Wednesday, July 6, 2011
What is the Question?
When I was put on lithium at around age 35, I was told I would have to take it the rest of my life. My long depressions and manias had been so destructive that I was glad to finally have a diagnosis, and fully cooperative. Bear in mind that before the internet, you had to go to a medical library to research these things.
But in 1999 the psychiatrist I'd worked with for nine years took a job out of town, and I was transferred to a new guy, who took one look at my kidney functions and yanked me off lithium. That's a story I want to tell, and a long one. For now I'll just say, I never should have been taken off without cautious ramping down. Psychotropics are powerful, and withdrawal can be a bitch. I know - over time I went off not just lithium, but the other nine drugs that doctor had me on. I know, read it and weep.
Once I had gotten through the withdrawals, I thought I had triumphed, and would never take those drugs again. My creativity had increased tenfold. I wrote and wrote, I won some awards, I did readings. I could now expect to write a poem every morning I found out what I had been missing. I had been creative during those over-medicated years, but nothing like this. I now defined myself as A Poet.
I went along without psychotropics for over ten years, vastly aided by the discipline and calming power of spiritual practice, by Teachers and therapist, by a kind, patient husband. Then comes kidney transplant. I don't know whether they do this at every hospital, but at OSU they give every kidney recipient 500 mg. of steroids before the surgery begins, and another 500 afterwards.
You don't want to do this. 'Roid rage pales beside what I experienced. I got through it, I thought, and could even manage to doze off for a few hours once they gave me Ativan at night. But once I was released and the anaesthetic wore off, I couldn't get to sleep at night. For hours. Worked with a psychiatrist at OSU Medical Center who tried Ambien, then Lunesta, and they simply didn't work. I tried all kinds of lifestyle things that are advised for insomniacs. They didn't work. What a mess. You can't heal if you can't sleep. So the psychiatrist suggested a low dose of Seroquel. A psychotropic that can calm the fevered mind and make you drowsy. Once again, I was ready for anything that would help. And it has.
The wonderful Zen Teacher, Robert Aitken, was asked when he was ninety or so, "What is the most important thing?"
He replied, "A good night's sleep."
Ah yes. The functioning of the human body and mind depends on it.
Right away the Seroquel slowed down my poet's mind. In the four months since I started taking it, I have written only four poems. I think any serious poet would think that's okay, if you're pleased with them. I tend to see it as "not writing poetry anymore." There you are.
I'm taking this as a sort of experiment. I don't know whether the day will come when I try going off Seroquel. There are things about it that I like. I am more organized, better able to prioritize and then do those necessary tasks. It even shows in the house, which is getting more organized one drawer at a time.I love that.
But back to my main concern. The question is not "Should I take meds or not?" The question is, "What do I need to do to live the way I want?" Many young artists refuse lithium and similar drugs because they see their creativity as their central identity. I'm here to say, it isn't. Your central identity is the health of your body. Once it goes, you and what you conceive of as your identity are gone. And you won't care then, I think, whether anyone reads your poems.