More information has come out about Chris Cornell’s death, which is now officially a suicide. His wife revealed that in her conversation with him after the concert, he was slurring his words. She said he admitted to having taken too many Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication. Concerned, she asked his bodyguard to check in on him, but the hotel wouldn’t let the bodyguard into Cornell’s room. So, he kicked the door down and found Cornell unresponsive with a belt around his neck.
It’s a tragedy for so many reasons, but I want to focus on a comment I saw on Facebook after this news was revealed. The comment was, “This is why I don’t trust Big Pharma.” It was written by a friend of a FB friend, so I didn’t respond, but it made my hackles raise. There are many reasons not to trust Big Pharma, but this isn’t one of them. The side effects of Ativan are well-known, and it’s pretty basic knowledge not to exceed the recommended dosage without input from your doctor. I want to make it clear I am not saying Cornell deserved what happened because I fully understand wanting desperately to feel normal and grabbing at anything that will do that for you. Our society has become anxiety-producing on its own, and it’s swimming upstream to remain calm in chaotic surroundings. In addition, creative types usually are extra-sensitive to external stimuli, which is one reason they’re so susceptible to self-medicating.
My point is, there is only so much a doctor or anyone can do if the person is determined not to follow the instructions. Drugs can work for people, but there are so many ways they can be misused. If someone is determined to take twice the dose, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. It’s the same with, say, seat belts. You can put them in the car, but you can’t force people to wear them.
My bigger point is that there is a swath of people who believe in being natural at all costs. They think society is too medicated, and they eschew any kind of pill to help what ails them. Now, there is more than a grain of truth to the idea that pills are not a whole solution, but only part of it, but they think any medication is of the devil. The same people eschew GMOs and many of them are part of the anti-vaxxer crowd. It’s an anathema to me because the same people are using cellphones and driving cars and are on the internet with impunity. I realize there’s a difference between technology you use and things you ingest, but it’s still the same science behind all of it. It’s weird to me to want to roll back time on certain things, but not others.
Back to meds. As someone who’s dealt with chronic and crippling depression all my life, it’s frustrating to hear people disparage antidepressants and saying anyone who uses them is weak. My other favorite, “It’s dealing with the symptoms and not the cause,” in a snobby, smug voice. I think part of the problem is that if you’ve never experienced deep depression, you cannot understand how pervasive it is. If something can alleviate it, just a little bit, you’ll sell your soul for it. It’s the same with anxiety which can be more immediately worse. In the middle of a panic attack, you will do anything to stop it. Yes, you’ll want to deal with the root of the problem, but that can take years if not decades. A temporary stop-gap while in the middle of the pain is a godsend. In addition, there are chemical reasons for depression and/or anxiety, and ain’t no shame in correcting that malfunction with better science. Here is a well-worn comparison, but if you broke your leg, you probably would go to the doctor to get a cast for it. You wouldn’t think, “Oh, it’ll just mend by itself if I drink enough hemp milk and eat enough quinoa.” No, you’d get a cast on that damn thing pretty damn quick. So why when you hear that someone’s brain chemistry is broken do you disparage them using something that will heal that break?
When I was on antidepressants, the difference was like night and day. I could actually get off the couch and do things instead of lying inert in a ball wishing for death. I wasn’t constantly feeling suicidal, and I could even smile now and then. I could actually leave the house without feeling like death warmed over. They were literally a lifesaver, and I wouldn’t be here without them. The only downside for me was that each kind would stop working after roughly a year, and if I went back to it, it made me suicidal. Because I am pretty aware of my mental state and of psychology, I knew it wasn’t me that was feeling that way, but the medication.
Here’s another thing about depression and/or anxiety. Most anything you suggest to a person suffering from one or the other or both, they’ve tried. Also, nothing works for everyone. I would not argue that diet and exercise are helpful, but I would argue that they are the only things that matter. Additionally, I’ve never had that boost that people say they get when they exercise. I used to do traditional aerobic/weightlifting stuff, and it just made me grumpy (grumpier) afterwards. I did it because it was supposedly good for me, but it was never a mood lifter for me. Neither were any of the other common suggestions. Sleep (what’s that?), a warm bath, warm milk, a walk, sunshine (heat makes me grumpy), or any of the other natural suggestions. If anything, it just made it worse because I knew they were supposed to make me feel better and didn’t.
I am not saying that a person doesn’t have to work on the core issues that make them depressed/anxious in the first place. I am saying that when you’re deep in it, you cannot focus on that because all you can feel is the pain/anxiety/depression. Medication can get you to the point where you can deal with the issues and that is nothing to sneeze at. I can’t emphasize how much of a difference it can make and how I wouldn’t be here without antidepressants. Yes, it may have been a band-aid on the problem, but it was more like an emergency suture to stop the bleeding. If someone is having a hard attack, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, you shouldn’t try to address the attack–you should look at the core of the issues.” While the attack is happening, it’s triage. You deal with the most pressing problem, which is the attack. Once that is stabilized, you can look at the underlying issues.
I feel it’s the same with mental health issues. When someone is in crisis, and experiencing crippling depression/anxiety is a crisis, you have to deal with that first. It isn’t rocket science, and yet, so many people don’t seem to get it. Again, I think it’s because if you’ve never experienced mind-numbing depression or panic-inducing anxiety, you really can’t understand how consuming it can be. It drains you of anything other than, well, it. Your whole world becomes depression/anxiety, and you can’t think of anything else. Imagine that you can’t even get out of bed because of your emotional state. Day after day, you lie on your couch or bed, just wanting everything to end. Now, imagine you are given something that makes it possible for you to get off the couch and maybe even leave the house. Wouldn’t you snap it up in a heartbeat? I certainly would and have. People who think they’re happy pills that gloss over the problems don’t get it. Antidepressants/anti-anxiety meds don’t suddenly make you Pollyanna, dancing and skipping around in glee–they make you functional. They’re not miracle pills, and most people who take them understand that.
Let me give you another example. I get really bad headaches on occasion. I hesitate to call them migraines, but they are really painful. If I don’t catch one in time, the world goes gray and all external stimuli hurts. I feel as if I’m drawing into myself in order to reserve all my resources to deal with the headache. I can’t think of anything else other than how much my head hurts–and my face by extension. When I’m dealing with sinus issues as I am now, it’s twice as bad. There’s a steel band around my forehead, and it squeezes tighter and tighter over time. The one thing that helps is migraine-strength Excedrin. I take two or three depending on the pain, and it’s a miracle worker. The pain melts away, and I can go about my day. If you were to tell me not to take the Excedrin, I probably would punch you in the throat as soon as the headache went away and I was capable of movement again.
Bottom line: Drugs aren’t the only answer, but it is one answer, and fuck you if you want to take it away from people or shame them for trying to find a solution to a persistent and debilitating problem.