Thursday, September 19, 2013

things to remember

rimbaud's words on a wall near st. sulpice, paris, august 2013

backyard weaver, st. albert, july 2013

If there is nothing else I do over the next few months (and really, I have a million things to do), I must allow myself to write poems. Think poems make poems be poems. Because I am feeling more and more sick in the heart that I am for some reason not allowing myself the time and space to be creative in this way. I know that in order to get the PhD dissertation done I had to push so much aside (so much feeling, especially grief) but I need to recover it now, because I am feeling more and more ill at ease in my head, in my life. I don't know why I've done this, over this past year, why I continue to do this to myself. I do know that it feels increasingly destructive, like I am neglecting and thus punishing myself, and I know that I have to somehow stop.

"Whenever I don't write, I commit violence to myself. I write instead of kicking and screaming. I write instead of dying." 

--Kate Zambreno, #32 in 'Toilet Bowl: Some notes on why I write'


A Poet's Advice

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. 
This may sound easy, but it isn't. 
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel -- but that's thinking or 
believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling -- not knowing or believing orthinking. 

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human beingcan be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know 
you're a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you're nobody-but-yourself. 
To be nobody-but-yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. 

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn't a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time - and whenever we do it, we are not poets. 
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you've written one line of one poem, you'll be very lucky indeed. 
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something 
easy, like learning how to blow up the world -- unless you're not only willing, but glad to feel and work and fight till you die. 
Does this sound dismal? It isn't. 
It's the most wonderful life on earth. 
Or so I feel. 

-- e.e. cummings


"I do believe in poetry. I believe that there are creatures endowed with the power to put things together and bring them back to life".

--Hélène Cixous, in 'The Book of Promethea'

Thursday, August 01, 2013

poetry and projects

I have been having difficulty writing poems for the last year or so, as I pushed to finish my PhD dissertation. I am constantly feeling inspired to do so, and I have pages and pages of fragments collected and scribbled in multiple notebooks, but creating a whole poem has been out of my reach for awhile. This has alarmed me greatly, because I have been writing poems quite steadily for most of my life (since I was eleven years old) and beginning the PhD coincided with a swiftly-dropping lack of productivity in that area that has left me feeling emptied and dull, and even a bit anxious to attempt the crafting of poems despite the strong desire to do so. 

Part of this, I know, has been the sheer written demands of my program, to not only produce my thesis (117 000 words or so) but also conference papers and articles in an academic style, and that this has been incredibly draining for me, especially in the last six months as I've finished up. But today I came across a wonderful, unassuming little chapbook by Dorothea Lasky called 'Poetry is Not a Project' (go read it all online here, it is concise and brilliant and will not take long) and this has helped me greatly to articulate another block toward the making of poems: that I am trying to make poems like I made my thesis. 

(This sounds very simple, but I honestly don't believe I quite identified the problem until I read this, and I am going to write Lasky a grateful letter for helping me untangle that.)

Lasky notes that it is not that poets and scientists are all that different, but that she thinks that "poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain". For Lasky, poems are "not intention, but life". They are not planned out before they appear. They are created within an intersection between the poet and the poem itself, the poet's internality and the external world. They emerge through intuition, not overplanning.

And so I am realizing that right now, I am perhaps half-consciously trying to discern a theme, a greater cycle, an overarching purpose and point to prove for these poor little half-formed poems in my notebooks, and being unable to come up with one, I am thwarting myself before I even begin. I am trying to make a grand scheme, a grant proposal, a PhD out of my poems, and that is never going to work. I need to not worry about what is going to happen in the end, what it is going to become (so crucial to a thesis, where there is something I must prove) and let it be. 

In Lasky's anecdote about the friend who decided to write a poem about a piece of art in a museum each day, she shows that while such 'projects' can be motivational, they often become more about the particular project than the poems themselves, which are often forced out to conform to a theme and tend to fade out hollowly into the shadows. In another piece I read recently, called 'Being Dumb' by Kenneth Goldsmith, another example also resonated. He mentioned Christian Bök, a poet who came to renown for writing Eunoia, an experiment in univocalics--each chapter/poem contains words with only one vowel--and who is currently attempting to create the Xenotext. In the latter project, he writes that he is "striving to write a short verse about language and genetics, whereupon I use a “chemical alphabet” to translate this poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium". The bacterium then produces a protein, which is also a text.

That is a fascinating idea, I don't deny that. But I don't want to feel like I have to write something like that-- like a collection of poems all about one thing that all support that x = y, or forgo meaning for pure sound, or train bacteria to make poems for me. I don't want to feel like there is something I must prove.

While I don't equate what Goldsmith called 'dumb' as the opposite of 'smart', I do think that too often, poets try to be too 'clever'. And so many of these smart poems instantly make me feel distanced. They are cool and calculated, crisp and crafted; many also lack apparent emotion. While some do show a certain joy in language, language and meaning do not always dovetail in a way that really satisfies me emotionally and intellectually at once. (Eunoia, I would argue, divorces words from meaning quite thoroughly)  I try to go deeper into these poems, and I end up feeling like I just tried diving into a pool and finding out the water was a lot shallower than I anticipated, and I come up miffed with a sore head instead of feeling enriched and enlightened. 

I want to let my poems flow, and I want them to be smart, but not 'smart' in Bök's way, but intelligent in a way that moves me, and will hopefully move others. I want to express things for the sake of expressing them, because I have the need, I am drawn to create them.

Hélène Cixous writes of this deep desire to create so perfectly and passionately in her essay 'Coming to Writing', which I read recently, and I keep coming back to parts of a quote that Arwen highlighted for me:

Let yourself go! Let go of everything! Lose everything! Take to the air. Take to the open sea. Take to letters. Listen: nothing is found. Nothing is lost. Everything remains to be sought. Go, fly, swim, bound, descend, cross, love the unknown, love the uncertain, love what has not yet been seen, love no one, whom you are, whom you will be, leave yourself, shrug off the old lies, dare what you don't dare, it is there that you will take pleasure, never make your here anywhere but there, and rejoice, rejoice in the terror, follow it where you're afraid to go, go ahead, take the plunge, you're on the right trail! Listen: you owe nothing to the past, you owe nothing to the law.

This is the antithesis of creating a project, a clever 'exercise', and I do think that others, like me, also can get caught up in the need  to make a 'something', and this stops us from letting the poems out, the poems that are us, that we are being. I need no governing laws in my writing, no theses to cleverly defend, no I must think less, and write the things that ache to be written, that are squirming about in my mind like restless embryos and choking away in my throat. As Cixous says (and I think Lasky would agree), we must be "ourselves in writing like fish in the water, like meanings in our tongues, and the transformation in our unconscious lives".

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

alberta herbal: yarrow

Yarrow, along the Maligne Canyon trail, Jasper, July 2013.

Note the feathery leaves, too, divided pinnately into segments (not visible in the first photo). Very important for identification, because other white-flowered plants are very poisonous (e.g. water hemlock)

This is yarrow (Achillea millefolium). 
Parts to use: leaves, flowers to a lesser extent
Uses: clotting wounds (esp. nosebleeds), easing menstrual blood, improving general blood circulation, treating colds (esp. with fever), treating internal bleeding (ulcers, etc.) 

Yarrow—its cluster of whitish-green flowers, feathery leaves, tough and grasping roots—is a plant very dear to me. Not only for its myriad uses, but because it’s one of the very first plants my dad taught me to identify. Yarrow grows extensively throughout Western Canada, in the grasslands, parklands, mountains, and the boreal; it will also tenaciously takes over roadsides and ditches (and gardens, when you buy those alpine wildflower seed mixes…) and so we encountered it often on the trails we walked when I was young.

I happened to meet yarrow when in need of one of its key healing qualities –  it is high coumarins, compounds which contain vitamin K, and thus has the ability to clot blood. I used to get terrible nosebleeds when I was young, especially on hot dry summer days. I remember standing in the shade on a lakeside, anxiously pinching my nose while my dad brushed aside bushes nearby and gently plucked a few unfurled yarrow leaves. He crushed them up first with his fingers, and then gave them to me. “Just chew them up a little, get them wet with some spit,” he told me, “that will activate them”. I did as told—the leaves were aromatic, spicy and bittersweet. Then he rolled them up into a little pack, and placed them up my nose. I was fascinated by this experiment. In about five minutes, my nosebleed had stopped and I was left with a sweet earthy smell even after I removed the mass of leaves. Intrigued, I paid even closer attention as he named the plants and told about their many properties, and stories of times he’d used them out in the bush.

And so yarrow always reminds me of my father, and the care he took to teach my sister and me about what was growing around us, and how this healing knowledge has remained with us. My sister, who lost interest early on in camping and living outdoors, remarked recently that she did appreciated these teachings nonetheless, and was pleased she could still pick out yarrow when she saw it on the sides of the road.

Due to its aforementioned clotting abilities, yarrow is also called ‘woundwort’. The scientific name is Greek, after Achilles, because there are stories that a centaur gave him the plant before he headed into battle. Millefolium for a thousand leaves, and another name in English, ‘thousand-seal’. In medieval Western Europe, its flowers have been a constituent of gruit (a beer flavouring mixture) and its young leaves a tender, bittersweet spinach-like potherb.

My grandmother also knew yarrow (derevij or krivavnyk in Ukrainian). Yarrow tea made using the fresh (or dried) flowers and leaves and mixed with mint was good for colds, she said. Its anti-inflammatory properties could help reduce a fever. Its styptic properties also helped with internal bleeding, and could also ease bloody diarrhea ("People in the Old Country took it," she said, as when she grew up in Western Ukraine, cholera epidemics were still a great threat). My grandma drank tea from her garden yarrow to help with a stomach ulcer as well. She told me that above all, yarrow is simply ‘good for the blood’ and improved circulation. Most importantly, it can she first told me about drinking plain yarrow tea as a remedy for regulating menstruation. Its ability to regulate the blood means that it can help ease both heavy bleeding and also stimulate a scant period.

To make a yarrow tea, you can use the leaves (and flowers – but I usually just use leaves).

If it’s fresh, two long leaves will do it, and if dried, use 1 tsp. for each cup of boiling water. Steep it for 10 minutes either way (if you cover the lid of the cup, you trap more of the goodness in). It becomes bitter easily, so don’t oversteep it – be sure to strain out the leaves. Adding a bit of lemon and honey can make it more palatable. Good for colds, fevers, and also for reducing some of the pain and blood flow during a heavy period – or bringing on a stubborn one.

And, as noted, you can use the dried powdered leaves to stop bleeding as well, but fresh chewed leaves do work just as well and can be pressed again cuts and wounds (alone or as part of a poultice) as well as placed in the nostril as I found out early on. It has never failed me once.

*Some notes of warning – I’ve heard of a few people who have had skin reactions to yarrow (potentially due to taking drugs that cause photosensitivity), so be cautious of that. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

alberta herbal: wild sarsaparilla

Wild Sarsaparilla, Edmonton River Valley, June 2013. Photo by Jason.

When I first saw these little white-flowered spheres popping up in the river-valley undergrowth a few weeks ago, I was confused, thinking at first they were a wild onion. I soon figured it out that no -- not onion-y at all, and that my difficulty in identifying stemmed from the fact that I only knew this plant by its late summer cluster of berries, rather than its early blooms.

This is the wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicalis). Also known as rabbit root, wild licorice (not to be confused with this true wild licorice), shotbush and small spikenard.
Parts to use: the roots only (berries are inedible) 
Uses: blood purification, energy tonic, skin washes for ulcers, rashes and pox.

Sarsaparilla is a delightful word. It is from the Basque words sartzia 'bramble' and parra 'vine', and reached English via the Spanish zarzaparilla -- the invading Spaniards encountered indigenous people in Central America using the plant both medicinally and in enjoyable beverages that were the precursor to our contemporary root beers. These plants, of the Smilax genus, are the true sarsaparillas, whereas the wild sarsaparilla is part of the ginseng family and was so named in English because the taste and qualities are very similar to that of the original sarsaparilla of the southern regions.

Wild sarsaparilla, which is found growing throughout moist and moderately shady woods in North America, is also now widely used to flavour many commercial traditional-style root beers. The plant grows about a foot high, and may have two to five-ish little branching umbels of greenish white flowers appearing in May or June. The purplish black berries that appear in July and August are not edible for humans, but bears seem to enjoy them. The part most useful for medicine are the dried rootstalks, which should be gathered in early autumn, as the plants begin to yellow. 

Once the roots are dried, they can be made into a tea, which has general tonic properties much like ginseng does, restoring energy and purifying the blood. It has a lovely peppery-balsamic taste, with a hint of licorice, like the dominant root beer flavour. Like ginseng, it can cause a bit of extra perspiration (which adds to its purifying qualities). 

While again, I am not a herbalist or botanist, I would advise that it should be used with caution if you are sensitive to other Panax or Aralia plants; however, while I have adverse effects from ginseng (blood pressure drops and heart palpitations) I can have small amounts of wild sarsaparilla in teas and root beers, so it makes a nice substitute for the stronger plants with similar benefits. 

My dad also learned from a Woods Cree friend that the plant was also used to make a skin wash that was helpful in soothing ulcers, psoriasis-like skin issues and shingles/chicken pox rash. In the past the plant had also been used to treat syphilis, though which symptoms he didn't know.

This plant always makes me remember my dad, because when I was little and being mildly mischievous, he would always scold me with 'you little sarsaparilla!', dropping the 'r' so it sounded like 'sass'. And this is a sassy and delicious plant indeed.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

alberta herbal: red currants in blossom

Red currants blossoming, Tawayik Lake, Elk Island National Park, May 2013

As a general note -- I am not a professional botanist or a herbalist. The knowledge I am passing along here was taught to me by my dad, who learned it from others who knew the northern bush, and my baba whose knowledge came primarily from her mama and baba in the Ukrainian Carpathians. There are probably many other uses for these plants; I am only passing on what I have been taught directly, and in most cases, tried myself, so this is not exhaustive by any means. Be careful with wild plants: do your own research too so you are well-versed in their identification and uses, and take into consideration your own body -- everyone reacts a little differently especially to new foods they have never tried before. So there's my disclaimer!


So here is the first entry in my Alberta Herbal: the red currant (Ribes triste).
Parts to use: berries, leaves (when young, never wilted!)
Uses: Vitamin C source, good for respiratory ailments (coughs and colds) and system immunity, gastrointestinal issues, anti-inflammatory and cleansing tonic.

Most currants are not a huge shrub, and this one is rarely found growing more than half a metre high, and tend to like wet, rocky woods, and swampy places. The ones in the photo are growing near a marshy lakeshore, in the shade of some balsam poplars and aspens. The leaves, which you can just see, have five palmate lobes -- a commonality among all the members of the currant and gooseberry family

The blossom of our red currants, with their pinkish-red centres, look quite similar to those of the prickly black currant (Ribes lacustre), also found in the northern Alberta parklands and boreal. However, at this stage you can tell them apart by the lack of raspberry-bush-like prickles on the stem of the red currants. They begin flowering in late May and the tart-tasting, bright, semi-translucent red berries will begin to form in July, ripening in mid-to-late summer here in Alberta. 

Both the red and black currant berries and leaves are highly edible, though North American black currant leaves give off a slightly-to-extremely skunk-ish aroma, and are less palatable in teas (European and Siberian black currant leaves are much more pleasant). The leaves, when harvested in spring and early summer, are also medicinal. (Never ingest them once the leaves begin to wilt, though, as toxins build up as they age and could really harm your stomach). Now would be a good time to gather some, as they are nice and fresh. 

My dad always told me that currants are among the best berries for preventing scurvy if you get lost in the woods as they are extremely high in Vitamin C (black are a little better than red, apparently, but both will keep you healthy!). They are also high in copper, an important trace element. He mentioned that chewing a few berries can help with nausea and stomach upset, and also stimulate the appetite after gastrointestinal issues. 

My baba would have told you to cook them down with sugar into a jam, sauce, or syrup. Porichky ('red currants' in Ukrainian)  were used in her village, she told me, primarily as simple sustenance but were also used as remedies for coughs (reduced into a thick syrup).  When her family first arrived in Canada, they lived on a farm east of Edmonton in the Beaver Hills, were red currants still grow abundantly. Doctors were few and far between, and red currants (often mixed with elderberries) were one of the most important cough and cold remedies, and were also taken to generally improve respiratory health (pneumonia, whooping cough and diphtheria were especially feared at the time).

My dad never mentioned much about the leaves, but my baba told me that fresh or dried leaves were also good in teas taken a few times daily to ease respiratory symptoms as well, and 'settle the stomach' after bouts of diarrhea. Back home in the Carpathians, she said that leaves were sometimes steeped in vodka, which was then diluted with water to be used as a cleansing tonic. People with arthritic issues also took it, so it's likely currants have decent anti-inflammatory properties as well.

So now is the time for leaf usage, if you've got coughs or colds or an ornery stomach. You can use them fresh (just pour boiling water over about 2 tsp. of chopped or torn fresh leaves in a 250ml cup, cover and let steep about 5 minutes, drink up to 3 times a day). They are also nice mixed in with other fresh berry-bush leaves, such as wild raspberry. If you dried the currants, you could throw some into the tea as well for extra flavour; on its own it is astringent but only faintly currant-y.

Unfortunately I never witnessed the making of the vodka concoction, but if you are good at making tinctures and infusions, you may want to experiment. 

I will include photos later in the season when the berries develop further as well as recipes for the berries. More general tips about drying leaves and berries to come as well...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

herbal survival: a preface

In late April, I spied my moose-friend at Riverlot. At first I thought the tree had ears...

But no, it was my yearling moose-friend, who I'd been seeing all winter with his mama.

He's all grown-up now with his little antler-buds, and he's set off to eat saplings on his own...

* * * 
I have been absent awhile now, I realize, but the PhD has now been written and I wait for a defense, so (as unreal as it seems to me) I hope to rekindle my blog-writings in the meantime. While there were so many things I wanted to write about, I could not seem to muster or divert any energy and words away from my thesis. At the moment I can't quite believe that I am done that particular document, but already the impetus to write little things (and post a few months' worth of photos) is slowly returning. 

I have a lot of feelings right now that aren't really ready to be shared, but I'm feeling quite compelled to write about useful things, like plants. It's spring, almost summer now, and I am in my homeplace at this time of year for the first time in four years. The woods have kept me sane over the last few months, and now they are so alive and vibrant, all the old bones of winter streaming into green. I'm thinking a lot about my dad, and my baba, and how much I miss them. How far away I feel from them at times. But I've also realized that I can draw them much nearer to me when I focus on what they have taught me, imparted to me, and so much of that has to due with survival. I want to write about the emotional aspects of this eventually, but at the moment I want to pass on the knowledge they've bestowed regarding physical survival. My baba has taught me much about garden and semi-domestic plants, and my dad's teachings have connected me so deeply to the wild ones growing on this land. And so I want to pass along some of this knowledge, because it is not even so much the remembering of this knowledge that keeps them close to me, but the teaching and sharing of what they always shared with me. 

Over the summer, as everything blossoms, I will create my Alberta Herbal. The plants that grow here, with a focus on the ones that will keep you healthy and nourished, should you want or need to consume them.  And then, perhaps some other surviving-skills. But first, a long story about how I came to the idea. 

In the last month or so, likely due to PhD-related (which also includes the anticipation of being post-PhD) stress and a penchant for watching ridiculous National Geographic documentaries at 3am about people who are getting ready for doomsday, I've had a few apocalyptic dreams. The details of the cataclysms are usually vague, but the main flavour is extreme anxiety, coupled with a strange blend of frustration and annoyance. In these dreams, I am usually trying to finish writing the thesis, but am interrupted by having to organize things or figure out how to find my next meal, often whilst trying to cajole others to help me or teach them what needs to be done. 

In one dream I come down from where I have been trying to have a nap, in an upstairs bedroom in a large mansion, where I am hiding from the external chaos. This unfamiliar house is full of other people (some I know, most are strangers), and when I emerge from the room, they ask me where the food is, because everything in the cupboards has been eaten. I suggest that we'll have to go foraging, because apparently there are no more grocery stores. My comrades are not pleased. To gloss over some dull negotiations and strange twists of dream-logic, it turns out I have to go evade fast-moving rabid animals alone to find some wild salad greens and fishes. I manage to make it across a very vast lawn to a stream without meeting my doom, and I fish with a long twig and twine, and a fish hook that magically appears, and soon catch a fish. It's a pike, slippery and toothy but nice and fat. Good for dinner. I am going to cut it open, to clean it, flipping it over on its belly when I panic, remembering that's not the best way to clean a pike. They are incredibly bony, and I am terrified of choking on fish bones. But then I blank, forgetting where to start filleting. I start to panic. What if I cut it wrong and ruin all the meat and everyone dies with bones lodged in their throats? 

I wake up, glad that it not the end of the world, but the dream-remnants are still rattling about in my head, and I start to worry because what if I had to start fishing for my food and the river here is full of pike and what's that trick again that my dad taught me--I haven't cleaned a fish in nearly two years now, what if I forget... And I feel a wave of anxiety, not so much about the nonexistent cataclysm that would test my skills, but because I am terrified of forgetting what he has taught me. So I look it up on YouTube--how to filet bony fish--and begin the day looking at fish guts. It reminds me of my dad, of catching my first fish, a jackfish in Thunder Lake, and the sour-weedy smell of blood and viscera in the fish-cleaning stand, the grit on my knees in the bottom of a canoe. It's strangely calming, because of the memories, and because I instantly remember what to do as soon as the first cuts are made. And then I think a bit more about survivalism, and remember just how much my dad has taught me. 

This knowledge--of how to survive in the bush--is deeply important to me, and so incredibly valuable. Not necessarily because I'm waiting for a societal collapse, but because I strongly believe that the skills he has passed on to me are something that everyone should have. My dad, who grew up basically outside, supported that too, developing the first outdoor education program in the city when he first taught junior high in the early 1970s. He taught those kids what he later passed on to his own children. He took kids winter camping, taught them to ice fish and build a kwinzhee, introduced them to wilderness first aid, built canoes in the summer and showed them how to use a compass, read topographical maps, identify edible plants and learn their uses. They made fires with flint and even a bow-drill. Those kids could probably make it a few days at least, if they had to.

And I start wondering how many of those children he taught had children, and if they ever passed along any of the knowledge he imparted to them. I think of the kids now at the school where he taught, where they still have something like outdoor education but it's all focused on the sporty-ness of outdoor activities, and very little on learning how to live in the bush. Those kids there, at the school where my mother still teaches, could they name ten plants that grow around them? Would they know what to do with them?

(Or, says the curmudgeonly old woman in me, are they glued to their stupid phones and don't realize that if civilization collapses, so does wi-fi? And that you can't just look something up on wikipedia or youtube if you're stranded on a mountain somewhere? And even barring disaster, how do people live in a place and not know, or desire to be aware, of what else is living and growing around them?) 

It hurts my heart, I admit, that this knowledge is no longer esteemed. I strongly believe that alongside all the digital technology skills we should be taking kids outside in school and teaching them to plant a garden and build a fire and catch a fish and dig medicinal roots-- both for a deeper appreciation of the land but also for their own well-being. I am incredibly lucky that I had my father teach me so much over the course of my entire life, and instill in me an early value system that focuses on these types of skills.  Even my sister, who does not like to camp anymore at all, can still identify a yarrow plant, and could (if in dire need) chew it up to activate the clotting agents, and heal a cut. 

Despite my overactive dreaming-mind, I'm not anticipating an apocalypse, or planning for one. But I can't say that I don't feel a certain peace knowing that I could take care of myself, and others, in the forest if I had to, and a deep gratitude and closeness to my dad for teaching me all he knew about the land. And right now I really feel I need to pass that on,  all of the things he taught, because that ensures his continuing survival, too.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

brain chemicals: why i take medication, part two of two.

aberdeen, early morning haar-fog, may 2012

By this point in my life, I have gone over these events exhaustively, and I can’t seem to figure out what triggered this period in my life that made me decide to try medication. No one stress seemed so monumental that it could do this to me, it was everything and nothing. And it was something that I simply could not seem to muster up the will or strength to do anything about, and after nearly four months of it, it did not seem like it was simply a season in my brain, like other intense periods had been.  And now I could not do anything, and I wanted to not exist any more, which also catalysed further anxiety, and that was what made me decide that psychotropic drugs were probably no worse than what I currently was feeling. I was in the strange state of not wanting to exist, but not wanting to not want to exist; I felt like I had nothing to lose.

Again, at this stage, I was lucky. Lucky to have such an understanding psychologist, and a doctor who was patient with me, and warned me that I might have to try a few different medications to find one that helped. And I did try a different drug, before I tried the one I still take; it was one that made me quite ill right from the beginning. It made my frenetic thoughts slow down, but to the point where I couldn’t think at all. I went from highly anxious to strangely dulled, depressed. I remember one day when it seemed to only allow me to think about how I could hear the blood in my veins, and that the raindrops on the windows sounded like they were amplified and slowed down. I was nauseous constantly, and this was simply not feasible. So we tried something else, and I was tremendously lucky in that this one just fit. The first week was rough, but all in all, it happened quite quickly. There were side effects, but they were better than how I currently felt, perhaps even a welcome distraction, and so I continued.

Over the next two months, my thoughts slowly returned to something more normal for me: I could think clearly again, precisely enough to replace my incessant mantras with more sustainable CBT. I could better tell when my thoughts were  I stopped shaking, and panic attacks dropped off and I could do things, venture out, do healthy things. I could distract myself not with sharp things but with productive things to do with my hands. In essence, it simply allowed me to finally properly do the work I needed to do in order to deal with the anxiety I was feeling, before it got so bad I could no longer even think about doing anything. It allowed me to be clear and functional again, enough to cope. 

It was not perfect. It still isn't. Most of the side effects have faded, but some linger at times. I am afraid of running out, losing my pills; I can't forget to take one or I feel it immediately. But this is still many orders of magnitude better than what I was feeling before, and so I deal with it. Through a lot of experimentation I've found the dose and the timing that seems to be optimal for me, and I go with it, while trying as much as I can to do all the non-pharmaceutical things I can to stay healthy. 

Because I still get anxious, as I said; I still feel depressed. I have bad periods, very helpless-feeling, unproductive, waves that I have to get through. But these, while trying and unpleasant, are things I feel that I can deal with. They are something different than the pure terror, the neuronal storms of nonsense and inability to think. They arise from things I understand, most of the time, so they feel like something else. And I know that it could be argued that my brain with its faulty substrata predisposes me to have certain kinds of reactions to things in the world. This is not unlikely. However, I feel there is such a distinction between feeling depressed and anxious due to the state of the world and my place in it, the forces acting against me that I ultimately cannot alter, and feeling anxious because I am having paranoid, terrifying, irrational thoughts that I still recognize have no basis in reality. I am not trying to artificially separate the kinds of anxiety and depression I feel into purely chemical and purely situational; I am not trying to uphold the harmful Cartesian duality of mind and body that I think is one of the sources of the denigration of mental illness. That the medication seems to help one strain of anxiety though, and not others, though, suggests to my non-neurologist self that perhaps  there are different (but connected) kinds; the kind that stems from my brain structure, and the kind that starts from outside of it but I experience and process (of course) through my neuronal set-up. Maybe they are far too entwined to fully separate, and interdependent in myriad subtle ways; my reactions to the OCD-like thoughts certain do shape my reactions to situation-based anxiety too. I don't fully understand it yet, but I keep trying to. For now, I just want to acknowledge that some of what I feel is traceable and comprehensible to me, and some of it arose without such triggers; and the latter is what I find the medication helps.

It didn't magically restore my self-esteem, make me fearless, a better writer, make me love myself unconditionally, flood me with optimism. But it also didn't erase my personality and turn me into a mask-wearing zombie with stunted, inappropriate emotions, nor a shallow, uncritical consumer. It did let me feel more than constant anxiety and panic, though. That was all, and that is what I wanted.


I know, though, for some people, these kinds of medication make them feel horrible. They do feel like blank, stumbling automatons, just as clouded and fuzzy as they do while depressed, numbed and dulled. We know that for whatever reason, these medications are temperamental and finicky and quite unpredictable (just like people’s brains).  For some reason, what helps one person’s anxiety or depression does little to nothing for (or seriously worsens) another’s condition:  I’ve heard both just as many completely terrifying horror stories as accounts of neutrality or ineffectualness as I have successes. And I wish I knew why this was, wish we were at that point with neurology to have an explanation, but we aren’t. We still can’t always discern the messenger from the message, the excess from the essential; why some people’s brain waves look really different from other people’s even while in very similar states, why this drug I take that they thought would be good for epilepsy (but wasn't) might be good for depression (sometimes, it seems) would end up helping more people with generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (it did for me, anyway). 

Perhaps all this speaks to is the incredibly individual natures of our brains, perhaps more so than any other part of the body.  One issue with allopathic medicine is that it wants to assume that all human bodies are essentially the same, rather than specific systems, I feel; and perhaps the fact that not all anti-depression and anti-anxiolytic medications work on every person’s issues  I would hazard a guess that my brain chemicals were perhaps quite responsive to psychotropic medication because I seem to be pretty sensitive in general to any kind of chemical interference; sleuthing out the triggers of my migraines has made me realize that the foods I put in my body have a massive and often immediate effect on how I feel. Therefore, by fastidiously avoiding those foods and supplementing my diet with a concoction of vitamins does a lot toward making my migraines less frequent, because I seem to be pretty chemically suggestible.

I suppose it would be wonderful if I could find a vitamin-potion/food combination that did the same for my anxiety and depression. I’ve tried a lot of different combinations, both through my own research and seeing a naturopath, too, and I continue to try things even though I take pharmaceuticals. But unlike with my migraines, I wasn’t able to find anything that could stave off two breaking points. And that was when I decided (both times) to initially go on my medication, and to continue it after a hiatus. I was doing all the good things that they tell you to do with mental illness: to eat properly, to take the vitamins, to exercise. And that helps a great deal, but not enough for the worst bits, unfortunately.

Now, I did manage to get through a number of difficult stretches without any medication; the OCD-like periods, some of the self-harm. Sometimes I wonder if I could have handled my most serious breakdown that way, if I could have pulled through it too. I realize that many people do go through very similar things without it. And well – I didn’t. I did what I felt was best for me at the time, the only thing I felt I could manage. If that makes me weak, then I suppose I’m weak, but I’m alive, and I can deal with the periods of depression and anxiety that I still go through because at least I am not contending with that terror I could not will away on my own. I still struggle with doing a number of things, but I am far more productive than I ever could have been without it, I feel. This leaves me with the extra energy I need to deal with what the drugs do not touch.

Everything that I’ve written may just read like elaborate and desperate justification for my medication; so be it. For me, it is a potent reminder for when I start to criticize myself, for when I start to think that I am wrong to have started the drugs in the first place. I completely understand and respect why someone would never want to touch a psychotropic medication, as I've been there. I just happened to eventually change my mind. And if that makes me just another brainwashed, ‘addicted’, misguided consumer who will take this medication for the rest of her life, I suppose that is how it will be. I just want to be fine with that, to openly acknowledge and explain why I did it, and through I may always struggle with it, I also want to be able to freely acknowledge that I’m grateful that there was this option available to me. I'll settle for being weak, but functioning; for whatever the anti-psychiatry movement wants to call me, but alive.