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I Like the Drugs (And the Drugs Like Me) photo

“Yeah, I’m really into Big Pharma,” I said. I was at a party and a twenty-something woman was complimenting my shirt with a cartoon image of a box of Zoloft on the front of it. I don’t know if she could tell I was being ironic. I was wearing sunglasses. I guess I’m always hiding.

I was ten when my mother first took me to a psychiatrist. He put me on Zoloft at her request. My relationship with pharmaceuticals is my longest running one to date. My normal.

We lived in six different states before my tenth birthday, each of them rungs on the corporate ladder my father was drunkenly, dutifully ascending. Mornings before school, I had panic attacks that left me shivering on the bathroom floors of our carousel of increasingly bigger houses. The square footage grew, the neighborhoods got nicer. I tell people I got used to being the new kid in class, but that’s a lie. I never got used to it. I got good at cloaking myself in alienation. Making friends got more and more difficult, so I stopped trying. I rejected people before they could reject me. In every new town, I perceived my schoolmates as progressively ghastlier. The layers of my own humanity kept sloughing away. I saw myself less in the people around me. The creature in the mirror was a private disgrace. I could never look him in the eyes.

Ten years old and already fancying myself a Dostoevsky character.

On top of the discomfort brought by all the moves, I could sense a fracture forming in my parents’ marriage. They never fought—not that I ever saw, at least in the beginning—but a quiet coldness lurked beneath their interactions with each other. They didn’t look at each other the same way. The temperature dipped when they were in the same room together. I could feel a low quaking in the skeleton of our huge suburban house.

This nameless disturbance at home caused me a lot of anxiety. Our family unit was my bedrock of stability. Everything else changed with each move, but at least I had the familiar comfort of my home life. When that began to rupture, I had nothing left to stand on.

I became what my mother called “abnormal.” Depressive, moody, embittered. Wracked with phobias and suicidal ideations. Hypochondriacal to the point of accumulating truancy-level absences from school. My parents were always chiding me to take off the pair of my dad’s old Wayfarers when sitting at the dinner table.

I wrote a lot of stories about sad, bad people who had extramarital affairs and then died violently. I illustrated them. There was also some early sexual trauma involving an extended relative that didn’t help things, and my self-adorned cloak of alienation had led to me getting beat up a lot at school.

My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder several years before my first psychiatrist appointment. She told my dad that chemical imbalances pass from one generation to the next, and they increase in severity with each one. I was biologically primed for mental illness, she said.

So she took me to the doctor and the doctor said, “Fifty milligrams of Zoloft, and no more Chandler rotting in his bed.”

I didn’t want to go on the drugs. Not at first. I was terrified that it meant there was something wrong with me. I told my mother this through a pall of tears in the psychiatrist’s office. “But honey,” she said. “There is something wrong with you. You have a sickness in your head. This is just medicine to make it better.”

As crushing as this news was, it made sense. I’d always been afraid I was abnormal. Expressions of intense emotion—positive or negative—were traditionally met with derision from both my parents. Excitement was “obnoxious” and “impolite,” and there was nothing to be sad or angry about because we had everything we needed and most of what we wanted. “There are people in the world who have nothing,” I was told. “They have a reason to be sad.”

That didn’t stop me from feeling things, often intensely. I took this to be a shortcoming, and worked hard to suppress any emotions before they could manifest into something which would bring scorn.

I wanted to be normal. I wanted to feel okay. And if drugs would get me there, then so be it. It’s not as if I had a choice, but the prospect of being a normal, happy kid made me more amenable to the sole option I was presented. I remember noticing a lot of TV commercials for antidepressants (Ask your doctor if Paxil may be right for you) and feeling a shameful yearning whenever the Zoloft one came on. It featured a sad-faced little rock who became happy and buoyant after taking Zoloft. There was a friendly diagram that explained chemical imbalances. I wanted to be as happy as that rock looked at the end of the commercial. I wanted my chemical imbalance to be corrected. But I also felt queasy and ashamed whenever the “DEPRESSION IS A SERIOUS MEDICAL CONDITION” text appeared at the bottom of the screen.

Not long after the introduction of the Zoloft, the rift I’d sensed between my parents split open. My dad got caught cheating, and my mom told me all about it. I hadn’t yet started puberty and didn’t totally understand how sex worked, but I became my mother’s sole confidant about all things related to The Affair. She threw my dad out and spent hours telling me about how emotionally unavailable he’d been for so long. The tremors I’d felt rumbling through the house became deafening. Our home came apart and sank below the cul-de-sac into a subterranean darkness.

Intermittently, my parents would reconcile for brief periods of time. My dad never moved back in, but he’d come around more. He and my mother would suddenly be affectionate with each other in ways I’d never seen, even before things started to go sour. Sometimes, he would sleep over. This confused me, but when I asked my mom for an explanation, she’d become steely and remote. She told me I was too young to understand.

These periods of relative calm never lasted long. My dad would go back to his mistress, and my mom would resume talking to me like I was her gal pal. She told me in endless detail about what an asshole my father was, and how she’d managed to catch him in each of his latest acts of infidelity. She spun yarns about his “evil, conniving” mistress that kept me up at night.

The cycle of my parents’ breakups and reconciliations, each bookended by my mother’s renewal of her insistence upon telling me information I didn’t need or want to know, resulted in increased turmoil. I started collapsing into crying spells that came out of nowhere. Many days, I had difficulty getting out of bed, and would lie weeping and paralyzed beneath my sheets. I kept writing stories that grew progressively darker. My parents received a lot of concerned calls from exasperated teachers.

This led to a Lamictal prescription sometime after my eleventh birthday. It was supposed to blunt the sharper edges of my brooding moodiness. In some ways it did, just as the increased dosage of Zoloft anesthetized me to the uglier aspects of my sadness. I was told they did, at least. My mom did most of the talking in the psychiatrist’s office. She decided when the dosage was increased. Part of me resented this, but another part of me was grateful for it. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate how well, if at all, the pills were working. I didn’t know what normal felt like. I still don’t. But my mother was pleased with the results, and that was good enough. It had to be. I convinced myself she was right even though I didn’t feel any better.

Whatever visible benefits the drugs brought, they couldn’t erase my fear of other people. They couldn’t bring my dad home when I wanted him there or make him leave when I didn’t. They couldn’t scrub my memory of the image of my mother standing in the rain, wearing a pink T-shirt on which she’d written the word “FAILURE,” her wet hair hanging in clumps around her face as she obliterated my dad’s cell phone with a baseball bat because she “just wanted him to stop texting that slut.”

But I was told the medicine was working. I was told I would never be cured of my disease, but that the side-effects were much improved, and I believed that. I had to.

By this point, my parents were engaged in an ugly and protracted divorce. I had no friends. I was getting pulverized by classmates on an almost weekly basis. My mother started bringing around an endless procession of douchey guys; each of them was forced on me as a surrogate dad for a few weeks until he inevitably did something heinous and my mom would swap him out for another jagoff of the same make and model, but with a different paint job. And I’d developed a confusing friendship with my dad’s mistress (“that slut” he couldn’t stop texting—soon to be his second wife, and already mother to one of my eventual two half-sisters) who was closer in age to me (I was then twelve, she was twenty-two) than my father (who was thirty-five).

While all of this was happening, my mother kept taking me to the psychiatrist’s office and telling him how well the drugs were or were not working. He adjusted the dosage in accordance with her feedback. The more docile and agreeable I was in the face of my unmooring circumstances, the more pleased my mom was with the drugs’ effects. I learned to abide by a set of rules, most namely:

DO NOT display emotion.

DO NOT talk back.

DO NOT write stories in class in about adulterous lunatics who kill each other.

The higher the dosage went, the easier it was to abide by these rules without getting too bent out of shape about it. It was easier to go with the flow and just kind of vibe out. What I really wanted was to escape it all, but since I couldn’t do that, it seemed a suitable alternative to rely on the Zoloft and the Lamictal to make me easier for the grownups to deal with.

Those little pills—one blue and the other white; two in the morning and one at night—carried me for about seven years. They didn’t fix the problem (the problem, I was told, being ME), but they at least gave me a suitable mask to hide the problem. They opened me up to the possibilities that drugs proffered.

I was seventeen when I got into illegal drugs. The kind the government swears are Bad even while their uniformed enforcers D.A.R.E. you to try them. First weed, and then whatever “mind-expanding,” tie-dye-tinted trip-inducers I thought Grace Slick and Roger Waters would have liked. I started unironically listening to the Grateful Dead. A battered copy of On the Road went everywhere with me. I had a flower crown.

For the first time in my life, I felt like the happy rock at the end of the Zoloft commercial.

Coke quickly became my favorite (although this was suburban Ohio, so it was, more often than not, Sweet’N Low cut with coke), but the pills were omnipresent. Valium, Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, Norco, Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan. These were the drugs that offered all the promise that Zoloft and Lamictal had merely hinted at. These were the drugs I was certain could fix my SERIOUS MEDICAL CONDITION.

Finally, I had the escape I’d dreamt of for so long. Zoloft and Lamictal had only ever made it a little easier to hide my true self (my diseased self, my abnormal self) behind a numbed-out porcelain veneer so I could navigate a hostile and unpleasant world with some degree of safety. Getting high gave me a vehicle with which I could leave the world entirely. I mistook coke residue and ground-up OxyContin for stardust.

My Hippie Era gave way to something darker and colder. Kerouac’s fiery effervescence was swapped for the austere cool of Bret Easton Ellis and J.G. Ballard. I stopped listening to the Grateful Dead and developed an unbecoming obsession with Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals (“A pill to make you numb, a pill to make you dumb / A pill to make you anybody else”). Too many nights were spent driving around the Cleveland Metroparks, strung out and crying to “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)” while thinking, No one has ever related to this album as much as I have.

The entire album—about an alien who comes to Earth and is fashioned into a rock star, pumped up with drugs while feeling empty and alone—resonated with biting poignancy, but it was that song in particular that hit the hardest. I’d never liked the drugs, but I’d believed for years that I needed them. Even the act of taking the fun ones—the coke and the opioids and the benzos—carried with it a profound sense of guilt. They offered the escape I’d always been looking for, but I was ashamed of wanting to escape. Other people could live life without intoxicants, so why couldn’t I? Why had I been burdened with a defective vessel of flesh from which I had no choice but to try and flee?

A person can’t live like that indefinitely, and my Dope Show Era was shorter than most. I managed to wreck my finances by the spry age of nineteen and accumulate a rap sheet of petty misdemeanors. Each time I absconded from the world in my Percocet-shaped rocket ship, I returned to bigger messes. It became clear that I was not cut out for the life of a drug addict, so I docked my spaceships in a hangar and entrusted them to more capable astronauts.

When the fog cleared, I found that my long-steady doses of Zoloft and Lamictal were no longer working. The latex on the mask they provided me with had torn and worn thin. It no longer obscured the monster beneath. I could see the shadows lurking behind my eyes. The thing in the mirror transformed into an unbearable devil. I returned to my psychiatrist—the same one I’d had since I was ten—and told him I needed to be fitted with a new prosthetic face. Something fresh to hide behind. “Just don’t give me anything I’ll like,” I told him, thinking of the kindred spirit I’d found in the drugged-out alien lurching through the Mechanical Animals music videos. “Don’t give me anything that will like me.”

The good doctor was more than eager to experiment with various drug cocktails. We’d try one combination for a few months, and then he’d switch it up. He tinkered with my brain chemistry like it was a science project. I suppose it was.

One pill to make me numb.

Another to make me dumb.

A third to make me anybody else.

But all the drugs in this world won’t save him from himself.

Now that I was a grownup, my mom was no longer accompanying me to the appointments. It was on me to tell Dr. Feelgood how good I was feeling. Once again, I was confronted with the confounding dilemma I’d faced as a child: What does good feel like? What does normal feel like? I’d since discovered what high felt like, but what did it mean to just feel okay?

I didn’t know. Some days, I still don’t totally know. But I know how to put on a mask that looks okay, so that’s what I sought from the prescriptions.

The Neurontin/Cymbalta/Lamictal combo we settled on provided me with a wearable face for a few decent years. I still didn’t like looking in the mirror, but I could get out of bed in the morning. I could smile and nod in all the right places. I didn’t have to snort stuff to get through the day.

But I was hiding all the while. People terrified me. I related to no one. And on top of all that, there were unpleasant side effects. The Cymbalta interfered with my sleep. It made me feel like I’d had a stroke if I missed a day. A fog accompanied each (unusually high, I later discovered) dose of Neurontin. I was exhausted all the time.

I’d been living in Los Angeles for about a year when I decided to come off everything. I was still in love with the city then (I hate it 95% of the time now, but the other 5% keeps me here), and had been sober for five years. I felt as well-adjusted as I thought was possible for someone like me. I wanted to have a real go at it. Raw-dog life without the familiar protection of a pharmaceutical condom.

At this point, I’d done a fair amount of work on myself—both in therapists’ offices and out of them—and had, I thought, thoroughly explored the geography of my soul and psyche. I’d uncovered a lot of ugly things I’d repressed and felt somewhat confident that I’d never been all that “abnormal” as a child. Normalcy is a misnomer in and of itself, and there had been a plethora of destabilizing External Factors. I had needed some kind of support during my childhood, but I shouldn’t have been put on drugs. They’d never been intended for me, anyway. They’d been intended to make my emotions easier for my mother to deal with because she couldn’t even deal with her own.

Gradually, responsibly, I weaned myself off all the pills. Within three months, I was PURE. I was Doing Great. I rationalized that the snake in my chest that kept constricting around my ribcage was imaginary. I told myself the gray sheen of vague hopelessness was a result of the state of the world, not my state of mind. Many hours were spent crying to Lana Del Rey and Slothrust on crammed stretches of sunbaked freeways, but that was because of the traffic. There was nothing wrong with me.

But the generalized feelings of dysphoria and malaise kept getting worse. And then there was the girl who didn’t love me back (historically one of my favorite ways to die). A cancer diagnosis came around the same time (my least favorite way to die, incidentally). Somewhere between those two External Factors, I became embroiled in a public scandal over the content of one of my novels. I spent a lot of time reading tweets and Facebook posts in which the thematic throughline was “CHANDLER MORRISON IS A DISGUSTING MONSTER.” I received a lot of DMs telling me to kill myself.

All this, and no mask to hide behind. The strongest thing in my medicine cabinet was a bottle of expired Tylenol. But that was fine. I’d never liked the drugs, anyway. The drugs liked me.

I started sleeping too much. Phantom pains manifested in my limbs. The cancer came to life. It clung to my back and whispered deadly little threats in my ear. I couldn’t go outside. The tenuous connections I’d made with people began to sever. The shadows behind my eyes wrenched themselves from my head and crowded around me. Reflective glass became a sunken place where something unspeakable lived.

Not a chemical imbalance, though. I’m not even sure that’s a real thing, and there were many External Factors at play. One could argue that any cancer-stricken, lovelorn twenty-five-year-old in the midst of a public scandal would be hella sad. Drugs wouldn’t fix the problem. They would only mask it.

I like masks, though. Which is why, after a year of raw-dogging life, I staggered into a new psychiatrist’s office with my tail between my legs.

Maybe I don’t know what normal feels like. Maybe normal doesn’t exist at all. But I know how it feels to be able to do my hair in the morning without wanting to put my fist through the face staring out of the glass, and that’s what I needed to get back to.

This time, however, the mask would be different. The point was no longer to completely hide my true self. It wasn’t to escape, either. What I wanted to hide was the thing that made me want to shroud my face. I’d begun to reach the realization—not fully, and I’m still getting there—that maybe there was a problem which needed to be masked, but that problem wasn’t me. My soul was not infected. I’d just been through a lot and had never been given the opportunity to learn the right coping mechanisms, so I needed a little assistance.

It helped that this new guy’s approach was different. He was mortified to hear about the various drug cocktails my last psychiatrist had put me on. He started me on a low dose of Lexapro and exercised extreme caution whenever he increased it, but in under two months, the color had seeped back into the world. The phantom pains went away. I stopped sleeping all the time. By the time I started radiation treatments, I was feeling better than I had in over a year.

I can’t speak with any authority on the veracity of chemical imbalances. What I can say is that I’ve done life with and without prescription drugs, and I much the prefer the former. I’ve been sober for over a decade and the cancer is three and a half years in remission, but I don’t think I could have gotten through the surgeries and the radiation treatments if the Lexapro hadn’t banished the shadows back to the abyss behind my eyes.

The Buspirone is a new addition because that snake in my chest never fully went away. It still hasn’t, honestly, but its grip isn’t as tight. I’ve learned that it’s a lot cooler to love someone who loves you back than it is to love someone who doesn’t care if you live or die. The “kill yourself” DMs haven’t stopped altogether, but they’ve slowed to a trickle, and they’re easier to laugh off because A.) my headspace is better and B.) I pay my rent every month with royalties from that book the internet hordes tried to destroy.

There’s a compelling argument to be made that a chemical imbalance was created when I was put on SSRIs at such a young age, but I don’t think about that too much. It’s masturbatory chicken-or-the-egg speculation. The pills won’t cure whatever is wrong with me, but they help.

My dad got sober eleven months after I did, and he and I have a better relationship today than we ever did when I was growing up. He moved in with me for four months while I was going through the cancer treatments. I went through a lot of emotions during that time, and he never once invalidated any of them. He is no longer married.

My mom remarried once, to my father’s second wife’s uncle (yes, you read that correctly), but they too divorced after just five months. Now, she still dates douchey guys (including her own uncle at one point) and blames my father for all her problems. She and I are not on speaking terms, and my life is better for it.

The darkness is still there, though. I still hide behind sunglasses because I don’t want anyone to fully see me, although I’ve been experimenting with lighter shaded lenses instead of the soul-obscuring black ones. I still write stories about sad, bad people who have extramarital affairs, and sometimes they die violently, but I don’t illustrate them anymore.

I’m better, but I am not fixed. The drugs have never been able to fix me. I’ve only recently realized that this is because I never needed to be fixed in the first place. What I needed was a more stable upbringing. Lacking that, some healthy copy techniques would have helped. But lacking those, I have SSRIs.

Maybe someday I’ll drop the mask entirely. Maybe someday that urge to hide will dissipate. Maybe someday I’ll learn how to be a person who doesn’t need drugs.

Until then, I know I can count on them.

They’ve always been there.

When I didn’t have parental support, a stable home life, or friends, I had drugs.

That’s why I like them.

That’s why they like me.