I take drugs. The fact that I have an anxiety disorder that is greatly helped by the right doses of medication is a cause for celebration for me, not shame. Celebration that there are drugs that help, not that I have an anxiety disorder. That’s been a hard thing to live with, going back to when I was a very young child.
The first episode of intense anxiety that I remember happened when I was five and a kindergarten classmate died of a heart condition. His obvious frailty and my robust health meant nothing to my five year old brain that was busy imagining all the ways I might die, especially while I was asleep, making sleep terrifying rather than a refuge. In third grade a class mate died of leukemia. In high school a student in the next town died of spinal meningitis. Life was dangerous — it ended in death.
But I didn’t need a death close by to feed by anxiety. I made up many of my fears by myself. When I was a pre-teen it was brain tumor that was going to kill me. One day an aunt asked me why I was always feeling my scalp and I told her I was checking to see if the lumps on my head were getting any bigger because I was afraid they were tumors. She laughed, kindly, and told me I wouldn’t be able to feel tumors from the outside and I just had a lumpy head. For some reason, that didn’t translate into a fear that tumors I couldn’t feel were growing in my brain, probably because that particular bout of anxiety was waning.
My acute phases of anxiety weren’t constant and usually lasted several months and then got better. When I went through a particularly bad bout at 30, I thought back to other bad patches and realized the anxiety had peaked in six to seven year cycles since that first episode at five. It was also when I was 30 that a doctor finally named for me what was going on and suggested medication. I tried medication eagerly and have never regretted it.
I know there is still stigma about taking medication for mental health problems and I’m a bit of a zealot about trying to convince people to get over it. In my professional life I watched many colleagues suffer through depressions and anxiety issues, refusing to try medication because they thought they should be able to take care of their moods and distress themselves. Yes, I would tell them, you can take care of it, by seeing if you might be helped by medication.
It’s not always easy to find the right medication, and you have to find the right medical practitioner to work with you until you find the one or the combinations that work for you. I feel lucky that my route to effective medication has been fairly straightforward. I used to only need the medications periodically, when a flare up of anxiety would manifest. But since Eric’s death I’ve only been off my anti-depressant for less than a year and needed to get back on it, and I’ve never even tried to stop taking my anti-anxiety medication. I live with such a weight of knowledge of the pain in the world, I need the floor that the medications provide. It gives me something to rest that weight on.
When Eric died, I admit (which is clear from reading The Truth About Death) that I turned at times to pretty hearty self-medication on top of prescribed ones. And thus the third of the four truth-telling poems — death, drugs, sex, money. I talk.
I wake up drunk, I wake up hung over
on klonopin, I go for a run and hear
and then see a cardinal at the top of a spruce,
down by the lake still frozen but softening.
By now you were walking more than running
and I walked with you. I explode
inside my own brain, I want other brains
to explode, fragments hit me, I cherish
the bits, the glint of metallic memory,
the shine of light off your glasses.