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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Prozac Nation, Prozac Me

Almost twenty million people in America take Prozac or another anti-depressant like it. Millions upon millions more people around the world take Prozac by a different trade name. Recent reports claim that users of the serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitor kind of anti-depressant, which Prozac is, can become more depressed, hostile, psychopathic, and even suicidal, the very condition anti-depressants hope to mediate. As a footnote, however, many people are happy with the results they are getting from Prozac; and that would include me.

While I am not a proponent of prescription-drug use and abhor the power of the pharmaceutical companies over our nation's health (or lack of it), I discovered Prozac on a desperate visit to the doctor. I was having both menstrual and menopausal symptoms, and nothing at the health-food store was working. I was sleepless, irritable, anxious, and frightened at the lack of control I had over my body. I was surprised at the sudden impulse to take off all my clothes anywhere --- while driving, in the supermarket, outdoors in the middle of the night.

I was having both hot and cold flashes that were most virulent in the evening, and I was not getting enough sleep: just as I would begin to fall asleep, my body would heat up so feverishly that I had to throw off all blankets and clothing and sometimes rush outdoors for cool air. Perhaps ten minutes would pass before my body cooled down, but then it would cool off to freezing and I would need to put clothing and covers back on again. This cycle went on all night until I managed to fall asleep from exhaustion. This hellish phenomenon of disturbed sleep night after night, along with days of disrupted work (I slept through the morning alarms) made me highly agitated. I was being driven mad.

As a last resort, I found myself in the doctor's office begging for a medication that would instantly remove the overwhelming, crazy-making myriad of flashes, moods, aches, and pains. I had always suffered from dysmenorrhea growing up and regularly missed school because of it. I might have been able to succeed at a career in my adult life had I not been forced to miss work 12-24 days out of the year. I was at wit's end on the day I met the doctor for an ultimate cure.

It was to my great surprise that the doctor recommended Prozac. I told him I thought I was, well, too smart to need a drug like that. However, he explained, besides its reputation as the "happy drug," Prozac was known to moderate and reduce the severity of both menstrual and menopausal symptoms. While I seldom ever see a male doctor these days and would not ordinarily have trusted the advice of one, I was too sick to worry about who took care of me on so short a notice. Besides, I was eager to feel better.

It was to my even greater surprise to witness the results after taking the lowest prescribed doses of Prozac: I became completely symptom-free. I was happy to feel better, of course, but I was not on a "high" courtesy of the "happy drug." Rather, any enhanced state of well-being was mostly attributable to being able to sleep again.

I stayed on Prozac for a couple of years until I changed my daily routine to include yoga, running, and a diet that eliminated sugar. After speaking with a chiropractor about possible long-term effects of Prozac, I weaned myself off and managed well without it until December of 2010.

One possible long-term effect of taking Prozac could be that the reuptake-inhibitor action that keeps serotonin levels concentrated in the brain could begin to malfunction. As the body normally regulates itself through opening and closing or starting and stopping processes, the reuptake inhibitor action keeps "valves" open that usually shut and then reopen and shut again and so on. The "valves," so to speak, have a chance to rest. Just like a gate that has been held open for a long time, its mechanism may rust in place, give up resistance, and no longer close properly. What that could mean to a Prozac user is hallucinations and sleeplessness, much like one experiences on recreational drugs, but without the capacity to "come down." The body and its "valves" fail to rest. Of course, this is theoretical, only a guess, but as I tend to prefer not taking drugs in the first place, I thought it was a good idea to give up Prozac for a while.

It was not until homelessness became unbearable, being plagued at night with horrific anxiety and severely depressed thoughts, that I again contemplated taking Prozac. I felt I could not go on much longer; I was beginning to break and had no clear vision of a future; and I still don't, but at that very time also my application for housing had been accepted. One follows every lead, like crumbs left in the forest, to find one's way out. Call it hope; I call it desperation.

Remarkably, I was just not excited about housing. I am not sure what I expected. I guess I thought I might jump up and down and pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming. Reality looked just like it is, not a great deal of fun unless one can stir oneself up inside to a spiritual fervor and live once-removed from it all. Besides, it is a lot of work to ignore the slavery of being on the bottom of the economic pyramid and enriching the people at the top with every boring, miserably-paid hour I spend at work.

This failure to improve my sense of reality, my seeming lack of imagination, was also a clear sign. Here I had an opportunity to get out of my vehicle, and my reaction was "So what?" I knew I was going to have to push myself, but the energy for a new venture in living was simply not there. My clean diet, running, and yoga did not serve to give the extra boost I needed. Within a day, I was back in the doctor's office asking for Prozac in double the dose I used to take.

As things turned out, the housing deal with the City was not the whoop-de-do for which I might have hoped: the Housing Commission would only pay one-third of the rent based on my gross income calculated over a year. I am now living beyond my means and spending ever dollar of my hard-earned, meager savings to keep up.

Nonetheless, driving past one of my old haunts yesterday, I shuttered to recall eating cold food most of the time and using public restrooms where I could never quite feel comfortable. I had grown accustomed to constipation and having to take laxatives. I was not housed a full day before my constitution regularized, and I sleep as long as I want without fear, not having to move my vehicle at 4:00 a.m. to get to the public park when it opens to avoid the "regular" people and the police. Yes, that is worth the money alone.

Interestingly, and contrary to what I anticipated, Prozac does not take away one's thoughts: I am still depressed and my thinking is somewhat grim. What Prozac does remove is the emotional attachment to memories of loss and pain. I remember, but I am not fixated. I am not brooding and obsessed. I have problems, but they do not possess me. That is the miracle of Prozac.

Yet, I make this report with regret. I am sorry I am not strong enough to live without a drug, any kind of drug, for that matter. I am sorry for all of us who are living in a state of overwhelm. We live in such a troubled world, and none of us is immune to the pain of economic downturn, social and financial immobility, loss of housing, and all the repercussions that ripple out from these phenomena that gradually erode a peaceful existence right down to the smallest joy. It is a daily triumph to notice a clear blue sky, early-spring birds singing, and the humble sweetness of love between two people. It is in these small gifts that I am nourished and get through another day.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Christmas 2010 *

This was the year of the black hole of the heart.

While years past were challenging, 2010 felt impossible. It has been the worst year of my life. There is now less than a week to go; and if we are lucky in 2011, we are all the closer to the end of the world. I say this in kindness given the problems we have on the planet that are not going away soon enough: we are losing species at a phenomenal rate, and the lose of other species does not, in turn, bode well for our human prospects. The corporation, a behemoth of destruction, is sorely in need of a legal definition that places greater stricture on its behavior. Capitalist greed may need no further comment than what Michael Moore has already said.

The degradation of my personal inner life, however, is all I really have with which to work. That may sound like a retreat or a little too Buddhistic, but homelessness does cast one's life in its legimitate light of powerlessness over anything in the vast Otherness we confront every day. Of course, there are demands on us all from the Outside. One homeless friend constantly reminds me that I am here to work.

Now that is really ugly and demeaning because I grew up in the once-prosperous middle class from which I might make anything of myself, go anywhere, and do anything in a world of endless possibilities; but my friend's comment stinks to high heaven of Truth. There is no religion, either, that does not command we have something to do and contribute; and that is fair enough.

However, our world recently metamorphosed in a way few of us yet understand. The world is both larger and smaller at the same time. The Emerging Economies are quickly surpassing the First World in financial prospects, though our stock market is as high in volume as it ever was, despite record numbers of homeless and jobless people. Technology is produced in many parts of the world and creates a common language through the internet while access to simple necessities such as food is dwindling. (Food free of genetically-modified organisms may soon be a thing of the past.) The Good is great and the Bad is horror beyond the scope of imagination.

Driven nearly mad by my circumstance, I determined to get out as soon as possible. The nightmare of overwhelming grief that was waking me consistently out of almost every sleep had me thinking about the storage space to which I have access. The renter who lends me space there built in a heavy dowel overhead to hold clothing, quite a reach, but sturdy nonetheless. How easy it would be to buy rope, though I would have to consult the internet on making a noose and the details of how the deed is carried out most effectively.

I knew I was in trouble.

After one particularly bad night, I was confronted by a co-worker the next day with whether or not I believed in God because she needed to tell someone what had happened to her. She outlined a quite miraculous event in which desperate prayer had saved her from immediate disaster. It was a beautiful story. I cried because that story had just saved me from the deadly plot I had been hatching all morning. I have not since had the same degree of compulsion or decisiveness.

Within a day or so, I received a notice that I had been accepted into the Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program and was expected to find a place to live within its guidelines in a month's time. It was numbing, and I cannot account for the feelings of ambivalence that notice evoked in me, like a joke that is no longer funny and will not elicit even a smile. I had been through hoop after hoop of fire searching for programs by internet and telephone, filling out program paperwork, interviewing with program managers and case workers, and enduring administrative delays. I was one of thousands of worthy people who needed help, even if, like me, they all felt alone in the world and as though a mountain were going to drop on them.

There is a tremendous sense of dread that comes with homelessness, and it is not entirely in one's own mind. The behavior of the police toward the homeless is a huge factor as they have the authority to make sure a homeless person can never get up again. It is simply too much power over another person's life. (I have detailed here at Vagabond several incidences of police disregard and destruction over the months I have been writing.)

Meanwhile, the general public is convinced that homeless people are dangerous, and one of the lowest accusations is that homeless men are rapists. I do not particularly like homeless men because the ones I have met seldom bathe and smell badly; but these are the most offensive things I have ever encountered. Many do not eat or do not eat well, nor do they get sufficient rest sleeping on the ground; and many drink or do drugs that rather serve to suppress normal desire. The reality is that these men would not have the strength to chase or nab a woman and would not be capable of the physical act of rape. They tend to sleep or lie about whenever they can. Many like to read books or listen to the radio. Some visit the local library to use the internet. Homeless men are far from being anyone's worst dream.

Nonetheless, the mythology of the homeless perpetuates ugly stereotypes that keep them from receiving the compassion and real services they need for support if they are ever to get off the street. The mythology also keeps the police busy when there is apparently nothing else for them to do. For example, rookie cops are often broken in with the harassment of a homeless person, waking him up, shaking him down, handcuffing him, putting him in the police car, and driving him to jail where he stays several nights before being let out because there is no reason to hold him. And this is routine.

The good cop/bad cop game is played out, too. The police have their own version of homeless prevention, called the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). I have placed several phone calls to this group in the hopes of learning what they do and what they might be able to do for me, as I have left no stone unturned. My calls were never answered, despite assurances by beat police that the Team would respond. I have seen the HOT van parked here and there and have seen it pass by on the street, but I cannot tell you after all this time what HOT does or is supposed to be doing.

Perhaps the worse blow to any homeless person is losing all your friends, as that will eventually happen. No one can bear to hear homeless stories every time they phone to inquire about you, and few housed people have the kind of economic security that seemed to be the right of every American just a few years ago. The crushing weight of the homeless person's fears, depression, isolation, and hopelessness take a toll on even the best of friends. There is little left in common in fact as one's homeless life is an unshared bare-bones existence.

As for family, few people can tolerate the expectations engendered by this institution under normal conditions, much less the judgments and sense of failure evoked by a straightforward admission of the truth of one's situation. I would have considered the noose sooner than I did. It is not easy, all the same, sugar-coating one's life for family consumption. So far as anyone knows, we are all just fine, and all the usual normative assumptions, that is, that we all have a place to live and eat reasonably well and so on, hold true.

That homelessness is an unshared life is perhaps the most tragic outcome. Many people have a fictionalized version of homelessness in mind, as I did when I first decided to live in my truck. We were not hopping trains with Woody Guthrie; and far from sitting around the campfire at night, we scattered each to our own hidey-holes, places where the police were not likely to find us. We could not congregate for fear of calling attention to ourselves; and it is against the law to sleep in one's vehicle, even to nap in broad daylight. Just like prison camp interns, the homeless have a near-complete isolation from the rest of the world and little sense of home. The reality of being constantly watched by police, because they guard the streets in their cars round the clock, cut off most avenues of fellowship.

Of course, my life is different now; and without any conscious effort, I am dissociating from homelessness. I have little desire to go back and visit the homeless people I knew, not because I now eschew that kind of life, but because we could not manage to build that commonality like neighbors in the usual sense would do. As much as we had in common, it would never translate into lasting friendships.

And what would I say? I am not yet sure my life is better, and those I now meet in a more normative setting are far from better people. The homeless are honest, unspoiled, and realistic, not out of virtue, but because their poverty and status as non-citizens makes them so.

The terror of homelessness must run deep in the human psyche. There may be collective memories spanning centuries of losing our homes to marauders and war parties that reached our villages. Whatever the case, as a society, we seem to need to turn our backs on the homeless and deny with every fiber of our being the reality that we have no right or guarantee to a place to live. There is no inalienable right to a home in the Constitution of the United States, a nation missing an essential building block, built without a foundation, when seen in this light. In God We Trust takes on new meaning here as the only home we possess we owe only to an inner spiritual sense that there is a better world somewhere beyond this one.

We are all fundamentally homeless, dependent upon the mercy of someone higher up on the food chain who employs us. Our human culture is pyramidal, that is, many people supporting a few at the top, no matter whether the country is capitalist or communist. What we learn from the symbolism of the pyramids in Egypt or in Mexico is that the pyramid as a structure is unstable. All lost cultures modeled on the pyramid now lie in ruins; and there may be no end to the exploitation of people and other living things until this structure is consigned to the past.

Our hopes lie in the circle of life.

* Note: Writing was begun on December 26, 2010, and completed on February 13, 2011.