For anyone unaware, the Opinionator over at the NY Times has been on a roll lately. Whether it’s a memoir, a pop psychology piece, an odd look into time zones, really thoughtful writers are bringing out really interesting stories that connect. The most recent being this piece from New York artist David Kramer, talking about his bouts with anxiety, his strange love for his anxiety, and his strange love affair with cigarettes–the choice coping mechanism he uses to steer it. Seriously potent self-descriptions and a relatable anthropology to boot, Kramer points the problem back at himself, looks with a questioning eye on the medicine fixing the man, and does so with a keen eye–and a resigned eye–on the human activity of coping. By the end of the memoir, you get the sense that an honest perspective about one’s vices is a perspective with a sense of humor and, with humor, hope.
As things have gone better and better for me in my career, the anxiety levels ratchet up faster and more often. It comes in waves: I become very introverted and detached. I have trouble dealing with people around me. I become controlling and passive at the same moment, stressing about minor details while often losing sight of the situation at hand. My heart races and everything seems to move super fast. I also become funny. I jab out of my shell using humor and jokes and non-sequiturs. Like a pressure valve letting off steam. When I am drinking or smoking, the edge seems to come off. I can be more present. The jokes roll out easier and help establish a tone. I can be much less worried about controlling things and enjoy the moment with some fluidity.
But of course my doctor was concerned about my smoking and wanted to help. He told me about an antidepressant (Bupropion) that had an interesting side effect: it seemed to make cigarettes totally unpalatable. I had never taken antidepressants before. Even with all of the anxiety and stress I have in my life, depression has never been an issue. Whenever I do get into a downward cycle, I tend to work myself out of it very quickly. I like to joke that the reason I don’t get mired in depression is because I have such a short attention span.
The doctor told me that the pills would make me not want to smoke, but there were side effects. On the one hand I might find myself feeling a certain spark in my life, an increase in energy and vitality. The antidepressant would be basically doing its stuff, same as it would for a depressed person. But there were possible side effects, like the remote chance that the drug would make me a bit suicidal. Well, since I tend to be an overwhelmingly undepressed person, I decided to take the drugs. Hopefully I’d quit smoking, and get that lift.
I was really excited about this fix-all. I was finally going to kick my smoking habit once and for all.
So I started to take the anti-depressant. My doctor told me it would take some time to ramp up in my body and that I should begin to take the pills, slowly getting up to three or so a day, while establishing a quit date for about seven days away.
I was feeling pretty great and for the first few days. I was in heaven, really. Taking what seemed to me were essentially uppers and smoking away all the while thinking I was doing something really good for my body and overall physical health. My quit day was still a couple of days away.
About the fourth or fifth day it all began to change. I lit up a cigarette and it had to be the most revolting feeling and taste that I had ever felt in my life. My whole body cringed. I felt like I had sewer water running through my veins. I tried again later with another cigarette and it was the same all over again. I was suddenly turned off to cigarettes, completely.
I was happy about this, disgusted by cigarettes and moving on, although I have to admit that I did feel a little ripped off having given up the smokes a day and a half prior to my “quit date.” I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.
Not long after, though, something else changed. Biking home from work across the Williamsburg Bridge or riding the subway I’d start to have these horrible thoughts about what would happen if I threw myself in front of a train or down into the river. In the studio I was using power tools and thinking about cutting my hand off. It was really freaking me out. My mind was spinning out these very full, detailed and dark narratives, which I was simultaneously watching happen from another, walled off perch in my brain.
One day I was coming home from work and my wife was out on Long Island and I sent her a text message saying that I wanted to kill myself. This time she responded right away. I had experienced plenty of stress and anxiety in my life, but I had never been down in such a deep and dark place. She called the next minute and directed me to see my doctor, who I found in his office that afternoon. He told me to stop taking the drugs immediately. It would take a week or so to get the residue out of my system. The experiment was over.
For the next five days or so I continued to feel much the same. A dark cloud hung over my head. The drug had not only made me feel horribly suicidal, but also had completely taken away my sense of humor. I was walking around in a deep funk and feeling very little relief. On the morning of the sixth day, though, I woke up feeling fantastic. I was back. My joy and spark had returned. Everything seemed to be getting back to normal. I went to my studio and started to work my way out of the terrible stuff that I had been making over the past couple of weeks of the experiment. I found an old pack of cigarettes lying around and I decided to have one to see if it would be as disgusting as the last. It was not.
The cigarette tasted just as good as all the others I’d had before taking the drugs. I laughed out loud to myself and thought, “No wonder I wanted to kill myself. I wasn’t smoking!”
I had my sense of humor back. All was right again with the world. I could live with my anxiety, as long as I had my vices to help me through.