I didn’t want to take antidepressants at first.
The year Margaret Atwood came to the University of Rochester to give a reading, I had finally broken down and given them a try. Mostly it was out of desperation — everything about my life as a student had been breaking down, so something had to be done. I hated the idea of changing my mind, of infecting it with something foreign, of keeping it in a muzzle — so I felt compromised. I have always been stubborn and opinionated; I thought myself better than people who popped pills for every little ailment. I was equal parts ignorance and arrogance.
Anyway, I had been carrying around this ratty spiral in which I would scribble down various ideas, excerpts from things not yet written… And Atwood signed a page.
When I realized I wanted to write about this, I went looking for something I had written about it in that book, from that year… Eventually I realized that I couldn’t find it, because it was on the back of the page that she had signed — up on my wall and not in the notebook anymore.
“Let’s see if we can construct a mood to color personality, out of seratonin and norepinephrine, dopamine and whatever else keeps us even. Pills, they look like little pellets a rat left in the corner, academically engineered excrement — and you swallow them, what else can you do? Names like exotic birds, bright-eyed women, waiting ladies of the goddesses of brain chemicals… We offer them sacrifices at their temples: the orgasm, the basal metabolic rate, self-sufficience — all so we may attain some sense of normalcy, so we may make our way back to the self we remember. In every suburban home cabinet rots the stink of SSRI bottles, the false hopes, the fix. Promising elusive well being… Ill kept prescriptions.
“So what now then? I suppose prayer was invented for this: the moment we throw ourselves at something, anything higher that may be watching, hoping that it knows better and can fix you. Divine beneficence as a last resort. The difference between regular people and religious ones is, the latter do this on a regular basis. I can’t tell whether that is pathetic or just honest.”
It was interesting that my mind jumped immediately from medication to God. I think it was because I felt broken — and puniness is a big part of Christianity. As is the surrender of your will to someone who hopefully knows better… But in this case, it was scientists I was surrendering to. At the core of who I was, I didn’t trust them — I didn’t trust myself — because of our humanity.
There are a lot of people who have this idea that there are some things human beings will never be able to navigate, the mind being probably the most widespread example. I fell into that category, and it kept me from being treated for a long time. My feelings were sacred, they had divine meaning… They were microcosms of the world, echoes of real phenomena that I just had to find the right way to interpret. My entire method of thought was permeated with associative logic.
…And I had internalized the notion that Babel towers eventually come crashing down. Don’t meddle with the mind, I thought. It is beyond us. It is a bad idea. Bad things will happen.
I have since come to believe that that position is weak and cowardly, not to mention superstitious — and I have little patience for superstition these days. I’m taking a risk, yes. Messing with my mind. But what is the alternative? Being complacent with the lot I’ve been given? It isn’t acceptable to me. If people are born with diabetes we treat it, so why should those of us with mental disorders pull ourselves up by our bootstraps? I believe in the power of human ingenuity, because it’s the only thing at all I have ever seen evidence of having an effect on the world.
I worry that religious people innately have more difficulty accepting treatment, and that’s unfortunate. So many of them incorrectly extrapolate biblical ideas to real-world practical situations, just like I did. And there is no reason religiosity should have to be mutually exclusive with logic and health.
…So give me “academically engineered excrement.” It may not work perfectly, or be divinely designed. But I refuse to sit back and take this lot, waiting for a mystical answer. WE have the power to change our circumstances, us — I have to believe it. I have to believe that I am not just some puny nub of a thing. I will build my Babel tower up and up, and when it crashes you might say that it never should have been… But I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s just who I am.
“For Hayley – good work! Margaret Atwood”