To say that I have a family history of mental illness would be an understatement: I’ve got a long, storied family history of men putting shotguns in their mouths and pulling the trigger. I’ve even got a few female suicides as well. Family rumors were that I had a great, great aunt that took a header off a bridge. One of my parents crawled into a whiskey bottle and died. The other recently became persona non grata after putting a pellet rifle to the head of a newborn. Last I heard she’s living in a trailer out in the woods somewhere, gobbling up drugs and claiming to have one fatal illness after another. Throw in a grand lineage of drunks and we’re a family in the classic Southern Gothic style.
Call it a family curse – a tainted bloodline, if you’re into H.P. Lovecraft – but it’s one that visited itself on me in my teenage years and decided to stick around. I developed obsessive, round-and-round thoughts that burned a path in my brain like a record’s needle caught in a scratch and deserted. I knew they were irrational, but I couldn’t do anything about them. Soon they were joined by nervous twitches; compulsive blinking and other quirks impossible to resist. This Greek chorus of madness, along with serious spells of depression that were getting deeper every time, left me feeling alone, ashamed and “crazy”. I couldn’t tell anyone. My hopelessly out of touch guidance counselor – she only knew me by my social security number – told my parents that I was probably retarded, despite a stellar scholastic record before this neurological gargoyle settled upon my shoulders. My parents, in turn, had their own problems. (True fact: A classic sign that you’re living with drug addicts are threats not to tell anyone about what’s happening in your family. Another true fact: Children of addicts learn very quickly to become peace-makers. It’s a survival mechanism.)
I flirted with thoughts of suicide through school. Why not? I was miserable. I held myself together with greater or lesser success through college. Guess what I majored in? Psychology! (The old adage of “Physician, heal thyself” would apply except I’ve only got a bachelor’s degree.) I got married to a wonderful woman whose family gave (and continues to give) me the love and support that my own immediate family never did. (Funny story: When my in-laws would give us things I’d urge my wife not to take them: “Why are they giving us this? They probably want something in return. Don’t take it!”) I might as well have been raised by wolves.
My problems got worse over time. I started having night terrors. (Hey! Know those? They’re a blast: Episodes of screaming and lashing out that you don’t even remember. I’ve injured myself, injured my wife, and even had the cops show up because the neighbors thought someone was being murdered. Good times.) I couldn’t shake the obsessive-compulsive problems. I was getting even more depressed. I tried exercise, I tried various herbal remedies, and I tried meditation and various behavior therapy techniques. Eventually it got bad enough that I confided to my wife and her family, and told them I needed help. It was kind of a relief, really. We did some checking around and I found a local psychiatrist.
I was intensely against taking medication at first. Nobody pushed it on me. Even the doc told me that I could come back again and talk about it. However, my problem felt like it was killing me – and I felt like killing me because of my problem. You might have heard people say “What’s the worst that could happen?” when faced with a difficult choice. I already knew the “worst that could happen”, and medication might be the only thing to prevent it. I took the pill, Neo.
The medication was an SSRI – a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor.
Fast forward to about ten years later, and I’m pretty damn happy. I write, do publicity and podcast for a living. I work here at the Disinformation Company, and also have gigs with comedian Joe Rogan and publishing giant Random House. I was a huge fan of all of these back in the day, and here I am: I call Rogan a friend and have very good buddies at Disinfo and Random House. I’m fairly popular online and have a blast in meatspace: I’m outgoing and incredibly sociable. I’ve never met a stranger. I’ve got an amazing marriage and some of the best friends you could possibly imagine. The night terrors have mostly stopped and while I still get down in the dumps sometimes, it’s for the same reasons you do. I’m not a zombie, and I’m certainly not a murderer. What I am is alive and well, and I’m not sure that would be the case had I not taken medication. I take it now because my symptoms resume otherwise.
Since the Newtown murders, I’ve had a lot of people emailing and Tweeting me links to various lists of mass murderers who have taken psychiatric medications. It seems that we’re taking a few leaps in logic here. Would you consider murdering a school full of children? Probably not, or at least I hope to God not. No one in their right mind would. Read that? No one in their right mind. A lot of very disturbed people take psychiatric medications (Uh, hey – they’re disturbed) but not everyone who takes psychiatric medication shoots up a movie theater or school. As a matter of fact, most of them don’t. An estimated 20 percent of Americans have taken or take psychiatric medicine. Some of them commit murder. Or steal. Or cheat on their wives. Why? They’re people. There’s an element of personal responsibility in choosing to do these kinds of acts. Sure, there are men and women driven by horrible compulsions, but there are also plenty of very bad people who do very bad things, and they should be held responsible for their actions. Blaming their crimes wholesale – I mean, all of them – on drugs is no different than blaming their crimes on “guns” or “the devil”.
Think twice before you call to ban SSRIs, or equate the mentally ill with murderers or zombies. You might be among that 20 percent of your friends and neighbors taking these medications – some of your closest family members, best friends and good neighbors do, and they just don’t talk about because they’re ashamed, or worried people will think they’re crazy. (Want to find out what it’s like to have everything you say second-guessed – to be treated like you’re defective? Tell people you’ve had psychiatric treatment. Hello, pariah! Good luck finding a job!)
I’m not going to say that SSRIs and other medications are perfect, that they’re cure-alls, or that they’re right for everyone. I’m not going to say that they’re not over-prescribed. Nor am I going to say that the pharmaceutical companies have our best interests at heart and that any medication won’t benefit from additional testing – and that things do gone wrong sometimes. I’ve seen it happen (But I’ve also seen similar things happen with anti-convulsants, hormones, steroids…you name it). What I am going to tell you is that there are people who owe their lives to these things, and I’m one of them.