that your condition is biochemical."

Oh, sweet words. I started salivating at the idea that some authority figure like a doctor might actually give me pills to swat away my disgusting mental state.

The first psychiatrist to whom she referred me was an old, questionable Tolkien dwarf who kept all of his files fanned out randomly around the airless room under dirty coffee mugs, with books laid open on their faces and hair all over the rug. I told him I thought I needed anti-depressants and he whipped out his prescription pad and asked, "What kind?"

I felt a warm surge of ability to abuse the situation. The doctor started me on Paxil, which after three days had me in such a deranged, scowling hysteria I felt like some chattering Greek tragedy wraith, covered in sores and with bugs in my hair.

"One out of 100 people has that reaction," said the doctor. "What else do you want to try?"

For six months, I played anti-depressant roulette, experimenting with different pills and dosages. Eventually, I was awarded the diagnosis flavor of the month, Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, and given additional drugs appropriate to that mess. There were terrible side effects to all the pills, which were a big subject of conversation everywhere you went in L.A.: Zoloft (we called it Soul-Off) made you feel like you were walking around with your head in a transparent bucket of fabric softener, which made your sex organs shrink and dull to the zygote stage; Wellbutrin made sleeping a challenge even to people who swam several miles a day; Paxil and Prozac made a lot of people twitteringly psychotic; and all of the speed derivatives for us ADD kids made us focused but weird -- those of us used to multi-tasking in our heads like octopuses now had to slow everything down to a one-pencil-at-a-time basis, with the spookily deliberate quality of accident victims in therapy for brain damage.

Our science knows so little about the brain. My L.A. pharmaceutical floundering made me feel that trying to fix your head with the drugs we have available is like employing different trained chimps to try to fix your TV set -- if you're lucky, maybe your problem will be one of the apes' specialties. You probably won't get a good picture, but it might be better than the Terrible Noise.

Still, despite the voodoo hunt-and-peck project of finding out which pills actually worked for you, there was some relief, because there was Hope. The drugs were strong, and after a few weeks, you would notice that the right pill would give your head somewhere else to go. It wasn't good and it wasn't bad: It was purgatory, a Zen station of zero emotion to reflect in, at times when you would normally be chewing all the skin off your thumbs and crying on the phone to your mother, telling her how you wanted to stick your head in the oven.

Several months ago I hooked up with a girl I vaguely knew to collaborate on a theater project. Talking to her on the phone, I realized that something had violently shifted in her since our first meeting. The mature, thoughtful scholar I had once known had morphed into a shrieking motormouth jibbering at breakneck speed, one tangent veining off into smaller and smaller tributaries of tangents until neither of us had any idea what we were supposed to be talking about. She was jabbering with the insanely selfish, non-stop gush of somebody who has just snorted two grams of coke and gone bungie jumping and had strange sex in the last 10 minutes -- it was intolerable. "I just found out I'm manic-depressive -- right now I'm manic," she burbled, segueing into another monologue that would go on for 40 or more minutes before she'd take a full breath, usually in order to put some carbohydrates in her mouth.

When I visited with her several months ago, she was a jackhammer of conversation, sexually obsessed with an 18-year-old boy and polishing off two different full Italian entrees before the steam had stopped rising off them. She gained 35 pounds in two months. Manic people get that way -- supercharged with monstrous, insatiable appetites that roll out and everywhere, into your face. I saw her again a few months later, and she had completely returned to her old reasonable personality; she was calm and focused and she listened to you, looking you in the eye and actually asking questions. She was so night-and-day, 180 degrees, Linda Blair-as-opposed-to-Satan different, I just gaped at her with my mouth open like a sea bass.

"Well, I guess the drugs finally kicked in and started equalizing me," she said, when I asked, incredulously, why she was now so pleasant to be around. I was ready to kiss whatever bottle of pills she had in her luggage as I would have the hem of St. Jude, patron of hopeless cases.

I stopped taking everything last year, a couple of months after several Santeria rituals miraculously improved my outlook. Even then, I was still unsure of my mental footing, so I started staggering my pill intake -- I had it down to two a day, then two every other day, and then one day, I just stopped. I've felt fine ever since. One of my friends who went through the same experience that I did, with all of the same doctors and various medications, told me that he had eventually stopped taking everything too, by changing his diet and getting regular acupuncture treatments. I feel like the pills were a last resort, the last stop on the road before it ended up inside the gates of some ultimate psychic penitentiary, the place of total insanity or suicide. And like all last resorts, they're no bed of posies and cupcakes but sometimes they do the job. They can give you that little edge you need over the wailing monster -- the tiny flash of a blade that tells you that you might not be utterly doomed after all, if you can fight a little smarter. And sometimes that's all you need.

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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