The first antidepressant side-effect to hit me was the yawning; it became a constant. I started to wonder if I’d ever be able to stop. “Don’t worry about it,” Duncan reassured me. “After the sleep deprivation you’ve been through, yawning all the time is perfectly reasonable. It’s your body’s way of giving in to the exhaustion.”
Duncan is my Traditional Chinese Medicine man, a gifted healer, herbalist, and acupuncturist. He didn’t prescribe me the Prozac; he’s more of a stinky powder and murky tea kind of guy. But he was completely supportive when I told him I’d started taking SSRIs. My life was at stake, truth be told. Good old Duncan MacDonald with his good old Traditional Chinese name. Wanting me to live. Bless him.
He completely understood my reasons for taking this medicated shortcut back to sanity. I’d been white-knuckling it ever since my dad died in early 2013. I could no longer cope with the intrusive thoughts that I hadn’t repaired our relationship in time, that I hadn’t taken good enough care of him, that I’d allowed him to wither away in that dismal nursing home.
Recovering and rebuilding from the arson attack on our house in September 2014 took everything else I had in me, just to survive. Thank God we weren’t home that night, and no one was physically hurt. But my mother was trapped in the in-law cottage behind our house until firemen came and rescued her. I had no caregiving energy left in me to help allay her fears that the arsonist would come back to finish her off.
I had nothing left to give my partner Jason when his dad died one month later. Or when our favorite cat died the following February. So, no surprise that formerly healthy habits and clean living routines I’d established had given way to comfort eating and Netflix numbing. Facebook rampages. Night terrors. A completely irrational fear of everyone and everything.
My contributions in all areas of life had completely ceased, other than getting up and dressed, going to the office, and receiving paychecks to cover the mortgage for our uninhabitable house. I developed insomnia in the form of a self-imposed, panicked wake-up call each morning at 3:15. An endless loop of self-talk that today was the day I was going to be fired.
Until the day I received my real wake-up call. It came during a routine earthquake drill at work. My world crashed down around me in the form of a momentary nervous breakdown. There I was, immobile with fear and hyperventilation on the 30th floor of a San Francisco high rise. Kneeling in coward’s pose among the dust bunnies under my desk, I was pretending to be trapped and, literally, waiting to be rescued. A yawning realization struck me: if this really was the Big One, if I died right here, right now, my life would have been for absolutely nothing.
So I cried, uncle. I made an appointment with a Kaiser psychiatrist, knowing the magic words that would get me the striped green and white pills: Suicidal Ideations. “So, yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about that… whole… um… self-killing thing. You know?” Prescription granted! Thank you, Dr. Lucas, my very handsome, very young new doctor, for letting me have the Fluoxetine, generic for Prozac, 10 mg. And for the simple instructions: “Take one by mouth every morning.”
Five weeks of mornings later, it occurred to me once again that I had a body. And a life. I started catching glimpses of myself again. Bits of hope and awareness peeked out like the tiniest tips of buds on a late-winter tree. My rebirth began from the ground up. I went outside barefoot to get the mail one chilly and damp Saturday morning — grit and pebbles and sticks be damned. My bare soles spread into the soil. I kissed some dirt, and I liked it. Gardening became my therapy. That and solitary volunteer time, pulling weeds in the bio-swale at the local Boys and Girls Club. Tears streamed down my hot face, cooled and camouflaged by early-spring rain. Talk about an antidote to self-pity.
But I really knew the medication was working its magic when I started to treat myself to nice things again. A proper breakfast before facing the day ahead: omelets and greens instead of scones and Kouign-Amanns. Manicures and pedicures every couple of months. A new haircut after 5 years of no style whatsoever. A lightning bolt of platinum in front, to celebrate growing in my gray. Makeup, earrings, cute shoes, stylish glasses. Clothes that fit.
Sipping my favorite artisanal hipster pour-over coffee one morning, I realized how good it felt to feel my ankles again. Chunky monkeys reporting for inspection. I satisfied my OCD tendencies by counting each bone and pressure-testing each tendon. Imagining a weaver’s loom inside, stitching feet to ankles, knees to shins. Creaky, but still functional. Whew.
One year in on this SSRI train, 15 pounds heavier (ugh,) I still love the way my chubby little ankles feel. I twist and roll them, flex and relax them. Other limbs have rejoined my trunk as well. My arms, my wrists, my hands. My ribs, my waist, my spine. I enjoy counting the parts of myself I can connect, extend, contract and relax, all in one stretch. One year in, I can finally claim what it is I need, and I feel ready to let go of some stuff I don’t. Social anxiety, blessedly in check. I’ve written stories, shared them in public, made new friends, and welcomed people into my beautifully rebuilt, renewed home.
And dreams — oh, how I missed you. I started to worry I’d lost you, or that you were done with me. You’re back. And you’re mostly just little things. Not scary. I’m so grateful for that. You were just glimpses, snatches at first. Even now, I usually don’t remember you, but I remember that I have you. That’s better than before. I’m sleeping better. And I’ve stopped yawning so much!
It’s been a homecoming, this coming back to life. This being alive thing, this having a body, it’s not so bad. I think I might stay a while longer. I have something to contribute again.
Marise Phillips is a strategy consultant, an ethnographic researcher and videographer, a gardener, and story collector. She is trying hard not to collect too many cats, because that gets in the way of travel.
Her professional background spans 25 years of corporate communications and experience design. She earned her bachelor’s degree in dramatic art with an emphasis in comparative literature.
Marise currently serves on the board of Bay Area Generations, a nonprofit whose mission is bringing together writers of different generations in a spirit of adventure through a submission-based reading series and related activities. In her spare time, she enjoys writing and performing her work. A standout accomplishment was organizing and emceeing the Oakland Sustainability Jam in 2013.
Marise’s life’s purpose is to encourage and nurture co-creation and connection among family, friends, colleagues, and her local community.