Chemically Altered – Or How I Learned To Love The Pill
It’s been a long hard road, with too many twists, turns and setbacks. But I hit that road and I hit it hard; visited many a medico along the way — with not much to show, and little comfort on those cold, gray, dreary stretches of that godforsaken New Jersey highway. Granted, I did find a few good eggs and traveling companions along the way: Dr Berman, and Dr Kalyouseff. Then again — some of those eggs — were pretty damn cracked and repugnant! Though with all the investigating, poking, prodding, and tests, not much insight was gleaned; yet I traveled on.
Further on down the road I happened upon neurologist Dr Machteld Hillen; whom in our initial meeting — I did not care much for. I didn’t see her as one of my esteemed and lauded advocates. But I needed her and her expertise. Dr Berman sent me there to be certain I did not have Sarcoid related issues with my brain. After having the brain MRI , the results came back — negative. My brain was healthy — as far as the eye and MRI could see. No noncaseating granulomas, no tumors, no “brain cloud”. I should have felt relief; but I didn’t.
The last thing Dr Hillen said to me, stuck with me like hot black tar on boot bottom; while traveling this dark lonely road. “Your issues may be caused by under-treated depression.” I did not want to hear that! I wanted something physical. I wanted something tangible — anything — that could be seen, touched, measured, tested and treated. I wanted a real hard diagnosis. Not just some seeming throw away diagnosis like under-treated depression. As I ruminated on this concept over the next few weeks, I posited — after much soul searching and consternation — what if she’s right? Could it be that easy?
I knew that road well. I suffered from depression in my sixteen years in Seattle, and before living in Alfred, NY. But antidepressants were a dead end for me. I tried them twenty-something years ago — Zoloft, Paxil, et.al. — and had horrific results; becoming even more depressed and suicidal. Hell — even talking St John’s Wort made me feel like I had just snorted a bag of crystal meth. My body was trying to tell me something: “just say no to drugs!” After the fourth or fifth mind bending drug or herbal remedy I realized “the universe” was telling me I might have to walk this road unassisted. And walk unassisted I did for a number of years — until I found exercise. Exercise became my “Prozac”. It was the only thing that got my brain chemistry to a place where I actually felt joy once again. And my body became pretty banging too!
Fast forward to March 2014. I had dropped one hundred pounds. I was working out five days a week, doing forty mile bike rides on the weekends — for fun! I was in the best shape of my life. I was more active than any time in my life. It felt amazing! This was better than any drug I ever did — prescribed or otherwise!
But then something started changing. Lethargy was creeping in, my brain started feeling fuzzy, I became forgetful. At first only once in a while — causing me to not go to the gym on occasion. As the days and weeks went buy, the lethargy started getting worse. It was upsetting and very disconcerting. By the summer of 2014 I no longer had the energy to go on those long bike rides. I knew my metabolism had mysteriously slowed down. I was gaining weight, though still going to the gym 4-5 times a week. I was burning 850-1000 calories a workout — yet I saw my fat weight increase slowly. What the fuck!!?? Why? What the hell was going on? Doctors had no answers — though we traversed many empty lanes.
By December of 2014 I had stopped going to the gym completely. I could barely do anything. Shopping for groceries was a chore. I didn’t leave my apartment if I didn’t absolutely have to. I was watching myself become someone I no longer recognized. All the energy, and joy was gone. I had gained forty pounds! Doctors still had no answers; though I saw many.
With all this going on, and not many, if any people to talk to about what I was experiencing, I decided to look for a therapist. I had used them before, with great result. I knew this road, and it was well worn and comforting, and one I didn’t mind traveling.
This time around I wanted to use therapy as a dumping ground. Somewhere safe to unload — just unload. I wanted a place to unburden myself of the contents of this increasingly heavy, aging, tiresome, troubling, rucksack I had been forced to carry. I found my new therapist, Jim, through my health insurance.
After several months of seeing Jim, nothing really seemed to be getting better. Though mysteriously a few months ago, I had a “window of normalcy”. I woke up on a Monday morning, and the crap I had been feeling: lethargy, brain fog, et. al., had mysteriously lifted — as if by magic! It lasted twelve days. In those twelve glorious days, I felt like my old self. Hello old friend! And on the thirteenth day — goodbye old friend. Like someone flipped the switch and every streetlight went out. The road was dark, tiresome and troubled once again.
How can this happen? In one moment I’m feeling like my old self. In the next moment I’m a tired old man — a mere shadow. I’d like to say it was at that moment I decided to venture down the terrifying road of being “chemically altered”, but that would not be the truth.
In the past few months I realized I had no control over these symptoms. the only thing I had control over was me. My body. My weight. I started back on my Take Shape For Life program and dropped the 40 pounds I had gained. Sadly, it did not change my mood, only my body. But for that moment, it was victory enough.
It took me months more of feeling like shit to come to the conclusion — I needed help! I needed drugs!
To travel this road again was terrifying. But it needed to be done. As I’ve looked at the path of my healthcare, there has always been one constant in it — me — and my courageousness to find answers. I will follow any road to its conclusion. This is how I learn. This is how doctors diagnose — follow paths, look for answers to symptoms, and treat. But to get to the treatment, there is a lot of trial and error. I know this, and I embrace this, and I work within the construct. What else is there? Hide? Fear? Fuck that!
With Dr Hillen’s prognostication / soft diagnosis still rattling ’round in my foggy brain — I decided it was time to venture down the road that I had barricaded off twenty-some years ago. As soon as my mind was set, I started my research. I knew going in, serotonin uptake inhibitors (SRIs) were the type of drugs most prescribed back then. They were the ones I reacted so badly to. I had friends who were now using Wellbutrin or the generic Bupropion with great result. So I went on a Google information orgy. Reading all I could about the drug — especially side effects. With info in hand — and in brain — I decided this was the next step; prescription and consumption.
Like most anything else I do — especially concerning my health — I wanted a doctor to treat me and or prescribe for me NOW! I had appointments with my primary Patricia Garduno, and with my therapist within days of one another. But both would not, or could not prescribe before I spoke to an MD and went through an interview and intake process. Still eager, I acquiesced. I had waited this long. What were a few more days or a week, other than more lethargic misery. But that’s a feeling I knew, and a travel companion I could do without! I needed to know if drugs were the answer; my treatment, my cure, my savior. And I wanted to know — YESTERDAY!
I finally sad down with my therapist Jim on January 14th and told him — I’m ready! He directed me to a doctor in Meridian Health and told me to make an appointment — I did. In my calendar, when I returned home, I entered: “Jan 28 : Dr Jennifer Levine – Happy Pills”. Two long weeks later I’m in the office of Dr Jennifer Levine. We go through a lengthy intake interview and I cover all the high and low points of my medical and mental history; including my previous SRI issues. She tells me of a new genetics test that I can get before I leave, called the Genecept Assay test. This test will tell her what drugs may work best for me. I was amazed. My inner tech-nerd-scientist was reeling! Someone developed an assay to determine what drugs would best be tolerated by my own body — through genetics? Sign me up!
I walked into another room and a nurse there administered the Genecept Assay. The nurse took information from me, filling out a paper form from the genetics testing lab, Genomind. She took two long wooden cotton swabs out of a prepackaged test tube. The shafts of the swabs were connected to the test tube lid. She gave me the swabs and instructed me to swab the inside of my mouth for sixty seconds. I did. And that was that. The swabs were returned to their tube, their box, and were ready to be sent on their way to Genomind laboratories. I would now have to wait a week or two for the results. I then went back to Dr Levine’s office where she had a prescription for Bupropion waiting for me. She prescribed the lowest dose — 150mg once per day. I raced to the pharmacy! But alas, I could not start the drug until the next morning. One of the side effects of Bupropion can be insomnia. So wait I did.
In my copious amounts of research I heard magical tales of Wellbutrin starting to work on day one. I cracked open the bottle, removed one of those time released babies & downed it! Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Within about an hour — whether placebo effect or not — I was feeling lighter and happier. Was this some sort of voodoo? I didn’t really care. After an hour had passed I knew it was okay to eat and make coffee. I put the new Matt Nathanson on and started singing and dancing around the kitchen as I was grinding coffee beans and getting my coffee made. Rocky and Rosie sat and stared with incredulity. They really did! I saw them looking and I laughed and talked to them — as i often do — “… yup your Daddy is crazy!”. Was this just a manic upswing caused by the drug? I had heard tale of that too. But I didn’t care.
Day two was not much different. Woke up. Popped the pill. Danced around the kitchen an hour later. Cats still thought I was mad. And I was. Crazy mad happy! I was still trepidatious. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. On day three, I did drop a bit, as well as day four. But as time moves forward — I am feeling better. Hot damn! Though I keep looking over my shoulder. Wondering when I’ll come crashing down. Hopefully — not ever!
In the mean time, I’ve been to the gym five days this week! Yeah baby! Manic? If that’s what this feeling is — I can hang with this minor manic upswing. As long as it stays constant. My brain may be chemically altered, but for the first time ever — I DON’T CARE! There are times when I do feel tired, but not that all consuming — don’t want to do a fucking thing — kind of tired. I can live with that! Happily!
So now I wait. But while I’m waiting I will be living life — turned up to 11! I will not just be walking down that road — I will be running, skipping, and shouting! All I ask the universe for is some consistency from this moment on. I know there are no guarantees in life. I know it’s still early in the process. I am a realist. But a happy realist now. And like everything else — one day at at time — even if I am chemically altered! Maybe I will learn to love the pill. Only time will tell.