I’ve spent the last 24 hours or so thinking on and off about the NYT article “Valium’s Contribution To Our New Normal.”
When I read the article yesterday, it angered me. It was a dull, vague anger brought on by several snippets within the piece, what I guess you could call trigger sentences that made me immediately reach for the keyboard to start typing out a vehement retort to the piece.
I waited. I thought about it. I thought about why it angered me, why certain phrases made me want to grab the author by her hair and scream into her face about it.
Brain styling. Pills of choice. Feeling like yourself. Normal. Medicating our way to a happier life. Unjangle nerves.
All those words and phrases? They are part of the reason there is a stigma facing people with mental health issues and why people who medicate face a bigger stigma.
There are too many people, armed with Google discovered symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADD, etc., who run to their doctors, rattle off the list of symptoms and ask for a prescription. What they don’t tell their doctor is they just want to study longer or take the edge off or disconnect for a bit or see if they can focus more on the job they hate. They don’t suffer from mental illness. They have not been diagnosed with any disorder. They’re just medicating in much the same way housewives back in the 60s medicated with Valium. It may not be recreational, but it sure as hell isn’t necessary.
And that leaves those of us on medication lumped in with the plethora of people who are popping pills just to deal with the ups and downs of every day lives “normal” humans face in the course of a day. That’s why I hear “just deal with it” or “you don’t need meds, you just need a drink” or “you’re just using it as a crutch.”
Drug of choice.
And for my daughters’ generation, the millennials, the pills of choice tend to be Ritalin and Adderall, for mental focus
There. That’s the sentence.
Pills of choice.
I’ve got news for you, lady. This is not a choice. Depression and anxiety is not something I have chosen to have. I did not choose to grow up feeling like I was living in a dark shadow. I did not choose to have my first full blown panic attack at 14 in the middle of a Grateful Dead concert. I do not in any way choose to not be able to fully enjoy my life, I do not choose to constantly feel like my world is closing in on me, I do not choose to some days not want to leave my house out of fear of everything that exists outside of it, I do not choose to drive to the store with my hand white knuckling the steering wheel because in a five mile drive I’ve managed to conjure up every bad thing that can happen between here and there. I do not choose to not be able to complete basic tasks like mailing out tax returns and I do not choose to make the people in my life wonder what the hell they have done wrong because I’m crying or sad or worried for no fucking reason. And I certainly do not have a drug of choice. Drug of choice implies a want. I do not want this. I never wanted to take Paxil or Wellbutrin or Xanax. I never chose this; it chose me. These drugs are not happy fun time. These drugs are not candy on display in a store where you can figure out which one is going to be like opening a package of instant happiness. I do not choose drugs. I do not have a drug of choice. I have a drug of necessity. There’s a huge difference between some agitated college student gulping down someone else’s Adderall so they can stay up all night cramming for a final and someone who has to wake up every day and take a pill so they can fit in with the world’s broad and skewed definition of normal and so they can get through the day without wondering if this will be they day they’ll end up in committing themselves to a mental institution.
Taking a pill to feel normal, even a pill sanctioned by the medical profession, led to a strange situation: it made people wonder what “normal” really was. What does it mean when people feel more like themselves with the drug than without it? Does the notion of “feeling like themselves” lose its meaning if they need a drug to get them there?
You want to know what myself feels like? It feels like emptiness. It feels like a dark, vast hole. It feels like confusion. It feels like anger and sadness, like maniacal happiness holding hands with bleak depression. It feels like envy and bitterness because you don’t feel like everyone else does. It feels like joy slipping through your fingers. It feels like endless nights bloated with monsters and phantoms that slap you around.
I don’t know what the hell normal is, so I don’t know if I feel it. What’s normal? Who is to say? When I first started on medication I said “Holy crap, is this what it feels like to be normal?” and then I realized I had no basis for measuring normalcy. To me for over 30 years, normal had felt something like a closet crammed with explosives labeled with emotions, never knowing which ones would go off and when, or how long the fireworks would last. Normal was people constantly asking what’s wrong with me and me not having an answer. I don’t know if I feel more like myself with the drugs because I have no fucking idea what myself feels like. Being me has never been a consistent thing. So how would I know?
I don’t feel more like myself with drugs. I feel more like I can function. I feel more like I can contribute to society. I feel more like I can think with clarity, react with proper emotion and not keep the number of South Oaks hospital in my wallet. That’s kind of the opposite of what I’ve known myself to be. So no, I dont feel more like myself. I feel like someone else and even though I’m ok with this person I am with the drugs, I still have no idea if this person is normal because no one can say what normal is and I resent anyone who tries to make me feel like I need to attain some sort of standard of perceived normalcy.
People who speak like that make me think they have no idea what mental illness looks like. Guess what? It’s not always the disheveled woman on the corner yelling at an invisible friend. It’s not alway the guy who walks into a movie theater with a gun. It’s me. It’s people you know. It’s people you work with, people you hang out with. Some of us are on drugs. And we don’t know what the hell you want from us. You tell us our mental illnesses are imagined. You tell us we just need to grin and bear it. You tell us our drugs are dangerous. You tell us our drugs are a choice and that’s akin to saying our mental illnesses are a choice. And a great disservice is done to every single one of us every time an article is published where people dismiss the various forms of depression and anxiety as if they were just common colds that will go away with a few swigs of NyQuil and taking better care of ourselves. It’s worse when lumped in those articles are anecdotes about “millennials” whose “new normal” is to pop pills meant for serious mental issues the way we used to take NoDoz to stay awake and alert. This is not the new normal, people. It’s been the norm for a lot of people for a long time and we’re not making light of it. But for some, we’re just a punchline to a joke, or our issues get a standard response of “Oh, so that’s your drug of choice?”
It’s not a choice. And if you think it is, you are hopelessly clueless and maybe should write about something you are more familiar with. Or perhaps, even better, talk to some people who live with not only the albatross of mental illness, but the stigma that still comes with it.