It’s 1998 and I’m sitting on the long front porch at Kate Simpson’s house on Cora Street in Portland, Oregon. Freshman year is over. The end-of-year parties have stopped and the Pacific Northwest sun, shy at first, has grown hot enough that we can sit here languidly, our feet up on the dusty railing, drinking amaretto sours and fanning ourselves in the golden afternoon. ‘We’ is me, Kate, and Kate’s three glamorous housemates, one our year and two older. They’re brilliant, and picture-perfectly Portland hipster. Lauren and Helen, the older two, rock the vintage-librarian look, thrift-store dresses and old-lady glasses frames. They study serious things like anthropology and linguistics. They know French theory and a dozen tasty ways to prepare seitan. I came to college hoping that women like this existed, and I’m flushed with pleasure to be sharing their porch, like a little sister who’s been indulged to stay up with the cooler older kids.
The hanging out is easy, and talk comes and goes; we wave away flies, wiggle our toes, and smoke. Then the moment comes that has made me remember this scene for almost ten years. Lulled into a feeling of safety by the sunshine and good companionship, I say something about antidepressants. Like how I’m on them. And have been since fall break, when I came back to college sobbing and addled with dread for no clear reason. Zoloft put me back together again and I finished out the year with friends, a boyfriend, good grades, new interests. But I felt strange about my chemically-assisted recovery, as though I harbored a secret, or had gained my happiness by means of a trick, possibly a dirty one. Was I a false pretender to collegiate success, to feeling good? A big fat phony? Maybe even a traitor to myself?
I don’t remember why I made the confession about my Zoloft secret but I can’t forget what happened next. Helen started to nod, slowly. “I take that too,” she said. “I was on Prozac earlier this year,” added Lauren. And on down the line we went; every person on the porch was or had been on antidepressants. Surprised, we all stared for a minute at the street. A couple stray weeds poked through the cracks in its pebbled surface, where the asphalt pushed together and up like volcanic strata.
“This is so weird,” somebody said. I must have known the statistics already, about how some garishly high percentage of college students take psychiatric medicine, but those numbers had never crossed into the reality of my own life. I would not have guessed that these attractive, admirable, flat-out cool older women could have felt the same kind of lacerating alienation that I had earlier the same year. Were we all, actually, sick? In the head? Could that be?
I thrilled to the dawning idea that perhaps whatever was wrong with me was not entirely a private disaster. I’d always thought that my depression, my prone-ness to fall apart, was a dark inheritance from my father, or maybe both my parents; I’d thought, or been raised to think, of our family as uniquely cursed. Only now it seemed maybe we weren’t. The individual had just become social, and I didn’t have to think of myself anymore as a mentally troubled kid, or just that, but as a member of a demographic—white female college students—that was being handed a psychiatric diagnosis and prescribed a pharmaceutical treatment for it at an alarmingly, no, suspiciously pronounced rate.
I’d been swallowing some Foucault along with my Zoloft, and that afternoon on the porch I thought I could almost begin to see the faint, but unmistakable, webs of power and capital and discourse that entrained us all in their subtle grasps. I imagined them as golden threads, twining around our wrists and ankles in the late-afternoon sun. How could we all be taking drugs? What was going on here? This suddenly seemed a story bigger than the question of personal misery, though it certainly involved that. This was the place where the rubber of personal misery met the road of culture and society and history. This was an interesting, freaky place, a Mystery Spot whose secrets I vowed, then and there—on behalf of Helen and Lauren and all the other bright, admirable undergrads sitting on their halcyon porches, taking Prozac and feeling weird about it—to try to understand.
It’s 2007 and I haven’t been feeling good. I know the signs by now, but I’m always surprised by how real it feels. I’m going down. I know it because New York City is changing. I gauge my progress to a Bad Place by the proliferation of sadistic headphone-listeners on the morning subway. You know: the ones who are listening to reggaeton at tinny top volume in a packed car just to fuck with me. Right: not just to fuck with me. I know. Nevertheless I find myself wanting to rip the earbuds from their ears and scream, “What’s wrong with you? You’re wasting your lives!” But I haven’t got the energy. And a small voice inside whispers that perhaps what I’m truly irritated with is myself. So I move to the other end of the car where, inevitably, another headset or three beat their staticky monotony into a carful of brains. And that’s how the days go, lately: Like an irritable robot I move from work to train to home, box to box to box.
No, things aren’t going that great. These last couple months I perceive with what feels like crystal clarity that my life has been a series of mistakes. They’ve flowed together like the tributaries of a giant river, to form the greatest mistake of all, which is the present. My flaws surpass my ability to understand them. I sit on the train gritting my teeth against the headphones, and I stew about myself. I know that this stewing is self-indulgent, a further mistake. I can’t stop it, though; I can only take note of it, and add it to the roster of flaws, errors, and false starts. Off this homebound, evening-rush-hour train is a street that garbage stretches down the length of. I’ll get off the train and walk the street of garbage to my room, above which lives a neighbor whose television set drones through the floor like a malevolent insect. I hate him. I hate myself. I’d like to leave this place but I perceive that my problems are portable, ingrained; I’d take them with me like a hermit crab who carries her home on her back. I only have about ten thoughts anymore; they repeat in the world’s boringest shuffle in my mind and there is, essentially, no volume control.
And then, a day comes when I do not feel this way. I wake up and instead of the sluggish clanking-on of the fear machine, there’s…a pale wash of green outside the billowing sheer black-and-white curtains that I bought at Urban Outfitters months ago because I liked them. Good choice! I think. Pretty. The trees outside the window are leafed out. I wonder what kind of trees they are. Maybe my mother would know. Maybe I should ask her. My upstairs neighbor is walking around and his feet still fall heavily on the floor, and it’s still annoying, but not in a makes-me-want-to-die kind of way. More in a makes-me-want-to-look-for-a-top-floor-apartment-someday kind of way.
How do I explain this, feeling OK? It’s sweet, wonderful, and anticlimactic. I talk to a friend on the phone. I say the same things I said the day before: my job has ups and downs, my love life’s…ambiguous. But my voice is bright this time, and it isn’t just an act. The tone of my voice says: things’ll get better! I’m doing fine! There’s so much to be grateful for!
It’s a well-known fact about depression that depressives tend to see their lives, when they’re down, as thoroughly depressing—unmitigated failure from beginning to end. When the depression lifts, so does the monochrome life-assessment. Depressives are all revisionist historians. They know what it is to stretch wildly divergent interpretations around a single framework of facts. It’s a disconcerting feeling, knowing that the life story that seems like a laundry-list of errors one month will scan as not too shabby or even something to feel real proud of the next. We tend to like to think of ourselves as rational beings, our mental states as a set of sensible reactions to external circumstance. Given that, mood swings are humbling, and depressives know it better than anyone else.
One of the ironies of antidepressant medication is that they can make this phenomenon even worse. When you wake up one morning, without having taken anything, and feel better, you can preserve a sense of autonomy by falling back on the unconscious. You can tell yourself and others that you must have worked through it in your sleep, had an epiphany, weathered the storm. You can pretty much maintain that there’s an entity called you and that you somehow deserve credit for having turned things around. Add antidepressants to the picture, and it’s harder to congratulate oneself for figuring things out. They can knock you sideways, place a bold caesura in the middle of your story. Your fatal, well-planned, fully-substantiated beef with life evaporates—remembered but as un-feelable as a toe you stubbed last year—and you may feel relieved, but also a tad humiliated. And you’d invested so much in feeling bad. You had reasons, deeply held beliefs about how terrible the world is. And you took a pill, and they went away. Antidepressants can make you wonder whether your most painstakingly worked-out thoughts are just a scaffold thrown up to lend an appearance of objectivity to something as wispy and senseless as a mood. They can make it hard to believe in the reliable character we like to call the self.
During the Bad Period, I made an appointment and went to a psychiatrist with a little office off Union Square. Her cramped waiting room overflowed with knick-knacks, doilies, and an action figure of Freud brandishing a cigar. She wrote me a prescription for Celexa, but not before considering whether I might not have a wan, penumbral form of bipolar II. “Do you ever get really excited about things?” she asked. This was one of her diagnostic questions. Nevertheless, I liked her.
I haven’t cashed in the prescription for the Celexa yet. I’ve been relieved not to need it, glad to have avoided the knocked-sideways-ness of antidepressants for now. Still, it makes me feel safer—strange, but safer—knowing the prescription is in there, its crabbed handwriting nestled next to the ones and fives in my wallet.
It’s 2007 and I go out to dinner with an old friend from college days. Like me, she now lives in New York City. She has a boyfriend, a cool job, a difficult boss. She’s half a dissertation away from a totally sweet PhD. I look at her across the table and she looks the same as she always has, right down to her body language and her way of dressing. I look again and see that she is also very much like the person we would have wanted, ten years ago, to turn into.
We trade small talk and then she tells me she hasn’t been feeling that great. She’s been trying to get off Effexor, and is finally off it now but she feels bad. She misses her boyfriend, who’s living in Providence. She’s no longer sure that the museum job was such a good idea. Maybe she wants to go back to graduate school full-time. She looks at me with big, kindly green eyes that also seem a little bit tired. “The thought of having to get up and go to work every day for the rest of my life,” she says, “is making me feel really worn out.” She can’t figure out whether the bad feelings are a post-medication hangover that will fix itself as her brain learns to compensate, or an indication that she really does need medication after all, or perhaps, again, if they’re just life—which another friend told me less than a month ago, in a similar conversation, “is supposed to hurt.”
She doesn’t want to be on Effexor because she goes through withdrawal every time she misses a dose. But maybe she’ll look for something else, she says, if she goes on feeling this way. I nod, wishing I were able to give her more, or tell her, with authority, what to do.
Nothing’s changed since Portland, I sometimes think, except that I’m not surprised anymore. Antidepressants still fascinate me, but their ubiquity is no longer a shock. I’m not as fiery or indignant as I once was. Medications are a given now, part of the scenery. It hardly even matters anymore whether we’re taking them or not. They’re a possibility, in the air. Something else to consider. Once you’ve been taught, or told, to think of your moods as symptoms, you’ll catch yourself evaluating every feeling state for possible pathological undertones. When we feel, we consider family history and life choices and whether or not the sun is out, but we also think, reflexively now, about biochemistry and the goop in our brains. So I listen. And I tell my friend that I totally know what she means when she says she’s not sure whether what she needs is a different job or a different pill.
Ten years ago, during the Porch Moment, when I vowed to try to figure all this stuff out, what I wanted—in a very eighteen-year-old-kind of way—was a solution and a conclusion. I wanted to know whether we needed drugs; and if so, why. Even more than that, I wanted to build a world in which drugs would be unnecessary. To think my way out of it. Lately I’ve been appreciating that this isn’t possible. There’s nowhere to turn to for answers, because the questions aren’t empirical; they’re ethical and even aesthetic. No matter how many times the pharmaceutical companies run an ad informing you that depression is a disease “just like diabetes,” it never will be. There’s no pricking your arm to tell whether or not you are feeling the way you should. Within the very wide territory encompassing the relatively normal, when it comes to deciding what’s right for you, you’re pretty much on your own.
And so it occurs to me, as I sit, unmedicated but wondering if I should or would like to be, with my friend who is wondering the same, that this is how it’s going to be from now on. We will return to these questions, this conversation, for the rest of our lives. At the same time, the choice of whether or not to take antidepressants has started to seem less troublingly important to me lately. I’ve been starting to think that maybe the antidepressant dilemma is, at bottom, not so different from any of the other dilemmas of life, all rooted in the fact that we’re obliged to make choices, and in so doing, to foreclose on other things. I can’t know whom or where I’d be now if I hadn’t taken Zoloft when I was eighteen. I can’t know what things might happen to me if I started popping Celexa today. But the fact of not being able to have it both ways doesn’t torture me like it once did. I’m simultaneously less worried about not being myself, and less convinced that there’s a self to be, as in a measuring stick that could be consulted, a composite ideal me drawn up from indices of personality and potential projected along an axis of time.
I’m just me, here, now, taking a last sip of water and crumpling my napkin loosely next to the plate. Looking across the table at my old friend with the green eyes, glad to see her, to still know her after so long. The things I’ve ended up saying to her tonight don’t solve her problems or even define them. They’re just the time-worn things we say to someone we care about who isn’t feeling good, using the information at hand: Give it some time, think about what you could change, talk to me. We pay the dinner check and go outside where the post-rain sky is deep blue; the air heavy and damp. We hug goodbye. I’m not sure I’ve been all that helpful to her; I feel a blip of guilt and worry about friend things: Was I preoccupied? Did we connect? Then red lights slice around the corner, through the dusk, and I’m running to catch my bus, edging away as we call over our shoulders “Take care of yourself!” and “Let’s do this again soon!”
Katherine Sharpe, a writer based in Brooklyn, is the editor of 400words.com