I was talking to this writer friend I trusted, his baldness aglow in his sunny Brooklyn kitchen. He told me he was taking antidepressants. ‘It’s not some freaky SSRI,’ he said. ‘It’s like snorting a key-bump every couple hours. I can totally write on it – I write better.’ Wellbutrin, he explained, flooded you with dopamine (like cocaine does) not just serotonin (like Prozac, Zoloft, Zozac, etc.). ‘It’s totally clean.’
The key-bump argument piqued my interest. It was just what I needed in my benighted state. I was on sabbatical, which was heavenly, but so many months of unbroken me-time were making me morbid, feral, dotty. My shrinking world was becoming too vivid. Hobbes whispered insults to sweet Walter Benjamin; squirrels in the yard bombed the rabbits with apples. Although I’m a fiction writer by preference, I was on a strict diet of scholarly work, writing a book about fun and civil society. Still, all of the fiction I had forbidden myself kept worming through like potatoes through a ricer: queer turns of phrase, little green men, elaborate psychodramas between key figures in history. My every next thought took a melancholy detour through drippy forests of humid emotions, often never to return. And then there was the constant Wild West scenario, where my boots clattered through the gallows floor an instant before my neck snapped back. This little chestnut seemed unrelated to fiction. This little chestnut I kept to myself.
I had my own prescription in less than a week, and the benefits kicked in not long after. My wife was amazed at how chill I had become – no glowers, no snark, no Kropotkin delusions that we up sticks and join some filthy commune. I went about my mornings as happy as a milkman – and with what care did I deliver your milk! The proliferating mounds of JSTOR articles were stacked and clipped and filed by subject. The knee-high warren of library books was tidied away onto alphabetical shelves. Using my telephone’s egg-timer app, I Ben-Franklinized my day into two Facebook-free, four-hour sessions. During these sessions, alive and alert, I dutifully linked phrases into factual sentences, added them together to form incontrovertible paragraphs, combined the lot of them into pages, then chapters of fact-checked, footnoted, grammatical English. I was covering serious ground!
Winter had always been hibernation-time, when my body’s outlines became soft and cartoonish. I began to take 30-mile arctic bike rides, just me and the wind and the barren trees. I hadn’t lifted weights since high school cross-country. I began to lift weights every other day. Had Wellbutrin allowed me to fantasize, I would have dreamt that I was becoming Lance Armstrong, possibly even Stretch Armstrong.
Of course the drug had a few downsides. No matter how much liquor I drank, I no longer achieved merry fits of anarchy. (For some reason the prescription even forbade liquor.) I had become so blissfully unreflective that my strangely digital skips in thought seemed a cheap price to pay. And I became less inclined to crack jokes. But what had ever been the point of jokes? I was glad to have drained the swamps of despair that make a sad sack need to crack jokes. I was glad to be a working stiff.
Then at some point in early February I noticed in a mild and distant way that I had lost all desire to write fiction. All my life, at least since adolescence, characters and stories had swum overhead, dogging me like Valkyries. It had been my job to write them down, to turn them into semi-solids. Whole years of my life had been devoted to this job. My happiness had depended on this job. Now not only had the Valkyries fucked off, but more alarmingly I didn’t care. And more alarmingly yet, I wasn’t alarmed. I was simply on Wellbutrin.
There had been times in my life when I wished (to myself) that I could take a ‘vacation from myself’. The idea had been so giddily paradoxical that I never much questioned what it could mean. But what I realized at this stage in my experiment, when I was finding the world so smooth and tolerable, was that I had gotten the vacation I had wished for. The thought was rather frightening, of course, or as frightening as anything could be in that state – more of a plausible concern. For I didn’t know where the real me had gone. But if I didn’t miss me, who really cared?
Still, my conscience, that Jiminy Cricket, told me my vacation was over. My conscience had grown up in Northeast Iowa, where everyone from lawyers to criminals to fools took pride in being exactly what they were. I knew my conscience was right. It was time to go home. It was time to face the withdrawal symptoms and return to my own life-threatening mind. Peacefully, I went.
I knew I had returned from vacation last month, when, making dinner, dotting two rib-eyes with brined green peppercorns and searing them in oil in a cast-iron skillet, I felt a strong wave of devastating emotion at the smoky, benzene, blood-sizzle smell. I felt drowsy, sad, excited, hungry. I recalled falling in love in my wife’s tenement studio. Setting the charred red steaks aside – stirring in bourbon, then mustard, then cream and seeing the brown liquids bubble and swirl – I felt a tiny, but growing death wish. Exquisitely, horribly, I wanted to die, and in that moment I rolled around in just how rich it is to be mad.
I still lift weights and egg-time my days. (Who knows how long all that will last.) I still have hundreds of pages and footnotes before I can gambol in the mud-fields of fiction. (Jiminy Cricket tells me so.) But again I live under the Valkyries’ shadows, and again I squint at our lovely English as if it were an alien language. I’m happy out here with the snakes and the frogs.
Psychologists describe an awkward friendship that exists between creativity and madness: Tom and Jerry, Gogo and Didi, two strange bedfellows who fight for the sheets and keep each other up all night. But that’s all nonsense. Tom is Jerry, Gogo is Didi, and the two-headed beast on the beach in The Tempest (the original strange bedfellows) is pretty much what we’ve got. Creativity is madness. Aesthetics are mental illness. No one in her right mind seeks truth in irony – Eros in Thanatos – meaning in the jetliners’ hot-pink contrails that streak the sky just after sunset. No sane man is right at home between the swing of the trap door and the snap of his neck.
Photograph by Carsten Schertzer