What it Takes?

I started this blog a year after Philip died. I was as raw as I’d ever been – no, more raw then I’d ever been. I spent years trying to put words on what I felt like. There was no other way to survive. I wrote that there weren’t words to describe what I was feeling because the usual words – grief, despair, agony, etc. – were words I’d used before and what I was feeling was beyond any of that. So I strung words together best I could and made whatever sense I could.

Over the years, grief’s hold on me lessened, old habits of depression felt normal, life felt hard and unmanageable. Writing no longer interested me, quilting did. That’s where my creativity took me for a few years until I lost interest in that, too. I’d write posts here and there but not much else. I started watching a lot of TV and just didn’t care too much about anything except Natalie. A couple years ago, as I mentioned in my last, I started reading about the Tudors. Kings and queens fascinate me, Game of Thrones had ended, reading finally gripped me the way it did when I was younger and would not go anywhere without a book. I still watch TV here and there but it’s reading that I’m mostly caught up in.

Still, not much creative output. It just seemed easier to let it all go and wait. For what? I’ll leave it there for now.

I am at the Jersey Shore at my cousin Maria’s house and will be here until Labor Day. So much to say about this, but not now. When I’m here I usually go for a walk first thing in the morning, around 6:30 or so. When I’m back I make coffee and sit outside to drink it. Her house is on the bay, her backyard spa-like. There are multiple places to sit or lounge, a dock with her boat and jet-skis, a pool and a jacuzzi and her big, beautiful, long-haired German Shepard to keep me company. Last night he slept with me, the only male I’ve had in my bed for a decade.

When I sat taking it all in this morning my mind was going its un-merry way. I’m 64 now, and I can say that physically I’ve had a good 63 years but things have started going wrong and I hate it. How unfair, I was thinking, that we are born into bodies that take up way too much time distracting us from what really matters, yet distract us they do. Whether we’re young and insist on basing success upon physicality or older and doing the same but with the bitterness of our aches and pains, what’s the fucking point if we have to constantly deal with our bodies?

Somehow, I caught myself. Is this what I want to be thinking about? Am I even thinking, or is this just mind-meandering, an updated version of former, similar unhappiness? And I remembered earlier years of writing this blog, when I certainly had a lot to be unhappy about. But there was a quality there that stood in sharp contrast to what I’d just been doing. Of course I was inconsolably, desperately, unhappy. But I was somehow with it, open to it, and willing to put words on it. It was not work to do so. I was too devastated by Philip’s death to be anything else.

For years I have been unable to be in that place. It’d been suggested to me I was having a “dark night of the soul,” that I would come out of it. Just words, I thought, because it’s been years of it. A matter of will? How does one will oneself to care? I don’t know how to explain how I got there any more than I know how to explain why today I’m able to sit with this, why or how I’ve been able to write these last few posts. I coast along, not forcing a particular direction. That’s what I’ve been feeling like for years and not caring to do otherwise. I’m not saying I’ve made a big change, some willful decision, but – for this moment, at least – I am wanting to think about what is going on. With me and Maria, my mom and Alzheimer’s, my extended family, my addictions, my solitude and most of all, my children.

There’s one change I want to note. In my early 40s I decided to go on antidepressants. I’d been in therapy for 20 years at that point, sober for about 17 and still depressed. I’d had several therapists suggest medication but I’d wanted to get to the bottom of my misery without chemicals. Finally I thought, “what the hell” and started seeing a psychiatrist. That led to over 20 years of trying this med and that med and settling on Wellbutrin for about 14 years. At some point that wasn’t working, so my doctor tried adding this other med and that other med and when, in 2010, I had a meltdown, my mood-managers got together and decided an anti-anxiety medicine was in order. By then I was hooked on thinking some kind of drug has to help me and when I was prescribed Gabapentin I thought I hit the jackpot.

Gabapentin made me feel good about being alive. It was not subtle, like an anti-depressant. Its effects could be felt within a short time of taking it. But I am an addict. So if a bit of something shifts my mood enough that I feel good about being alive, then more of it must make me feel even better about being alive.  It was prescribed, so it was okay. I managed to get my initial dose raised about as high as it could be, then started taking none on one day so I could take extra another day. I talked about this to no one. Eventually Gabapentin worked against me. I was irritable, forgetful and nervous and fearful of everything. I was also trapped because I saw no way to stop taking it. 

Except I did. I’m not sure when except that it was months and months ago. Sometimes I wish I paid more attention – if you know anything about AA, anniversaries are a deal. People might say, “the person who woke up the earliest is the one with the most sobriety” but I believe few really feel that way. I was as caught up in year count as anyone else – had I not started drinking when Philip died, next year would’ve been 40 years, people would’ve admired me and I’d have eaten it up. But I also know the emptiness of that – needing that kind of recognition and approval does not fill the hole that demands it.

I still see no clear cut path as to how I was able to stop using something I swore I couldn’t live without. If I’d asked for help – as I did when I went to AA  – then the steps would be obvious. But this I did mostly by myself. I began to ask Philip to help me as – and again, I will not get into this now – he is very much with me and it is he who I turn to for help every day. Between the two of us I managed to stop by tapering off. I did not involve my psychiatrist. The only medical professional I turned to was S, the Physician’s Assistant who works in my office and who is my practitioner. When I was down to taking the bare minimum before actually, finally stopping it altogether, I was not feeling well. Not emotionally or mentally, but physically. Weak, tired, fatigued – not the kind of symptoms I could find while trolling the internet for “Gabapentin Withdrawal.” My PA suggested I might need to stay on one or two pills a day. I refused. The weeks went on, the symptoms went away. It was over.

Next went Abilify, which was supposed to enhance Wellbulltrin. That was easy, I did not feel any different. And finally, Wellbutrin. For both of these I spoke to my psychiatrist as to how best to taper off. I am well aware one does not just stop taking antidepressants on a whim. I received my instructions, bid her good-bye, told my PA what I was doing and that if I needed her, I’d let her know.

I am now off all of it, and have had no repercussions. I tapered off the Wellbutrin more quickly than advised because through each stage I had no adverse reactions and because sometimes I know my own body better than somebody else. Again – I wish I kept track of when I did it, again I can say it was sometime this year. So I’ll leave it that 2022 was the year I stopped taking prescription medication designed to make me emotionally and mentally “better.”

I’ve written all this because I assume it is an aspect of why I have the ability I’d believed I’d lost to sit and think about the life I experience. And for all the decades of trying to deal with my life through alcohol and drugs, both legal and illegal, the only organic way I have of doing that, of attempting to take myself seriously and at least try to find meaning, is writing. And that requires removing whatever blocks my process.

NB – This is my story, my experience of working with a psychiatrist and the medications I was prescribed. It is no one else’s and I am certainly not recommending anyone flush their medications down the toilet. I am not a doctor, I have not even done any amateur research into this topic. I do know there are levels of depression and psychosis and when someone needs help, my only suggestion would be to find a doctor you trust to help. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to leave behind Wellbutrin so easily. And whatever I’m going through now is not something medication, prescribed or otherwise, can “cure.”

© 2022 Denise Smyth

Background

Some background.

I had my first drink when I was 11. When my own kids turned 11, their innocence still intact from alcohol, I felt sad for the child I was that felt that much misery that she had to drink to escape it. I was too little to drink with friends or go to parties, but I found ways to sneak it into my room to drink in secret. I didn’t like the way I felt and that was my way out.

The first time I drank, my parents had gone out on a Saturday night and left me to baby-sit my seven-year-old brother. Soon as he was in his room for the night, I opened the liquor cabinet which had quite the array. Besides the hard stuff, there were cordials and liqueurs and brandies and wines. My parents did not drink alcoholically, but they kept a stocked cabinet for their dinner parties. My predilection was to go for the hard stuff that’d get the job done, but I was afraid it was going to take a lot to get me drunk so rather than drink too much from one bottle, I took a mouthful from all. Then I reeled up to my bedroom, passed out, woke in the middle of the night, threw up all over my bed, passed out again, woke up with a hangover and couldn’t wait to do it again.

I spent the next thirteen years drinking and drugging as much as I could. It was what I lived for. There are stories, of course, but I’ll tell the one that’s relevant given my last post.

Around the time I started drinking, maybe before I started drinking, I had a death wish. I think I was around twelve when I went through a short period of taking aspirin, thinking it would do something to me. I took 5 one day, then 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, up to 11. I can’t say I was looking for death, but I was looking for something to be altered. I don’t know the first time I wished I’d die but I do know the wish grew like a cancer the older I got. By the time I was 22 I was desperate. I’d bought a pack of razors and hid them, waiting for the right moment. It came the weekend my parents drove my brother to the college he’d been accepted into. I had the house to myself. That Saturday I went to a party, got drunk, took quaaludes. My boyfriend Chris was there and when he passed out at 2 in the morning I decided it was time. I went home and did what one who was about to slash her wrists was supposed to do. Ran the water in the tub, placed the razor on the tub edge and a bottle of scotch on the floor. I was already drunk but I knew I needed more to deal with the pain of slicing a vein. Into the tub I went, swallowed another mouthful of scotch, and started in.

It wasn’t easy. It hurt like hell no matter how much I drank, but I was determined. I hacked at my wrists as best I could and I don’t know if such a thing is possible but I thought I nicked a vein because suddenly blood sprayed out. Not dripped, but a thin shot of it that hit the tube walls and made a mess. And all I thought was, “I am doing this. I am really doing this.”

It wasn’t my time, though, because through the splashing of the water coming out the tub spout and the screeching in my brain, I heard my phone ringing. It was around 3am. And it was ringing and ringing and I looked down at my bloody bath and shot out of there straight to the phone where as soon as I heard Chris’ voice I started screaming, I did it I did it and he kept asking what did you do and all I could do was scream.

By answering the phone I’d chosen life and Chris came to the rescue. From his end, he’d woken from his drug-induced coma and asked where I was. I hadn’t said good night to anyone but a couple people saw me leave. He said he’d gotten a bad feeling and had been ringing the phone for ten minutes, trying to figure out how he’d break into my house if I didn’t answer soon.

He came, he saw, he left to buy bandages at the 24-hour drug store, cleaned me first, then the bathtub. I watched him from behind scrubbing and rinsing the blood away and thought I never loved him more.

Of course that wasn’t a happily-ever-after. I needed help. As far as my attempt, I was ashamed that I had tried and failed and knew I would never do it again. My reasoning at the time was I didn’t want to turn into a half-measure suicide attempter who used the act as a call for help. I chalked it up to a failure on my part and resolved never to fail in that particular way again.

I don’t believe in coincidence as random. I wasn’t supposed to die that night. And I made the choice not to. So something was there, some part of me wanted to live.

And something else, more recent. A couple days after I wrote my last post, I was at work, standing and talking to a co-worker. As we spoke, I started to get light headed. Everything shifted. I couldn’t stop it, I didn’t understand what was happening. “Spiro,” I said, “I don’t feel well.” The world felt like it was slipping away and there was nothing I could do. I am having a stroke, I thought. Or a heart attack. I don’t want to die.

I don’t know what that was but it passed in about ten minutes. And when I let myself feel I was faced with possible death, I rejected it. Can someone tell me – who the fuck am I?

To be continued.

© 2020 Denise Smyth