Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Writing and Anti-Depressants: A Match Made in Purgatory

A lot of people take anti-depressants. A lot of writers take them. But not a lot of people talk about it. Or at least few enough that I was pretty struck when the Penny Arcade guys talked about their experience with Lexapro. I was struck enough that I thought maybe I should talk about my history with anti-depressants.

(At some future time I will do a post that tries to explain my obsession with Penny Arcade. But not now.)

Let me first say for the record: I held out. I did not want to be the dude in the Woody Allen movie who’s always talking about his shrink, and I did not want to be the dude who needs drugs to deal with reality. I wanted to be some other dude. Why, I don’t know. Because it wasn’t great being that other dude. It was un-great enough that when I was 35 I figured I’d had about as much anxiety and depression as I was interested in generic anti anxiety pills having. So I went into therapy.

My therapist was (OK, is) a psychiatrist, meaning he has an MD, meaning he can prescribe drugs. And he did. Two years after I started therapy I took my first anti-depressant.

I have atypical depression, which despite the name is not even remotely unusual or special. Which is itself kind of depressing. Atypical depression is the kind of depression that makes you sleep a lot and eat a lot and not want to get out of bed.

I was working on The Magicians at this time, and I was worried that the drugs would inhibit my ability to summon up dark and/or negative emotions, thus turning my novel-in-progress into an extralong episode of Dora the Explorer (Hola, Quentin!). But I was also sick of being depressed, and the book wasn’t going to get written if I was too depressed to type. (Plus in addition I have a lot of social anxiety, and a weird phobia. And that was getting old.) So I started taking a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, which is basically Prozac, except that this one was called Celexa.

Shortly after that I switched to a different SSRI called Lexapro. I liked the sound of that. After all I’m a writer. A professional writer. I’m a lexical pro. Lexapro!

Lexapro undeniably brightened my mood. The effects of SSRI’s come on slowly, as they gradually alter your brain chemistry (and, subtly and creepily, your brain’s cellular structure), so you mostly hear about the changes from the people around you. Those people were giving me the thumbs-up. So I kept on with it.

The only catch was the famous side-effect associated with SSRI’s: I couldn’t feel a lot in what medical professionals term the groinal or sex-having zithromax online purchase region of my body. Granted my lifestyle at that time was not the kind of lifestyle that was much affected by that handicap. But still.

So I switched to an SSRI called Serzone. Serzone is a lot better about the side-effects. Its main drawback is that about one in half a million or so people who take it basically die instantly of liver failure. But bonus: boners. I liked those odds. So I went on Serzone, and I didn’t die.

But then a strange thing happened. In February of 2006 I pitched Time on a profile of James Patterson, partly because it would involve my traveling to Palm Beach, FL in February, but mostly because I think he’s an interesting guy. (While I was there Patterson told me the incredible fact that when he was an undergraduate he worked nights at a mental hospital, and one of his assignments was to stand suicide watch over Robert Lowell, who if he could have seen the future would surely have attempted to strangle Patterson as a service to American letters. But anyway.) While I was there I realized I was out of Serzone.

Eh, I thought lazily. I’ll just pick some up when I get back.

But then I noticed two things. One, I was having the worst headache of my life. I don’t get migraines, but seriously, I was seeing spots. That I could chalk up to the side-effects of interviewing James Patterson.

But number two I couldn’t. Number two was that I felt like a fricking genius. My brain was having ideas and making connections and generally hyperfunctioning. It was like I had the WOPR up there. All the little blinking lights were on. I don’t think they’d been on in a while.

That was the last SSRI I ever took. I rode out the discontinuation syndrome cold turkey. When I look back on the writing I did during the 18 months or so that I was on SSRIs, it doesn’t seem terrible. Actually I won two awards that year for journalism, something that never happened to me before and hasn’t happened to me since. But I don’t think my fiction was all it could have been. There was a blankness to it. I feel like when I’m writing something worth reading, I’m doing two things: I’m saying something, but at the same time I’m reacting to what I’m saying, and I’m building that reaction into the next thing I say — I’m iterating, feeding back into myself, forming strange loops. Somehow that second stage wasn’t firing while I was on Serzone. The loop wasn’t looping.

Thus ended Act I of my pharmaceutical odyssey. Tomorrow (or the next day): Stage 2. (It’s a happy ending.)

25 comments on “Writing and Anti-Depressants: A Match Made in Purgatory

  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing!

    I’m Bipolar/ADHD (doctors not sure which, really), and I’ve taken a SLEW of antidepressants, stabilizers, and other things. I wrote my first novel and subsequent drafts while on them, but I’ve since gone off all medications.

    I too have noticed a big difference in my work from then and now.

    Granted, I’m still very much a novice, am not under deadlines, and tooootally not super duper awesome (yet). But I sort of get where you’re coming from.

    Can’t wait for the happy ending!


  2. Nancy says:

    Very interesting. I have situational depression because of a chronic illness but it seems pretty atypical. Only ever taken Prozac, but I hadn’t been able to write at all before I got on it, something to do with dissolving into tears all the time. Now have bizarre, epic dreams that would make fabulous novels full of magical realism if only I could remember them.

  3. M says:

    thanks for sharing that with us

    that’s pretty common, depression that is, i had it on my 20th birthday. it was pretty bad, my friend had recently attempted suicide and was getting treated.

    we have very bad weather here in the winter time, along with exams in molecular genetics, it was all just too much, and i was turning 20, i was out of my teens.

    my mom found out, and insisted i go see the doctor. i didn’t want to, because once you see a doctor about it, it becomes so much more real.

    but my mom went herself anyway, she asked the doctor what was wrong, and i was prescribed either pills or a lamp, it was assumed that i had seasonal depression.

    i really upset a lot of people around me, so i kind of became happy for the sake of being happy. i’m a lot better now, but i still have those days…

    i think i should move to miami..

  4. Leverus says:

    @M I hear Palm Beach is nice

  5. […] posted about this before, so I won’t get into gory details, but suffice it to say I was deep down a hole. It was a bad […]

  6. Alex says:

    Very interesting post. I have written before about my own depression and subsequent medication with Cymbalta – http://bit.ly/b5ki3q. It hasn’t affected my libido but although I’m blogging I’m not writing much fiction these days. My depression is chronic (fifteen years) and awful and I struggle with the idea of going off antidepressants and returning to that, but writing is the most important thing in my life. What to do…

  7. Robyn says:

    You’re right: all the lights firing is more important than blithe spirits, or maybe even sex. You’ve made a great contribution to my decision to soldier on rather than take a pill for relief. My Dad just gave me dopamine, which is an herbal remedy. See how that works.

  8. Leverus says:

    @Alex I recently thought about going on Cymbalta. Went so far as to get a prescription. But at the last minute I chucked it. I’m stable now, and I can’t face tinkering with my brain chemistry again …

  9. Leland Baker says:

    For fifteen years, I was a programmer. My degree is in English, but I found that programming satisfied that same need in my brain.

    I’d mentioned to my doctor a few times that I felt melancholy a lot, and he prescribed an SSRI. I refused it the first few times, but finally gave in.

    A number of people, including my wife and my boss, commented that I’d ‘changed.’ One fired me, and the other divorced me, and took the kids with her.

    I blamed the anti-depressants, and quit cold turkey. The depression that ensued was 100 times worse than the melancholy I’d first accepted treatment for. I became suicidal. I stopped taking care of my house. I quit paying my bills, or, for that matter, even opening my bills.

    I re-upped my prescription, and reduced my dosage by half, and by half again, and got off of them. Nothing got better. I got a job, but couldn’t focus on it, and went back on the pills, but remained unable to focus. After two sleep studies, I was diagnosed as having both Central and Obstructive sleep apnea. I was provided with a BIPAP machine, but I could never get past the Darth Vader noise it made all night. I used it irregularly.

    After somehow holding on for 18 months, I was finally fired. By that time, I was taking Celexa for depression, Xanax for anxiety, Lunesta for sleep, and Provigil to stay awake during the day.

    I can only blame the still crippling depression for the fact that I lost my health insurance, even though I had an option for COBRA at a 65% discount.

    Even without the Lunesta and Provigil, I still feel relatively good, but I haven’t been able to write even a single line of code since I was fired.

    I need to be clean of these prescriptions. I want to be. Antidepressants made me feel a little better, and have made it possible for me to care a hell of a lot less, they have nearly ruined my career.

    I’m looking forward to quitting. I can’t wait to feel something again, whether its anger, sorrow, frustration, or love. I just need to ‘feel’ again.

  10. Jen says:

    I’m really sorry you had so much trouble with SSRI’s. I’ve been on various SSRI’s full-time for 17 years. They have increased my quality of life ten-fold!

  11. […] author Lev Grossman has a great essay called “Writing and Antidepressants: a Match made in Purgatory,” in which he says of his rush of feeling […]

  12. Debera Jim says:

    Interesting post. Bookmarked for future reference! You can visit my site on how to deal with anger. Shared some handy tips over there 🙂

  13. […] weaning off the Lexapro as of yesterday. I am waiting for this to happen to me. (The stuff in the last few […]

  14. […] Writing and Anti-Depressants: A Match Made in Purgatory […]

  15. […] You want to study the feedback, and learn from it, but that stuff must be handled with care. It can chew away at your inner Yggdrasil, like some kind of dark psychic NĂ­Ă°höggr. This is not healthy for an author, particularly one with well-documented mood disorders. […]

  16. joss says:

    Didn´t know that but thats makes sense… Q is so depressed (so like me). Buts here in the land of the sads you´re like god, we love you and wish you well ^^

  17. […] Writing and Anti-Depressants, Part I and Part II Parental warnings: depression, suicidal ideation, drugs. Maybe booze too, I forget. […]

  18. Zach says:

    I am not depressed, not on any drugs, and actually I kind of am that dude. I would absolutely not take antidepressants unless I was told I had no other choice or I was hurting those around me. I put a lot of value in self-composure, self-control, and self-realization. Not big on using anything to change who I am. I get where you were coming from there.

    I just wanted to comment on your perception that your writing was flat while you were on antidepressants. In my opinion, the Magician King was a greatly superior book to The Magicians, largely because you filled in the backstory of the Free Trader Beowulf group. I could tell, based on your working knowledge of depression and antidepressants as highlighted in those chapters, that you must have personal experience with those drugs. But ironically that led to some of your most engaging writing, in my opinion, and I am not surprised to learn that something fundamental had changed between the back half of The Magicians and the writing I was experiencing in the back half of The Magician King. Because the last few chapters of The Magicians was somewhat flat, and I felt a change in intensity with your next stuff. I just wanted you to know that, as a reader, I think what you were going through did indeed come out in the work.


  19. luc mckeeby says:

    is lexapro, an anti depressant ,,,I have it but cant remember what,,,its supposed to DO

  20. E says:

    Wow, this worries me. I’m afraid that I can’t write, but I can’t decide what is worse…

  21. […] I told my primary I wanted Lexapro and she wrote it up. Someone online had said vaguely good things about it. It’s a wonder I got anything at all out of […]

  22. […] author Lev Grossman has a great essay called Writing and Antidepressants: A Match Made in Purgatory, in which he says of his rush of feeling after stopping his meds, My brain was having ideas and […]

  23. jamie says:

    Hi, I was Googling “fiction books abut antidepressants” and came up on your site. I’ve been on Prozac since last summer and have recently read “Prozac Nation.” I then got the idea to write about my depression and Prozac experience, but now I feel the definitive book on the subject already exists. Is it wrong for me to want to write my own? Everyone tells me my story is different, but I can’t seem to convince myself of that. I feel what I would do would just pale in comparison. As far as I know no one else has written about being on Prozac, so should I even bother?

  24. […] Grossman – Writing and Antidepressants: A Match Made in Purgatory, and Writing and Antidepressants, Part […]

  25. […] Lev Grossman wrote, in 2010, about how SSRI’s (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) weren’t great for his writing:  […]

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