“though your promise counts for nothing, you must keep it nonetheless”
All through my life I’ve been medicated with words. Words encourage healing, offer solace, sometimes just enough to hold onto, like a handgrip offered momentarily for balance as one takes a particularly treacherous step. Song lyrics, poetry, literature, essays and more recently blog posts – all rich pickings, all of them sharing in the experience of living, whether they are flourishing and celebrating, commiserating, or simply imparting survival tactics. I gather up quotes, like the one above, and carry them around with me like a purring cat I’ve lifted to my chest to cradle for a few moments.
I’ve been thinking again about drugs. Many of the people I love take drugs: my mother takes pills to help her sleep whenever she is unsettled; my ex-husband negotiates a precarious cocktail of mental health prescriptions and endures their side effects with resignation; other members of my family and some of my closest friends and many people I know take or have taken antidepressants.
I’ve never yet taken sleeping pills or antidepressants, but every so often I pick the idea up from its shelf and dust it off for a closer examination. I’ve not ever taken them but I’ve come close: a prescription for Prozac was once handed to me with little interest by a GP after only a short few minutes’ consultation. I’d just ended my marriage and was living in a new country, in near-isolation with a seven-month-old infant, struggling to make sense of the trajectory my life was taking. Who wouldn’t be depressed? I’d gone into the surgery to request a referral for counselling, on the advice and encouragement of my health visitor (incidentally, thank you to the NHS for the health visitor service and thank you to Gina, whose kindness and support I will never forget.) The GP heard my briefly summarised situation and agreed to refer me on to the counselling service, then threw in the Prozac like a bonus prize. I hadn’t asked for it, but I accepted his authority and received the prescription in a daze of curiosity and potential relief: was this a fix that would ease the pain?
I remember the growing disquiet with which I carried the piece of paper over to the chemist, the sterile fluorescent lighting under which I was handed the paper bag, the cold officious labelling on the packet of pills inside it. For days it sat unopened on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet, as my disquiet blossomed into frustration and resentment. Did I really need a fix? Did I need to be fixed? Was I something broken that needed mending? Was it me that was broken or the circumstances in my life? And were they even broken, for that matter, or just plainly, ordinarily, heart-crushingly difficult?
The packet ended up in a drawer, and moved around with me unopened for years; eventually I handed it in at another chemist: no thanks. Things had moved on, my circumstances were less volatile but they were certainly still difficult and it was certainly still taking its toll on my sense of wellbeing. Again I considered the potential relief offered by prescription meds, and again I chose to stick it out without them. Turning in the unused Prozac was a symbolic gesture by which I reminded myself that my inner landscape belonged to me, not the pharmaceutical industry.
I’ve been thinking again about drugs, because it’s been rough going lately. I feel muddled, all over the place, like a pinball bouncing off everything and everyone. Each smack sends me veering at another angle, rational in its direction but inevitably into another clash, flailing about in a dance that feels random and chaotic. It’s crazymaking, this dance, rattling the business-as-usual with its inconvenient messes: I say things I shouldn’t, argue unnecessarily, succumb to hostility and bouts of tears and overwhelming lethargy. My inner landscape is volcanic, and while it may belong to me, it impacts on many of the people around me. Why can’t I just control myself? Maybe I should take Prozac.
So here I am, thinking again about drugs, because I followed a signpost recently from Ran Prieur’s blog to this essay by Chris Norton, describing the experience of coming off his prescriptions. Here is someone asking the same questions, from the other side of a different experience; someone who opened the packet and tried living on medication, and now many years later has handed it back and is trying to live without. I gather up and hold like a purring cat the following remark made to him by an understanding friend: “at times like this I can’t say enough for the fetal position.”
So then, maybe I’m not a pinball, maybe I’m a pinball wizard, a deaf dumb and blind kid playing by intuition. Maybe this exhausted unpeeling is just the stuff of my life, and there’s nothing more to it, and nothing more for it, and nothing more in it. I’ve only ever glimpsed the fairies and the angels in brief elusive moments at the edges of my vision, I’ve never yet met them full-on in the joyful magic nonsense of their dance – and sometimes I think I never will. Sometimes I think that getting up and getting through the relentless task of each day is all I will ever manage.
I brace myself to get up again, by prescribing a balm of words:
Though your promise counts for nothing, you must keep it nonetheless.
You must keep it for the captain whose ship has not been built,
For the mother in confusion, her cradle still unfilled,
For the heart with no companion, for the soul without a king,
For the prima ballerina who cannot dance to anything.