Firing One’s Shrink (part four: finale and comic relief)

I have apparently been bumming you guys out for the whole week, forgetting that you don’t see the future (of the notepad document) like I do. However, I think we’ve had a good run here, and it seems that we’ve started a teensy bit of a conversation about this whole thing. Not to sound “art school,” but part of the reason for this was to start a conversation about some stuff that is considered a bit of a party foul in bar/work/party situations. The other part was to get it all out, wrap it up in a nice red bow, and slide it to the back of the closet. And so: the red bow.

Some quick tips if you want to go off your brain drugs:

1. Exercise.
We all know how questionable “studies” can be, but studies have shown that regular exercise may be as good as taking anti-depressants. Exercise forces you to care about yourself for at least an hour a day. If you’re into thinking, you can get a lot of that done on a treadmill (I, however, am into vampire books, not thinking, ha ha). If you’re anxious, exercise will help wear you out enough to get some sleep. If I do a good job at kicking my own ass, I pass out around 10:00. It’s a hard pass-out, where you wake up with your glasses next to you in the bed and don’t remember what was on tv when you fell asleep. It’s a lot like vodka, but without making you fat, giving you wrinkles, using up your money and making you forget where your phone is. Speaking of vodka…

2. Don’t drink.
I can hold my liquor remarkably well. I love Drunk Amy. My friends love Drunk Amy. Drunk Amy loves everybody, thinks everything is hilarious and is generally much more pleasant than I am. Trouble is, when Drunk Amy disppears, she sends bi-polar, panic attack Amy, who sticks around all the next day. Who told that bitch where I live? I HATE THAT BITCH. (At least Sober Amy just obnoxiously refers to herself in the third person.)

3. Eat Well.
Stay away from carbs and processed sugars, because they might make you a tad bi-polar. As in “I was having such a good day, and now I want to die for no good reason. What the hell? Oh…my bagel is wearing off.” I know this sounds like crazy talk coming from me because I never met a dessert I didn’t like, but I try to only eat crap rarely and in small quantites. I pretty much live on tofu and vegetables and give myself the “I’m watching you, don’t try any funny business” look if I’m about to eat cookies.

4. Watch Yourself
Going off your drugs is not the time to run around thinking that you’re all better and you don’t have to keep working on whatever got you on those drugs in the first place. You have to watch yourself closely and make sure you don’t backslide. Strangely, going off the meds has made me a lot more active in doing things that I avoided doing for a long time, just out of fear that not challenging myself will lead in some kind of unforeseen downward spiral. Friends, I give you permission to start offering to drive. (The friends are laughing right now, as this is the equivalent of saying “let’s go shopping at Abercrombie.”)

So, yeah. That sounded like it was written by one of those obnoxious “Oh, you have to take good care of yourself” people. Unfortunately, it’s true, obnoxious or not. If nothing else, taking care of yourself is an outward ritual of respecting yourself. When you have a daily ritual of treating yourself well, you are less likely to destroy yourself or let other people destroy you.

But alas, you are wondering about Paxil withdrawal. You have come for gory details, not Dr. Oz-style life coaching.

When I went down to 75% power, the only thing I noticed was some stomach upset and some very angry intestines that lasted about a week. Another week of angry stomach and intestines came when I went from 25% power to nothing. The real fun started about two weeks after I stopped completely.

It’s hard to explain, but I guess the most accurate description would be that I feel like I’m losing my mind in the most fabulous way possible. Or maybe that I went from a 19-inch CRT to a 60-inch HD flatscreen. I never felt like I was drugged into submission, I never felt like a zombie, but I guess I’d also forgotten what technicolor looked like. It had been twelve years.

It started off with things I wasn’t sure if I was imagining. “Am I spazzier than usual? Oh, who can tell?” Then, I caught myself looking at a guy’s butt at Kroger. That’s not a gray area. That’s more of a “who ARE you? what are you DOING?” area. I sang in public. I have been social. It’s like I hate humanity 20% less than I used to. Oh, don’t worry, I still totally hate people. I just hate them 20% less. 🙂

It’s like somebody broke down a dam in my brain and everything (everything) is flooding out. It’s like Katrina hitting New Orleans, but with people just wind surfing instead of losing everything they own. 90% of the things and people in my life are people I had never really seen, because they arrived after 1998. I thought I was seeing them, but I was really seeing them through a thin layer of plexiglass. It’s like I had been wearing rubber gloves for 12 years and just took them off. This either kicks ass, or I’m losing my mind. Maybe a little of both. I’m new here.

“But Amy…you’re avoiding one of the issues.”

OK, fine. There are parts of me that might as well be attached to a 15 year old boy. If you want details, you can have them, but in person. My sister/mom/boss may be reading this, and I still have some decency left. I may be the queen of overshare, but even I am not okay with having my mom read about the goings-on of my girly parts. Warning: if you ask, I will tell you, and flesh may melt from your face. Sorry.

I now have what the shrinks would probably call “generalized anxiety.” In other words, there’s always a panic attack on-deck, bubbling under the surface. I look at it and say, “yeah, you’re going to need to put your back into that if you want it to do anything.” Having a panic attack on-deck isn’t what it used to be. I just ride it out. If anybody catches me taking my pulse or doing finger exercises, I’m just like, “yeah, I’m having a thing…don’t mind me…I just might need to go puke for a second.” What the hell do I care? I carry a toothbrush in my purse anyway.

Even as I type this, my heart feels sort of airy and hamster-like.

“Oh hey! Can I interest you in a freak out?”
“You know what? That’s getting really old. Fuck you.”
“But…would you like to freak out enough to make yourself puke?”
“Not since 1993, jackass.”

One last thing.

Many of you have repeatedly heard me championing the idea that people need to be on brain drugs in the same way that diabetic people need insulin. Like, people need brain drugs because some chemicals are wrong in their brains, not because those people are just pussies who need a crutch. Am I completely selling out everything I’ve been telling you for 12 years?


I fully expect that my brain will continue to misfire on occasion and make me feel like I’m being chased by a bear for no discernible reason. My brain chemistry probably hasn’t changed one bit since 1998. What has changed is the way I respond to it. In 1998, I lived in fear of the airy, hamster-like feeling in my chest. In 2010, I just look at it and go, “really, jackass?” It’s still frustrating, scary and hard to explain, but experience says that it can’t keep that shit up for any real length of time. You just have to ride it out.

It’s like the little fear voice just keeps trying to scare me, and I keep saying “I’m sorry. Have you BEEN here the last 4 years? Have you seen this? I fucking dare you to come up with something scarier all on your own.” Almost all of the things I feared most in the world have happened in the last four years, and I’m still here. Someone broke into my house. A parent died. A friend smashed me into a wall and then died. Another friend died. I did my best work and was told it wasn’t good enough and I was fired. I went on a series of dates with guys who all but told me I should take what I can get cause I’ve passed 30. It was like an endless parade of people lining up to kick me in the face. Every time you think you’ve gotten it back together and start getting up off the ground, life comes by and kicks you in the face and you’re on the ground again.

With all due respect, life, you didn’t get me. Oh, you almost got me. You had me drinking, stress eating, and thinking “what if I just drive right into that pole over there?” You put forth a really good effort, but you didn’t get me.

You. Didn’t. Get. Me.

Bring me my sword.

Firing One’s Shrink (part 3: unleash the tmi)

When I wrote yesterday’s post, I wrote it knowing that it would need to sit around and gather dust for a couple months. Maybe it’s just a ruse to keep people sucking at the Glaxo SmithKline teat but they say that, if you go off Paxil, you may never get it to work again. In other words, people who go off Paxil are told “don’t leave unless you’re sure you’re never coming back.” Scary. It’s like Paxil is a cigar-smoking man wearing a wifebeater, drinking a PBR: “I made you! Don’t think you can just come back!”

How did we get here?
Who let me start living with that guy?
Why would anyone walk into that?

TMI, part one: nowhere to go but up.

The year is 1998. I am living in a dorm at Belmont. I am living almost entirely in that dorm, since I’ve been skipping classes for fear of panic attacks. I have quit my internship early because I can no longer drive to Brentwood (I lie and say that I’ve over-committed). Any sleep I get happens whenever I pass out with the tv on, because silence brings on panic attacks, too. Everything brings on panic attacks. I can’t go to the grocery store, but that’s not so big a deal, since I’m living on whatever I can shove in my face in roughly 3 minutes. Once I realize I’ve eaten something, I immediately feel even more nauseous than usual. I usually have four or five fingers bleeding because I pick at them constantly. I tell no one this, partly because I wasraised to be a bulletproof thing, and partly because I don’t have the words. What will eventually be sorted into English and typed on a screen is just a shapeless mass of feeling, locked in my head, swirling around, banging up against my skull. That mess shuts up for roughly 3 hours a day, when I go to an empty banquet hall and play a delicious 9-foot grand piano, under dim-switched lights.

Since we spoke of apologies yesterday, this may be an excellent time to give props to the guys who dated me and my roommate in said dorm. Can you imagine? The patience of Job, I tell ya. At one point, my roommate came home to find literally everything on my side of the room on the floor (where I’d thrown it) and me sitting atop the pile crying. Crazy much?

Eventually, in the progress of one’s crazy, one looks down the barrel of the stigma of hiring a shrink. You don’t want to go there. You don’t want to admit in front of God and everybody that you are not coping very well. You don’t want people to find out. Then, you realize that you live in a tiny little box, have no life left, can’t hold down a job and really, sincerely want to die. There’s nowhere left to go but up.

You throw the hail mary and call a shrink.

I’d waited too long. That poor man couldn’t even peel me off the ceiling to get me to talk. I couldn’t talk to him anyway because I had no idea where to start and what I had wasn’t English. It was a shapeless mass, swirling around, banging up against my skull. My brain was whipping around, trying its best to outrun itself. (PS: trying to outrun yourself is really tiring and doesn’t work.)

Shrink #1 and I had our sessions while walking around the block at Vanderbilt because I felt trapped in his office. Bless him, he pretended like that wasn’t seriously batshit crazy, but it wasn’t getting better. I was about to stop going because the sessions were just one more thing to have to survive each week. I was prepared to plead my case for drugs, thinking he’d fight me. I didn’t get a fight; I got a referral to the guy who could prescribe.

Enter Paxil, stage left. Enter also sweating, shaking, lack of sleep, dizzy spells, teeth grinding, and some serious lack of below-the-waist awareness (trying to make that sound ladylike because my sister’s probably reading this). Here I am at Wal-Mart at 3am, walking around to wear myself out. Here I am, face down on the bed unable to lift my arms. Here I am waking up before my alarm, unable to move and thinking, “well, I’m not dead cause I can feel myself breathing.” Here I am grabbing my desk to keep from falling out my chair when the ground tilts 45 degrees. Here I am in Trainspotting.

But the panic attacks lasted half as long as were half as intense.

People expect you to just go on some drugs and be fine overnight. That’s not how it works. By the time you’re desperate enough to hire a shrink, things have probably gone years further than they should’ve. Once you’re spent 10 years diggin a hole, you can’t just jump right out. It takes years to get back all of what you lost. Driving on the highway, going to restaurants, going to movies, making plans, dating, having a job, riding in other people’s cars, getting on airplanes…

I’ll call myself out before one of you does.
I haven’t been on a plane in 16 years.

Now, that’s just because I don’t have a reason to get on a plane. I’d still be so nervous that everyone would peg me for a suicide bomber, but I could do it if I had to. I have discovered vodka, and I’m not above it.

I tell you all this so maybe you’ll understand why I stayed on Paxil for so long. When something literally saves your life and then says “if you leave, you can’t come back,” you tend to stick around. I never felt drugged out of my mind. The panic attacks never went away completely. I had to learn something to get by. Favored techniques:

1. Find a song in the iPod that makes so many synapses fire that there aren’t any left. Flood your brain with something good. Maybe also sing along.

2. Focus on your right hand and play piano exercises in your head. (It looks crazy as hell, but it works.)

3. Find a cat.

4. Stop. Turn to your panic and say, “fuck you. you are not the boss of me.” Figure out where the panic is coming from. Convert it into English and write. Walk yourself through this feeling in English. Surprisingly, you frequently end up knowing what your deal is. I’m not without issues, but I can sit down and tell you what my issues are, how I got them, and what I’m doing to work on them. Part of me wishes that everyone went crazy in a way they can’t ignore. There are a lot of people out there, running around doing stupid, crazy things and never being forced to sit down and say “Why am I doing this? Isn’t this same thing I did a year ago? I should stop this crap.”

Toward the end of the shrinkery, I’d sit down and say “here’s the shit that I’m pulling, and here’s why I think I’m doing it.” The shrinks would just sit there feeling pointless. The hardest part is actually changing your stupid behavior, but admitting that you’re doing it and calling yourself out on it is a really good first step. Then, you just have to spend years correcting yourself repeatedly. At least 10 times a day, I have to catch myself and flatly, mentally say “stop that” in the way I do the cat when he starts digging in my sock drawer.

Of course, those four coping methods up there are just mine, and it took 12 years to find some that work almost 100% of the time. That’s the problem; a shrink can sit and listen to you talk about your childhood or point out when you’re engaging in “negative inner speech,” but they can’t say “hey, have you tried listening to Skinny Puppy really loudly?” because what works varies by the person. It’s a tangled web with no easy answer. The point of the Paxil is to keep you alive long enough to find your own answer.

Tomorrow: the joys of withdrawal, or “technicolor crazy with a 15 year old boy.”

Firing One’s Shrink (part two)

One day (in this case, a day in 1998), you catch yourself balled up in a metaphorical fetal position. The next day, you admit you need help. You spend the next 12 years having shrinks give up on you, or you end up with a shrink who’s a serious feminist and just tells you you’re fabulous (nice, but not constructive). You put up with years of frustrating visits where a well-meaning doctor tells you the same damn thing he’s been saying for years. Try meeting guys at a book signing. Try dressing differently. Have you considered the armed forces? Maybe you should get some hobbies? No, hobbies that involve other people.

The last straw was when the shrink suggested that I “try to keep a schedule.”

Half of you are laughing your asses off right now because you know I am a walking schedule. To-do lists are a food group. I’m so heavily-scheduled that I feel genuinely sorry for any guy who tries to date me. I can’t (or won’t) drop everything on an hour’s notice to hang out with you. You have to give me enough notice that I can shift things around, so as to still get everything done. If I drop everything, I will eventually resent you because you have become the reason I’m not working out, not reading, not practicing, or not doing any of the other 1,000 things I was doing for years before we met. I need structure because the things I can’t control are quite enough chaos, thank you very much. (Ugh. I’m exhausting. God bless you guys.)

After the “try keeping a schedule” conversation with the shrink, I decided I could do badly all by myself. I’m tired of tracking down the shrink. I’m tired of paying for drugs. I’m tired of having my insurance rates jacked up. I’m tired of watching that change that comes across a guy’s face when I explain the two giant bottles of pills in my nightstand. Something in their eyes changes, some way that you are reflected in their eyes. It’s this “you’re not who I thought you were” look. What do you mean, you’re not bulletproof? This is OVER. I’m tired of being made to feel like I have something to apologize for.

OK, I have plenty to apologize for. Most of us do. But it’s not up to you (or Humana) to decide for me what those things are. I’m working my way through a long list of apologies that need to be given. It’s just taking a long time because I kind of suck at it.

Sidebar: it’s amazing the way that the need to apologize will eat away at your skin, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Once upon a time, an ex of mine went off to L.A. for roughly 5 years. When he came to play a show, I decided to go, even though I wasn’t sure whether I’d be welcome. Still, it was one of those easy breakups, where nobody is to blame and it just didn’t work out. Nobody’s fault.

The first thing he did when I walked up was hug me. The second thing he did, immediately after, was apologize for the breakup. He didn’t even need to, but the way it was the first thing to come out of his face burned a Polaroid in my brain. The same thing happened with my dad at one point. I’d been all pissy for several years, over some things that were only kind of in my parents’ control. He eventually took me out on the front porch and apologized for “not always being the best dad.”

First off, he was the best dad that he knew how to be at any one time, which is all you can really ask of someone. Second, when my dad was the age I am right now, he had two kids. Sometimes you have to grow up and realize that you still don’t know what you’re doing in order to forgive your parents for not always knowing what they were doing. Third, he didn’t do too shabby a job with either me OR my sister. So there.

Tomorrow: coping mechanisms, Paxil wearing a wifebeater, and more tmi than you can shake a stick at.

Firing One’s Shrink (part one)

Firing One’s Shrink (Part One)

The shrink I’ve had for the last eight years or so is a nice guy. He was shrink #3, in line after Guy Who Couldn’t Prescribe and Guy Who Disappeared For Six Months Because He Had A Nervous Breakdown. Yes, my shrink had a nervous breakdown. You can’t make that stuff up. Shrink #3 means well, cares, and doesn’t get snippy and just refer you to someone else if you question his methods. He’s a good guy and makes his best attempt to not half-ass his job. He even keeps supplying me with drugs even though I can’t currently pay him for an office visit.

All that considered, he just doesn’t get it. I don’t know what I expected of him, really. I’ve been here all day every day for 32 years and I only get it 85% percent of the time.

He spent eight years telling me that my problem is wearing too much black, being too opinionated, and not having enough of a positive attitude. I’ll admit that those things don’t help, but I’ll also follow that by saying that the path to mental health is NOT sitting around indicting yourself for everything you do. It sounds like an excuse to never work on yourself, but there’s a difference between saying, “you know, I handled that badly, and now that I know better, I’ll do better” and saying “everything I do is wrong.”

The other night, I stood in the shower trying to remember when things started going really awry in the “indicting yourself for everything” department. It was a long, slow decline, so it’s hard to say. I suspect it started with art school, the unofficial motto of the program there being “if you’re not on anti-depressants now, you will be.” In the years 2001-2008, I heard more and more people saying things right to my face that they shouldn’t have had the balls to say because they should have known that I’d call them out for it. I fell down on the job of standing up for myself, so those people had no boundaries put in place. As a result, they felt perfectly free to treat me like crap, say non-constructive things to my face, dog me out in front of friends and coworkers, and (in one charming example) lay me off six days before I was supposed to close on my house. People, like toddlers and dogs, need boundaries. Without them, they lose respect for you and run wild. (PS: I fully grasp the implication of “people are like toddlers and dogs” and, no, toddlers are not people.)

How did we get here?
How did we lose the boundaries?
How did we end up paying someone to tell us we are wrong?
Why am I using the “kingly we”?

Tune in tomorrow.