Today, we’re starting with “Toys in the Attic; An Ars Poetica Under the Influence” by Chase Twichell.
Twichell spent 15 years of her life taking 12 different prescription drugs for her depression. That’s not to say that she’s written a piece about medication or some sort of clinical discussion; she hasn’t. This is more of a philosophical exploration than a scientific dissection. I just remembered my own experience with antidepressants. I think we tried 7 of them in total. Some gave me insomnia. Some made me jumpy. Some fogged my brain out so thoroughly that I failed several classes and can’t remember multiple years of my life.
It makes me angry, you know. I took my prescribed drugs as instructed, and I lost all memories of several friends from the school I was in, all memories of family events, all memories of daily life. It’s all just gone! Why would doctors prescribe this for me? (Of course, it’s because they rely upon questioning the patient to evaluate the efficacy of psychiatric drugs, and in cases like mine, the patient is unable to accurately evaluate whether or not a drug or dosage is working because we don’t have a “normal” level to compare our treated brains to.) As the drug crippled my brain, the symptoms got worse, which I reported to my doctor, who increased the dosage, which made the symptoms worse. It was a nightmare. I still get upset over it.
But sorry- we were here to discuss Twichell’s life, not mine.
Some pieces of it, I understand- feeling like you are watching yourself from outside of yourself, knowing you’re abnormal from childhood, watching your writing suffer or flourish based on the chemicals your doctor wants you to pump into your brain. Some pieces are utterly foreign and a good reminder that everyone’s experience is different- feeling joy mingled with loneliness, believing the essence of one’s self is inherently malleable, refusing the notion of self entirely. I suppose that Twichell’s experience with writing and antidepressants is more robust than mine, since she was likely a practicing poet throughout her medication experiments and I was only a college student who wrote for homework and catharsis. I enjoy this description in particular:
Before the long parade of drugs, words were like water- all I had to do was dip my mind and it would come up brimming with new excitements. I always thought of this ability as a “gift,” a part of my being. Now the river of words flows around me as it always has, but I write as a translator trespassing outside the boundaries of my original language, fluent but no longer a native speaker. It’s hard to explain. It feels like a new part of my brain has learned language, and the old part has atrophied. (24)
I’m not sure if this is what has happened to me as well- if this is why I don’t feel like I have stories to tell any longer, if this is why I can’t create worlds. I’ve wondered at my own lost ability- at the joy that has floated away from me and the gloom that settled in its place.
That sounds odd, doesn’t it?
I used to love building worlds, holding places and people and governments and plants and animals and politics and languages in my head. I felt powerful, beautiful, and strong- but only within the tiny and secret confines of my writing. Beyond its walls, I was fat, ugly, stupid, boring, and a failure. Now, I’m… Now I just feel tired, worn out before the call to adventure even comes. Who would read a story where a washed out loser gets a chance to save the world but doesn’t and can’t because he or she is already worn out?
My final thoughts on Twichell’s piece were reflections on the different paths we have walked. She processed her depression through Buddhism (or pieces of it, at least), and I processed mine through Christianity. She survived by releasing her grasp on her self/identity, and I survived by reinforcing mine. We are very different people, and it has been interesting to read her account, because I could never have had those experiences myself.