Sunday, April 21, 2013

Reflections on PPWC's 21st conference: Fumbling Toward Normalcy

PillsThe Pikes Peak Writers Conference is celebrating its 21st meeting this year with the theme "Writing From the Ashes" in recognition the Waldo Canyon Fire's impact on the area. For anyone who doesn't want to click on the Wikipedia link, this extraordinarily hot fire destroyed 346 homes, killed two people, and injured at least six. Given that writers often feel we are picking ourselves up and starting from nothing as we go from project to project and rejection to rejection, writing from the ashes is an apt metaphor for the process, and this year's crowd seems to be embracing it. Mystery author Barbara Nickless opened the conference with a strong keynote over lunch today. She and her husband lost their home to the Waldo Canyon Fire, and while it has been challenging to acknowledge that loss and move on, she concluded that overall, it's a worthwhile process. She would not give up the ability to feel fear and pain to have a life where nothing bothered her. I revisited this theme with three other writers in the bar and the conversation took an interesting turn.
By day, I work as a personal counselor for college students, and many of the students I see either take psychotropic medications or have taken them. In general, I have an accepting approach to medications. I believe that for certain conditions, the right medication can make a significant improvement in the client's quality of life, and if that's the case, I fully support it. I also support clients in decisions not to medicate. Some people just don't have the chemistry to benefit from some of the most frequently prescribed SSRIs, atypicals, or anxiolytics. (Common examples of SSRIs include Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and Elavil. Common atypicals include: Welbutrin and Lexapro). Anxiolytics include Valium, Xanax, Klonipin, and others. All of these medications have noticeable side effects. In some cases, the side-effects are just dry mouth, but for others, you can lose your sex drive, break into a manic episode.

The miracle of modern chemistry creates a quandary for young, otherwise healthy, people who are trying to do their best work when they are under stress. Marketing campaigns, popular culture, and "friends" who don't want to put up with our neurotic issues often encourage us to get help because they don't want to put up with our irrational fears of snakes, elevators, crowds, carbonated soda, etc. Can anyone blame them? Not really, but what is the neurotic person supposed to do? When SSRIs and other tasty meds are readily available and show promise in relieving us of all of those symptoms that annoy our loved ones, neurosis feels more like a choice than a condition--whatever form it takes. Also, has anyone else out there been able to snag a competent therapist who is actually helpful without sacrificing a goat and spending a million dollars? If you have, let me know because I don't know the secret. Anyway, I wish I had some sound advice on whether it's better to go ahead and take the medication or not, but I don't. You just have to go with your gut, and from what some of my friends have told me, your gut can send you a strong message---like when Zoloft makes you vomit.

While self-medicating with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and girl talk, a successful mystery writer stopped by and sat with us. She lamented the fact that so many tortured artists are sold this idea that everyone should be happy all the time because that's "normal." I'm a counselor, and I was told that mental health is defined as the ability to love and to work, at least that's what Erickson said Freud said. From a mental health standpoint, we are supposed to experience the entire range of human emotion. If you're "too happy" you are manic and if you are "too sad" you are clinically depressed. Of course, if you bounce around "too much" you could be bipolar. You see? It makes perfect sense and it's totally objective. (Yes, that's a joke.)

Would Van Gogh have created all of his masterpieces if meds could have pulled him out of his psychosis? Would Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald have accomplished what they did if better treatments for alcoholism were available at the time? Maybe these problems were the best things that happened to these people. It's possible. I like to think that the most amazing part is that they were all able to overcome those obstacles to contribute something positive, but I could be wrong.

I don't think that antidepressants truly numb anyone out or thrust them into a constant state of happy. I don't think that was ever the intention, but I have heard some artists say they feel they lose their edge when they're on them.

Is it better to maintain that edge if it means the possibility of a few amazing works rather than a long career of competent work?