Most of us who have accepted our mental illness have had those moments of profound irritation or anger when we hear the subject of mental illness and its treatment used as a source of comic relief. Prozac has been relentlessly marketed, and has become a household name, and therefore is tossed around in conversation by people who know nothing about depression or antidepressants. Most of us have heard someone say, “Oh, take a Prozac and lighten up,” or something to that effect. Darren Ross read an article by a writer who referred to Prozac twice in a completely ignorant manner, and decided to take the time to try to set the record straight by writing a letter to the editor. I’m sure he educated a good number of people, and since he addressed many myths and misconceptions about depression and mental illness so well, I asked him if I could include his letter on my web page. I would suggest that if you are trying to educate someone about mental illness, depression and its treatment, you print off this section and give it to them.
Note: I didn’t edit Darren’s language, so if you’re easily offended, you’ve been warned.
If someone were to tell you during a conversation that he or she was diabetic, would you stand back, point at them and laugh, “Ha haaa – I bet you have to take insulin?”.
If you are not the kind of person who would do that, then perhaps you too will share my bewilderment as to why – with the infinite number of things there are in the world to make fun of – anybody’s medicine would be used as a source for laughter.
On Jan. 24, 1996, Jane Doe made fun of Prozac twice in her column. Probably none of you remember it, but I do. At that time I was too wrecked to lift a finger with any confidence, let alone write a clever letter in response. It’s taken me a year and over 9,000 mg of Prozac to get my health back, and now I’m off the meds and ready to cause trouble again. Now it’s my turn to talk. I know this drug from the inside, and there isn’t one fucking funny thing about it.
Prozac is a medicine used to treat clinical depression, a label which I hate because it does not do this mental illness justice, especially since ordinary depression is normal. I would much rather this sickness be called the latin equivalent of “black vortex” or “brainstorm,” because to the layman “clinical depression” carries probably as much weight as being “clinically” bummed out or sad, and the label problem carries over to the medication known as “antidepressants.”
Prozac is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, not a simple tranquilizer or (as many people regard it) a “happy pill.” For those of you who persist in the belief that it is, the strongest proof that you are wrong is not to be found in medical journals, but rather in the gutter, because there exists no street trade in Prozac. There you will find addicted people drinking Lysol and inhaling glue vapors, but they leave the ‘zac alone because it simply does not work in that way, period.
What does clinical depression feel like? There isn’t enough space here to begin to try to describe it accurately, but I can say that it is worse than some traditional descriptions of hell that you can imagine. If I would’ve had my choice of either feeling the way I did or having a demon bury a pitchfork in my ass, I would’ve selected the hot ‘n spicy option. Another example that comes to mind is from the 1982 movie “The Dark Crystal.” In one scene a gelfling has her life essence sucked out and put in a bottle. It doesn’t kill her, but leaves her a virtual walking corpse (been there, done that!). If you give a rat’s ass to hear it described better, you could check out the “Wing of Madness” web site or the books “On the Edge of Darkness” by Kathy Cronkite, John Bentley Mays’ “In the Jaws of the Black Dogs” and William Styron’s “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (by the way, do these people sound like they’ve got something more than “the blues”?).
Clinical depression is a relentless illness, with the quality of a chinese water torture. Once the sickenss manifests itself, there is nowhere to hide and all you can do is get help and wait for the storm to pass. On average, 15 percent of the people seized by it cannot endure the wait, and they kill themselves.
Less than half of the people with this disorder are diagnosed or seek help, and one of the main reasons why they don’t go for help is because mental illness is still shrouded in mediaeval fear and shame. This shroud is maintained in part because unlike HIV, cancer and other disease that have a lethal facet, a large part of our society still thinks it’s OK to ridicule the mentally ill. There is no reason for shame as far as I’m concerned, for the brain is just another wet and squishy organ in our fallible bodies that can get sick as easily as a kidney can.
In regards to professional help, my course marks have been fairly poor, but I’m giving myself an A+ for having had enough brains to get help myself. For the last year I’ve been seeing a proper therapist who works right here at the college – Alec Kenobi. Initially I thought “How in the hell is this going to help me – I’ll talk, he’ll talk – so what? This is hopeless.”
Well, I learned that genuine therapy does work, but it is not a simple motivational talk that works overnight – it takes time. Seeing Alec regularly allowed some part of his persona to inhabit my twisted mind, and I relied on that in the times when I couldn’t see him. He was a living example for me of intelligence, good humour and success, things that I had thought were forever lost.
It’s chic for people in any kind of psychological recovery these days to say, “If X hadn’t happened, I’d be dead.” It’s easy to say, but I can’t say because I really don’t know. What I do know is that when I try to conjure from my imagination a scenario in which I could have managed without Alec, I can’t do it; there isn’t one there. If I had let the artificial shame of seeing a “shrink” get the better of me, I would’ve had to rely completely on myself. I would have had my autonomy, but me and my autonomy would’ve succeeded in nothing more than a trip to Kurt Cobain country.
Before any of you pick up a pen with the intent of delivering unto me a gentle lesson about free speech and the ability to take a joke – don’t bother, because I don’t believe in censorship and if Jane Doe wants to continue to make fun of mental illness, I think that’s just super.
But know this – it is the mark of a weak comedian to take a shot at a popular, easy target, and making fun of Prozac in the ’90s displays the same bankruptcy of imagination and lack of talent as it did to make a big boob joke about Dolly Parton in the ’70s. Thankfully, if anyone included such tired crap in their act today, they would be considered a quaint antiquity.
I have faith that with the passage of time, common sense will win out and people will stop making fun of Prozac, because while medical science has produced a medicine that helps me with my problem, they haven’t yet developed an agent to cure chronic stupidity.
P.S. My thanks also to a great doctor, fellow students, faculty (especially Tommy Marin), and Rhea in the Bookstore for successfully helping to drag me out of 1996.