TITLE: 2,628,000 Minutes
DATE: 12/06/2004 01:56:00 PM
60 Minutes aired a story last night called "ADD, All Grown Up." And it's probably just me, and I'm probably just being hypersensitive, but I came away pretty hurt by it.
Not because I suffer from ADD (although the way I've been performing at work lately, you might begin to wonder), but because any argument about attention-deficit medications, which was the focus of the 60 Minutes piece, invariably either resonates or leads into an argument about psychiatric medications in general. And that's where it touches a nerve with me.
There appear to be two major opinions on all psychiatric illnesses: that they are true, real, biochemical illnesses that inhibit daily life and can be treated more effectively now than ever before thanks to advances in medications; or that they are merely inventions of the mass American unconsciousness, excuse-generators for people too weak to handle life, and a means by which Big Pharmaceutical preys on humanity. This CBS story takes the second view most emphatically, even trotting out a single--yes, exactly one--adult ADD sufferer, who just happens to be Jet Blue CEO David Neeleman. He's painted as a lively eccentric, one who even credits his condition with his creativity:
"In the midst of all the chaos in your mind, and all of the disorganization, and all the trouble getting started, and procrastination, your brain just thinks a little bit differently," he says. "And you can come up with things."
Ideas like e-tickets, or ticketless travel, which is perfect for someone who is always losing things, and live TV, is making a his company profit while most of the airline industry is in trouble. But having finally discovered he had a certifiable medical condition, Neeleman decided to do absolutely nothing about it.
"I kind of had this feeling that if I took this pill, it may kind of cure me or something and then I'd be like everybody else," says Neeleman.
He says that many ADD sufferers are attracted to high-risk or entrepreneurial careers. And his list of people he thinks may have ADD include Bill Clinton, and Richard Branson.
There's also speculation that some great figures in history had ADD and led tortured but productive lives -- Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill. And, ADD websites claim that Thomas Edison had ADD, which leads one to wonder if Edison had been on medication, he might have invented the pogo stick instead of the light bulb.
60 Minutes rounded out their report by graduating from the slanted, to the biased, to the openly condemnatory:
It's an interesting question. But that fact is Americans demand cures for everything from shyness to sexual dysfunction. They believe in better living through chemistry -- a drug-riddled behavioral utopia where all problems can be solved by a pill.
I see. So rather than "drug-riddled", we should all be "tortured but productive?" And there's no in-between?
Okay, yes. It is true. There are people who put their kids on Ritalin because of their incompetence as parents or authority figures rather than the child's actual best interests; there are people who gulp some Prozac for a hangnail.
But it's insulting, not to mention dangerous, to people suffering from a real condition--something which interferes with or even threatens their life (and here I'm talking about psychiatric conditions in general)--to suggest that their disease isn't real; that their positive personality traits, such as creative thinking in the case of ADD patients or the oft-imagined corollary between major or bipolar depression and creative success, are linked to it; that medication that could make their lives more tolerable or even viable would make them, to quote the story, "tedious paper pusher(s)".
You see, all of this sounds very familiar to me. It's the same argument I had, on the other side, with the medication nurse during my first hospitalization. I feared taking the medication they were trying to give me, and explained to him as calmly as possible, that my poetry and general creativity flowed from the same place as that unfortunate other voice in my head, you know, the one telling me I had to kill myself, and here's how to do it--and that I was terribly sorry, but I simply could not exchange my creative spark for sanity.
I'd read The Bell Jar, you see, and Anne Sexton's complete poems, both of which I toted around while, say, walking out into traffic without looking in Oxford, or climbing the spiraling stairs to the steeple of Oxford's St. Mary the Virgin Church nearly every day just to stare down at the drop, or working quite hard to avoid picking up the nearest knife and...
But I read the Bell Jar, and Christ it was so romantic, the way Sylvia Plath just burned through life, and the thought of Anne Sexton writing that marvellous poetry while walking around with (among other things) a fatal overdose of pills in her purse at all times. I wrote my own poetry, and yes, it's still some of the best I've ever written.
So, no thank you, doctor, I simply cannot accept that medication. I'll no longer be able to write, you see.
I'll be another "tedious paper pusher".
(Truth be told, however, I can remember quite vividly sitting in a courtyard at University College, the one with the spectacular Percy Bysshe Shelley memorial, another thing I'd go to stare at for hours, oh yes, I was in some serious trouble, and struggling to "think positive", to "pull myself up," to think about the fact that here I was, driven student on summer seminar at Oxford University, for Chrissakes, wasn't this exciting? Shouldn't I be happy? Wasn't this Accomplishment? And simply looking on my current privelege and possibly bright future with a kind of helpless ennui, a sense of unmanageable burden and disgust for same academic pretense I'd gone to such great lengths--across the Atlantic Ocean, in fact--to immerse myself in. In other words, I was CRAZY.)
My creativity, I said. My writing. Blah blah.
The nurse, a large, gruff man (they're all large and gruff, the men, in psychiatric facilities--for practical reasons) with a dark moustache, looked at me across the table, sat back, folded his hands. "It's hard to write much of anything," he said, calmly, but directly, never taking his eyes off mine, "When you're dead."
Four years later. Took the pill. Gained about sixty pounds on the stuff. Went off that pill, increased the dosage of another, and to look at me, you'd never, ever know.
I have four blogs. I have paper journals. I still write poetry. I write like crazy. I write better now. I can, you know, concentrate. I can stand myself, I can give my ideas a chance. I can tolerate people looking at, reading, criticizing my work--I was phobic about this, and indeed most social contact, in the past.
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath were incredibly talented, and I still admire them utterly. But biographically, they are no longer my heroines and role models. The plain ugly fact of Sylvia is that she stuck her head in her oven at 30, with her two children in the apartment with her. Anne did the old car-in-the-closed garage trick at the age of 46. She also left behind offspring, who could now cope just fine without their mother, thank you.
There are more important things than fucking poetry.
And it's now my firm belief that the true miracle of these women is that they succeeded so brilliantly at their art despite--despite--the fact that they were fucking lunatics rather than because they were.
So when I hear that there's an ADD sufferer out there who happens to have become a successful CEO and is willing to be trotted out on 60 Minutes to shame all those with his diagnosis who do something so gauche as to take medication...well, it touches a nerve.
This is what I ranted at poor long-suffering Stephen last night on our way back from watching said 60 Minutes at my parents' house.
"I mean, should people who manage mental illness without medication be given some kind of extra credit?" I demanded acidly? "Yeah, sure, I could probably stagger through a few more years, maybe even decades, of life without relying on medication to solve all my problems. Maybe I could do the so-called brave thing and just muddle through listening to fucking voices in my head. Would that make me a better person?"
The question, of course, was rhetorical. Stephen looked at me with affectionate exasperation. He's seen me in much more difficult moments than this. Much more.
"I think," I said, slamming the car to a stop at a red light, "that the bravest thing you can do is live."
A few more moments passed with me ranting and him listening and sometimes clucking his tongue and sometimes saying, reproachfully, "Bethy..."
We parked, took the laundry out of the backseat, and suddenly, stopped to embrace in the midst of the parking lot behind our house.
"I'm glad you're brave," Steve whispered.
"I'm only brave because you are," I said. "Because you believed in me."
Five years ago today, Stephen, sitting in my college dorm room, said bashfully, "You're probably going to think I'm a complete dork for saying this, but..." and our relationship began.
Four years ago was that hospital stay. And the pills are a basis, the pills are a platform, the pills restore me to a playing field that's remotely fair, but it's still my battle--our battle--to fight.
And in that battle, Stephen has saved me, over, and over, and over, and over again. The pills aren't even the half of it.
Thank you, hon, for five years I wouldn't trade, even knowing their peaks and valleys. Thank you for my life.