Pills and Process


Some time in the early ’90s, my brother Earl went through a personal crisis. I found myself advising him, as our elder brother had counseled me, to see a psychiatrist. But in recommending the very one-on-one professional relationship I myself had rejected, I was reminded of a story I had heard at satsang.

A woman was at wits end with her young son, who only wanted to eat sweets. Her guru suggested she bring the boy to him; but not for two weeks. At the appointed time, the child was so moved by the guru’s words, he promptly cut his candy intake by half.

Years later, the woman reminded the guru of the impact he had had on her now grown (and healthy) son. “But I’ve always wondered, Master, why you made me wait the two weeks before bringing the boy to see you.”

“When you first mentioned your son to me,” the guru answered, “my own sweet tooth was out of control. I needed time to clean up my eating habits before I could presume to speak to your son about his!”

It was thus my younger brother’s distress, rather than my elder’s cajoling, that led me gently but firmly to my decision. I simply couldn’t help but notice how similar my own eating habits were to Earl’s.

It seems almost comical, looking back, that after a guru, a ghost and all the accompanying mishoogas, it took a simple look in the mirror of my younger brother’s eyes to recognize and accept my clinical predicament. And begin clicking the heels of my own ruby slippers.

I walk a fine line in so describing my decision to “get help” of this more mainstream sort. I’ve not arrived at Chapter 22 only to recant the psychospiritual convictions I’ve gone to such lengths to relate above. The fact is, I don’t see any contradiction between them and the more conventional course I was now set upon. Had I established the “appropriate one-to-one relationship” 20 years earlier, I might well be a different person today, but not necessarily a better, happier or wiser one. (And what kind of movie would it have been had Dorothy clicked her heels three times before ever meeting the Tin Man or dealing with the Wicked Witch of the West?)

I had met Dr. Blumenthal some years before, in the aftermath of our break with Tanya and Sherman. At the Jewish Family Service, where I’d reported for an assessment of my emotional state at that difficult time, he was called in to evaluate whether I should be on medication. But I had come to that session directly from a deposition. After observing 30 seconds of my upbeat, adrenaline-boosted demeanor, he pronounced me “not-depressed” and left the room. End of consultation.

I did not hold that against him when I was finally ready to get into ongoing treatment. So for the next couple of years, we took a more in-depth look at those parallel personas, spiritual and worldly, that Sarah had helped me identify so many years before. And my chronic inability to find satisfaction, for very long, on either track.

Through this therapy, I came to understand that my spiritual leanings were symbolically but perniciously linked to my mother, the nurturer; while my ambitious side was staunchly associated with my father, the provider. But Dad’s providence came at a Faustian price: Nightly, he raved that the greenback was God (and peace of mind, the rich man’s booty). So setting no store in his affection, I had vowed to earn some scant respect. Someday, somehow, I would “show him the money.”

Mother, not surprisingly, was Father’s better half. Like TV’s Mr. Rogers, she loved us just the way we were. “Life is what you make it,” she chirped, “so do what makes you happy.” She was there for us at school events our father never came to. Still, I heard his muffled groan beneath the weight of her good cheer.

But then, as I moved from adolescence into adulthood, Mother’s focus took an inexplicable turn. She stopped inquiring about my vocal or religious pursuits and now began each conversation by asking how things were going for me at work. For some reason, this always felt like a punch in the stomach.

Blumenthal helped me see that I experienced such inquiries as a betrayal of the spiritual alliance I thought Mother and I had forged. As it turned out, her values were much closer to Dad’s than I had ever imagined. And it was a slippery slope from there to an even more devastating realization: that the two were no less aligned in his nightly atrocities.

 So long as my psyche had Mother pegged as “good” and Dad as “bad,” I was as stuck as they were in their relational homeostasis. And this subconscious polarity kept the values and aspirations associated with each parent at cross-purposes – just as Larry and Ruth had always seemed to be. I thus lived in a state of chronic ambivalence, siding mostly with Mother’s more “spiritual” outlook, but always with a cache of loyalty to Dad’s more cynical worldview. 

Important as the above insights were for me, my “quality of life” was impacted less by them than by Prozac. This time, Blumenthal prescribed it for me at the very start of treatment. But it was only some ten or twelve weeks later that I experienced a remarkable and rather sudden shift in my emotional sensation. I use that phrase to convey that the improvement seemed to have nothing to do with my relationships or how I was conducting them.

Simply put, I felt well. Not the exhilaration that accompanied a victory in court; nor the “blissed-out” state at the feet of the guru. This was an unvarnished sense of well-being, unrelated to any notion of earning or grace. It was like coming into an emotional nest egg; one that had been accruing interest all those years it had gone unclaimed.

The transformation was all the more astonishing for the fact that in the three months it took the Prozac to kick in, I hadn’t been in any acute distress. It was as if someone had just flipped a switch . . . and every positive thing in my life was suddenly shouting, “SURPRISE!” My ardent inner process seemed abruptly obsolete. Yet in my daily interactions, my energy was uncharacteristically robust. I was fully engaged. Unconflicted.

“What are you on?” Sarah asked in a mildly accusatory tone. I had just entered the foyer of her house, not having seen her for over a year. I didn’t tell her right away it was Prozac she was sensing in my aura, though I had brought the bottle of pills along with me to the session. Indeed, I had scheduled this appointment precisely to get Sarah’s take on how this medication was affecting me. (I certainly knew I was feeling better, but still wanted her unique kind of second opinion.)

Sarah, I should mention, is an organic health nut. Her idea of getting the day off to a good start is a glass of fresh-squeezed carrot juice. She avoids not just medications, but microwave ovens. Nevertheless, after tuning in to these pills in my system, she conceded they were doing me some good. Then she added, almost grudgingly, “You won’t always need this medication.”

I have my own misgivings about relying on a synthetic chemical to feel well. But certain sequelae of my karma are still eluding total cure. I remain open to a more organic healing, with the fullest self-awareness and relational integrity of which I’m presently capable. Even as I get by, until then, with a little help from my pharmaceutical friend.