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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.


  1. Hi Kerry~ its great to see you writing! Hope things are improving.
    Rev. Cynthia :D

  2. Thank you for visiting, Rev. Cynthia. It is very good to hear from you.

  3. Kerry

    I've noticed there are websites listing places where the homeless can seek free medical and dental care. Do you have any experience with these places? They seem like a good thing, but I was wondering if there was any kind of bureaucratic waiting lists like with Medicaid.

  4. Mister Expendable,

    There are dental clinics that have lower fees depending on one's income; but, by and large, there is no free dental care worth calling it dental care. There is a free clinic somewhere in the area that will pull your teeth: that is all they will do for nothing.

    Sadly, dental is never part of "medical." I receive county medical services, on and off, but dental is not included in the coverage. County Medical Services is always changing the rules, too, so there is always a lapse in my coverage during the time I am reapplying.

    For County Medical Services, there is no wait once you have been approved, but it takes almost two months to get an appointment for application or re-application.

    There is a free mental health clinic one day a week for the homeless, and the lines and the wait are very long. There is also one main shelter here where medical and dental are free, but one must be a resident. To become a resident, one must show up and check in at the shelter at 6 a.m. on Mondays for six months (maybe longer. I forget right now.) If a person misses even one Monday at 6 a.m., he has to start all over again with the process.

    I thought long and hard about that one, but the place really is like an insane asylum.

    Thanks for writing. I hope to see you here again.


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  6. Homelessness is often airbrushed out of the traditional media and living in a tent should be by choice.

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  7. Hi Kerry,
    I was searching for blogs on homelessness and found yours. Thank you for this post-- you tackled so many difficult topics at once and did it beautifully and compassionately. Thanks for your honesty and courage. I don't know what it is to be homeless, but I do know what it feels like to be tied to one's pain and sorrows too much. I know the fear of dependency. It's all human and it's comforting that we share it. More people need to know about this.