Autumn is settling in here in the Slachthuisbuurt. The neighborhood cats are staying indoors a bit more, much to the delight of the neighbors, and what the Dutch call “The Low Sky” has come to stay: dark clouds carrying the threat of a downpour, but also the possibility of a rainbow afterwards. Highs and lows. They are both a bit more vivid these days because I am now drug free.
I’ve always suffered from anxiety, even as a kid. As I got older, that sometimes tipped into depression, a couple of times even severe. I’ve tried the whole “cognitive behavioral therapy” route twice, but to be honest, it doesn’t do much for me. I know how I’m supposed to think, but I find it laughable that I would choose to do so when doom, with a tip of the hat to the ever-optimistic Edgar Allan Poe, clearly sits perched like a raven above my chamber door.
Case in point, this story has been rejected by three different outlets that pay.
I chose a profession almost guaranteed to make my anxiety worse: broadcast journalism. Tight daily deadlines, big egos, gigantic amounts of “never good enough,” fake empathy, and near-constant arguing among people who think they’re better informed than anyone else around them. It’s true that many are, by the way. It’s also true that journalists, first and foremost, are supposed to listen.
In a strange way, I thought all this would challenge my own perception of myself. Maybe I could be more than an asocial bookworm, and find some new aspect of my personality? What I found instead was that I am an asocial bookworm with a keen ability to act like I’m not. Journalism is full of such actors. And also their non-empathetic relatives—sociopaths.
I have talked before about the stress of showrunning a daily radio program. The pressures made the anxiety much worse, and far more general. That’s why I finally went to the doctor and asked for drugs. His chemical weapon of choice was Sertraline, generic Zoloft. Within just a few weeks, I could feel dramatic differences. If you’ve taken it, you know. The sharp edges go dull, and you can actually stick yourself into the world again without the fear of slicing off parts of yourself. Or parts of your friends, family, or coworkers.
The major drawback? The dullness, the great flattening of the world, means you simply don’t feel as much. The medicated middle is very wide, and also very deep. You’ll find it harder to cry, and I mean really cry, and also harder to belly laugh. You may also want to fall asleep every day around 3 pm, which in the news business isn’t good. Sorry, Jesus, but reheated morning coffee was my lord and savior.
I missed my daily dose of Zoloft now and then. It was unpleasant—mild paranoia, slight nausea, and something called paresthesia, which is medical jargon for “ants not just crawling over your skin, but double-dutching right up into your nether regions.” Horrific. Believe me, that tiny, off-white oval of blessed reality mitigation gets its hooks in you and doesn’t want you to let it go. I reached the point, and I think this is what the drug companies want, where I couldn’t imagine being functional without it.
I’ve read that others on Sertraline feel trapped in the same way. If you search online, one of the first pieces of medical advice you find is this: “Do not stop taking Zoloft, even when you feel better.” It’s all a Big Pharma head game. They might as well put it right there on the packaging: “With Zoloft, there is no poetry. But without it, there is no peace. You (in consultation with a medical professional) must choose.”
Recently, however, my circumstances changed. I left the radio doom loop behind, got business cards printed that say “Former Journalist,” and moved here to Haarlem. It was a good opportunity for me to close a 20-year chapter of my life in Boston, and say farewell to the thing that demanded so much medication. And with that done, I decided it was time to try living “Zoloftless” again.
Zoloft isn’t heroin, I get that. But for me, coming off it felt bruising enough, both mentally and physically. During the first week, there were the creepy-crawlies I had experienced before, along with severe nausea. Often, I would have bouts of sudden, debilitating dizziness that took at least ten minutes to shake off. This scared the hell out of me, especially when I was on my bike.
The second week brought depths of emotion I hadn’t felt in years. My daughter often said she found it strange that I didn’t cry when we left Boston for the Netherlands. It was the Sertraline, and now that it was leaving my system, the floodgates opened. I was sitting in our little Dutch row house, trying to soothe the ants with some favorite songs from the ‘80s (Gen-Xer. No apologies), when 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are Days” came up on the phone’s playlist. Suddenly, it was May. There was rushing, desire, miracles, everything growing and blooming in me (like a disease!) Blessed and lucky? Try fragged and flailing, Natalie Merchant! By the second chorus, I was bawling in a heap on the floor.
Three minutes later, though, the song ended and I was laughing, a little too maniacally, about the whole thing. Back and forth it went, all afternoon, song after song, until I finally found that The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane” produced no emotion in me at all. I decided not to investigate the “why?” of that too closely, for fear of ruining the effect. Here I am, indeed. Accept it. Push repeat. Danke schön.
The literature tells you that it takes at least three weeks to say goodbye to Sertraline. I’ve read that for many people, though, it’s much longer, depending on the dosage and the number of years you’ve been taking it. I guess I am a bit lucky after all. It’s been about a month now, and I only occasionally get a dizzy spell. Running and boxing help a lot. For the moment, I’m able to find enough peace to make the day bearable, and even catch a brief glimpse of some poetry now and then. The tears and laughter seem, for lack of a better word, proportional.
And if I need extra help, I’ve got waffles, strong Dutch coffee, and Pepper the Kitten.
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