Category Archives: Buddhism

Comfortably Numb

I used to love Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I haven’t listened to it in years, but the title of the book I’m reading, Comfortably Numb, jumped out at me when I was in a bookstore last week because it was a reference to a song from the album and the movie. I still remember the images, although it’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen the movie. An unconscious man lies in a dingy hotel room, surrounded by people furious because he can’t perform on stage. They shoot him up with something, and after a period of semi-consciousness and hallucination, he finds himself in uniform, riding in a car. The video is interwoven with images from the man’s childhood. He finds a sick rat as a small boy and wishes to nurse it. His mother won’t let him, so he takes it to a shed by the river, puts it in a box of hay, and covers it with his vest. When he returns, the rat is dead. These images contrast with war images, images of himself as a child with a fever, and the scene as he returns to consciousness after being shot up with some kind of powerful stimulant and hallucinogen.

I must confess here: I didn’t remember all the images. YouTube is a remarkable resource. I remembered the unconscious man in the dark room (played by my countryman, Bob Geldof), the men trying to slap him into consciousness, the shot, him waking up. I remember the nightmarish quality of the lighting, and the words “Comfortably numb.” The rest returned only when I saw the video on YouTube. What surprised me is how accurate the images I did remember were. I caught snapshots of the video on my brain, and those snapshots retained the mood, the shadows-and-light, the despair, of the original video.

When I saw the book, with its aptly named title, I couldn’t help but buy it, and I’ve been reading it for the past week. (I’m on break! I have time to read!) It describes a nation of malcontents who have bought into the dream of perpetual, instant happiness as a right, and who have fallen under the drug industry’s spell. In their millions, they march into doctors’ offices around the nation to demand whatever drug they’ve seen advertised on TV that week. “Pharmacists say that in the days after a news story or a new DTC [Direct to Consumer] ad for a medication comes out they observe a massive increase in prescriptions for that medicine” (48), writes author Charles Barber.

He validates the horrible experience I had when on antidepressants after my mum died when he writes of the side effects of tardive dyskinesia and akathisia, which he calls, “the worst common side effect, in my observed experience” (88). While his references to these effects are for antipsychotic drugs rather than antidepressants, in some patients — and I was one of them — SSRI medication can cause both akathisia and tardive dyskinesia. In my case the tardive dyskinesia, which often is permanent, was temporary, lasting only two or three weeks.

In addition, he described a Welsh study in which healthy college students were given SSRI medication. No less than 10 percent developed “horribly disturbing suicidal and homicidal tendencies, completely alien to anything they had ever experienced. One person imagined slitting her throat and bleeding to death next to her partner” (58).

I am not alone. I read his words and felt another wave of relief wash over me. While I have no doubts about what happened to me almost four years ago, occasionally my little toad voice will creep in. It was you. No one else would have reacted that way. Look at all the people you know who take antidepressants and are just fine. You imagined it all.

No. I didn’t. And I didn’t imagine that the doctor released me after only two days, and that the insurance company didn’t charge me for the hospital stay, although it should have. Why not? Why did the doctor release me immediately after I told him what had happened? Sometimes, when I see those personal injury solicitation ads like the one I linked to above, I think I should pursue it. I know I have a case. But I’m not going to because it’s not my way. I’m just happy that slowly there’s a growing awareness of how dangerous SSRI’s can be. Maybe, eventually, the medical field or the FDA will restrict prescription rights to psychiatrists who are trained in adverse reactions, contra-indications and other potentially deadly dangers of the brain medication that today doctors hand out with very little prompting.

I’m not saying — and neither is Barber — that antidepressants don’t have their place. But he distinguishes between depression and Depression. We’re all depressed sometimes. Grief can bring on depression, as can divorce, life-threatening illness, and other life challenges, all of which I dealt with within a very short period of time that terrible year. But Depression is different. The only Depression I’ve ever had was caused by the drugs that were supposed to treat it, and I had to get off them to get over it.

My path has swerved, as it so often does, in writing. I thought I would write about a phrase from Barber’s book that I read and that pushed me back into my teen years, another stab at my constantly stalling retrospective. But I found myself considering the phenomenon of antidepressants and the American psyche instead, and remembering my own experience on those drugs. Barber has a solution, about which I’m reading as I probe further into the book, and it involves the Buddhism that saved my mother’s life.

From comfortably numb to aware. From depressed to awake.

Every day I pray that I shall wake a little more.

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On being happy

“You’re the happiest person I know,” he said.

I laughed. “Except when I’m not.” I suppose it’s true. I’ve been terribly unhappy at times, but realistically those times have coincided with pretty serious stresses — losing babies to miscarriages and getting cancer twice is not quite as easy to overcome as a hangnail might be. And most of the time I recognize how lucky I am to live this life of relative ease and comfort, to have a stimulating job that allows me to set my own schedule within certain parameters, to have a funny, smart, loving daughter who is dealing remarkably well with the challenges of being a teenager in these difficult times, to have a vet who gives me discounts when the littlest dog gets dental surgery (yesterday), to have a new car with decent gas mileage and the income to buy organic food and fresh produce — even to indulge Zeke in her love of pink lady apples at the outrageous price of $2.99 a pound. I have a window in a quiet condo that looks out onto a patio, a patch of grass, and flowering trees in shades of pink. Tulips line the fence in vibrant red. Pansies turn delicate purple faces towards the light. Everything glows in the resplendence of spring sunshine. I feel the sun even here in the shade of my living room.

It’s dangerous, of course, to think about it. It has taken me years to recognize the transience of both joy and sorrow. When my mood darkens, I know to breathe deep, take a walk, wait for the change. When I feel happiness lifting me, I know to enjoy it but not to become attached. There will be another storm. The mood will shift.

I have been thinking about happiness since I read Dale’s post on it. When I was younger, I always looked forward to the day I’d have everything I dreamed of. There would be the horse farm in Ireland, the reading tours for my book, the fame and acclaim and steady flow of cash. I wouldn’t have to think, “Do I really need this?” because I would have the money to buy it (and back then, of course, I didn’t even think about the fact that moneyed or not, we shouldn’t be buying things just to have them, just to start them on the path to the dump or the incinarator where they would loose toxins into the air.) And yet. And yet. Somehow I had an inkling. I remember my best friend from Ireland (who is still my best from Ireland 30 years on), not bothering to clean her tack. “One day,” she said, “I’ll have a job that pays me enough I’ll never have to clean my bridle. I’ll just buy a new one when the old one get too dirty.” I never understood that attitude. I cleaned my tack and oiled it and won awards for the “best turned-out” pony. The leather of the reins and the headpiece and the check straps and all the rest of it was buttery soft. And I still have that bridle, though one of my more recent horses chewed on the reins, and it is showing its age.

I have digressed, perhaps because an aspect of happiness for me is the sensualness of a moment, and I remember those reins in my hand, the living mouth at the end of them and the feel of our connection — my pony and I, and then I am drawn here, to this moment with my computer in my lap, the slow ache in my right knee that impinges when I think about it, and then slips away when I look out at the dew sparkles on the grass. Sadie breathes beside me, wrapped in a blanket as is her preference. Bridjy sleeps at the other end of the couch, half toothless and older than we thought when we rescued her, but still happy and a lover of walks.

Surrender, Dale says. He prostrates himself in his Buddhist practice, and I think of the rituals of Catholicism, the genuflection, the grace bestowed in the Eucharist, these moments that are also acts of surrender. I think of Islam, which comes from a word that means love and peace, but also surrender.

Sometimes I imagine myself forward to what might be. Nada and I might get a house together some day. Some terrible thing that I can’t name might happen some day. But I stop myself. Surrender is a surrendering to the moment, to Now.

To Sadie breathing beside me, to Bridjy with clean teeth, to clicking “publish” and heading upstairs to wake Zeke for school. To Now.