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May 13, 2021

Meds, Meaning & Meandering: A Buddhist take on Mental Health.

I am a rough man, born in a rough country; I have been brought up in pine-woods, and I may have inherited some knots. That which seems to be polite and amiable may appear unpolished to another. What seems silk in my eyes maybe but homespun to you. ~ Paracelsus

~

Two years ago, I moved back to New England after having been away for nearly 17 years. I lost both of my parents in the following 18 months, so my return seemed timely and auspicious.

I am the youngest of four siblings and 13 grandchildren.

For the most part, I was invisible or told to be, so no one quite noticed when I’d slip out in the woods. In rural places, one still finds low, stone walls that mark one neighbor’s property from another’s. If you don’t know better, you might dismiss them quickly and keep right on walking. Venturing past this boundary was a real adventure to a little boy. I had been told thousands of times not to go past it or onto the farmer’s hay fields that were there once.

One day in late Autumn, when I was around seven or eight years old, I stepped over the wall.

The stones were no higher than my knees, but to me, it was like the Great Wall of China. I ventured into the brush. I looked back to our house, which I could see through the trees. It was no more than 100 yards away, but my heart leaped in my chest. I was on my own, out in the world for the first time.

I had no idea what was beyond this wall.

I navigated through a small patch of thick pine and elm, and I found myself at the foot of a sloping meadow and small apple orchard. All of this was right here behind our house.

The wind clacked in the birch tree branches, urging me further afield. I walked out into the meadow and stared up to one of the trees. The apples were too sour to eat, so I climbed up. I was only three or four feet up when the wind blew into the tree, frightening me. I came back down and lay in the flattened, brown grass. I stared up at the clouds until the dark rolled in and fell asleep for a moment, dreaming of Narnia and places unknown.

Soon enough, I woke to cold toes and pink cheeks.

As I came into the house, my Mother asked, “Where have you been all this time?”

I responded sheepishly, “I went on an adventure.”

I had been gone for about an hour, but it felt like I’d been in a new world. Just by crossing this simple, almost unnoticeable barrier, I expanded my universe. I wanted for nothing. I was at peace.

Perhaps as a child, I knew who and what I was. Perhaps I have lost track of that. I was nobody important with nothing important to say or do—just a boy lying beneath a tree, dreaming.

As a child, I suffered from painful shyness, unseen ghosts, a ceaselessly chattering monkey-mind, and tremendous insecurity. I wouldn’t say I liked public high school.

In the 80s, my father lost this job, and my private school education ended abruptly. I went from a blue blazer and necktie to the Breakfast Club in a matter of months. I had few friends at private school and even fewer in public.

Before I could say “Ferris Bueller,” I was into another private school on a hockey scholarship and onto University. Having been blessed with a good, old-fashioned Jesuit education, I got college done in two and a half years. I went to work, ski, and climb in Colorado. I tried to become a carpenter and instead became a practicing Buddhist—I was happy to be away.

Decades later, in my 30s, I found myself totally depressed.

I was far away from New England, my home. Alone in Los Angeles attempting to have an LA kind of career as a personal chef-writer-bodyguard. I started hanging with the wrong crowd. By this time, I grappled with depression, suicidality, drugs, and alcohol for almost a decade. An impenetrable cloud of grief seemed to hover over me. I complained about my life, the United States, the world, and basically everything. Luckily I had an attentive boss who suggested I see someone.

I walked into the well-appointed office of a board-certified psychiatrist who my boss recommended one sunny Monday morning.

I was jangly from another night out. He was polite. He was thin like a runner and had a strange ergonomic chair that struck me as odd.

“So, what’s the problem?”

I was blunt.

“Well,” I said,

“You guys are either going to give me something for my depression, or anxiety, or whatever I have, or I am going to throw myself off the St. Vincent bridge tomorrow morning.”

I was exhausted by the binge drinking, casual drug use, promiscuity, and the lack of steady employment and broken relationships. Eczema and psoriasis periodically made my hands impossible to move, and last, I was having teeth-chattering, bone-rattling night seizures, and nightmares.

He looked at me and sighed.

He got up and gave me a pencil, a 15-page questionnaire, a diet coke, and two Xanax. He patted my shoulder and then shut the door quietly behind him.

An hour and one-half of talking later, he announced his diagnosis.

“Well…. Loooooois, you are likely bipolar, cyclothymic in the least, likely depressed. You need to quit drinking and doing drugs.”

A 15-minute diagnosis-specific enough to lay some heavy meds on me and destroy my reading ability and creative life for the next decade.

This is how the medical establishment responds to acute mental health issues, most of the time.

Nothing in my mind is as tragic about my own healing experience as being made into a different person, first by the pain and then by the meds. My warped childhood impacted almost every single decision I was making as an adult, and the medical establishment’s answer to that was:

“Take these drugs and become someone else; move further away from the source of your pain.”

Another decade later, I decided to devote myself to my writing career. I left Southern California and ended up in Bali (of course) in a house surrounded by rice patties. The cicadas and bugs were so loud that I was sure I was losing my mind—again

I had incredible headaches and tinnitus. No doubt, the nine years of meds were going to cause some withdrawal. When I got home, I moved to San Francisco. I had come around the world via Sydney, Oman, Italy, Montreal, and New York. My career had picked up from my days in LA, and I worked as a strategist in Silicon Valley. I could afford good doctors, so I sought out a new shrink.

The first thing I noticed about this doctor was that he was young, in his 30s. He asked me about my treatment so far.

By this time, I had been subjected to the “pin-the-drug on the disorder” method of psychiatric medication treatment. First, they decided to give good ole’ Prozac a try.

I ended up back in a sleeping bag in my apartment’s closet, chanting the Buddhist heart sutra for six hours.

Then they gave me Depakote. I had the worse panic attacks of my life. I had such a lousy meltdown in the grocery store’s produce aisle once that people thought I had epilepsy.

I took Seroquel. I felt like a zombie during waking hours and couldn’t remember my own phone number—the same with Trazadone to sleep. The next day I’d have trouble remembering where I put paperwork or my keys or my middle name. Because they made me sleepy, they gave me an upper—Provigil to stay awake. In turn, I became a chattering monkey.

Then they threw Lamictal at me. I protested that it made my psoriasis worse; they said to stay on it awhile. Just long enough to get psoriasis in places where I never had it previously.

They even tried a heavy anti-psychotic, Abilify, on me. I had morning sickness so bad that my roommate had to rush me to the hospital. For a week and a half afterward, I had vertigo every time I stood up.

Darts on the dartboard.

Here’s what the dart-throwers neglect to tell most patients. While on meds of this kind, it will be impossible to read. You will likely find it painful. You will have mystery symptoms that come and go. Don’t try to write anything of any length either—that’s gone.

The young doctor looked at me with genuine concern:

“I don’t know. I don’t see a reason for you to be on meds. You’ve been in therapy for years; you are handling your life. We’ll taper you off this tiny amount as a matter of protocol—but you don’t need meds. You’re not bipolar. You have PTSD, and maybe you needed them once, but you don’t need them now.”

And that was that—no more meds.

Two weeks later, I packed my apartment and left California, and moved home to Vermont.

My life is simple, harmonious most of the time, and, yes, hard at times.

It is popular (and convenient) today for people like us who have been through the grist mill to say that we got the short end of the neurochemistry lottery. There are thousands of articles about victimhood and mental health. There is a cottage industry built on low self-esteem. Look no further than the kvetching that fills blogs like this one.

Perhaps we got a get-out-of-jail-free ticket, so we can go and lie down in the apple orchard. Perhaps our abnormality is a gift. Maybe we are fine the way we are.

The lesser asked question by most of us who have been through similar health crises is what we were looking for, what makes us want to feel differently? What if we worked with our depression, perhaps through art? Then we would not require medication.

At this point is where I lose so many people. If the need for a normal, successful self were not foisted on us—we would not feel a desperate need to change. We might learn some to have latitude for the myriad feelings we have and others. We might be kinder, considering that everyone suffers to some degree.

In his book, The Buddha said, the 70s Guru Osho asks if there is no god, no paradise, no soul, then what is the point of it all? After all, desire, according to the Buddha, is unfulfillable. Whatever we do or desire remains intrinsically unfulfilled. In other words, we can take the meds, get the job, find the guy or girl—and remain unsatisfied and anxious.

Let me put it to the reader this way:

How many of us, Buddhists even, ask ourselves, “What is desire? And why does it drive us?” What makes humans want things to be different than they are? What is the invisible boundary between who we are right now and who we want to be, or instead think we should be?

The Buddha was not a metaphysician nor a philosopher. He encouraged us to become aware, conscious, and courageous enough to doubt

Modern belief systems are barriers to self-knowledge.

Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism all incorporate the life of desire and material. They promise certainty where there is none. Consumer culture and western society as a whole will have you chase babbles and ideas for lifetimes.

Indeed most religious people are looking to “God” to fulfill their many desires. They are not looking for peace or tranquility. Most people want things to satisfy the craving. And if you cannot achieve what you wish now—then you have the after-life.

The same applies to political systems. In essence, politicians assert that more or less freedom to pursue desire is the problem. You should be more or less controlled in that quest—but that does not solve the problem of desire.

The challenge is whether or not we are prepared to drop ideology and theology altogether.

Shunryu Suzuki, the irrepressible zen monk who wrote the classic Zen Mind, Beginner Mind, expresses this sentiment perfectly:

I discovered that it is necessary, necessary, to believe

in nothing. We have to believe in something

that has no form and no color—something which exists

before all forms and colors appear. This is a very important

point. No matter what god or doctrine you believe in, if

you become attached to it, your belief will be based more

or less on a self-centered idea.

We might try and recall this the next time we read another diatribe by self-minted teachers, 25-year-old gurus, and spiritual influencers.

When you meet an actual Buddhist—not someone just parroting zen-sounding things, she will be hesitant to sell you her path. Cautious to assert anything other than the need to live a natural and interior life; they will eschew any conceptualization of enlightenment.

Buddhism, when gleaned from its root, is not a religion. It is a way of life. It cannot be taught, only lived.

To end dissatisfaction or dukkha, one must break the barrier of self-importance.

Twenty-five hundred years later, this is still a rebellious and radical notion, more so today. And yet, Buddhism is less about destiny and more about becoming comfortable with what we are. Empty and complete at the same time, part of something inexplicably larger than ourselves and this reality.

When we “burn bright the inner light,” we will drop the desire to be any different than how we are naturally.

In accepting the uncertainty right outside our back door, we will again cross the invisible barriers we encountered as children—with peace and small joy. Not for material gain, perhaps only to dream of nothing but what lights our hearts.

Life is, after all, an adventure, and the first step over the wall needs only be a small one.

~

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