On Getting a Life

Four years ago, I stopped taking the medication that's been keeping my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder under strict control since the condition first became part of my life, out of nowhere, in 2005.  This was not a good idea, and I suffered the consequences.  If I don't swallow 60mg of Fluoxetine (aka Prozac) a day, my brain will go to any lengths it can to convince me to do horrible, horrible things to myself.  I won't be able to think about anything else, and I'll live in a state of constant terror of "losing control" and doing the last things in the world I would ever want to do, but feel compelled to. 

It's tempting to indulge in a bit of pseudo-psychology to explain why this might be; but believe me, it doesn't help.  It's not a matter of low self-esteem, poor body image, repressed childhood trauma, unsatisfiable animal impulses or subconsciously wanting to have sex with my mother.  It's a matter of serotonin levels.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter - one of the means by which the brain processes information chemically.  Lower than optimal levels of serotonin are associated with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive thinking.  Fluoxetine is a type of medication known as a "selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor" (SSRI) most commonly used as an antidepressant, but can also help to treat the symptoms of OCD, the obsessive thoughts in particular.  It's certainly worked for me.

The "obsessive" element of OCD is the lesser-known counterpart to the ostensible, "compulsive" element that forms its stereotype: repetitive, pointless rituals that can take (m)any form(s) but often manifest as checking, counting, washing, touching, and the like.  These compulsive "rituals" become a coping mechanism for the OCD-er, providing temporary relief from the unpleasant obsessive thoughts, but which then return, leading to more ritualistic behaviour.  It's a vicious ouroboros of meaninglessness: exhausting, terrifying and entirely without cathartic purpose.  There is nothing sexy about it, nothing quirky: anybody who describes themselves as "a bit OCD" doesn't know what the term means.  Nobody who actually suffers from OCD brags about it.  Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the condition in As Good As It Gets is fairly accurate (although his character was also a bastard).  Michael J Fox's portrayal in the episodes of Scrubs, "My Catalyst" and "My Porcelain God" is even better:



"This is a weak moment.  Nobody's supposed to see this".


None of this is all that relevant to the purpose of this blog, except that it provides some context to my decision to try and live a simpler life, without work.  Four years ago, when I stupidly stopped taking Prozac for several months, I made another apparently quite spontaneous decision to leave my job.  As there are this time, there were other factors at work - but something the two decisions have in common is their moments of clarity.  For all the relief that Prozac has given me from my symptoms, there's also a fogginess that it brings, clouding and obscuring the rougher edges of life and experience, positive and negative.  It kills demons, but it also kills drive.  Passion becomes subservient to practicality.  There are many other things in our culture that have the same effect - not the least of them being the consumerism, comfort and convenience of postmodern existence that we're all too familiar with - but it turns out serotonin-regulating medications can have an equally powerful effect.  Funny old world.

I hasten to add that I'm still taking the 60mg a day now that I have been ever since I relapsed four years ago from stopping.  So what, I wonder, is motivating me this time?  A deeper yearning, it would seem.

Sacrifices have to be made if you want not only to stay alive, but also if you want to have a life that is really worth living.  (A useful metaphor: to feel the resonance of Michael J Fox's excellent acting in the scene above, you also have to endure the sentimental gibberish of a Coldplay song.  Life is strange).  I'm sure that if a treatment for OCD hadn't been found that works for me, I wouldn't be alive today.  I wouldn't have been able to live like that for ten days of how it was at its worst, let alone ten years.  So coming off the medication isn't an option for me - not yet, anyway - but coming back to life in other ways, is.  Leaving my job was the first step.

Now without going too far down the conspiracist path - another time, perhaps - I don't think there's any doubt that many of the trappings of 21st century life have a 'deradicalizing' effect on the individual.  Prozac has certainly had that effect on me.  A lot of the time I find I'm living my life through a haze - when I say words, it's like it's not really me saying them; I say what others expect to hear without believing any of it.  I've actually become a very good liar.  I lie to myself and I lie to others.  I lie all the time about what I think, about what I want, about what I value.  It gets easier the more you do it.  Medication makes it easier still.

Life isn't going to be easy any more.  I wonder if an easy life is really life at all.