Category Archives: Health

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.

Nobody’s smoking

“Nobody’s smoking,” N said. Then he added by way of explanation, “Adah’s allergic to smoke.”

“Something’s setting me off.” I stood up. My chest hurt, I was coughing, and even if I couldn’t smell smoke and nobody around appeared to be smoking, my body was telling me something was in the air. I hate it. I hate having asthma, of being sensitive to chemicals like smoke and perfume and solvent. I hate that my asthma is cough-variant, so it always begins with coughing, which is so obvious and which people don’t quite believe in. I hate that on a lovely warm evening in June I can be sitting outside a coffee shop, watching my friends play chess, and suddenly start coughing, and have to leave.

“Nobody’s smoking,” is one sentence I despise. I’ve heard it so often I’d be rich if I had the copyright on it. But when I stood up and walked away from our table and looked around, I saw a man smoking about 30 yards away, behind a sort of divider, and the wind was blowing in the direction of the chess table. Even if none of us could smell the smoke, my body knew it was there. That’s always the case. Once I walked into N’s house and started coughing. “Nobody’s smoking,” his mother hurried to reassure me. I still coughed and eventually went outside. Then his brother came out, shame-faced, from behind the office door, at the end of the hallway at the far end of the house. “Sorry,” he said. “I was smoking in there a few minutes ago. I didn’t know you were coming over.”

Another time I was sitting on the porch, chatting with N’s parents and aunt, and I started coughing. “Hey,” N’s brother said as he walked around the corner. “I’m not smoking. Don’t look at me!” Nobody was smoking, but I was coughing. A moment later, N’s nephew came from next door. “Sorry,” he said, when he saw me using my inhaler. “My friends are smoking back there.” Then he stopped, looking puzzled. “Wait,” he said. “You can’t smell it from all the way over there, can you?”

“What direction is the wind blowing?” I asked. “I don’t have to be able to smell it to react it. If the wind is blowing it over here, it’ll trigger an attack even if I can’t smell it.” Sure enough, the wind was blowing from the back of the neighbor’s house to the porch where we were sitting.

“That’s amazing,” N’s aunt said. “You mean you’ll start coughing even if the smoke is behind the house and no one can smell it?”

“If it’s in the air and I breathe it, my lungs seem to know,” I said. “It’s a bit absurd.”

What it is is bloody irritating. I was enjoying watching N and J slaughter each other in chess. Actually I love the intricacy of their games. J is rated 1900, so is quite good, and N’s been getting steadily better, so that he plays some quite close games against J, though he usually gets mated in the end game when they’re down to pawns, maybe a piece each, and their kings. This evening we were attended by a couple of young boys who were fascinated with the game. “Can I play one of you guys?” one of the boys asked. “I love chess.” He elbowed his friend. “Watch this,” he said, winking as he sat down opposite J.

J played as he always does, carefully, systematically, as though he were playing a seasoned opponent. Within about two moves it was obvious the boy had no idea how to play against someone with J’s experience. The kid was still gleefully throwing pieces away in anticipation of a grand mate somewhere down the line when J maneuvered him into a trap and mated him. “Oh,” the boy said, looking crestfallen. “You’re good.”

Half an hour later I started coughing as the boy and his friend were playing a game of speed chess under the tutelage of N and J. “Nobody’s smoking,” N said, after a cursory look around. I stood up and walked away from the table, then noticed the smoker some 30 yards away. My inhaler will stop the attacks from progressing into full scale asthma with wheezing and airway shutdown, but it doesn’t really stop the coughing if I’m still being exposed to the trigger, and I couldn’t exactly go up to the man who was smoking and ask him to stop. I did point him out to N, though, in a reflexive attempt to validate my coughing, as I said my goodbyes and left.

I have to admit I’m feeling a bit grumpy, and positively sick and tired of “Nobody’s smoking.” At this point, if I’m coughing, isn’t it obvious that someone, somewhere, must be?


Sadie twitches. She’s curled up in my lap in a tight little ball, and periodically she kicks me with a hind leg, or flicks her front leg at me, or quivers her head. These little movements, involuntary but regular since her hospitalization for a massive Rimadyl overdose, are not related to the dream twitches so common in sleeping dogs. When Sadie is dreaming, she yipes and “runs” in her sleep. Her body is fully involved, and she’s fully asleep. Sadie’s little twitches are isolated, they occur when she’s awake or asleep, and they are striking because they remind me so much of my own involuntary movements as a result of adverse reactions to two different kinds of medication. One, eight years ago, was a reaction to Inapsine, an anti-nausea medicine given when I was hospitalized for Hepatitis A (and the cause, perhaps, of my heart arrhythmia, which developed after treatment with Inapsine. I discovered the drug was pulled from use because it causes heart problems!) My Inapsine movement disorder occurred in the face, with muscle spasms and tongue twitches (see page two of the linked website above. It claims those symptoms are a sign of overdose, so perhaps I should have sued the hospital!)

The second movement disorder problem, three years ago, was a reaction to anti-depressants (which I will never touch again in my life as they do NOT agree with my personal biochemistry on numerous levels). A rare side effect, extrapyramial symptoms are documented in a small subset of individuals taking anti-depressants, although they are for more common in those taking anti-psychotic medication. There are several different kinds of reactions, of which I had two: akathisia, and later Parkinsonianism. In addition, involuntary twitches of the face and limbs can develop weeks or months after starting treatment (tardive dyskinesia), and can be permanent.

My reactions, thank goodness, were temporary. Sadie’s, on the other hand, appear to be permanent. I think they are caused by the intense doses of metoclopramide and chlorpromazine she was given during her illness. That’s right. My Rimadyl-poisoned dog was given an IV anti-psychotic! Apparently the metoclopramide is an anti-emetic with the potential to cause tardive dyskinesia, and the chlorpromazine, AKA thorazine, also happens to be anti-emetic, but with the potential for tardive dyskinesia, although less so than other anti-psychotics.

So now I have a healthy, non-yellow, and very happy but rather twitchy dog. Luckily she doesn’t seem distressed by her random twitching, and it’s mild enough not to be bothersome. In fact it’s probably only notable by me, because I know her so well, and I know she didn’t kick me in the gut on regular occasions before she got sick! Luckily she’s only about 11 pounds, so her little kicks don’t do any damage. And, after all, she’s alive. I’ll take a little tardive dyskinesia for the joy of having her with me, thank you very much.

Chemical sensitivity

Today I read on StellaPlainAndTall about Stella’s chemical sensitivities, and all I could think of was, “Oh, yes. I know. I know.” My “asthma” was triggered three or so years ago by remodeling in the studio apartment in which I was living. I got a cold, which turned into bronchitis, which didn’t get better, which turned into increasing difficulty with breathing until I ended up in the ER on breathing treatments. Cough-variant asthma was diagnosed, but what I think I really have is a chemical sensitivity known as RADS. I first read about it in a link I found on the website for organic body products, Terresentials. The symptoms, the triggers, everything felt familiar. I don’t have asthmatic reactions to cat dander or dust, to hay or grasses or pollen, to anything natural. But I have mild to extreme reactions to anything containing formaldehyde. That’s cigarette smoke, the lumber area of Home Depot, wood stains and new furniture, carpeting and particle board, new buildings, paints, some perfumes… the list goes on. Exposure leads to uncontrollable coughing and wheezing, with eventual airway shutdown if I don’t get away from the trigger. Other symptoms are headache and fatigue.

Interestingly enough, my dean told me that he can’t enter our lovely new building, in which I have an office and — maybe — a classroom (if I can tolerate it, which right now I can’t). He has a formaldehyde allergy which took him years to get diagnosed. Plagued by headaches and exhaustion, he finally consulted a specialist in a distant town who discovered elevated levels of formaldehyde antibodies in his blood. Now he knows where he can go and where he can’t, and how to avoid the triggers that wore him down for so long. So do I. Only for people like us, it gets harder and harder as more and more chemicals enter our environment. Students who wear perfume are a problem for me, as is my daughter, who insists on wearing scents despite my pleas against it on her behalf (and mine). We have an agreement; she can only wear perfumes that I know I don’t react to — which tend, of course, to be the most expensive! I’m hoping she’ll grow out of the desire to smell like artificial flowers as she grows up.

In the meantime, I use only natural cleaning products in my older condo (no remodeling for me!). I don’t/can’t paint my house, or put in new carpets. I’ve found a carpet cleaner who is able to clean my carpets without causing a reaction. I fill my house with plants, and I use the highest quality air filter that I can buy in my air system. It seems to work OK. I’m better than I was three years ago, though I still have periods that challenge me. In the meantime, I’m glad I figured out what was wrong, and I live a more limited life than I would like, but I thank God/Allah/the Absolute/the Ground of Being/Fate, whatever, for the health I do have.

Synchronicity and no reason to whine

I got a surprise email today, from StellaPlainAndTall, asking for access to the private area of the Blog-City blog that I abandoned when it wouldn’t accept comments or let me give people permission to access the members-only area. I had just discovered her blog about two weeks ago, through another blogger on whose site I sometimes lurk, and I admire her for her grace in hard times — a kind of grace I wish I could emulate. And then, bingo, there she is (well, symbolically, OK, all you literalists) in my email, asking for permission to read my blog. I directed her here — Hi Stella — and then got all shivery about writing again. I’ve been so sporadic, so disinterested, though I still read my favorite blogs most days. I wonder sometimes why I quit something I really enjoyed. Lack of time, lack of cohesion in my mind, desire to read. These things all. Yes.

Also the opiate of happiness at times, and in contrast, the despair that still threatens — though never as destructively as two years ago during the antidepressant fiasco. Still, I don’t wish to depress people. When darkness looms, I dive into books, escaping through the words of others. Why are my whinings worthy of airing in an open forum?

There are decisions I must make. I line up the pros and cons and move them around constantly. Next week I have an appointment with a genetics counselor in Big City. I saw her with my mother eight years ago. At the time she said, “Don’t ignore any symptoms.” What she meant was, “You’re primed for cancer. Catch it early.” When I didn’t ignore symptoms, my primary doctor became frustrated and stopped responding. Now I have a new doctor, not senile, and much nicer. (No, he isn’t the type to prescribe strong anti-psychotic antidepressants for a 13-year-old with headaches, which is what my former doctor tried to do!)

I’ve been to the doctor only twice in the past two years (odd for someone on cancer watch for the past 11 years of her life, used to blood tests and chest x-rays and ultrasounds etc at regular intervals). The last time I went only because I needed asthma medication for the Azores. The time before because I hadn’t had a pap smear in three years.

These days I do my best to ignore all symptoms. When I have a smokers’-cough coughing, wheezing asthma attack and people say “Can’t the doctors do something about that?” I tell them “no” and change the subject. I’ve never smoked, but sometimes I sound like I’ve smoked two packs a day for a lifetime. And there’s really nothing the doctors can do. “You have asthma and bronchitis,” they say. “Use your inhaler.”

But still, last month, when I went in for asthma medicine, my new physician suggested the genetics counselor. It’s almost time for me to consider an oopherectomy. I had melanoma at 31, breast cancer at 34. My female relatives have a discouraging habit of dying relatively young of breast and ovarian cancer (at least my mother was reborn as a heron!). So the genetics counselor thinks I ought to have my ovaries out. (Or so she suggested eight years ago.) And now I have to decide. But god, no ovaries, and no HRT either — unless they have some alternative? How can I face precipitous menopause when I’m such a whiny bitch anyway? Wouldn’t it be better to risk dying of ovarian cancer?

Truth is I’ve been in a study for the past eight years for women at high risk for ovarian cancer. Ultrasound every year. Blood draw every three or four months. (Cough cough, the last blood draw was over a year ago and my CA125 markers were elevated and I was supposed to go in again for another blood draw to eliminate ovarian cancer and did I? No siree.) The study nurse is on my case. I want to go. But driving three hours and working and being a single parent to a teenager and trying to care for my dad long-distance now that my sister is mother to a newborn… well. It does wear one down. Some days I can hardly move. Yesterday, when breathing was a challenge because of the cruddy air, and I was tired, and I had to advise at work and film Zeke diving so her coach could point out her good dives, and my dog had to go to the vet for cheet grass in her ear and I had to get an affidavit notarized at the bank because someone charged two airline tickets to Dubai on my credit card and now the card is canceled and Citibank is investigating fraud, and then I lost the affidavit (before eventually finding it again) and Nada is stressing stressing stressing over not having a job… and I was just tired. Wanted it all to stop. And I’m not even working officially yet. Yep. How is there time for being pre-emptive about health, I want to know? How?

OK, you got it. The whine. Fecking whinging, as the Irish would say. I’m a whinger. Oh, and did I tell you the love lease on my horse didn’t work out and I had to quick-quick find him another home and that — God knows — was stressful, because I prefer to pretend he doesn’t exist. Thinking about him brings a veritable fountains of salty water to my environs. How did it come to this?

So there you have it. Total lack of grace. A blubbering whingeing whiner. And in the midst of all the whining, yet still that marvellous trip to the Azores. Who gets to experience something like that? And in doing so, who has the right to whine?

So I haven’t written much. Things are either too easy, or too dang hard. Nothing in between. And I know I lack grace. So I just swallow the dark-cloud words, take the dogs for a walk, and read the blogs of people like Stella, who give me something to aim for. Thank you, Stella. And please don’t stop writing!


I left work early today, frustrated by my 5-year-old computer, which grunts and ticks as it works, too slowly, freezing up occasionally in the middle of something I’m doing. I have a brand new computer in my brand new office, but I can’t move there until the formaldehyde has offgassed, probably in September. Yesterday I had to move to a new, temporary office, and my files are in boxes or lined up on an otherwise empty bookshelf. I went looking for a handout and couldn’t find it. I must have boxed up that file folder. The stack of 101 papers on my desk looks formidable. My students comment on my crankiness. “I’m discombobulated,” I tell them. “Do you know there are 96 steps I have to take between my old office and my temporary one?” I counted the steps because I was bored, yesterday, making countless trips between offices with a single box as my vehicle of transport. No carts. They’re all being used for other moves. I carried plant pots (I have a lot of plants in my office) two at a time. I carried armfuls of books and folders. My coat rack and recycling box, and gifts that students have given me over the years. My poster of Irish writers, all male, of course. My new office, with its small window looking out on a brick wall, looked sparse and gray. I shifted stapler and tape dispenser and pen mug about on my desk till I found a configuration I liked. My computer, ticking and groaning at me, slowed and froze again. I tried to force quit, but that, as usual, wasn’t working.

I want to curse my lungs, with their damaged bronchial tubes. Why can’t I just move into the new building like everyone else? But every time I walk into the front door, I start coughing. The familiar chest tightening squeezes a band of warning around me. I end up outside again, in the sunshine and the foreshadow of heat, knowing I need to be careful.

I taught here for seven years in an office without windows, one the size of a closet, smaller than my not-expansive bathroom. Then I moved into the “luxury” office of the old building, with an extra eight square feet or so, and window that looked out onto bricks. If I craned my neck I could see a few leaves from the tree outside. Still, there was enough light there, between the seeping window and my plant light, for plants to grow, and I surrounded myself in green, getting a reputation for one who could save dying house plants. When my lungs clogged and sputtered three years ago, and I was forced by allergies to move into an office in Decker, my new office was huge, with a window looking out to the hills on the outskirts of town. I never got completely unpacked, though. I knew it was temporary, and several shelves of belongings from the previous occupant remained through my stay. It felt like a place to perch between long flights. I sat in my chair and stared out the window, absorbing a view I knew I would soon lose.

Now I’ve lost it, to a smaller office, with a smaller window, but still luxurious compared to my closet of the first seven years, and still better than the windowed office where I worked in the old building till two years ago. And the fact is, I have my own office. I can set my own temperature for my own little space. I can line up my books as I want, and ask for more bookshelves on the authority of being faculty. I can fill my world with plants, hang a plant light, if I need it, and lock the door to the world while I work. Even in my first office, I could arrange my space as I wanted to and close the door. It’s a pretty easy life. This temporary transitional office, and the discomfort of not knowing where things are, will pass, as everything does.

And if all else fails, I can leave my groaning, moaning, deathbed computer and come home to work.