I defaced my work ID card this week; I cut out a glossy photo of a brown egg from a Clinique ad that I found in a magazine in the break room, and pasted it onto my ID so that it covers my bemused 1.5” face but leaves my hair and shoulders as they were. Glancing at it, you’d never notice the complete absence of features. The day I posed for that picture I’d already submitted to a urine test and a background check (which as far as I know never came in, eventually they put me on payroll despite the fact that I could have a rap sheet as long as a gorilla’s arm). By the time I submitted to the ID photo, I was pretty sure this job was going to be a joke, something I’d do for the next six to twelve weeks until one of the other jobs that I was interviewing for – real jobs, came through. I thought it would be something I would omit from my resume. It would be nice to have a buffer between me and unemployment, it would give me a better chance at getting a real job, and at the time that I accepted it there was talk of ending unemployment benefits for people who had reached the one year mark, which was getting precariously close. I was tired of the effort of looking for a job, the constant self-promotion, the interviews, the rejections, the dusting myself off and starting again. Psychologically, I didn’t want to cross the one year mark. I’d done well with taking advantage of my free time and pursuing travel, volunteering, working odd jobs, and pursuing writing opportunities, and hadn’t spent a lot of time feeling down about my situation but I didn’t want to celebrate another unemployed birthday, another unemployed anniversary, another unemployed marker of any kind.
None of the other jobs I interviewed for were offered to me, and time passed. I took advantage of the lax dress code and proximity of my workplace to my home, sometimes rolling out of bed and literally wearing what I’d slept in to work. More time passed, and as it became clear that I would have to do something to mark the time (as if I were doing time, which in a way I am – clocking in and out, counting hours, minutes even), I decided to take advantage of what there was. I signed up for a physical fitness course, and then a fitness challenge. 9 months later I had lost 20 pounds and dropped 2 dress sizes. I’d made some friends too, and made strides in my writing, connecting with the storytelling circuit in Chicago and making regular appearances at different venues. It wasn’t all bad, part of what allowed me to do all that writing was that my job wasn’t taking much out of me.
It had its costs; I wasn’t feeling good about myself. 6 months into the job, I called the EAP line (employee assistance program, a confidential service that gets promoted on the company website as a resource for when things are getting grim) and they literally put me on hold, which made me think of that old Rodney Dangerfield chestnut that he rolled out during his “I don’t get no respect” era. When I finally spoke to someone, they asked me if it was an emergency. It wasn’t. They apologized for asking to call me back, but they were short staffed, or maybe the last seven people who called were all about to jump off the same bridge together, and it was taking up all their manpower to handle it. I told them they could call me back, but I couldn’t take the call when they did. I don’t have any privacy at work, and had snuck outside to place the call out to them. Then one morning I woke up crying, and couldn’t stop. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me – I’d managed to keep my spirits up the entire time I’d been out of work, and the reality of what kind of job I’d had to accept is what finally did me in. I called the EAP line again, and the woman on the other end of the line had to tell me to calm down because she couldn’t understand what I was saying. She connected me with a therapist in my neighborhood, and in short order I had a prescription for Prozac in my hands.
Here’s the thing about depression: it’s boring. It’s something I’ve lived with for a long time, probably forever, and prescription medication is a wonderful, life-changing thing, and without it I’d probably live in a halfway house or worse by now, but talking about depression is just, well, depressing. I was depressed for fourteen years before I was treated for it the first time, in my early 20s. The fact that I went fourteen years without anyone noticing is remarkable, but not surprising, considering my family. I had moments during those years, months even, when I was able to rise above it, but I lost a lot too, things I’ll never get back: time, opportunities, and relationships.
The first time it was prescribed to me, Prozac was a wonder drug. Everyone was on it, or talking about it, or knew people who were taking it. I’d read enough to know that mine was far from the worst case; in high school I read The Bell Jar, and resonated with it deeply, and The Yellow Wallpaper. In college I read Girl, Interrupted (I went to a reading by the author and got my book signed by her), and still later I watched the film An Angel at my Table, and was so awestruck that I read the book by the same name, all 434 pages of it, and then went on to read Faces in the Water, by the same author, Janet Frame.
All these stories had a similar theme; they were about young women, generally raised in the middle-class, generally from educated families, who were crippled by depression and had to be treated for it, sometimes with dramatic remedies like shock-treatment. I became the resident expert on depression in my family, which is funny in retrospect (sort of), because one by one all the women in my family were diagnosed with and treated for depression. Suddenly I was a trailblazer; my female relatives came to me for advice on medication, to discuss side effects, and to soundboard.
Prozac was expensive in those days, and I didn’t have any money. I slowly weaned myself off it and began pursuing other methods – I started taking St. John’s Wort, I installed full-spectrum light bulbs in my apartment, I bought a SADD lamp for the long Chicago winters. For the most part, it worked. There was the occasional party that I’d flake out on at the last minute because I just couldn’t peel myself off the couch, the odd get-together that I’d mysteriously be absent from, or sleep through, but for the most part I was functional. When things got serious with the man who became my husband I was up front about my history with depression, figuring if it was going to be a deal breaker it was better to find out early on. Apart from a short stint in my early 30s when I was dealing with some crap with my dad, I was able to get along without medication until recently. Here’s the thing about me and medication: deep down, I feel like I shouldn’t be on it. I feel like its fine for everyone else in the world to be medicated, but I should be strong enough to do without it. It’s stupid, I know. I don’t judge anyone else for taking happy pills, but I judge myself.
Prozac is pretty much the same now as it was the first time I took it, only now it’s cheap as hell. A 90 day supply of Fluoxetine, the generic for Prozac, costs me less than $8. It used to cost me almost $3 per pill. With prices like that, who the hell wouldn’t want a little help? I was recently turned down for a job that I was pretty sure was going to be offered to me; a job that, unlike the countless others I’ve interviewed for in the 2+ years since I was laid off, I actually wanted. It hurt, and I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I have my pills, and I have my husband, and I have my writing, and I have my 20 pounds lighter, stronger body. I know I’m blessed, but sometimes, as my friend Bridget once said: “it’s hard to wake up in the morning to it could be worse.” So here’s to today, and here’s to tomorrow, here’s to hoping for better things, and here’s to the 20 milligrams of magic that keep the whole thing going.