The pleasures of reading, as Syd has noted. Right now, while my emails back up on my addled virusy computer, I am deep in Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, a novel featuring a tattoo artist and flooded with watery recollections of Morecambe and Coney Island, the seas that inspire dreams or nightmares in those who sail on them or just sit watching waves break in on the rocky shores; the Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s Secret Scriptures on an elderly woman who has been shut away in an Irish mental asylum for most of her life; William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms, set in contemporary London and dealing with the global pharmaceutics industry. None of them new books, but I appreciate books more once the reviews and acclaim have died down.
Talking about Big Pharma, one of our local doctors has just come back from a sojourn in New England and spoke to us at supper the other night about his unease with the over-medicating practices he found there. He spent most of his day refilling or authorising prescriptions for mood stabilisers, anxiolytics and sleeping pills. Many of his patients have been on meds for decades and he has no idea how they would function if they were to stop taking them. He says that all he could do was ‘tweak’ or ‘adjust’ because the patients would not consider trying to live unmedicated lives. ‘More than 80% of my patients were supposed to be bipolar,’ he said. ‘That is an astonishingly high – even implausibly high –psychiatric population for such an affluent, comfortable society, no undue stresses or war-related traumas, nothing like the hardship and turbulence of Africa — but this was how they choose to live, based on a psychiatric diagnosis made 30 years ago when they were teenagers.’ He noted sadly the bluntedness and loss of subtle emotional ranges, the lack of acuity, the mind’s sharpness lost. Listening to him we all shivered, as if looking into a numbed and chemically manipulated future.
I have often thought that my alcoholism began as self-medication when I was an ignorant and impoverished student trying to suppress old traumas and avoid dealing with newer realities that frightened or angered me. Instead of learning coping skills, I drank. Over the years I would notice from time to time that my emotional responses were duller and more flattened or ‘unfeeling’ as time went by, but I didn’t connect that to the progressive effect of excessive alcohol use. Only when I sobered up and embarked on the rollercoaster of unmedicated feelings did I realise what I had been doing to myself. The shock of ‘feeling’ things without any chemical buffer was raw and painful, but I did not trust myself with medications. And my therapist was clear that I was not clinically depressed or suffering mood disorders, was sceptical about the worth of meds for long-term war-related PTSD. So I learned to sit with the feelings and I am very glad I did. I do know many recovering alcoholics rely on mood-altering medications in order to cope — that is their choice and I have no quarrel with that. All the same, I acknowledge a certain queasiness about who profits from pathologising and medicating the global masses and the personal price to be paid for that dependence. A woman friend of mine mentioned the other day that she has spent 14 years behind a glass wall — that distancing effect of certain meds — and has almost forgotten the immediacy of sensation and ‘what it feels like to experience the heart jumping for joy’. Such an unquantifiable loss.