Thursday, December 11, 2008

My chemical romance

I've been on Lexapro for almost exactly six weeks, and as far as I can tell, it's helping me. I first noticed its effects the day before Thanksgiving, when I spent hours on a plane in front of two people who insisted, while everyone else tried to sleep, on having an animated conversation. I'd forgotten my earplugs, and I felt it wasn't my place to tell them to hush so I could try to get some rest. So I boiled and bubbled with frustration, as I usually do in such circumstances, and shot meaningful glances their way from time to time. (Meaningful to me, that is; evidently, not so much to them.) Finally, I put on my headphones and distracted myself with the soundtrack from Avenue Q. When I finally left the plane, I noticed that my frustration over the in-flight annoyance was melting away; it was harder than usual -- nearly impossible, as a matter of fact -- for me to hold onto it, nurse it, make it into something that could ruin my morning. I didn't think too much of my unexpected ability to release my tension, but it was the beginning of a string of changes to my normal way of thinking that would continue throughout the weekend, and that would follow me back to Seattle.

I'm not always aware of what my daily dose of 10 milligrams is accomplishing. Last night, I spoke warmly to a friend who was about to go on vacation, and I detected something in my tone -- an unusual generosity, a carefree quality, a greater concern for another person than for myself. A short but memorable trip outside my own personal travails, in short. It's a wonderful feeling, to be the kind of person you've watched others be for years. I've also recovered, partly, the feeling I had about writing as a teenager, and to some extent as a college student: that life is too rich with incident and meaning to go unanswered, and that the best way for me to answer is in writing. Writing, in other words, as a necessary, vital activity, not something I have to drag myself into. Also: writing without crippling perfectionism. It's like Roger Ebert's description of why characters burst into song in musicals (he was talking specifically about Everyone Says I Love You): They simply don't know what else to do. There's nothing else they can do, no other form of expression that's conceivable. That sense that I need to write, that I can't let life go by without responding to it, is a welcome sensation -- one that I hadn't felt in years.

I've also been experiencing an increased sense of gratitude for my friends, and I've tried to show it as best I can. I know that what I'm able to feel and do thanks (in part) to the medication is stuff that was already inside me -- tendencies I had in the past and lost touch with. During a particular evening of my Thanksgiving visit to Detroit, I felt a bit adrift, unable to connect with anyone the way I wanted to. In the past, such a turn of events might have plunged me into (unproductive) despair of the teenage-melancholia sort: Why am I such a hopeless case? Why can't I make connections like normal human beings? Why does everyone smile when inwardly they must be roiling the way I am? And so on. Of course, some people smile precisely because they're happy, not because they're "phonies" in the Catcher in the Rye vein, but that fact used to escape me. Now I kinda get it, because sometimes I'm actually one of them.

As surely as I know that Obama isn't the Messiah and won't solve all of America's problems, I know that Lexapro isn't a panacea that can make life's every difficulty evaporate. But that's not what I expect it to do. I felt stuck and needed a push, and now I'm more able to give myself that push. Like so many things we consume -- food, shoes, clothing, alcohol, cars, jewelry, travel, cultural experiences, and on and on -- this kind of medication is a mixed bag. Do I feel, sometimes, the sense of emotional mutedness that's often cited as a drawback of SSRIs? I do. Does it trouble me more than my depression did before I got started with the drug? No, it does not. I believe life is full of trade-offs, and we don't always know what to give up and what to hold onto. Our principles naturally evolve over time, and while we may cling to some -- vegetarianism, teetotalism, religious faith -- even they can and do change in small ways. For now, this medication has given me a sense of capability and hope that I appreciate, and as long as I dutifully observe its influence as best I can, I think I'm doing what's right for me. There's no certainty, of course, but that's something I'm trying to learn to live with, too.

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