83. I've Ritalin You Off / by Allie Farris

There are times when I honestly just want to take a glass out of the kitchen cabinet and chuck it across the room. It could just be because I’m hungry; I could also just be hormonal. Or I could be suppressing something that’s trying to claw its way up to the surface. No matter what the reason is, today is definitely one of those days.

I watched David Letterman’s show on Netflix this week, My Next Guest, in which he sat opposite Kanye West, asking him questions about his past and present headlines, as well as his ongoing struggles with mental stability. The hour-long exchange seemed to go smoothly; Kanye cordially exchanged jokes with the famed host, even shared in ones in which he was the punchline. It was refreshing to me; I was impressed by his bravery, and candor. It provided me with a new viewpoint on West.
The conversation eventually crossed an invisible line, however, and Kanye found himself once again on the cusp of storming off stage, a dangling mic pack swinging from his black Yeezy jeans. Letterman deftly maneuvered ahead, keeping Kanye from bubbling over. Kanye then re-lived one of his most harrowing episodes as a man recently diagnosed as bipolar.
He spoke of a visit to the emergency room, where he imagined vast conspiracies of hospital patrons all lining up, a gun taped behind each of their backs; the patients, doctors, and myriad strangers were all waiting to kill him. He recounted being separated from his loved ones when taken in for treatment. He then unexpectedly barked to the live audience before him, “They don’t even do that to pregnant women!”.
He must have been trying to stand up for the treatment of those suffering from mental conditions, but bringing pregnant women into the discussion, from where I stood, seemed like an odd choice.

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There are many stories I could tell you concerning the hurdles I’ve had to traverse, as there are no doubt countless tales that many others have endured amidst their own experiences. What struck me about Kanye’s interview was not his viewpoints on politics, or his songwriting process; it was his very public admission that he had been medicated for bipolar disorder for at least two years, but had relatively recently come off of his medication. He described to Letterman what it felt like “ramping up”—his word for the building tension that leads to an episode—and how making music, in its own way, felt similar. Dave then asked him if he felt his medication inhibited the process of making transcendent, thought-expanding music. Kanye replied that he did.

“Maybe, those ‘crazy’ thoughts that people are so excited by, the ideas that make people really think in a new way, maybe those ‘crazy’ thoughts have to come from ‘crazy’ people.”

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I was put on medication sometime in my early teens; I honestly can’t say when. I just remember the process of finding out what medication would work best for me. I was highly erratic: my thoughts, feelings, and actions all came along in disjointed snowflurries, leading the family psychiatrist to diagnose me with ADHD and send us home with a prescription for the corresponding medication. A few brands and dosages came and went. Because my parents were filling and paying for my prescriptions, I had little cogency of the potency of my medication, or the way this or that was supposed to affect me. At first, not much had changed, like a weak pair of eyeglasses you didn’t necessarily need to wear, but do when you want the edges of the shapes on the screen to appear slightly more crisp. I still had my frantic teenage mood swings; I still fell asleep in class due to overstimulation (See Reason 64); and I still had the attention span of someone who had one earbud in at all times, listening to heavy metal music on full blast.
One night, I had just arrived home from the Target supermarket pharmacy. My mom had dropped me off for some reason, possibly to attend one of my sister’s weeknight soccer games, or to pick her up from another school function. The following 45 minutes, the reality of it, is an impressionistic blur. But I can still recall the way my body felt, the way my brain caved in, the way the new medicine kicked in.

I was on the couch in the middle of our cavernous central living room. The sun was going down, the shadows creeping with arms outstretched to meet one another across the vaulted ceilings, and I watched, feeling the familiar voooooom inside my head, like the fan in my brain had begun to spin slower, the hard drive was cooling down; the machinery undergoing a manual halting. This was all normal. The medicine always did what it was supposed to do, which was to shave the jagged edges off of the highs and the lows of my day-to-day, taking no individual personality traits or aspirations towards the creative into account. It did as it was told, and therefore, so did I. But this new pill, the one I had taken shortly after coming in alone through the garage door, didn’t stop where the others before had seemed to stop. Like a can filled with freezing compressed air, it continued onward, spreading, paralyzing the surface of my mind, leaving a frostbitten trail that wouldn’t budge or be thawed. But it left one very clear, very concise portion of my processing center intact; perhaps the worst possible one.

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Scrolling through Reddit this week, I come across a conversation topic on the front page in which someone posted the question on the bulletin board of the internet: How can ‘suicide’ be listed as a side effect for medications?
I didn’t have to scroll far before a giant, yet poignantly eloquent comment appeared on my screen, one that had clearly been well-researched by someone who definitely knew more about how the human brain works than most others browsing Reddit on their lunch break.

In short, the commenter laid out the scenario as follows, in which the very common, even mundane process of our brains running eventualities of all kinds, whether it be: jumping off of a cliff, hopping the curb in your car, running full-tilt into the mouth of an active volcano, etc, inevitably hits a firewall inside the brain, barring the simulation off from being accepted as viable, dissolving with all the others over time. However, due to some medications mimicking the functions of the adrenal glands, and then one’s own adrenal glands kicking in full blast during intensely stressful situations (loss of job or family member, divorce, etc.), the combination of the two can cause one of those suicidal thoughts to jump the filter, along with many of its buddies, causing the thought to have a harder time dissolving than before. It’s all hormones, science, and mundane human behavior. This comforted me, even when concerning such a touchy subject.

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I’m staring at the darkening ceiling as the pill kicks in; it’s seeping through my brain. In an instant, I feel like I’ve been paralyzed in the same position for hours, the silent house becoming blacker and blacker by the minute, yet in reality only thirty minutes have passed. The thoughts come flooding in, from the only place the fire extinguisher couldn’t reach: beyond the firewall. They climb over, black masses, heaving and jangling like beached fish. I roll off of the couch and clutch my head, trying to make whatever is happening stop. It is a horrifying feeling; most likely the equivalent of a very bad trip (without the hallucinogens); all the demonic forces lurking invisibly, unchained. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are there, reaching for me.
I heave my body over to the table lamp and snap it on; the room fills with fuzzy yellow light. I lay my head on the table underneath the shade with my eyes closed, feeling the warmth on my lids. I try to catch my breath. I realize I absolutely shouldn’t be alone.
I call my mom, crying, pleading with her to come home. I can’t remember what I said to her or how I said it; I just remember never taking that medication again. Despite not being one of those medications flagged with a particularly gruesome side effect, and also not having anything to do with my adrenal glands (as far as I know), that pill made me want to take my own life. And I knew nothing more in that moment than that I desperately didn’t want to be alone.

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After moving to Nashville at 19 and climbing over few more hurdles, I was taught to meditate by a lovely group of ladies in an Indian retreat center, and piano tuning became a means of learning more about all of the filing cabinets I stored upstairs, some at long last receiving a label.
Eventually, after that very dark night, I did find a prescription that worked decently well for me, in that I hardly noticed it actually working. That was until I tried to hit a high note mixed with a combined rush of adrenaline during a rooftop performance in Denton, Texas, and felt an unseen hand wrenching me back down onto my piano bench. I realized then that there was a price to taking regulatory medication, which I hadn’t yet fully come to terms with. So, over the span of six more years, I eventually stopped taking the pills.

Doing nothing for my mental health is unacceptable, as I imagine it is with anyone else. Some people can’t survive without medication. I can, but I am aware that there will be days like this one, when I feel like I want to break a glass, or scream, or cry, or do whatever else I think it will take to shake this monkey off of my back. Or I could just take a moment, be still, and search for the file inside of my brain marked ‘Monkey’, and do the same steps I’ve already subconsciously written down. And if that doesn’t work, I can always seek help. Thankfully, I have you to write to. I have a husband who can hug me. I have family and friends just a phone call away.
I agree with Kanye, I guess. Sometimes new thoughts, new moments come from the spaces shown in between the cracks, that we may analyze but never leave unattended. And no one, no one at all, ever deserves to be left alone.