Life is pretty good, but also sometimes it’s not so good

Life is good. Can’t say I have any complaints. It should be criminal to have as much fun as I have. Maybe that sounds snotty. It probably does. But I could just as easily be complaining! And in another mood, maybe I’d find plenty of things in my current situation that merited complaint. In any given year, I tend to be clinically depressed for two or three months. It’s hard to say why I get depressed. I have nothing to really be depressed about. But I usually find something.

I’ve been on antidepressants now for about four years. Five years? No, more than six years. I’m on two, Bupropion (the generic of Welbutrin) and Duloxetine (the generic of Cymbalta). Every time I got clinically depressed, for the first few years, I’d get my psychiatrist to up my dosages or switch them around, until, finally, the last time I got depressed I was like, no, this feels pretty manageable, I’ll stick with my current formulation.

Writers tend to have very fixed opinions about antidepressants. Either they’re like, “Fuck that shit, I don’t wanna lose my edge” or they’re like “Being happy makes it a lot easier to write.”

I have sympathy for both of these viewpoints. Our personal lives and our emotions are inextricably linked to our art. Writing isn’t made of words, it’s made of emotions, and it makes intuitive sense that if something is messing with your emotions, then it’ll mess with the content of your work.

I think oftentimes writers who are pro-antidepressants make what I see as a bit of a disingenous. They’re like, “Well, it’s easier to write when you’re not depressed.” That’s true, undoubtedly. And I think to writers of non-realist work, where the relationship between their real life and their work is somewhat more obscure, it makes more sense to equate “work” with “sitting down to write.”

There probably exist some people out there who write more when they’re depressed and who have little desire to write when they’re happy, but they’re in the minority. Generally, clinical depression kills one’s ability and desire to write. At the very least, it becomes very hard, when you’re incapable of feeling happy, to judge whether your writing is good or bad. I’ve gone back and looked at work that I made while I was depressed and I’ve oftentimes been surprised to discover it’s quite good! Nonetheless I usually never do anything with it, because, for me, the emotional connection to the work was severed by depression.

On the other hand, I think one’s emotions and, more broadly, the way you live your life, feed directly into the work. And I think that depression is often a galvanizing force. Each time I’ve come out of depression, I’ve been inspired to make changes in my life. Sometimes there’s a kind of dark humor to it. Spring will roll around (I often get depressed in spring, April really is the cruelest month), and I’ll think, “What landmine is about to explode? What unexamined assumptions will I have to change?”

In the abstract, I do find some value in that, and that’s one reason why I didn’t up my antidepressants the last few times. It’s very difficult to understand how antidepressants work unless you’re on them. The most perplexing thing about them is that they do not make you happy, and they don’t have a direct, perceptible effect on your mood at all. As someone who’s done his fair share of recreational drugs, I will say that antidepressants have zero abuse potential. They cannot get you high. They do not make you feel better in the short term. They merely act to set a floor to one’s mood. And that floor is, generally, so low that almost any normal sadness will still be above it. You can be pretty sad and upset while on antidepressants. I have no idea whether it’s possible to raise the floor to such a level that regular sadness becomes impossible. Part of me is very intrigued by that notion, but ultimately one shouldn’t fool around too much with one’s brain chemistry.

To bring things around: I wouldn’t want to be on antidepressants if their function was to allow me to tolerate the intolerable. I wouldn’t say that my depression is caused, in particular, by anything that happens to me. I’ve suffered major losses that didn’t spark depressions, and I’ve suffered minor setbacks that sent me spiraling. But my depressed brain gives me a different, and oftentimes very valuable, take on my circumstances.

At the same time, one doesn’t want that take to be, “I don’t deserve to live.”

Finding this balance is up to every person. Being on antidepressants can be frustrating. I am literally addicted to the duloxetine: if I go more than two days without taking it, I get withdrawal symptoms (they’re very odd, a bit like alcohol withdrawal, headaches, jitteriness, dissassociation). Moreover, the drug is quite expensive (about $500 a month, without insurance, although I don’t pay that of course), and there’s one generic maker of the drug whose product gives me terrible headaches, which means whenever Walgreen’s gives me that maker, I’m forced to remonstrate with them to replace it with a different generic. Bupropion, in contrast, has never given me trouble, and the out of pocket cost for that drug is only about $50 a month (without insurance).

But other than these, I’ve never had side effects. It definitely feels like one of those “It’s nice to be in your thirties” moments. Like, yeah, I’ve even got my antidepressant cocktail down. But of course all these thoughts are subject to change if my life and/or my mood go downhill.